Ep. 2: The Board!
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In the second episode of our Voice Originals podcast, we’re looking behind the scenes at what goes into making When in Rome: a travel trivia board game that works with your smart speaker.
This week, we looked at the design of the game board itself – the stylised map of the world that players travel across in the game. We talk with Product Designer and Illustrator Steve Bachmayer and Sensible Object founder Alex Fleetwood to investigate the process of making a map that feels both beautiful and self-aware.
How do you balance style and game requirements against authentic cultural representation? Find out in our second episode of the Voice Originals podcast!
Follow along with our transcript below:
Ana: So welcome to the Voice Originals podcast! We’re now on our 2nd episode and we’re looking behind the scenes of what goes into making our voice connected games. This week we’re diving deeper into the creation of When in Rome, and if you haven’t heard about When in Rome before it’s a travel trivia board game that works with your smart speaker. So you’re using your worldly knowledge to race around the world and win the game.
So as you can probably guess from the description I just gave, this is a game where having a map is pretty important. And it turns out that creating a map can be pretty tricky, so I’ve brought in two members of the When in Rome team to discuss a little bit more about creating the map for When in Rome and the process behind it. So, Steve and Alex would you like to say a little bit about yourselves, your background and what your role has been on When in Rome.
Steve: Hi my name is Steve Bachmayer and I’m an illustrator and 3-D designer at Sensible Object and yeah, I guess sort of came onto this project of this game quite early on, just to sort of design this map. And initially the game was very different, both in it’s sort of gameplay and its intent and the structure of it. And so it’s been quite a interesting adventure, kind of figuring out the aesthetic of it along with the way in which the game is being played and how the one defines the other.
Alex: Yeah! So hello I’m Alex Fleetwood I’m the founder and CEO of Sensible Object, and kind of initiated the When in Rome project as a prototype last summer in Seattle at the Alexa accelerator, so worked on an initial prototype with Steve providing graphics and design and creative input from the UK and then kind of been leading on the creative direction for the game, managing the production team as we’ve been putting the whole thing together over the last three or four months.
Ana: Great! Yeah, so as you can tell these guys have been absolutely crucial, I mean just in general in the design of When in Rome but especially for the map and I’ll just carry out quickly here that the person speaking here is Ana –
Steve: Yeah I was gonna say! Introduce yourself Ana
Alex: Hello Ana
Ana: Yes, hello! I don’t normally speak about myself in 3rd person and refer to myself as Ana but I’m the community manager for Sensible Object which is also coincidentally the team behind When in Rome. So, now that we’re all introduced let’s jump into a little bit of the process for making the When in Rome map.
Alex: Maybe just before that can I just talk a bit about, a bit more about gameplay?
Ana: Yeah no please!
Alex: What we have is this map which I’m gonna let Steven describe any minute now but it’s also a smart speaker game. So Alexa is the host of the experience, flying you, transporting you around the world so you’ll say ‘Alexa fly me to Tokyo!’ for example and there are 20 cities marked out on this world map and in each city is a local! A real human that we’ve recorded a ton of interactive dialogue with. And that means when you land you find out a bit about that place, you then get asked a question about that place and you can specify what kind of question you’d like to answer, and if you get that question right you’ve made a friend and that means you’ll place a friend token from the game physically on the board. So it’s a game about flying around the world and making friends and critically it’s about hearing amazing voices from people all around the world so you know Alexa is a voice platform, it’s all about putting voices and listening to voices we think into people’s homes and so that was always really cute. This idea of bringing the world into the living room and letting people feel like they were travelling to different places. So that was I think some of the brief that I kind of handed over to you in the first instance when we started creating the board and that we’ve kind of been working on and refining. So now with all of that in mind, Steve do you want to just say what it actually looks like.
