Facebook games are ugly. We all know this. Jeff Hyman wanted to do something about it. In 2010, Hyman started building Idle Worship, the cornerstone of his new gaming company. Dissatisfied with the low production values of Facebook games, Hyman decided to take on a possibly suicidal mission: to inject a higher quality free product into the social gaming world, rather than just continuing the proud tradition of derivative communal farm-mafia solicitation.
Idle Worship is a multiplayer god game that pits player-gods and their civilizations of simpleton followers against one another. Recalling Peter Molyneux’s Populous—which Hyman cites as a huge influence—the goal is for the social network to build a giant pantheon of competing deities.
For a game that takes place on remote desert islands, Idle Worship often feels very busy. Idle Games has worked so many bells and whistles into the game that sometimes it feels as though the developers are rushing to show you—in the 10-minute session you might spend playing a game on Facebook each day—how much their baby can do. If you do actually spend bigger chunks of time with it, though, the game can develop in unexpected, amusing ways—like that episode of Futurama where Bender is flying through space, gets hit by a meteor, and has a miniature world spring up on his chassis. If nothing else, Idle Worship is a novel social experiment in which we see what happens when you throw a bunch of part-time gods into a real-time pot.
Idle Worship has been in development for years, and all of this effort could be for naught. There’s a reason that the average Facebook game is low on production value—it’s a hell of a lot cheaper that way—and there’s no guarantee that your run-of-the-mill Facebook player will appreciate the mighty artistic and financial push to raise the bar beyond the digi-rural ghetto of FarmVille.
Hyman gave The Gameological Society a look at Idle Worship earlier this year at the Game Developers Conference. It seemed like it would be just another soul-sucking demo of a Facebook game. But the weird thing was, Idle Worship actually looked pretty nice. So we asked Idle Games if they’d share some of the concept art and give us some insight into the creative process behind the game’s visuals.
The Mudlings are the dominant race of Idle Worship, no thanks to their own limited ingenuity and even more limited survival skills. You rule over them, inspiring fear and awe and confusion at every turn. “A big motivator for us was Jeff’s sense of humor, and he really wanted these basically stupid creatures that you wouldn’t feel bad throwing into a volcano,” explains Idle Games’ senior art director, who goes by the name Tavish. “Making them kind of silly and clueless makes you feel better about setting them on fire or attacking them with lightning.”
Your main actions in Idle Worship involve poking and prodding the Mudlings into doing your bidding. You nourish them or smite them according to your divine whim. Increasing the devotion of your Mudling followers, recruiting other gods’ Mudlings into your fold, and fostering your bonkers civilization gives you access to more power (and more chances to abuse it).
Tavish is happy to cite the spiritual antecedents to the world of Idle Worship: “One of our big references is South Park. Things like Ren And Stimpy, things like that. Strong cartoon violence, even back to Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry.” Whizzing on an electric fence is exactly the kind of thing the Mudlings will do if they receive divine inspiration—maybe written on stone tablets or booming from a disembodied voice in the sky.
This abusive relationship between worshipper and deity seems counterintuitive, but Is it really that much more insane than God ordering Abraham to bind his son Isaac and stick him with a blade? Hyman and his crew like to imagine increasingly sadistic ways to torment their stoic underlings. Hyman remembers that when the Abusement Park idea was first floated—a carnival-like torture chamber of fun—the art team’s suggestions were initially pretty tame. He sent them back to draft something more adventurous, they came back with some stuff straight out of the Inquisition. “Yeah, we all have sick imaginations,” confirms lead animator Fabian Molina.
Eventually, they settled on a middle road of Mudling-Blobite sadism, with abuse suited to the third or maybe fourth circle of hell. Fortunately for the Mudlings, they’re not quite at the bottom of the Idle Worship food chain.
The Mudlings can take out their frustration with their fickle god by picking on the Blobites. These gelatinous sub-creatures somehow make the Mudlings look like an advanced form of life. “We kind of developed it in the game intro, but the Blobites were the previous failed attempt to create life. Which makes total sense, because they were one of the early rejected designs for the main character,” explains Tavish. “The Mudlings treat them like cattle or livestock. They don’t really know they’re being cruel, and the Blobites don’t really understand how exploited they are.”
There are plenty of other critters that populate the islands, but the Blobites are the closest to the Mudlings in terms of self-awareness. This state of affairs can’t go on indefinitely. Don’t be surprised if one day you see some kind of Blobite uprising, if only they can develop a class consciousness. Has anyone seen Blobite Rosa Luxemburg?
The Mudlings seem like they just pop out of the dirt fully-formed, but a lot of work went into rendering them playable and aesthetically pleasing. The Mudlings evolved quickly. “You can see in the initial sketch that they were kind of like tiki-themed, middle-aged guys wearing helmets,” Tavish says. “And he also had a vestigial tail on the other side.”
Much of the Mudlings’ quick transformation to their current, not-so-majestic form had to do with rendering their faces properly. Idle Worship may boast plenty of detail and minutiae when you’re looking at it up close, but it also needs to look decent when players pull the camera back. Zoom out in Idle Worship and the Mudling’s features look like a generic happy face rather than an indistinct jumble of pixels. Striking a balance between artistic detail and workable animation is one of the team’s biggest challenges.
Whereas most browser games use standard Flash animation—often characterized by jerky, vector-based graphics—the Idle Worship team opted instead to for hand-drawn 2D animation. It’s a more expensive and time-consuming approach. “There was a certain amount of drawing style that [Hyman] wanted, a certain flow, that you can’t get from Flash animation software,” recalls Molina. “So I told him we needed to go a different route, and now our lines are drawn in a way that let’s us get fluid animation.”
It seems like a painstaking way to win over an audience that has the attention span of… Wait, what were we talking about again? Oh right. It’s entirely possibly that Facebook users might not notice or care about Idle Worship’s painterly methods; Hyman’s team has faith that they will. Fittingly, the inspiration for Idle Worship’s animation comes from some unexpected places. According to Molina, he gets much of his inspiration from a Street Fighter III: Third Strike arcade game in the office.
Zynga—the social-gaming juggernaut responsible for FarmVille, CityVille, Zynga Poker, and other time-sucks—is notorious for littering its games with roadblocks in your way that can only be removed by recruiting new players. It may take the cake as the most annoying development in the history of games. The trouble is, it’s also extremely effective. If you send out invites to 300 friends, and two or three bite, the sickness will spread exponentially.
Hyman says that he’s turned off by this method, too. That’s a potential problem. Social games, by definition, need increasing amounts of players to properly function. How does one do that without resorting to carrot-flavored spam? Idle Games opts to reward advancement in its game with e-postcards, each depicting a humorous Mudling encounter. You send them out to your friends, in the same way you’d send regular postcards. They’re generally entertaining, in a cutesy, slapstick sort of way, and they often depict a pleasant Caribbean-style setting.
“We need people to spread the word, so we tried to give them a non-offensive way to do that,” says Hyman. “Trying to do the white-hat approach to this is unproven but, I guess, more spiritually satisfying.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Idle Games’ art director as “Tavish Bureau”—a mistaken conflation of Tavish’s name with his freelance company, Notice Bureau. Tavish simply goes by the name Tavish.