Everything in pop culture builds off what came before, but sometimes it’s not so obvious exactly what inspired your favorite video games. Luckily game recognize game, and Source Code is where Playboy explores games’ eclectic origins and finds out what influences video game developers.
“We would go on for months trying to analyze dough,” explains Trinket Studios artist and cofounder Eric Huang, referring to a video game design debate unlike any I’ve heard of before. “We had this whole journey of trying to break down baked goods: like pies versus tarts and quiche. It was a nightmare.”
That conundrum sounds tricky, but also tasty—quite like the game the three-man studio is working on, Battle Chef Brigade. Funded on Kickstarter last year after a long period of experimentation, the PC game is the team’s largest project to date. Trying to concoct a game that captures the essence of competitive cooking—plus hunting, not to mention Candy Crush-style match-three gameplay—while keeping it fun hasn’t been, well, a cakewalk.
Prior to Battle Chef Brigade’s first public showing at Indy PopCon in Indianapolis last weekend—where it won the $10,000 grand prize at the Reboot Game Awards—I visited the Trinket team in Chicago to try the work-in-progress demo and chat about the extensive experimentation that led to this promising indie endeavor.
COOKING IT UP
Trinket Studios—and ultimately, Battle Chef Brigade—was born of disillusionment with an unexpected corporate overlord. Huang, studio president Tom Eastman, and programmer Ben Perez all previously worked for Wideload Games, a now-shuttered Chicago developer known for quirky projects. That is, that’s what the studio was known for—before Disney Interactive acquired it in 2009, eventually putting them to work on an uninspired Marvel Comics-themed phone game knock-off.
“We all wanted to make good games and have creative freedom, and I think Disney really pushed us to realize how badly we wanted that,” explains Eastman. So in 2012, they departed Wideload, set up shop in his and Huang’s shared Chicago apartment (Perez commuted in from the suburbs), and started dreaming up “small games with big character,” according to the studio’s motto.
Trinket released a pair of mobile games—the cartoonish Color Sheep, which did OK, and Orion’s Forge, which didn’t gain much traction—and abandoned a third before trying to plot something larger. A couple of fruitless months followed, with the trio chasing inspiration all around the city and finding little of use in the process.
“It was a really brutal period where we realized how poor we were at coming up with great ideas,” admits Eastman. “We made Color Sheep in two months, and then we spent two months just coming up with bad ideas.” Adds Huang, “It was quite a journey. We felt so lost.”
Credit the Food Network with helping them find their way. One day late in that agonizing cycle, Huang flipped on the cable channel—and they found that elusive spark. Thinking about reality competitions like MasterChef and Chopped, they began devising a game in which players race to create dishes using an array of unique ingredients and techniques.
“That you have the ability to make something your own—we all seized on that being really cool. Like, that seemed like a cool indie challenge: try to make a good cooking game,” says Eastman. And given their continued lack of traditional employment, the idea fit in well with their living situations: “Working on a cooking game nicely dovetailed with being indie and poor, because we started cooking more.”
Finding the ideal format for the game proved the biggest challenge of all, ultimately dragging pre-production out for about a year and a half. Battle Chef Brigade started as a time management game with multiple chefs and processes to oversee, but then took a hard turn towards ultra-realistic cooking simulation.
“Looking back, what was really horrifically dumb was trying to do a full chemistry simulation, basically, of all the things that could happen to a given food,” concedes Eastman. For example, every ingredient would have a different reaction to being boiled, and each taste that your tongue can recognize would be measured and rated. But the result was overly complicated and couldn’t be easily conveyed to players. “We’d try to show it, and even from [fellow] game developers, it would be like a blank stare,” says Perez.
What initially pushed them in the right direction was settling on an anime-inspired fantasy aesthetic. That not only matched up well with Huang’s artistic leanings, but it also allowed the team to move away from realism overall, not just in the visuals department but in terms of ingredients, preparation techniques and more.
“The thing that really sold me was how well fantasy elements and tropes pair with cooking,” says Eastman. “A fire sword is really common in fantasy games, but having a flame knife that is cool when hunting things, but can also be used to sear something while you cut it—that interplay was really appealing, and really one of the big driving forces behind the game.”
Deciding on a play mechanic that paired with that premise proved a nagging burden until recently, when Trinket committed to a rather popular template: match-three puzzling. True, linking up three or more like-colored gems forms the core of casual, free-to-play fluff like Candy Crush Saga, but embracing that system allowed the team to create a more understandable game. Most importantly, they’ve still been able to capture the essence of culinary creation in the design.
“Normal tastes don’t interact, but fire and water sure do,” says Eastman. Previously, they had bars and numbers to represent tastes, but exceptions to culinary rules kept ruining their systems. Taste isn’t easily defined or objective, after all. “We can’t quantify mouth feel, or umami,” notes Huang. Foods also have distinctive tastes that don’t necessarily compare well. Plus, while they originally planned to require all meals to be cooked, dishes like sushi, ceviche, and steak tartare kept butting in.
Embracing an elemental gem system finally let them cut through some of the contradictions and complexities that might have sunk a proper simulation, and allowed Trinket to target recreating the sensation of being a skilled chef. In other words, they made a video game. “We focused on getting the feel of real cooking without normal tastes and textures—an abstraction of taste,” says Eastman.
“It’s scary to think that such a simple thing that’s in Candy Crush and Bejeweled is what saved our game, but I’m proud of the whole route that we took to get to that point,” says Huang. “We didn’t just say, 'We’re making a match-three cooking game.’ There’s a whole thought process of why it makes sense.”
SETTING THE TABLE
Eight months have passed since the Battle Chef Brigade Kickstarter campaign raised $100,000 to let Trinket Studios continue pushing ahead, and the team has been hard at work bringing its promises to life for the game’s 2016 release.
The influence of cooking competition shows helps dictate the structure of the matches. Each battle begins with a challenge from the judges—who have their own distinctive tastes—and then you’re given a limited amount of time to hunt for ingredients in a forest. It’s the fantasy spin on having to run into a kitchen and frantically grab items Iron Chef-style.
You’ll punch birds, defeat dragons with special attacks, and try to amass the meats, eggs, and other items you need to make a tasty dish without wasting precious time. “We started off with the idea that we might make a non-violent game, but that didn’t happen,” says Eastman, laughing.
The actual cooking is where the Candy Crush-like mechanics come in. The ingredients you gathered turn into gems, and each cooking apparatus alters the puzzle in some way, like being able to “stir” the colored gems using a pot. Your meal takes shape as you merge gems, and the developers plan to make a huge array of artwork to represent the myriad meal possibilities.
As with any good dish, there’s a level of care and craft required to make different or even seemingly opposing ingredients combine and coexist. That’s a good analogy for Trinket’s task as it attempts to bring these disparate elements—creative cooking, puzzle matching, hunting action, and fantasy anime imagery—together into a single, cohesive experience.
Luckily, the earlier struggle to establish Battle Chef Brigade’s secret recipe has seemingly made for a better, more interesting, and more rewarding result. “It’s so much more understandable,” says Huang about the game’s transformation. Eastman interjects: “You mean digestible.” Exactly.
Andrew Hayward has been writing about games and gadgets for nearly a decade, contributing to more than 55 publications in the process. Follow him on Twitter at @ahaywa.
Playboy’s Gamers Next Door check in with Nintendo at E3 2015
Games for Adults: 'Riot’ Chucks a Pixelated Molotov