Cardboarding with Carla: Ducklings Interview

This is the first interview in Cardboarding with Carla! I hope you’re as excited as I am, especially since it’s about a game featuring ducklings and the company who made it!

Hello, Deck Head Games! Welcome to Cardboarding with Carla and thanks for being on this interview! Could we start off with you telling us a bit about yourselves?

We met in August of 2016 in a game design class at USC. The class was focused on creating short and sweet board games. We were grouped together for the final project in the class, and together we made Ducklings, the game we recently launched on Kickstarter. James Collins was the lead designer of the game and created the high concept, Aimee Zhang was a designer and the lead artist, creating all visual elements for the game and Kickstarter campaign, and Timothi Lim worked on design, marketing and publishing.

 

Very neat! I wish I had taken a game design class while in school. Is Ducklings your first design?

Ducklings was not the first game we individually worked on, but the first game we worked on as a team. When we first started working together, we quickly realized our technical abilities and our personalities complimented one another. In January 2017 we worked on a digital game called Colorepo at Global Game Jam under strict time limits and won the Judge’s Choice Best Overall Game Award. It’s wonderful that beyond analog games, we have the technical skills to make digital games.

Very cool! Can you tell us more about Ducklings?

Ducklings, a game about parenting, is the first of it’s kind. As a game where two parents from two families choose to either work together or against one another to keep their three duckling children safe, it simulates what life is like as a parent when the world is out to get you.

This looks to be more emotional than the typical game. Was this intended from the beginning?

The game was initially intended to be an emotional experience with a player experience goal of loss and grief. From the beginning, we wanted to capture the anxiety that comes with parenting and show the interesting dynamics of cooperative play. While our game targets a more serious topic and has mechanics that drive its players towards more touching play experiences, it can also be played casually with a lighthearted tone. It’s all up to the players themselves and what they want to feel.

What are some of the design challenges of making a game which invokes such an empathetic response from players?

Loss and grief are very heavy topics that have influenced almost everyone on this earth. We were aware that many players would have difficulty navigating the subject, but we strived to make the game as inclusive to people as possible, regardless of personal history. While designing Ducklings we were careful in our wording and as respectful as possible about a topic with so much emotional inertia. We relied less on shock value and petty emotional tactics and focused more on the cooperative aspects of our game and feelings of acceptance and responsibility.

Was there a specific event in your lives that inspired Ducklings?

At first Ducklings began simply as an assignment to build an emotional game, but apart from more personal experiences, the event that really convinced us to do something with the game outside of class was encouragement from two of our professors at USC. They placed an enormous amount of trust in our game, coached us, and inspired us to self publish.

How did you decide on the Ducklings theme? It’s so cute! 

The reason we chose ducks as the subject of the game was rooted in the innocence we tend to attribute to them. Ducklings are sweet little creatures, so pure they imprint on the first system they learn. We wanted players to feel attached and protective of their little ones, while still being a step removed from the strong emotions associated with loss.

The game went through many visual changes over the course of the year. We explored many visual styles from painting the ducklings hyper realistic, with real afflictions such as black eyes and scarred wings, to a cute, bubbly, almost cartoony style filled with pink backgrounds, flowers, and clouds. This can be seen in our digital art book, a reward tier we’re offering on Kickstarter. We balanced the game by settling on a semi-realistic style with a bluish green color palette to really emphasize the cuteness of the ducklings but the seriousness of the tone.

What do you feel was the most important thing you learned during playtesting with Ducklings?

Learning to take criticism- we have play tested it so many times that the little pang of hurt from people tearing apart your creative work (but we are so thankful that they did) almost completely faded away. Now we welcome criticism and even become skeptical when playtesters don’t point out things we know could be improved. There are always improvements to be made. Another thing we learned is that you have to closely focus on the question, “who is this game for?” In reality, some games appeal to certain customer segments more than others, and there will always be people who dislike the core of your game. We’ve gotten into the groove that as long as we continue striving to make the game better for the people we designed it for through a process of playtesting, listening to feedback, and iterating over and over, we’re on the right track.

Do you have any interesting stories to share about designing Ducklings?

Yes, we originally had some pretty different names for the ducklings. Notably we had Chad, Stefano, and Bradley, but we received feedback that these seemed over the top and not very ducky. Moe was always there from the start though! We have many wacky, bizarre stories about working on Ducklings deep into the night past 4am but that’s for another time.

Do you have any advice for other designers that want to design a game that creates an emotional response?

Be gentle with yourself. Focus on mechanics that drive feelings instead of pure aesthetic elements. Always have specific reasons for your design rather than doing it just because someone else did it. It can be really tempting to be heavy handed and use a ton of backstory and narrative to convey feeling, but in the end players are going to remember and have a more personal experience with gameplay mechanics and dynamics than setup. We think it’s powerful if you can convey an emotion even if the player doesn’t read the rulebook or know the lore of the game.

Now, the Kickstarter. It’s funded already and that’s exciting! Did you do anything to celebrate?

Not yet! We are holding off until the funding period is up. We don’t want to count our ducks before they hatch, and there are still art templates to send to our manufacturer, stretch goals to be met, and warehousing to secure. Rest assured we will celebrate when we have fulfilled all of our orders and have all of our ducks in a row. 🙂 Also, we have jobs and classes over the summer so we can’t get too crazy.

What do you think was the most important thing you did to prepare for your Kickstarter campaign?

We found that cold emailing people who have run successful Kickstarters was extremely helpful. We were referred to our manufacturing and fulfillment companies through people who have used them before. It’s great to hear it straight from the source whether a given company is reliable, or a given tactic is viable, rather than going in blind. All in all we probably have sent anywhere between 40-50 cold emails in this entire design process and actually received positive responses on about 50% of them. It’s amazing how many people are willing to help you out if you just put yourself out there and ask.

Do you have anyone that you’d like to give a shoutout to that gave you some really good advice? Feel free to list more than one, if you’d like! 

We would like to thank Jamey Stegmaier, Elan Lee, and Matt Leacock. We reached out to them out of the blue for Kickstarter advice and general game design advice, and they were helpful and kind!

The Duckling Profile social goal; that’s such a cool idea! What was the inspiration?

I’m so glad you noticed the Duckling Profiles! The inspiration came from the Football Games at USC where during the Fall Semester, people would add the USC logo or Football motifs to their Facebook Profile Pictures to show their support. We wanted to allow our backers to do the same by giving them the opportunity to add three cute Ducklings to their profile picture, as if to say that, “I’ve pledged my support to safeguard these Ducklings and get them to their new home!”

I’ve never played any game that had moral decisions. Why should I be interested in Ducklings?

On a lighthearted tone, Ducklings is a fun game to play to find out who the worst parents are in your friend group. The game has been designed to be engaging, even without the ethical questions it asks. The mechanics themselves bring out the best and worst out of people, where you never know what card you’ll turn over or who will turn on you. Having gone through numerous playtests, we’ve integrated feedback to make sure the game is playable by everyone and easy to pick up, even for people who have never played a board game. Ducklings also offers a unique take on parenting, not the human kind, but of being a duck parent. It provides a unique experience in that when you play with a friend or stranger and navigate your ducklings in unison, it brings about chaotic, exciting, and even revelatory moments, allowing a connection that no other activity can bring you.

Thanks again to James, Aimee, and Timothi for being on Cardboarding with Carla! Ducklings will be on Kickstarter until July 29th, so make sure to check it out before then! 

Tell us what you think!