Sergey Plyaka — Playrix
Lead Game Designer of Homescapes, who is responsible for features, metagame and the narrative in the project.
What led you to the game dev industry and how did you become a game designer?
I’ve been making games throughout my whole life. At first I made them with Lego, then moved to creating board and live roleplay games and eventually came to videogames. It was a “hobby” for a long time. I was pretty sure that game dev industry exists somewhere only in Moscow or St.Petersburg and in my native city, Rostov-on-Don, one can’t simply find a game designer job. When I was at the university I even tried to work by profession — I’ve studied radio physics. But in 2011 my wife accidentally found a game designer position for social games here in Rostov. That’s when I clearly realized that I have to get it. My first project was a story-based game called iSpy. I was the only game designer on it and even though the whole team didn’t have previous experience, the game was quite successful. Later I had a few more projects and in 2015 I’ve got a job in Playrix and worked on Gardenscapes at that time.
What does a typical day look like?
For half a week I work at home and the other half — at the office. The working day is not that different though. Morning is the best time for complex creative tasks — to come up with something. I try not waste this time in vain. Since 11 in the morning I try to sort out the inbox and we usually have calls with colleagues. From 3 to 5 in the afternoon my efficiency is a bit lower so I try to check the game build and share some comments. Closer to the evening I start to actively work on tasks and different creative challenges.
Which apps and services do you use most to complete your main tasks?
I use only one “app” — Google Chrome. As for the services — Asana, Google Docs and Slack. I also use Lucidchart for scenario charts and Swrve with AppAnnie for statistics. Everything is pretty much online. I means that in general I can make myself a working space from any machine within 5 minutes.
Where do you gain inspiration from?
Mostly I’m inspired by interesting people and places. I like to change places I’m working at — even at home I have several workplaces. And switching between home and office helps a lot. Occasionally I visit other Playrix offices or simply work from other cities. It’s simply amazing when you are able to combine work and trips.
When and how do you start working on a new feature? Could you describe the process?
Working on a feature starts from 3 to 6 months prior to the planned release depending on its complexity. Before the start, the strategic vision is already established, but on a high level. And most of the time someone has already created something similar to what you’d want to make. So first I collect or update the expertise looking for solutions to similar problems among other games, including our own projects. Then I formulate a list of “working” ideas, discuss them with other game designers and collect opinions. It’s very important not to blindly copy someone’s ideas but to reimagine them. To create your own variant based on them, which will fit your game — this is always the toughest part. Then I create a short concept document consisting of several pages. I describe the vision and key features, usually with mockups. Then we discuss, iterate on the concept and if we don’t decide to scrap it, we start the work on the technical descriptions.
Which games have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?
If talking about match-3 — Toon Blast from Peak Games. They are very cool. If looking wider I liked What Remains of Edith Finch, which has a very good narrative.
What achievements in your career are you most proud of?
I think that is Homescapes release.
If you could change one thing about your career, what would it be?
It may sound strange, but I wouldn’t change anything.
Which recent task turned out to be much difficult than you expected?
During the work on Homescapes we had an idea of creating a phone instead of the in-game tablet. I seemed to be a very simple idea, which lead to changes in multiple details of the interface, impression from the game and the narrative, so we had to abandon it.
And a new event with the Cat, which recently started in the game, had to live through 5 concepts and 4 prototypes. During the development the Cat itself disappeared from the feature and then appeared again before we have found an optimal solution.
How are the disputes about variants of feature design solved in your company?
We used to try coming to an agreement. It may sound unusual, but we don’t have one person who decides everything — neither the producer or the manager. We are sure that any task can be solved in a way that will satisfy everyone. And that solution often is the best. Sometimes there are situations when two people can’t come to an agreement. Then we add the third person to the conversation, who usually helps to find the consensus. Everything works, because we take for granted that everyone is a professional. Everyone’s opinion is important and everyone is interested in bringing the task closer to its completion.
What do you do to self-improve in game design?
My way is simple — I take new and difficult tasks and work on them in with a more experienced colleague. He has more experience in one area and I’m in a different one, so while working on a feature we can learn something useful from each other. We have a lot of great people in the company and there’s always something one can learn from them. Apart from that I play games, of course. I also read books and articles about game design, but, IMHO, they are not the the main source of self-improvement.
What music do you listen to whilst designing?
I like rock and folk. In general small russian bands like Vasily K or The Dartz. I try to find certain type of music for different tasks as this works better that way.
If a game designer would want to apply to your company, what would you advise him?
Don’t fall in love with your ideas, but live and breathe what you do. It’s very important to love your project, but understand that there will never be a feature that is 100% yours as you planned it in the beginning. It’s the result of the teamwork.
Any advice for game designers in general?
Think about players getting satisfaction from playing your game in general or a specific feature, but not about them paying a lot of money. A hit project is in the first place a good game. And only after that — a nicely tuned monetisation.