Behind the Game: Hidden Folks

A conversation with Adriaan de Jongh about his latest game Hidden Folks, how it’s different from hidden object games, the art and science of hiding things, and why the game is not free to play.

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This interview is part of a series of conversations in which I talk to small game development studios and independent developers to shed some light on the difficult decisions, surprising challenges, and funny stories great games are made of.

Adriaan de Jongh is a game designer who lives in Amsterdam, Netherlands. His earlier games Fingle and Bounden blur the line between mobile and physical games and inspired people to interact not just with a touch screen, but also with each other. For Hidden Folks he teamed up with illustrator and artist Sylvain Tegroeg to create “a hand-drawn, interactive, miniature searching game” that wants you to “unfurl tent flaps, cut through bushes, slam doors, and poke crocodiles.”

The Game

How would you describe Hidden Folks?

Hidden Folks is a searching game. It’s black and white, it’s interactive, and it’s animated. It’s huge and there’s lots of stuff to find. You can spend hours in this giant area full of little folks trying to do things, having their own little stories. Imagine for instance, opening a garage door where there is a hidden folk behind. Or maybe you open up a tent flap. Or you drag a slider which opens up another thing. There are lots of little interactions. I don’t think you should think about it as a hidden object game. Hidden object games are often static. Hidden Folks is not a hidden object game because it’s way more interactive than what most people who play hidden object games are used to.

There is a bunch of targets that you have to find at the bottom of the screen. You have to interact with the world to be able to find them.

Most things in Hidden Folks are not hidden in plain sight. They are hidden behind an interaction. If you want to find something, you have to understand the clue that comes with every target. You have to start looking for all the interactions that are there. The player experience is to read the clue of a target, understand what its position in the world could be, and then discover which interactions to go after to find that target.

The Team

How did Sylvain and you meet?

About two and a half years ago I was walking around at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. Sylvain graduated there and he had his graduation expo that day. He presented this giant line of globes with products in them. It was an exposition about product making. But to the background of that he had pieces of paper with huge worlds on them. Not the size of the paper was big, the scale of the images was super small and it really forced me to get close and put my face into this image to see what was there.

There were all these little characters, a bunch of objects stacked on top of each other. They were all doing things, but it was unclear what they were doing. There was lots of stuff to be found. When I first looked at that small world in which so many things were happening, that was the starting point for this game. Right there I told Sylvain: “We should make a game together.” I said it jokingly. I didn’t think anything would come out of it. But he was really excited.

The first thing that came to mind was a searching game, because that will force people to look at everything. And so I stole some art from his website and made a prototype. I showed that to him later, and that’s when we both got excited about this game.

Hidden in this picture with hundreds of hidden folks are the creators Sylvain Tegroeg (left) and Adriaan de Jongh (right).
Hidden in this picture with hundreds of hidden folks are the creators Sylvain Tegroeg (left) and Adriaan de Jongh (right).

Did Sylvain know you were a game developer, when you saw his art?

No, he didn’t know who I was. I gave him my business card, and he gave me his. We both looked each other up right after meeting each other. He saw that I was a game developer, and I saw that he was practicing his skills in illustration a lot and this was his style. I guess it was reassuring for both of us to start making something together. We met up a month later. That was when I showed him the prototype that I made.

You already had a prototype ready at that point?

It took me three hours to make a prototype. I put together whatever I found on his website and asked him “search for this guy”. And I made some things move in a little, funny way. That was already convincing. It was cute to see his tiny little worlds on an iPhone or on my iPad. That convinced us both to start putting more time into it.

Using Interactivity to Tell Little Stories

You started with some art and turned that into a prototype, adding a little bit of interactivity to it.

Initially it didn’t have much interactivity. When I had that prototype, I talked to Sylvain about our strengths. His strength was the illustration part of making a game, and my strength was the interactive part of making a video game. What we set out to do was to make a game in which both our strengths came forward. I wanted to make a very interactive game. He wanted to make his worlds come alive. That’s when we decided the core design of Hidden Folks: a blend of his beautiful world, but with interactive elements in it that will make it more engaging. We would use interaction as a way to tell little stories that were hidden in the areas of Hidden Folks.

