Cross Monopoly with Foursquare, add an addictive, carnival-esque trophy-acquiring element and a hint of nostalgia, and you get the delightfully designed 8-bit adventure game Turf Geography Club. With all the screens that distract us from our actual lives, it’s nice to see an app that encourages exploring the physical world.
Since their wildly successful Kickstarter campaign back in 2011, chief geographer and developer Michael Tseng and his team have finally released the app, for free, and out on iOS yesterday. We spoke to Tseng a few times during development, and he dished the details on why he chose the pixelated aesthetic, the reason why all the game’s coffee shops look the same, and hinted at a few hidden wonders, that, if you’re lucky, you can uncover in the game.
Your promo video is very nature-y, with kind of a vintage Twin Peaks or Twilight vibe. Then the app is this sunny, quirky 8-bit world. I feel like that’s such a contrast. What was the conscious decision behind those choices?
The 8-bit is a reflection of a couple different things. One, it’s practical. It’s a lot easier for me to illustrate 8-bit—it’s like needlepoint. The other thing is that when I was growing up, I always played games like Space Quest or other action games, and I always wanted to go into the games. The philosophy behind the whole outdoorsy, woodsy thing is that I think of Turf as this ongoing process of this ever-evolving world. There are millions of locations going on in the game, because we’re pulling from Foursquare’s API, and there might only be 100-200 places that are actually built. So right now, to me, we’re in the wilderness. The whole concept is in an ironic kind of way. Your guide is this bear, who unbeknownst to him, is giving away his entire world to urbanization, sadly. So the game is going to slowly evolve in that direction. I can’t say that in two years it is going to necessarily have that outdoorsy feel anymore.
How would you explain Turf to someone who’s just seen it on the App Store?
I usually tell people it is “location-based Monopoly.” That’s the easiest way to wrap your mind around it. To me, we’re working really hard to earn that “club.” The full name is the Turf Geography Club—it’s not just Turf. What I mean by that is we don’t just want to create a game that people are going to pick up, check into, and take stuff over. We want to create a game where people are going to feel like they’re part of something, like they’re building something. What I usually tell people when asked is that it’s Foursquare plus Monopoly. But when I really talk to people about it, I tell them that if I played World of Warcraft, instead of us having the world built, we were like, “Hey everyone, pick up hammers.” For us, it’s going to be a world-building experiment, and maybe in a year from now we will have this cool visualization of what city blocks look like.
And by building, you mean users can add on floors, etc?
They can take over, they can add floors, they can fight over places, they can customize the floors. They basically build the environment.
Do you give them design choices?
We give them floor choices, but it’s very light. That goes back to the balance. You can’t hyper-customize, because, at the end of the day, you can lose that place. We don’t want people to get hurt when they lose things they spent time investing in. A year from now, we might not be talking about building, we might be talking about territories. It might be real-world risk. It is a new game where people join up together, join these clubs, and start taking over properties. It’s like, “My friends don’t just own this coffee shop or that coffee shop, we own Manhattan!”
You can team up with friends? Is that where the whole club idea comes in?
Yeah, but that’s not built yet. That won’t be released for a little bit, that’s for the future. A big idea always has many different ways it could go. It’s almost frustrating to me. The things we’re talking about doing a year or two from now are just so cool. But obviously we have to fight the battles. We have to build the beachhead, which is what Turf is right now. We’re establishing our presence. We’re establishing location base. We’re establishing the world.
How do you acquire trophies?
The grand gist of the game right now is the idea of collection. Whether that means you collect your favorite places, you collect mementos that are representative of your favorite places, or you collect mementos that are representative of doing things in the game. There’s this really cool achievement system in games that I find very addictive. In World of Warcraft, there’s this achieving system. Xbox has done great things with achievement systems. As a designer, I always think I can do it better than anyone else, which is why I do it. I’ve always wanted achievements to be more than just badges. Because you, in a game, might unlock achievements, and they’re are just check marks. And that’s cool, but I want to have this manifestation of that achievement. So we created a whole shelf!