Steve: Yeah for sure, in terms of what the board looks like as it stands it’s a world map as you might know it, we actually did initially play with some other ideas surrounding kind of other shapes of the world and different perspectives but we’ve landed on standard map. But so at the moment the whole idea is that we wanted to I guess give an insight and a taste of all of these different wonderful cultures from around the world much like a visual iteration of the idea of a local but at the same time not becoming too visually overwhelming that it would take away from the audio experience of your interaction with the smart speaker. So what we decided on ultimately was to go for an illustrated map where there are elements of each country, or continent or culture from those respective regions illustrated into the shapes of those areas.
Alex: Do you want to give a couple examples so like what are some of the things in Canada?
Steve: Yeah so some of the things in Canada, Canada was lots of fun, we’ve got a tin of maple syrup that is very specifically from Quebec, and then there’s a hockey player, there’s somebody ice fishing, you’ve got somebody snowboarding, canoeing because Canada can also get quite nice and warm and summery, there’s a hotel that I don’t quite remember the name of which looked quite fancy.
Alex: There’s a giant bowl of poutine, I’m gonna get the map out I brought it with me.
Ana: Oh that’s smart. Yes!
Alex: I thought that we might need it!
Ana: You were prepared! (continue from 5.52)
Alex: So you can sort of imagine there’s this gorgeous you know like if we’re looking at the board now like, I mean it’s interesting to just talk briefly about the shape of the world because it is yeah it is like mercator projection map. We tried some other projections but they didn’t feel right but we have had to fairly enthusiastically resize some things, so the Atlantic is only a little bit wider than Great Britain for example and New Zealand is roughly I’d say about a third of the size of Sydney, of Australia you know so. And do you want to just talk about why there’s been there’s been some fooling around with the geography.
Steve: Yeah. So yes there’s been some skewing of geography in the just in attempting to get the board into an illustratable state. There’s a need to have a space in which to illustrate and also to explore such a breadth of cultures. For instance I mean the UK is a great example but it’s such a tiny little space. So if you’ve just got to kind of make do with what you’ve got there but at the same time we had to kind of take sort of some liberties.
Alex: And I think we talked a lot in the process about it’s not, no one’s no one’s trying to navigate like a real landscape off of this, or like do geography. It’s imaginative. You know this is a kind of background to a kind of imaginative play where people feel like they’re traveling around the world and the illustrations really to my mind help with that.
Alex: But yeah so I think that taking some liberties around that. There’s also just a kind of really practical point which has to do with this being a tabletop game and consequently there are pieces in tokens like airplane tokens and friend tokens and souvenirs and you need space to place those around the cities on the board. So we also had to be a little bit canny or you had to be a little bit canny about sizing things so that we could make room for those those elements.
Steve: Yeah for sure. And as you were saying before just in terms of taking those liberties, just being aware that, well whatever we’re illustrating is representative of a culture and not the physical space. A pyramid in Egypt while it spans most of North Africa, one pyramid does not actually span of Africa.
Alex: That would be some pyramid. There’s an experience that a bunch of people who we play tested the game have, where they look at one element of the map and go “Wales is really weirdly shaped” or something like that and then they go “oh but wait everything is like off” and once you realise everything is off and that the intention wasn’t to be representational in that way it kind of goes away.
Steve: Yeah exactly. I think it’s a hard pill to swallow for anyone when they look at their own sort of –
Alex: Corner of the map?
Steve: Yeah when they look at their own corner of the map and realise that whatever they’ve affiliated with their own country maybe hasn’t been represented. But I guess that’s sort of what comes with not being able to be from around the entire world. I mean for instance I’m from Australia and so –
Alex: Well you’re from quite a few places actually
Alex: You’re pretty… we’re a fairly multicultural team.
Alex: You managed to be multicultural all in one Steve.
Steve: I’ve got some some South African in me and I’ve actually got some Latvian in me.
Alex: There you go!
Steve: There you go
Alex: And didn’t you spend some time in Israel as well?
Steve: Yeah yeah. I lived in Israel for a while.