Little animations make the worlds come alive and invite players to explore.
Little animations make the worlds come alive and invite players to explore.

Would you say that adding interactivity to these drawings would make this game unique?

Well, among other things. Hidden Folks has various components that make it unique. Interaction was one part. Sylvain’s style is also different from what you usually see. The way he draws characters, his bizarre obsession with perspective. Everything he draws for Hidden Folks has this crazy orthographic perspective. And on top of that, of course, the sounds that we recorded ourselves, making all noises with our mouths.

Sylvain drew all graphics by hand in a special orthographic perspective, which is part of his unique style.
Sylvain drew all graphics by hand in a special orthographic perspective, which is part of his unique style.

How big is this world that the player is getting into?

If you’ve ever seen a Where’s Waldo? or Where’s Wally? book, it’s like that times ten. Imagine a giant sheet of paper in front of you, and it’s filled with little black and white illustration scrambles. Little characters, little stories, and little worlds on a giant sheet of paper. That would be one area in Hidden Folks. We have fifteen of those. So, yeah, it’s really big.

The Art and Science of Hiding Things

Do you mind talking about one of those worlds and those things that you are trying to find in the world? What exactly do I have to do as a player?

The way we designed targets in Hidden Folks was by having a huge list of ways to hide them. For instance, hiding in plain sight. But it could also be that a target is hidden behind a known interaction that we introduced in a small, isolated area, in which we basically force people to explore and tap everything to discover that interaction.

We also hid targets by unknown interactions, which we hint at really well through a clue. We hid targets behind a puzzle of interactions, so you have to do a couple of little interactions to be able to find the target. A good example of that: there is one or two folks in the game, they’re waiting for the music to kick in. You can see them standing there in plain sight, but you can’t find them, in terms of the game, unless you turn on the music and they start dancing.

Another way would be by making the object really small. There is a level in which you have to find a golf ball, and the golf ball is literally a dot. It’s super small. If you try to find this golf ball by looking at the visuals, you are going to have a hard time. The hint is that the golf players are absolutely sure they saw it fly over the hedge. You have to realize what hedge they’re talking about, and that’s how you map this clue onto the visuals of the world, how you follow that story.

We hid targets by having a different animation. There are ten characters that all look the same. One of them is doing a different kind of jump, for instance. We hid targets by holding a specific object. Again, everyone looks the same, but only one is holding a specific target. We hid targets by being in different contexts, so all characters look the same, except there’s one of them that is standing at this very position that’s hinted by the clue. Or there is a target hidden by timing. It only appears at the right time. Or we reveal it by sound. You can only find it when you turn on your sound and listen to where it could be. There are all sorts of things we came up with to make hints more or less specific, or we use them to point out interactions in the game. Lots of design went into the hints.

That’s a big part of Hidden Folks — to understand the clues and the stories behind the visuals. That differentiates it from hidden object games because hidden object games are usually just hiding things in plain sight. Sometimes they have one little interaction in there, but it’s never the focus. We use interaction to create a story, as opposed to making it a gimmick.

Players need to find all kinds of targets from hidden folks to tiny objects.
Players need to find all kinds of targets from hidden folks to tiny objects.

How do I progress in the game? You said there are fifteen different worlds. Are these levels that I go through, and I have to find everything in one level and then I move on to the next?

We call them areas because levels is a gaming convention that comes with the expectation that stuff becomes progressively harder, which isn’t always true in Hidden Folks. Sometimes areas get bigger, but usually the areas just get different. It doesn’t necessarily get harder.

We have fifteen areas in the game. You start with a small area in which you have to find a couple of targets, and then you go to a larger area. The second area has twelve targets, and you have to find six. You progress through the game by finding not everything, but just enough, so we know for sure that you’ve seen most of the cool stuff.