Instead of a little screen that has some badges on it, people are going to come to your profile and they’ll see a shelf. On that shelf they might see a little Godzilla, and Godzilla is there because you visited Japan. We have ones in there for all different places. We have the Grand Canyon in there, and other important landmarks. There are also activity achievements. So you might get a special Turf passport for checking into four continents, and then you’ll have that for your shelf. So when people come to check out your profile, it isn’t just to see what properties you own. You’ll go to your friend’s profile and there’s going to be a trophy you’ve never seen before. It’s like, “Oh my god, he climbed Mt. Everest!”
So you could just do something random, not looking for a trophy, and somehow end up with one?
We try to have the In-N-Out Burger secret off-menu mentality when it comes to achievements. We’re not, by any means, the ones who invented that system, but I do like that surprise element that people start exploring.
Can you talk about the places that were really fun for you to work on?
I started working on Turf in September of 2010, way before the Kickstarter. I have some friends who run an event called Startup Weekend, and they come to New York all the time. I went to their event and somehow got into this project called Foo Doo, and I thought “I’m going to try style. I’m going to try 8-bit.” I had never done it before, but obviously there’s heritage to it because I played a lot of 8-bit games. Up until that point, I was working with print ads and Illustrator. I started to work on 8-bit for that, and I found it really fun. It was around that time, when I was drunk in a bar with a friend, I started complaining that Foursquare and Gowalla are really great apps but I don’t know what to do with them. I really wanted to expand them. I just came up with this idea for Turf, and that’s when I started working on it.
Around that time I didn’t really have an office to work out of. I spent most of my time in cafés. I would spend eight hours a day in Café Minerva in the West Village. They were really patient; they never asked me to leave. I’d get like one coffee and maybe I’d have dinner, but I’d tip them five bucks. That’s obviously not even enough, but on my budget it was a lot. I should have paid them more. If and when you play Turf, you’ll notice all the cafés have double doors. They’re all modeled after Café Minerva. I haven’t even told them! They don’t know they’re in the game. They’ll see. My friend and I were eating at Mustache the other day, and we saw these tourists taking photos because it was one of the exterior shots from “Friends.” I hope one day Turf gets famous enough people walk by and take pictures of Café Minerva.
What about some other places?
The taco places look like La Esquina. I’ve always been fascinated with La Esquina. They’re not even my favorite tacos, to be honest. My favorite tacos right now are Tacombi, but I didn’t really know about Tacombi at the time. But La Esquina is just such a visually fascinating place to me. It has that whole diner façade. It’s just got some cool colors to it. It actually had a sombrero on top but I had to take it off for logistical reasons. I’m constantly looking for some of the references that we were looking at when I was doing some of the early illustrations, working with some of the artists who have come and gone throughout the process. We’re constantly looking at things like Sam & Max Hit The Road, videogames that have that Ugly Betty, hyper-manicured reality. No one actually has an office that looks like that. Pushing Daisies, for instance. No one runs a pie shop that is shaped like a pie. I wish they did! In Denver there is a creamery that looks like a giant metal bottle-thing. We tried to put stuff like that in the game.
Can you point out a particular example?
The fast food joint looks like a big hamburger.
Every fast food restaurant?
The way it works is that everything is based on categories. So all cafes look like Café Minerva. That’s for practical reasons. We’ve illustrated 100+ category places, so they all look the same. Some places will get a little more love.
What about the “Seven Wonders of Turf?”
So those are our landmarks in the game. Once again, I don’t want to give it all away because I want people to find them and explore them, but there are definitely places in the game that we custom designed so when you go and visit, they’re not going to look like anything else. You’re going to go there and pick up a memento. The Grand Canyon is one of them. I love natural things. The Grand Canyon is epic in scale. If you want to get to the other side, you have to drive 14 hours to get there. I am fascinated with things that make me feel small, like I’m nothing.