Alex: Now you’re an honorary Pami.
Steve: Yeah exactly. I’m sort of coming back to sort of Nestle back into the commonwealth. But yeah there’s a, I’ve been around my day. But yeah it’s still and even then I still don’t have the full cultural breadth to tackle robust illustrations of the entire world for sure.
Alex: And no one human can. I mean Ana shall we maybe talk about this shall we talk a bit about that kind of process of how we went through these different styles.
Ana: Yeah. I mean it’d be interesting to hear more about like how the map has progressed.
Ana: So I’m sure like the beginning map and what it is now look pretty different from each other.
Alex: Yeah I was like let’s go back to map zero, map number one.
Alex: So you’re in the Sensible Object office, it’s like kind of August/September of last year and I’m off doing wild things in Seattle and there’s these kind of communications coming back over slack and over calls and I’m just trying to visualize that that kind of first map.
Steve: So I actually found it earlier and it was kind of the earth hovering in space. And both of the polar caps have sort of popped off and there’s all these arms kind of coming out of it. And I think the initial part of the game we were talking about rather than sort of friend tokens we’re talking about that all kind of like gems or something and these sort of trade pieces
Alex: That’s right
Steve: And so there’s kind of this idea of chasing these gems across the world. And so I was kind of at one point there’s a –
Alex: little spaces for the gems to go and stuff
Steve: Yeah there’s space for the gems to be kind of the hands coming out of the world sort of like moving around and sort of picking up these gems and trying to plop them off the earth.
Alex: It’s really interesting how, like a big theme across all of Sensible Object’s work is this way where digital game development informs physical game development and vice versa. Like your kind of constantly going around these loops and these conversations where your needing to be very flexible in your thinking about what your design process is because extra kind of pressures and complexities are being placed on it because they’re kind of being introduced from all these other domains of activity that don’t normally like bustle up against one another in the same way. So yeah there was that original one and then I remember there was a relatively plain map with more detailed kind of like mappy outline like, so the one that we have now is more like hand drawn and has a slightly kind of vectorized feel where some of the edges have been spewed out a little and it had much bigger kind of white space for each of the cities didn’t it. It was sort of like, because we basically went with let’s just make a great big white space for each city where all the tokens and everything can live.
Steve: Yeah exactly
Alex: And then I think what was interesting was there was a really big change in our creative process at around the time when we recruited Deborah and Shane onto the project. Deborah Pearson And Shane Solanki, and they have worked together as the interactive dialogue directors for the game. So they’ve been responsible for casting and devising with and directing and writing for the locals. There’s 20 locals that we’ve cast to represent and be the voices of their city. And as you can imagine that’s another, it’s a sort of parallel activity that’s been going on where there’s been a lot of questions about sensitivity and representation. You know like how are we going to represent all these different cultures in the game and in the right way. And they definitely brought some of that thinking into the kind of feedback process.
Steve: Yeah, yeah definitely.
Alex: And I remember that they kind of looked at an early map and I can’t remember Shane’s exact words but it was something like ‘this is a colonias nightmare!’ You know Shane is kind, he was brilliant he didn’t mince his words he kind of came right at it and it was like I think we’ve got some issues here about how we’re going to representing cultures on the board. I mean do you want to speak a bit about what that process was like from your side as the kind of designer and the illustrator.