You’re absolutely not required to find everything. We did this deliberately. To force people into finding everything in an area before they can progress can be frustrating. Sometimes it’s just bad luck that they don’t find a target. I’ve seen this many times: they tap on something, but they tap a little bit left of it, so the interaction doesn’t happen. They don’t find the target and feel like “I’ve explored this area so let’s go to the next one and see whether that target I still need to find is over there”. It’s those cases that we wanted to avoid. That’s why we don’t force people to find everything.

Most people will still feel like they need to find everything. Some people are stuck in an area for three hours being frustrated that they still need to find one target. We’re not forcing anyone into those kinds of frustrations, but some people find that to be really satisfying.

A small area introduces you to the game and hints shift your attention to a story that involves the target.
A small area introduces you to the game and hints shift your attention to a story that involves the target.

Are you expecting lots of conversations on social media about Hidden Folks? Are you expecting these conversations?

I’m expecting them. I didn’t necessarily design those conversations to be had. What I saw during play tests is that people are ashamed of not being able to find something. Every target you have to find in Hidden Folks comes with a clue. If you understand the clue, you have an advantage, because you will know what to look for. But some of the clues are cryptic. So it feels like something you have to understand. However, if you don’t, you’ll have a harder time finding the targets. When people have trouble finding something, it seems to be attributed to how intelligent they are. Whether that’s true or not, people assume that that’s the case. That stops people from having a conversation about it, which is really too bad.

Pure Chaos and Iteration

What was the process like, how did you develop those areas?

Making Hidden Folks was pure chaos. In hindsight you could say there was a process to it, but making the game didn’t really feel like that. The way we made pretty much everything in the game is by first making a very shitty version of it, and then seeing how it does. And then iterating based on that.

How did you know if it worked? Did you show it to other people?

Yes, we showed it to lots of people, so we get an idea of whether it works or not. And if it doesn’t, we throw it out. That’s really how I think design should work.

It was trial and error for us, it was trial and error for players. We kept what we thought worked. And eventually that’s what we ended up with. A very iterative process in which we continuously make things and continuously throw things away. Test things, see how they do, and make a lot of decisions based on intuition. Very chaotic, I’d say.

This is just a small part of the city area.
This is just a small part of the city area.

When you had the idea for Hidden Folks two and a half years ago, how close was that idea to what Hidden Folks is today?

We wanted to achieve the ideal version of a game in which you want to put your face in the screen, because there’s so much happening, you want to find out about all of this. When you make something and you put it in front of someone else, you’ll immediately discover whether this person is as engaged or as intrigued by it as we hoped. That’s where you can test whether that vision works or not. We really tried to achieve that. We simply didn’t know at the time, how we could specifically do that. We knew it wasn’t just a matter of shoving pretty visuals in front of people and so we experimented a lot what the interactions should be, whether people understood them, how we introduced them to people, and various other ways to make people understand these interactions and see whether that worked. And sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes it did.

The experience of playing Hidden Folks is close to the experience I saw at his graduation expo, mainly due to Sylvain’s drawings. The interactivity helps people to engage with that experience. They are following the interactions and the rules of the game and therefore they are looking at Sylvain’s drawings in a way that they wouldn’t have if they just looked at it. The experience you can have in Hidden Folks is maybe even better than what I saw at his graduation expo.

Is there a typical day in the development of Hidden Folks? What is it that you do?

It depends on who you’re asking. If you’d ask me, I would probably be programming specific interactions for the game. A lot of effort and thinking goes into every single interaction, for instance what to do if you want to rotate an object. You put down your finger, and now all sorts of calculations need to happen to make sure that if you move your finger around this object that the object rotates the way you would expect.

Or I would program things that would help Sylvain put together these giant worlds. His daily process would consist of putting things together, making these giant areas. He draws all components of the area on paper, scans them in, throws them into Photoshop. And he puts them together really closely, so that they fit in a very small image you can load in the game, but it actually has more than a thousand objects in it. And then he drags one by one, every single component, inside the game. And he has to put it on the right layer inside the game because it’s a 2D game. We don’t have any depth, so we need to decide for every object which layer it’s going to be on. That was mainly what Sylvain did over the last year or so — putting together these giant worlds and layering them.

