Before the Internet, there were secrets: the design of Frog Fractions
Frog Fractions, a Flash edutainment game, isn't what you think it is. And before you go any further into this article, you should stop reading, right now, and go play it. It should take you around an hour or so, but that's fine, we'll wait. We'll wait because there is no way to have a proper discussion about this game without spoiling it at least a little for those who haven't played. So go on, scoot! Back? What did you think? My favorite part was when I became Bug President, a job which apparently consists of a West Wing parody intro and running Mars' pornography infrastructure.
WTF: What the frog
There are frogs, and there are fractions, and for the first 30 seconds – or even 30 minutes, depending on how you interact with the game – it seems like a fairly mundane Missile Defense clone: bugs fly in to try and eat your fruit and, on later waves, shoot at you with colored pellets, while your job is to grab them with your tongue, producing a fraction. If the bugs eat too many of your fruit or their pellets hit you, you gain a point of indignity. Gain five points of indignity and it's game over. Simple enough, right? But then you start to notice odd things about the game's structure. The fractions don't seem to have any consistency. Why is one fly worth 5/8 of a point while another is worth 1/4? There are upgrades like “voice modulator” and “work visa.” Why would a frog need a work visa to catch bugs? You never advance beyond wave one. Why are there waves if they don't advance? Soon, you're not aiming your tongue to catch bugs, but typing in words to target and reel in your foes. But what does typing have to do with fractions? You grow restless. Confused. You suspect ulterior motives, and you want to know just what's going on. So you explore. And that's the moment you've fallen into creator Jim Crawford's trap; he's tricked you into enjoying the lost art of exploration. “I was hinting at… at the same time as I was telegraphing that this is all there is, I was also telegraphing there's more to it than this,” Crawford told the Report. Where would someone get an idea like this? The '80s, of course. Crawford grew up playing video games in the '80s, a time before message boards and GameFAQs. In that day and age, Crawford said, games were thought of as something mysterious, full of secrets and glitches. “When your friend, who's been bullshitting you all year about things he pretends to have found in games tells you about how he broke through the end of the level in level 1-2 of Super Mario Bros. and found this crazy underwater level, and you go home and you can do that, it lends credence to all the other stories. It lends credence to the idea that, maybe under every game, there's this mysterious other game that's waiting to be discovered,” he said. “Under ideal circumstances, in Frog Fractions, you think you're the only person in the world to have found that thing, and you show it to all your friends.” For fear of spoiling a game experience which is largely predicated on the notion of discovering something new, I won't say what the “thing” Crawford refers to is. It's really best you find out for yourself. Did you click that link at the beginning of this story yet? It's best to do so before reading any more.
The messy creation of an intentionally messy game
Frog Fractions used to be very different. Instead of an organic experience where players came to discover the game's secrets on their own, Crawford originally programmed in step-by-step tutorials. “I was gonna lead the player through this experience. It's gonna start out Missile Command and then it's gonna get weird. It was very directed, telling the player how to play at every step,” Crawford told the Report. “That turned out to be a terrible idea.” “Tim Ambrogi, designer on Jamestown and an old friend of mine, he play tested this. He refused to read any of the pop-ups,” Crawford said. “He said, 'I haven't got time to read, I'm playing a game here.' I think he was just being a dick, but that's a really useful stance for a playtester to take, because people don't read text in games.” Crawford said he was pulling his hair out as he watched Ambrogi deliberately ignore advice and upgrades which would have directed him along the game's path, opting instead to spend almost half an hour on the very first section of the game. In the end though, it proved to be a valuable lesson. “He had, by his account, the best experience of all the play testers I'd shown it to so far because he discovered it himself. He figured out there was more to the game on his own,” Crawford said. He told the Report that Ambrogi likened it to discovering that the candle in Legend of Zelda could be used outside of puzzle solving to burn bushes. That moment, Crawford said, was one of his favorites in the entirety of gaming history, because it took the expected and turned it on its head. “When I realized that I could be doing something like that… I think that makes it a lot more powerful.” Either fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, the game's release came a bit sooner than expected. “I released Frog Fractions kind of by accident,” Crawford admitted. He had submitted an unfinished version for review at the Independent Games Festival, but was told he needed to build more buzz around the title. The irony, he says, is that building buzz is why he submitted the game in the first place. He buckled down and put the game into the hands of Brandon Sheffield, who played the game, loved it, and shared the URL with his 3,000+ Twitter followers. “Six thousand of his close friends played that game, and then the next day, multiple tens of thousands of people played the game, and it was like, 'I better just say it's out and run with it.' It was not my intended release schedule,” Crawford told me. He said the response was overwhelmingly positive, and many have asked for updates, an HD re-release on tablets or smartphones, or even a full-fledged sequel. Crawford said he would love to explore a Frog Fractions HD that utilized some of his leftover ideas, but he doesn't know if it will ever happen, and he's not worried about it. He said Frog Fractions is about building up a name, and gaining visibility, not making money. The only things monetized with relation to Frog Fractions are the soundtrack and some sweet t-shirts, and the majority of that money pays to host the game online. This is not a cash cow, it's a game made for fun, to revitalize the curiosity of gamers who have either lost their inquisitive nature or, due to the widespread use of information technology, never developed one. Wouldn't it be great, Crawford suggested, if Call of Duty players discovered a secret game inside the one they already purchased?
I still don't know anything about fractions
You may have noticed just a single accolade for the game mentioned in Frog Fractions itself. It reads: “Revolutionary! The absolute best way to teach your child about fractions!” - Annabelle Santorum, EIC Didactics UK, 4.8 Jan '08 It's a joke – “didactics” refers to the didactic method of instruction and teaching, which is based on systemic adherence and methodological tutoring. Frog Fractions is the polar opposite of this philosophy; it's chaos, and lets you learn at your own pace, hands-on. But you know what? Sure. Why not. Frog Fractions can be whatever the hell it wants to be. I'm having too much fun to argue.