Steve: Yeah sure. So in terms of having having somebody arrive and break down the map and look at it in that way was a nice moment of ‘okay cool there’s still obviously work that needs to be done on this’ but also a nice moment of getting to sense check it and say ‘okay cool’, let’s because at that point we’d only really had one iteration of it. And so there also has been a bit of a tight turn around and so having another opportunity to sort of come back to this map and I guess address it in more depth and detail and be able to ask these questions of you know what’s offensive and what’s not and what is representative of a place and what’s not, was quite a good experience of being able to a) work into the map with more detail but also with just a sense of safety and that it’s, this is actually being able to base that off information from the locals so for instance –
Alex: I remember that Sydney Australia and I say Sydney because is the city in Australia on the map, but Australia was one of the places that we all felt really good about quite early on. And that’s kind of not a surprise because it’s a place that you’re from and that you know intimately so if I just like pick out some of the features of Sydney we have an arrow in the middle of the map. We have the flag of Indigenous Australia over the Northern Territory in Melbourne sort of region there is a very appetizing looking flat white. Sydney is represented by the Harbour Bridge and the opera house and then as you go up into Queensland there’s all manner of tasty looking tropical fruits. And in South Australia there’s the kind of wine lands and another appetizing glass of wine and then down here the twelve apostles, the sort of cliff features which run along the South Australian coast. So you can imagine all these illustrations are kind of very beautifully woven in with one another to make this kind of patchwork of references and images that kind of denote Australia and for me like they tessellate really beautifully. So like when I think about visiting Australia and experiencing Australia I think about the food and the nature and the people and the architecture and of course the history in terms of you know the invasion of Australia and the settling of Australia and the kind of tension that exists there and all of those things are kind of material and I think that you’ve represented them very beautifully in the Australian map and I remember Deborah who is very insightful fear to make a saying if we can do for the rest of the world what you’ve already done for Australia then we’ll be in great shape.
Steve: Yeah yeah. Which is both flattering in the sense of Australia sort of landed so well but the idea that I could even begin to tackle almost anywhere else in the world with as much kind of understanding as it’s taken, I don’t know about 20, 26 odd years of living in a place to get to that point.
Alex: Well what we did was we, we just tried to gather a lot of feedback so we asked the whole team. I think that at a rough count theres something like 10 or 12 nationalities represented inside of the sensible object team either either through parentage or close family or through experience. We also reached out through our locals a little bit that we’d started to cast at that stage and kind of get some of those involved. I certainly know that we all kind of tried to get communications with people like so for example sensible object has some business partners in Hong Kong. So we asked we asked those guys to kind of feed in and give their perspective. And we started to generate this sort of enormous deluge of info of like stuff that felt wrong like so for example we had some people in like kind of traditional national dress, didn’t we like there was one in South America. There was a Kossack riding a horse in kind of the big empty bit in Russia. So there was a lot of info that you were trying to kind of distill and work with.
Steve: Yeah exactly. So yeah it was just about trying to be as accurately representative of each place without treading on any toes and without misrepresenting things having any cultural faux paux that we weren’t even aware.
Steve: I mean even for instance in Japan there was quite a significant one of the Empire of the Rising Sun, at the moment you’ve just got the red sun in the sky over Mount Fuji, but before I had the rays coming off it and that’s sort of that actually calls back to the old Japanese Empire.
Alex: Right. That kind of imperialist history that people are not so comfortable –
Steve: Yeah exactly. And it’s kind of, it’s an image that’s used here in the sense of pop culture but it’s not necessarily, given the credence of it, well what it represents in history. And so I guess, so it’s something that I’ve never necessarily affiliated that with.
Steve: And I’ve never seen is as being a sensitive image but I knew only once sort of talking to people from Japan and even you sent me some great material from your friends in Japan.
Alex: Yeah. Well all of this, I think it’s interesting. It’s like it’s it’s important to locate this in the kind of production process and I think this is another thing that’s kind of a reality of being a small company, a startup is you’re always working on constrained resources and time and really wanting to try and do the right thing but kind of doing your best with the kind of limited materials that we can kind of put behind it. You know like, I remember reading about Moana when Pixar went out to create Moana which is about Pacific Islander culture and telling stories. It was the same team that had worked on Pocahontas 20 years previously which had been this kind of disaster from the kind of politics and representation perspective and it’s the same dudes unfortunately but still, they had learnt from that initial thing and they set up an ethics committee where they actually went out and hired a bunch of people to give their honest opinion on representation in the script and in the character designs and in the kind of choice of music and all these kind of elements.