And I built all the tools for that, I built all the interactions for that, I built the interface for that. For the last two months I’ve also been doing lots of marketing: making a website, making art assets, making screenshots in the App Store, making the icon, writing the text, sending emails to people.

A typical day would be too short for me to really get to the beef of what we’ve been doing. One day I could be working on the tools to make the level building easier for Sylvain, another day I would be screaming into the microphone to record the sounds for Hidden Folks.

Sylvain and you were the only two people working on this game, and then you had some people that were looking at the game to test it, right?

Yes, it was us for the first two years, and then we started involving more people. For instance, we recorded all the sounds, but we did not do the mixing. Especially when we wanted to have ambient sounds in the game, sounds that you don’t trigger through an interaction but are always there. We knew that we wanted to make these ambient sounds with mouth sounds, but we didn’t know how to master it, how to mix all these together, so that they sounded like an environment. That’s what we hired Martin Kvale for.

We hired Aran Koning, an extra programmer that helped me get some of the little things that were just tasks that needed to happen. I also hired Mirthe Venbrux to help us make the trailers. I could do that, but it would take me a lot more time than someone else. And I had one of my best friends, Bram van Dijk, helping for two evenings. He is a really funny guy, and I needed him to make the hints funnier while maintaining their hint value.

So we had people that helped us, and there was Test Company Please Ignore, a QA company that did some testing. We also did beta testing. And we had community translation. We organized that 200 people play our game and give us feedback through videos I watched. And also we organized more than 150 people from more than 14 languages to help us translate all the text but also help us make the hints better in every language. That was a lot of work. I don’t think there are a lot of games that do that on release. I’m really proud of that.

How Much Interaction is Enough?

Was there a challenge during development, where you thought this is not going to work and we are never going to release this game?

We made a big investment into the game, both Sylvain and I. We tried to make one really big area. We thought this might be of the quality that we want to see from the game. And then we made that entire area. It was huge. It took people an hour and a half to finish. But it wasn’t fun. That was a big problem because we really thought this is going to be representative of the game that we had in mind.

It took us a while until we understood the balance between visuals and interactions. If you introduce one interaction to people, they will expect ten things to be interactive. And if you have ten things be interactive, they expect everything to be interactive. We had to find a visual language, which would make it clear to people what they could interact with and what they couldn’t interact with.

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Is there anything you spend a lot of time on and then figured out it doesn’t work and you dropped it?

We threw the entire game away three times. We made a lot of areas that we thought looked great but weren’t interactive enough. We had areas that were too interactive, too puzzle-y, that didn’t fit the vision we had.

We showcased the game at events, and for every event we would have a new set of areas, a completely new design, a new interface, everything new, basically. That was all part of the design process. We make something, we see how it works, if it works we keep it, if it doesn’t work, we throw it away. We threw away a lot.

Especially during the beginning, we had to figure out how to properly draw everything, so that it would fit and work well in the context of the game. All the illustrations Sylvain made during the first year we threw out. And lots of code. Sometimes code is very context-specific. I would write down an interaction that made sense in one theme, but that theme was out and I could throw away the code as well. Every time the interface changed, I needed to rewrite the interface code. There was lots of stuff that we continuously threw away. But it’s really part of the design process.

The way I look at it is: Even though we throw something away doesn’t mean we haven’t learned from it. It doesn’t mean that it was a waste of time. Very much the opposite is true. We learned a lot from it, and because of that we are going to make a better game. It was very much worth my time. To me that’s pretty much the core of design.

Was there anything else that you learned from early players that totally surprised you?

