Recently, I did a Crowdfunding Spotlight segment for the newly launched Kickstarter project I.C.U. - The Interactive Horror Game Show, a new streamer-focused title from Keenan Mosimann, better known as the Twitch streamer and YouTuber Criken. I was quite intrigued by what I saw in the Kickstarter as well as the genre that I.C.U. - The Interactive Horror Game Show is focusing on, so I contacted Mosimann for an interview, which was conducted by email.
TechRaptor: You're quite well-known by your streamer identity, but you're a relative newcomer to the gaming industry. Would you mind telling our readers about your experiences in the gaming industry, as well as any projects you've previously worked on?
Mosimann: Sure thing! Aside from my eight years on YouTube and five years on Twitch, I've studied Interactive Media and Game Development at the University of Southern California for the last three years. Over that time I've worked on a variety of experimental student projects including Close Your, a game about live literally flashing before the player's eyes. Each time the player blinked in real life we had a webcam read their face and fast forward the in-game character's life forward to give them the impression they're losing time and have to keep their eyes open to savor the little things. That game went on to win the Developer's Choice Award at IndieCade 2014 and Best Student Game at the IGF Awards in 2015!
Aside from that I've worked on other small projects like Sneak n Peek, a mobile VR game for the Google Cardboard that swaps two player's perspectives and prompts them to tag each other within a room. That game was accepted to IndieCade in 2015 as an Official Selection as well. I.C.U. started as my thesis project at USC and we developed it over the last year and a half to get it to where it is now!
TechRaptor: How did the idea for I.C.U. first come about—when you started working on it as your thesis project at USC?
Mosimann: The user experience of an audience interactive show where your viewers play a real role in the game world is something I've been interested in making for many years. Since most of my formative years in high school were spent with a persistent viewer-base interacting and pushing me to make a certain style of content and play a certain way-- I wanted to represent that experience in a game eventually. I.C.U., however, didn't really begin with that specific goal in mind. It first started as a horror game where we used the same technology used in Close Your to track the player's real-life blinking and have the monster teleport closer to the player each time they looked away or blinked. This little experience was effective in short bursts but didn't prove super re-playable.
However, we did find this type of game-play where the player's face factored into gameplay was super entertaining to watch as a viewer and so we decided to double down on that by setting the game on a horror game-show and integrating Twitch to make the player feel they had to perform for their audience to survive. As the year went on we found ourselves more and more interested in the Twitch mechanics and less interested in the blinking. By the end of the year we were invited to showcase the game in New York at IndieCade East and did so without any blinking features whatsoever. We found our players completely loved the Twitch mechanics / narrative context and didn't feel any lack of immersion from the absence of the blinking features. From that point on we doubled down on the audience integration features and re-structured our goals as a team to really represent the complicated relationship between Streamer and Viewer.
TechRaptor: Would you say that choosing to have I.C.U. focus on the streaming element has limited or hindered creative directions you would have otherwise taken? Or have you found that it's the opposite?
Mosimann: Oh, definitely the opposite! I personally believe limitations foster creativity, and in the case of I.C.U. -- this is only amplified by designing for an interactive audience medium that isn't well established yet. In the case of other gaming genres, there's been so many iterations of the same mechanics / concepts that there's a sort of playbook that most designers are able to follow and compare their work to. In our case with a game like I.C.U. there really aren't many other audience interaction games out there we can learn from. Experiences like Twitch Plays Pokémon, Choice Chamber, and Streamline are some of the few that already exist and each have different pretty greatly in their audience controls and method of play. We've talked to many developers in this field and they've all agreed that nobody really knows at this point what the 'correct' way to engross these audiences are or even if there is a correct way to design this type of game. This has left us with a veeerry open field for creative exploration and experimentation that we're super excited to dive in to. The biggest limiting factor for most studios looking to develop these sort of experiences is you need real live people testing all your features and changes along the way to determine what works and what doesn't. That's one of the main reasons we decided Kickstarter was right for us, we want to work with our backers and fans in picking and choosing what directions we should focus on in this emerging genre.
TechRaptor: Speaking of Kickstarter, the I.C.U. Kickstarter reached base funding within eight hours of going live and has hit two stretch goals since. Did this reception surprise you at all?
