“Chief Detective Lanert is here. We are understaffed at the moment and I could use your help.” The entry to the online game “Tatort” is a voice message from Thorsten Lannert, also known as Richy Müller. Then call: “Can you help us?” And the players are in the middle of the game “Tatort”. Here we give you an insight into the game development process from challenging to playable prototype.
|Category||Realistic gaming experience|
|contact person||Sebastian Demuth (SWR X Lab)|
|actors||Nils Reinhardt (Crime Scene Editors)|
|the condition||The prototype was tested, and submitted to management|
For about a year we have been working with the editorial team “Tatort” to develop an online game about “Tatort”. The first version of the game is an outdoor version that can be played in downtown Stuttgart. At the same time, we are now working on a pure digital version of the game that can be played online from anywhere.
Process – from challenge to operable prototype
In order to reach new and young target groups with crime scenes, the theme of games quickly emerged. why? The games have completely reached the breadth of the community. Most people in Germany play games at least occasionally – regardless of age, gender or education level. Thus, Tatort’s SWR Game offer has the potential to reach target groups who are not familiar with SWR and Tatort and who are not using our classic offerings.
The idea we developed on the basis of extensive research: to make the case concrete as a mobile location-based puzzle game. Players can slip into the role of detectives and solve the crime scene case in their city. You can think of it like an outdoor escape game with GPS tracking. Players are in contact with crime scene inspectors via smartphone and Messenger, and receive voice messages, photos, and videos about the case. The investigations lead the investigators to different places in the city, where they have interactive contact with fictional characters, different new findings, thus solving a criminal case step by step in the world of Stuttgart crime scene.
2. Define assumptions
When researching the market, we have noticed that escape games are mostly based on challenging puzzles, but neglect the story as the primary foundation. The purpose of the story is to lead players from one puzzle to another, but it is usually poorly thought and unrealistic. On the other hand, crime scene features complex and multi-dimensional stories and should also do that in a potential crime scene game.
But how do potential users see it? Does a more complex story enhance the escape game experience? Our assumption: Yes. But in order to find reliable answers to these and other critical questions, we wanted to make the idea concrete in the prototype. Because behind every idea in the beginning there are many assumptions that must be fulfilled in order for that idea to become a successful proposal.
3. Prototype development
We chose Stuttgart as the test city and hired screenwriter Jan Kronauer, who has already worked on several TV thrillers, Swiss crime scenes and is also a YouTube board gamer, and puzzle writer Anne Baumann. They are both originally from Kessel and know the area very well.
We organized a two day workshop where we took the game concept along with two exterior designs and identified the exciting components of “Tatort Game” in a lively and constructive exchange. On the basis of this workshop, Jan Kronauer developed a crime story combined with puzzle elements with Anne Baumann. It was important to us that the mysteries were not seen as an extra synthetic building block and out of the sense of a crime scene investigation, but rather were part of the plot. As with True Investigations, each step of the puzzle offers new insights or presents small technical obstacles in the context of the overall crime plot.
Together we have now faced the great challenge of putting this case on the road as a prototype in the truest sense of the word.
We organized a crime scene forensic photo session, recorded audio messages with crime scene actors Richie Mueller (Inspector Thorsten Lahnert) and Jürgen Hartmann (Forensic Doctor Dr. Daniel Vogt), produced the images and recorded the appropriate chat messages. We used it to build a database of over 150 media files, which we were able to send to players via messenger over the course of the game.
We also wanted players to interact with the urban environment. In the course of the game, for example, they have to “hack” a security camera at the entrance to the house to get the recordings. Through a slanted window in the backyard, they heard an argument between the suspects at the end of the game. The pre-recorded conversation plays as soon as the players enter the backyard. All these technical implementations of the prototype were made by us.
4. Testing and evaluation
In December 2021 we tested the prototype for the first time with real users. They walked in Stuttgart for two hours and tried to solve the case. Fortunately, we were dealing with stubborn hobby inspectors: because at 6 degrees and drizzle, the investigation conditions were not ideal. Basti and Daniel acted as Commissioner Lanert. They sat at home in front of their screens and sent players the right messages at the right time via Messenger. All of these messages have been dramatically developed for the story in advance, meticulously planned and spoken by Richie Mueller. Thus Inspector Lannert was able to interact “live”, give advice and ask for investigative steps.
After the test, testers were asked about their gaming experience in detailed interviews. We would like to share our most important learnings with you here:
1. Proof of pudding in eating
Prototyping and testing is essential in complex projects. This gives the project team clarity around the project, abstract ideas and concepts become concrete and technical obstacles or pitfalls in the product can be identified at an early stage. The exchange with testers answers important questions and the test offers new insights, for example in an urban environment, many stimuli have an impact on players – local receptivity is sometimes limited. This must be taken into account in storytelling.
2. You have to educate the players!
In the first few minutes of gameplay, players understand the mechanics of the game and adapt their behavior accordingly. The mechanics of the game must therefore be demonstrated and practiced in the first minutes of the game, for example through inquiries from the Lannert crime scene inspector, with whom communication and exchange has been reported.
3. Every game needs a playground!
It is difficult for players to recognize the boundary between fantasy and reality, for example, some players began to interrogate unsuspecting passers-by and cafe owners or persuaded merchants to let them into the home of a fictitious suspect.
4. Game design is a balanced business!
Balancing the game is one of the biggest challenges. So that the difficulty of the game adapts to the skills of the respective players. The difficulty of the puzzle can vary, help can be given at different points in time, or entire narrative threads can be skipped or shortened depending on the player.
We were able to improvise well on the prototype – Inspector Lannert was “under control” from us. Next versions of the game will have to do this automatically
Outlook: What next?
Using the prototype, we were able to confirm many of our original assumptions – but new questions have emerged. Can the interaction between the inspector and players be automated so that several groups can play in parallel? Is automation changing the gaming experience? How can people who do not live in Stuttgart help with the investigation from home?
The next prototype we’re currently working on should clarify these and other questions. That’s why we’re training a chatbot that reacts to chat messages from players like Commissioner Lanert and guides them through the case. We’re also trying out a new game mode: Thorsten Lannert and players take turns: Now the Inspector (or chatbot) is “on site” in Stuttgart and players investigating from home are sending important photos and proofs. Thus, a subsequent game can be played for people from all over Germany – regardless of the city of the case.
Perhaps we will find answers to our most important questions right now with this second prototype. Then there will likely be new people. We might also note that the concept needs to evolve in a different direction. We’ll see – and tell you about it here.