And it’s a really big deal I think my understanding at least from reading around the subject for Pacific Islanders who have seen their culture represented in this really thoughtful and positive way in the movie and I think you can tell, like even that’s not somebody who understands that culture particularly well, it has a richness and it has a kind of quality to it and a spiritual quality to it that’s really beautiful and I really love that movie. We can’t afford an ethics committee so we have to do our own kind of scrappy version of that and then ruin it all through the kind of tireless and in fact indefatigable Steve. But there was a point wasn’t there, that we reached where we had to kind of say and I think we’re going to run out of time to make any more changes will go through any more rounds of feedback.
Steve: Yeah I think maybe this is just something that is part and parcel with any creative project when you’re working to a deadline is doing the best that you can do within the means possible and that’s within sort of both resources surrounding time and kind of manpower. So yes, sort of being just the sole person, you’re illustrating this map and also coming down to the crunch against time with manufacturing. I think it just came a lot down to trying to get it into the best place that we could, certain that we’re not offending anybody because that’s –
Alex: Well we’re not 100 percent certain, because of course the capacity of people to be offended on the internet is pretty high. So I think that I kind of have it in my mind as if anybody is offended then we can say hand on heart that we really tried to be thoughtful about this and kind of go out to be as respectful as we could about about everyone’s culture and if they are offended that’s very much on me not on you by the way I’m going to be out there taking that one on the chin. But the other piece of this is it’s a paper map and we have the files and I think it’s interesting to think about how this illustration might evolve over time. You know this isn’t a fixed entity and like anything in the kind of digital physical world in which we operate we can think about how it evolves and how it changes in light of those kinds of pieces of feedback and input. And I think it’s also worth saying that we know as a team we loved the illustrations in the art style so much that they’re actually the central feature of the box and the packaging and the kind of the logo of the game. So we’ve actually kind of carried it through into the whole design of the game. In fact one one of my absolute, there’s two things which I’m going to try and describe. So when you open up the box and you take out the board you can see that the box itself is lined with a kind of cardboard insert. It has a kind of composite of the illustrations from the world map. So not done geographically laid out as it is on the world map now but more like tessellated together to become a single wallpaper like layout.
Steve: Yeah. It’s just like a texture almost rather than an illustration.
Alex: But it looks gorgeous and it looks so, it really reminds me of a certain style of print design which I kind of associate with the sort of 30s and 40s like some books that I used to see in my grandfather’s house that had a kind of paper sleeve. There was one of Swallows and Amazons which I think they reprinted recently I saw it in a bookshop and it has that same kind of idea of like printing and handwritten illustrations, really really lovely. And it also is used on the backs of the carts so you get upgrade cards in one in Rome that you can collect and then invoke by saying an activation phrase to Alexa and they’ve got the same illustration but kind of colorized in red and blue for the different teams. And it makes a very nice card back.
Steve: Yeah. The card back is probably one of my favourite iterations of it. It’s really nice.
Alex: When in Rome is quite a conceptual game right, you know like it’s sort of, we’re talking about travel and the emotion of visiting a new place and the experience of meeting somebody and what we’re hoping is that, there’s a kind of idea at the centre of that which is about how close you get to people you travel with. You know you tend to really bond with people you go on holiday with you tend to go on holiday with people you’re really bonded with and it’s because you’re kind of outside of your normal lives in your kind of having adventures and experiencing the unfamiliar and exciting and making a visual identity out of that is kind of super tough. Yeah yeah that’s a pretty even airy brief.
