This is one of the case-studies I wanted to talk about for a long time, but I could not because one of the games was locked behind an MMO and could be accessed without an account. However, now that (sadly) the BarbieGirls.com MMO is no more, the game has been unleashed and I can talk about my lost trilogy and the process of evolving a game from puzzle, to a resource management game, to something else entirely.
Back in 2005, I finished what remains today, my favorite game that I have ever developed: Track Mod. Track Mod was inspired by the PopCap game Rocket Mania as way to involve cars driving in game, but not necessarily racing (which we had done many times before). I wanted to create a game that was addictive, and could be played for a long time (keeping people on the site). I also wanted a game that we could send out to some of the (then) new viral game portals that had been springing up. Portals were very accepting of puzzle games at the time, and this appeared to be perfect match. At the same time, I wanted to make a game that my 7 year old daughter would love to play, who was just starting to move beyond the kids CD-ROMs we have bought her, to games on the web.
In Track Mod, the player rotates pieces to create a track from a car to go from one side to the other. They must get all 6 cars across once to move to the next level. Each level adds new upgrades and dangers to evade. The game became one of the most popular games on HotWheels.com, and was played more than 1 billion times. This was helped by it being placed on the front page of addictinggames.com for almost 2 weeks in 2005. It became very popular with Hot Wheels fans too. It remains one of the only HotWheels.com games to be chronicled with a series of youtube.com videos by a loyal fan. It was also a hit with my daughter, who still asks to play it to this day
One thing that I liked most about the game was that it was a male-targeted game (but could be enjoyed by anyone) that was almost completely non-violent, but also not a straight racing or sports game. I liked the idea of challenging someone' mind as well as their hand-eye coordination.
I wanted follow-up that game with a sequel, but I could not really figure out a better way to remake the game than what was already there. I could have added more pick-up and obstacles, but it would have been essentially be the same game. Instead, I worked on a myriad of other project , mostly designed by other people until an opportunity for a sequel arrived in 2007.
Spin City was a Hot Wheels playset that was going to be released that year. It was a garage themed set with a spiral driveway in the middle. The garage had all sorts of stations like gas, repair, paint, tires, a snack bar and an mobile audio shop. When I saw the toy my first thought was that we could do something special if we took the play set and imagined the world a kid might create in his head while playing with the toy. I have to admit, that I played much the same way when I was a kid. I loved toy cars, and I made up all sorts of universes for them to inhabit. Many times I created a "garage city" where cars would arrive get service, and leave. It was these memories, and the urge to create a game that could be played for a significant amount of time, that drove me to design what would become "Spin City:Drive Thu Dilemma".
At first, I thought that I could take the spiral and have players arrange the pieces, like in Track Mod, to get cars into the various station in "Spin City". I started to make a basic demo, but I stopped 1/2 way through . There was really no conceivable to connect the parts of the spirals ala Track mod, and make a game that was any fun to play at all. I went back to think about how I could make this work.
Back about the same time I had designed Track Mod, I had designed a game in named "Oil Change" which was an almost direct copy of Diner Dash, but with cars and oil. We never made that game, but the idea had always stuck with me. The the thought came: why not take the cars from Track Mod and have them arrive at Spin City for repairs? It would not be an exact sequel, but having the same (or similar) sized cars would at least show that the two were related. Then I sat down to design the game.
There were lots of little "stations" in Spin City toy the playset, however but I did not want to make a game where you picked-up cars with your hand and dropped that to get what they needed (ala diner Dash). Instead, I came up with the idea of centering the game around the spiral. Cars would drive in the top, and the repair stations would be placed in a circle, around the outside at the bottom of the spiral. When you rolled over the arriving cars a pop-up would show the player what service they needed. The player would then select a car, then click on the station to send the cars, and it would zoom around the spiral to its' destination. There was a distinct visceral thrill that I noticed the first time this action worked in conjunction with the sound effects. I did not want it to stop. It was at that point that I knew I was onto something interesting.