Usually, when people play test a game, they tell me a solution. Like, “you should add a tutorial here, a little hand or something, so that you show me that I can drag instead of tap.” I implemented this. It was effective as a solution to the problem, which was that people didn’t understand that you could drag some things, but it took away the feeling of discovery. It felt like I was treating people as children. What was actually a problem was that people tapped on things they had to drag instead and nothing happened. That lack of feedback was the problem. When I added feedback, people suddenly understood that this was something different than what they were used to and they got into this vibe of “maybe there is something else I have to do. I have to experiment with this.” I don’t necessarily listen to the solutions that people give me. I try to understand the problem, and I try to understand the context in which they’re saying it, as opposed to what they’re actually saying.

I’ve always been surprised by how people think design works, and how that is so different from how it actually works. I use that to my advantage. Knowing how someone thinks a game works is almost equally important as knowing how I want it to work. I can put those things together side by side, compare them, and see how else I can put the game together, so they get that impression I would like them to have. Play testing is truly fascinating and it’s definitely a very important and beautiful skill that I have been glad to be training in making Hidden Folks.

Tips for Players

Do you have any tips for new players? How can I get the most out of Hidden Folks?

If you want to get the most out of Hidden Folks, you have to have time to explore freely. Wear headphones, preferably, and have sessions between 15 and 45 minutes. We want people to be in a very relaxed vibe. Don’t play this as a quick, arcade-y action game. If you go into the game being chill about it, you’re going to have much more fun, because you will be allowing yourself to discover and explore all the stuff in these little worlds more easily.

It seems like there are a lot of hidden stories in Hidden Folks. Is there something like an Easter egg, something you want to hint at or talk about?

The entirety of Hidden Folks is an Easter egg. These areas are basically built to hold secrets, built to have a lot of little things in it that are not even part of the core of the game. The core of the game is: find the targets that are at the bottom of the screen. But the setup for that has always been these giant worlds full of interactivity. People can definitely expect to find little, funny things in every area because it was necessary to make the world come alive.

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About the Name

“Hidden Folks” seems like a straightforward name. Were there other names you considered?

Naming is hard, especially if you want to do it right. It needs to be a name that you can use. It should not be trademarked. It has to be a name that is easily pronounceable if you want to make it multi-lingual. It has to be a name that sticks. It has to sound good. It has to be representative of the game. There are lots of rules that come with naming a game if you want to do it well.

We had a giant spreadsheet of names that we liked. We came up with more than a thousand names, and we distilled it down to a list of forty, did all our research on those, gave every name a number based on pronunciation, trademarks, how well it’s pronounced in different languages, whether the URL was available, that kind of stuff. It seems trivial, but it’s not.

It was important to us that the name was going to be good, because Hidden Folks has a clear and distinctive visual style. When you come up with a name, it’s probably going to stick to that forever. Sylvain’s visual style is really his visual style. He put his heart and soul into the game. Slapping a random name on his style, which he might become famous for, seems like a bad idea. So we put a lot of effort into the name. Like with many other things in the game.

Making Games Better over Time

What happens when I’ve played the game a lot and I’ve seen all the areas?

Wait for new features and new content. [laughs]

I’m currently building a feature that allows people to hide their own characters in the game and send it to other people. That’s an extremely fun way of sharing the game with other people. Imagine you have this giant world in front of you and I’m hiding a character behind a block somewhere. I give him a name and his own description. And I do this ten times. And then I send it over as a level specifically designed for you. I think that will be a great way to get more out of this game.

You are planning to extend the game over time and add more features and probably also more content. Are there more areas coming?

It’s an old fashioned idea, I realized a couple of years ago, to release a game and be done with it. It makes much more sense to release the game, see it as version 0.8, and keep working on it all the way up to version 1.0. There are a lot of advantages to do that: You make your game better, you give people something exciting every once in a while, something they can become excited about, and so overall engagement is better. A better game means more people wanting to play, and more people having more fun. The moment we release the game is just one moment. We definitely plan to continue working on the game and add more areas, new features, make the areas that we have better, even replace areas if we feel like it. It’s very important to keep iterating on everything.