Steve: Yeah, yeah. I mean as you said before it was kind of a situation where the brief and font, the illustrations and then the illustrations came back to reinform the brief and so it wasn’t necessarily just a one way street of, ‘here this is the brief and get it done’. But it was kind of a here this is the brief as we know it. And then when receiving the well whatever I’d done with the illustrations whenever you would feedback on that. We’d have other discussions that will ultimately start to shape the game in different ways and it was quite nice that the two are sort of developing in tandem so it didn’t feel as stale as I just had to sort of just make this fit into the concept of the game but rather the two sort of became –
Alex: had a reciprocal effect. Yeah completely. And yeah and I do think there there’s something about this tapestry of images kind of all layered over one another. That is for me a lovely summation of that idea of travel and wonder and experience you know this sort of abundance of places you can go all kind of smooshed up next to one another that you see on the front of the box, hopefully it’s going to be something quite enticing and I think it’s quite a different looking game from you know like we think a lot about the kind of packaging design and how things stand out in a shop and I am hopeful that this one will be intriguing like why this sort of hand drawn illustration style when people find it.
Steve: Yeah. I’m certainly curious to find out what people think. So –
Alex: Are they going to buy? (Laughter) well let’s let’s hope so.
Ana: I mean I know for me personally when I look at the game but also as you were saying the box and the print which is largely influenced by the board design, for me the tricky balance of celebrating different cultures yet being aware of how you know we live in a global world now and you know a lot of places it would be wrong to sum of them up in a stereotype so getting the right balance between celebrating uniqueness whilst also acknowledging the globalness of the world we now live in. I think that’s really well summed up in that tapestry design where you can look and everything is sort of compiled into one place yet also has an ability to be picked apart and you can see like the unique aspects of different places think like that’s something that I love about the design that you guys have all sort of come up with and fed back and iterated on together.
Alex:I mean you had some experience of that with, because you brought some feedback about some locations on the board through your family right.
Ana: Yeah I mean I guess this was the neat thing that you guys were saying about feedback was obviously we didn’t have the resources for an ethics team but everyone I think on the sensible object team put their fingers or branches or whatever out as far and wide as they could to get as much feedback as possible and cover as many blind spots as we could. And yeah I have a lot of family in Asia.
My mom is from Singapore so I’ve got a lot of family there so input on the Asian region is something that we could provide some opinions on at least and then we have other people from other areas of the world also feeding back on other parts of the world as well. So I feel pretty hopeful and optimistic that we’ve done a pretty good job on trying to make the map representative maybe not in a to scale really, I don’t know geographically metre by metre accurate sort of way but something that feels true to the celebratory nature of the game and a feeling of inclusiveness that we want to embody in when in Rome.
Alex: I think if anyone is going to be really offended it’s going to be the Welsh, Wales slightly looks on the board like a suburb of London as a kind of, and knowing and loving some people from Wales, the idea that a bunch of trendy London design people have kind of eroded some of their national identity and culture is going to go down like a cup of cold sick I reckon. But you know if we end up with this sort of contingent of angry Welshman at the door we’ll figure out we’ll figure out a way of placating them in future versions.
Steve: I’m sure we can massage the UK out a bit more on the next iteration of the map and give Wales what it deserves.
Alex: Maybe we can add Cardiff as a location I think it might you know, but then what will you do about there not being a place in Scotland! We’ll have to do when in Great Britain focus on 20 places in the UK.
Steve: I think we can reduce Russia by at least 50 percent.
Ana: Yeah. There’s no pleasing everyone but I think we’ve done as good as we can.
Alex: Let’s hope so.
Ana: Yes, Steve and Alex thank you so much for joining us today for the podcast. I feel I’ve personally learnt a lot and I’ve been on the team for when in Rome so this has been really great getting insight into the map development process.
Steve: Thanks a lot for having us!
Alex: Yeah it was really fun thank you.
Ana: Great. So people listening if you’re interested to find out more about voice originals or When in Rome you can go to voiceoriginals.com or follow us on Facebook and Twitter at the same handles, voice originals. When in Rome and the free daily skill fully launch on July 2nd but you can preorder a copy from the 18th of June on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. Thanks guys again for joining me. And thank you listeners for tuning in. And make sure to check back for the next episode!