Mosimann: Yeah I mean you can hope all you want but there's no way to really know how people are going to react to something like this.... We were all pretty blown away by the day 1 response and by the unanimous support received on both YouTube and Twitter. I was personally very taken aback by the support of my viewers on YouTube as many creators on that site know change is often met with a lot of cynicism and grief. Instead they really rallied behind the idea and have been invaluable in both getting the word out and providing value feedback during our public play-tests. I think our greatest anxiety before launch was proving that this idea resonated with both streamers and viewers alike so having both these demographics loudly demonstrate their support on launch was a huge relief!
TechRaptor: One of the big concerns that I've seen brought up about I.C.U. is that if you don't have a lot of viewers as a streamer, the game won't be fun to play. Have your test streams found a minimum number of viewers needed to have an enjoyable playing experience, and how do you plan on selling I.C.U. to some of the smaller streamers?
Mosimann: Since we hadn't announced during development of the prototype, most of our play-tests have actually been conducted with a very small # of viewers already! We still found the players with just 2, 3, or 5 viewers still had fun as the experience was somewhat more intimate as this small group of viewers were able to effectively DM the player's experience and work together as a unit. Our larger play-tests with ~100 viewers (and the more recent play-test after we announced with ~2000 viewers) had the audience splitting into teams based around the votes we afforded them and more emergent objectives such as 'help the streamer jump on that rock' or 'slap the streamer whenever he sees the monster'. Both these of experiences proved fun for both the viewers and the audience, though they were pretty different in tone and energy. Our hope is to design I.C.U. so both play-styles are supported and encourage viewers to seek out both small and large streamers.
Another way we hope to facilitate this exchange of viewership is through our currency system. Essentially a viewer's influence on the game is directly proportional to how much of it they watch. So if you know your favorite large streamer is going to stream I.C.U. next Sunday, you might watch smaller streamers all week leading up to that big stream so you have enough currency to affect their playthrough. We're looking at designing I.C.U. to both serve as a fun game but also as an audience discover-ability platform for small and new streamers alike!
TechRaptor: You mentioned in your Kickstarter that I.C.U. will be produced in episodes for a few reasons, namely the size of your development team and the relative newness of the genre that I.C.U. is exploring. Do you see I.C.U. being produced primarily as an episodic game or is a full game something you and your team will consider as your player base increases?
Mosimann: We think producing I.C.U. episodically makes sense practically for both production and stylistic reasons. The narrative of the game takes place on a TV game show so it makes sense to release content as if the show itself was releasing new episodes. Aside from that, Twitch and YouTube coverage generally work better with consistent content updates that add replay-ability and variety to a playthrough. We believe spacing out our content updates into regular updates will keep streamers and viewers coming back to the show to test out its new goodies and environments. This'll also allow us to incorporate feedback from streamers and viewers in future content updates throughout development rather than release it all at once and hope we get it right the first time. Our main goal is to keep agile and in touch with our community as a studio and we believe episodic content is the best way to do that.
TechRaptor: Is there any advice you could offer to those who are looking to become more involved in the games industry?
Mosimann: To those just starting out, I'd advise learning the tools of an engine like Unity or Game Maker and do some rapid prototyping on small little experiences you can put in the hands of friends and family and don't shy away from feedback. Whenever possible I believe experimentation is the best way to learn. Invent a new mechanic, try an unusual controller, flip the conventions of a genre on its head... don't be self-conscious if these experiments fail-- that's all part of the process and makes you a better developer! Other than that technical approach, I'd encourage beginners to make games based on experiences in their personal lives. Everyone's got a unique story to tell and often you'll find your game is enriched by an experience goal or narrative that comes from something you know very intimately. Lastly, read and watch up on all the latest news of the games industry. Be it what's popular on Twitch / YouTube, or a new article on Gamasutra-- these sources offer limitless inspiration and direction on where to take your craft!
TechRaptor: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us, Keenan. Anything you'd like to say to our readers and your viewers in closing?
Mosimann: Thanks for having me! I'd just encourage people to challenge the status quo. Change isn't easy but if you think something could be better-- it's always more rewarding to try it and fail spectacularly then to continue and wonder 'what if'.