As I finished-up the basic design of sending cars to get serviced, I noticed that the cars were taking too long to finish and get out of the stations. In the game, cars are not instantly repaired, but take a set amount of time. Instead of fixing the "slowness" issue, I instead decided allow the player to upgrade their stations to make them faster. I also decided to "lock" some of the stations so they could be purchased and opened by the player. The first time I tried the game this way, I could not stop playing. My goal has always been to build a game that I liked enough to not stop playing. I had done it once with Track Mod, and now I hoped lightening would strike twice.
When the game was released, on Hotwheels.com, it was an instant hit, and was almost as popular as Track Mod (but not quite). My daughter, then 9, love it too, as did her younger sister who was 5. It felt very successful to have made games for Hotwheels.com that my girls loved to play too. It felt great to have second, non-violent game that people loved to play so much, and I instantly wanted to follow-it-up with a 3rd game in the trilogy. I had an idea too, but pulling it off was quite something else. The idea came quite easily. It would be a "tower defense" style game, using the same sized cars and same overhead perspective of Track Mod and Spin City. Cars would arrive on the screen from one side, and follow a track, just like in a standard TD game. However, these were not zombie cars, or enemy tanks. These cars were dirty. As in, covered in dirt. Your job would be to create an "Extreme Car Wash", placing hoses, sprayers, soapers, etc using standard tower-defense mechanics, but your would not be destroying anything. You would be cleaning cars fast as possible before they reached the "garage" on the other side. Too many dirty cars in the garage, and the game was over. I felt like I "had" to make this game, as it would complete the trilogy of titles that were addictive and non-violent, inhabiting this overhead car world of my creation.
The problem was, times had changed for Hotwheels.com. The focus had moved back promoting products and away from game design for addictive contests. Even though the other games were hits, neither one was an idea that had come from marketing, so they did not have anything invested in them. Furthermore, trying to explain why a non-violent tower-defense game would be a good addition to the site was not an easy task with the marketing people who saw the world through the eyes of F1 and Nascar. Also to be honest, the idea might not have been that good. Still, it was game *I* wanted to play, which is always my initial litmus test. For some reason, the idea of "cleaning" dirty cars simply appeals to me more than blowing them up. I built a simple shooting demo with water cannon firing at dirty cars, but that was as far as it ever got. The idea was put on the back-burner and never revived.
Instead, the "trilogy" was reimagined, but this time as a reskin of Spin City for the MMO BarbieGirls.com (now offline). We had a lot of success reskinning Track Mod for a couple girl-themed projects, so it was an easy sell to the game loving BarbieGirls.com team to turn Spin City into Fashion Frenzy for the MMO. The game remained pretty much intact as it moved to the world of Fashion. Instead of a garage, a mall escalator was devised by the BarbieGirls.com team, and instead of tires, gas and paint, stations became shoes, jewelry and clothes. It was a short development cycle, and could probably have used a bit more time to make some adjustments in game play from the Spin City model, but it was still a fairly successful game for the site.
There was more than just the game play mechanic from Spin City left over as well. When I demoed the game for the BarbieGirls.com team, while re-skinning, I had no "mall" sounds so I left in the "garage" sounds from Spin City. They thought this was so funny, that we left the sounds in the game as an "easter egg". You can turn on the Spin City sounds by pausing the game and typing "hotwheels".
One great thing about this game, is that it now lives on Barbie.com, so my own girls can play it whenever they want. None of them had ever played it before last weekend, when I found that it had been unleashed on the world. The 7 year old who loved Track Mod, now 13, wanted to play it. The 5 year old, now 8 who loved Spin City, wanted to play too. Even their younger sister, now 5 and the ultimate "Barbie Girl" in her own right, tried to grab the mouse and get into the action. It was a very satisfying father's day last Sunday, to have my girls clamor to play a game that I had designed and programmed a couple made years ago. No, I wasn't able to finish the trilogy of non-violent, car themed games the way I had first intended intended, but in life, some things work out for the best anyway.