Good luck finding the key somebody misplaced in this lab.
Good luck finding the key somebody misplaced in this lab.

Running a Business

To earn a living making games, developers have different business models they can choose from, which fall broadly into two main categories: Premium, sometimes also called Pay-to-Play, where players have to pay for either the whole game upfront, or for levels or features within the game. Or Freemium, sometimes called Free-to-Play, where most or all of the game is free, but players are encouraged to watch ads or buy virtual goods within the game, which will help them to progress faster.

Today, most games either offer you something for free and then there are additional things you can buy within the game. How does Hidden Folks work? What is the business model, so to speak?

It’s Premium. We want people to be relaxed playing this game. There’s no frustration, nothing pushing them. We couldn’t find a design, especially in terms of making a profit out of this, in which that feeling of chilled, relaxed playing could be mixed with a way to monetize it. So we decided not to. There are no ads or in-app purchases. You get the entire game, you go through it at your own pace, no monetization, no jokes. It’s honest in a way. It doesn’t try to trick you into any “if you want this you have to pay for it” kind of feelings.

If you go to the App Store, skim over the reviews that people write about apps, you’ll generally see that there are different players that like different things and you’ll see a lot of players that write in their review for Premium games that they enjoyed that the developer wasn’t playing any tricks. And you’ll read the opposite for Freemium games, that it was annoying that Freemium game developers were playing tricks all the time. We didn’t want players to have that feeling and wanted to make sure that people felt safe.

You still want to add more features and additional content over time. How does this work with the Premium business model?

I have no idea. Well, the way we are making it work is: the features are going to be substantial, they should give people another reason to talk about the game. Having a better game in the store and having a better game for people to buy is going to make it more interesting.

You focus on making a great game and hope that people will love to play it and tell other people to download it.

Yeah, but also if it’s already a game that people are willing to talk about or buy, making it even better is definitely not going to hurt us. It can only get better. I really believe that.

Lots of small game developers don’t really push for new content after their release. And the reason is that it can be creatively exhausting to do that. We’ve been working on Hidden Folks for two and a half years. That’s a long time for someone to work on a single project.

Players don't have to find everything, just enough to make sure they've seen "most of the cool stuff."
Players don’t have to find everything, just enough to make sure they’ve seen “most of the cool stuff.”

Would you ever consider creating games with a Free-to-Play model?

Yes. And I have considered that for Hidden Folks but it didn’t fit into the vision. I see the experience of the game to be the first and foremost thing you want to design and after that comes the business model. I want it to be a really good game. I also want to make enough money with it, so I can make my next game, but that shouldn’t devalue or destroy the experience.

We didn’t make Hidden Folks a Freemium game because if you want to make money with Freemium games, it’s all about game loops that have some friction in them that make you want to spend money, or make you want to spend time watching an ad. I’m not sure whether I like that kind of friction.

It does take a lot of effort, a lot of play testing and designing, to come up with a good Free-to-Play game. I’m not sure if that’s what I want to be doing for five years, because that would be the time investment that you’d be looking at.

The Future

Is there another game, or are you planning to take some time off? What’s next?

I definitely will be doing another project, starting from the end of March. [I interviewed Adriaan in February 2017.] That will be 75% of my time, and Hidden Folks will be 25% of my time. It’s such a different kind of game from this and from what you know me for that I’m not sure whether we should talk about that right now.

And I plan to have a little break of at least two weeks to find my peace of mind. Making a game can take a huge toll on your health and I have worked 14-hour days for the last two months, which is extremely exhausting. I’m ready for this little mini-vacation at home.

Other than that, lots of features and cool things for Hidden Folks.

If you want to support Adriaan and Sylvain, please buy Hidden Folks on the App Store or on Steam. And have a look at Adriaan’s earlier games Fingle and Bounden.

Thank you for reading!

This interview is part of a series, where I talk to small game studios about how they create the games we love. I’d love to hear your feedback. If you want to support my work and would like to see more interviews like this, please share this interview with your friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter.

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