Chelsea Howe worked at Zynga on the Farmville team before taking a job as the senior designer on Family Guy: Quest for Stuff, seeing that project through to soft launch. Last week she had a brush with the oddest sort of fame: South Park made fun of a game she had helped design.
"As soon as it came up, I was like ‘Oh my god, I think that’s my HUD. It’s the shopping cart in the lower right, and then the quest list in the lower left, and the fact that buttons got smaller.' That was a weird UI choice that we made, and I think we’re one of the only games that decreased the size of the buttons to represent their comparative importance to game play," she said. "I saw that and I was like ‘Oh my god, that’s our UI. I think that’s our UI."
She pulled up screens from the episode to compare them to the game, and it's easy to see where South Park got the inspiration for their fictional Terence and Philip game.
Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff vs. Terrence and Phillip: Freemium. Biggest accomplishment of my life. pic.twitter.com/hDcSTZbfgK— Chelsea Howe (@manojalpa) November 11, 2014
"I watched the rest of the episode in this stupor like, ‘they’re making fun of me, they’re making fun of my entire industry, I’m just so excited about it. They played my game!" She laughs. "I felt really silly. I don't know. I felt totally famous in this weird way."
There are scenes in the episode where the Canadian characters describe how to get people hooked on the game, and Howe explained that they weren't making fun of the early days of free-to-play games, they were just describing it.
"Their core loop, I’ve seen core loops described exactly as they were there. It’s funny that it’s supposed to be satire, but it’s not even satire," she told Polygon. "There are people who go into meetings with that core loop. They talk using exactly those terms. It was kind of baffling. I got so much of that back when I was on Farmville, and it kind of tapered off. [South Park] is really late to the party in making fun of it."
Much of what South Park was mocking took place in the early days of free-to-play, although many aspects of these loops exist in contemporary games as well. Howe thought the episode was humorous, but she also described how the pitfalls of free-to-play inform the kind of games she wants to make now.
"At least for me it's always been about how can I do this better? And to actually make things that are fun, and continue to be fun, and are inspiring and positive and make you want to come back, not out of this lizard-brain dopamine need but because that’s where your friends are hanging out or that’s where you’re learning new things," she said.
"[Games] should be a genuinely pleasurable and enjoyable experience that’s not adversely affecting you or your ability to interact with the outside world, which is one of the bullet points of addiction."