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The costs of developing Easter eggs

We look at the development trade-offs that come with adding hidden bonuses to games.

In Rockstar Games’ 2002 release, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, you can find an Easter egg of, well, an Easter egg. To find it, you have to fly a helicopter to land atop a building adjacent to the Vice City News building. From there, you're able to jump protagonist Tommy Vercetti into the 14th floor of the VCN building where you're met with a large, brown, Kinder-esque egg.

It’s a small nod from the developer, a brown trophy awarded to the most thorough player. An acknowledgement and appreciation for those exploring every cranny of its game.

Easter eggs like this provide ways for developers to communicate with their players. By including references to pop culture, jokes, hidden pictures of the development team or secret weapons and items, the bonuses allow developers to break the fourth wall and wink at whomever is holding the controller.

"If you work on [a] game that includes a little bit of yourself — in [the] form of an Easter egg — you treat it more personally, and you care more. It becomes your game, not only a game that you happen to be working on," says Katarzyna Tarnacka, a concept artist at Polish developer Techland. "And I think a similar thing applies to the players. When I find Easter eggs in other games, then those games become special. It's a real human touch that I can sense."

But there’s no promise a player will see the "human touch" Tarnacka refers to. So, if time is money, how do developers justify the time and resources needed for their inclusion versus working on something a player is guaranteed to see or something they could sell? Polygon recently spoke to a handful of developers to find out the different costs of Easter eggs in the current market.

Lost chickens of the countryside

Midway through development of its 2015 game, Dying Light, Techland overhauled its engine, which, as lead level designer Piotr Pawlaczyk explains, left no time to add animals to the game. So when the 2016 expansion, The Following, came around, a small group of team members wanted to correct that course by adding one simple animal: a chicken.

"They started planting this idea by putting chickens into the preproduction concept art," says Pawlaczyk. "They made static models, which they got guys to sneak into the early builds. They got the sound guys to record chicken sounds because one dude happened to be going back to [the] countryside for the weekend, so he took some audio equipment."

Then, as he puts it, "the bomb dropped." The powers that be decided the chickens would take too much time to "animate, let alone implement some sort of basic AI that then has to be tested in multiple situations," Pawlaczyk says. "‘Do something that will actually add to game.’"

This inspired what became known at Techland as "Chicken Gate." It became a running joke to add chickens to The Following wherever the designers and artists could. There’s chicken graffiti around the world and a blueprint players can find that allows for the crafting of a crude, chicken-themed weapon. If players find 15 collectible rocks in the game’s countryside and place them in a specific area, small chicken stickers appear on all the game’s military jeeps on their left rear windows.

Dying Light

Dying Light and The Following are famous for their long, involved Easter eggs. Techland has hid in its games a playable version of Super Mario Bros. world 1-1 where zombies take the place of Goombas and break into fully produced dance numbers, among many other Easter eggs. As team members tell it, it’s part of the studio’s culture: They sometimes meet on weekends to add secrets to the game. They have Easter egg game jams and compulsively check online to see what secrets have been found by players.

To afford these elaborate secrets, Techland budgets time and resources for Easter eggs into its production plans. Early in development, it creates a company-wide list of ideas, Pawlaczyk explains, that a small team of game leads and level designers whittle down based on "what they really like and what is doable in terms of time and resources." Easter eggs are always part of the dialogue during development, and getting them in there, according to the team, does eat up a chunk of its money.

"Based on what we saw for The Following, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that around two percent of our internal dev cost [was] assigned to Easter eggs alone," says producer Tymon Smektala. "It might not sound like much, but that is the best way to justify the time [needed to] get these into the game."

He continues, saying this also allows Techland to allocate Easter egg implementation to the "most experienced" members of the team, as they’re the ones who will know how to work quickly and smartly with the tools and assets provided. While Smektala does explain the Easter eggs budget would be the first reassigned to other areas of development if need be, he says Techland is thinking ahead about things its players may never see.

Dying Light

This philosophy isn’t exclusive to AAA studios, though, where large budgets may allow developers to implement lots of different ideas. Independant developer William Pugh, co-creator and designer of 2013’s The Stanley Parable, tells Polygon that during development he and co-creator Davey Wreden, two parts of the Galactic Cafe team, had a similar process.

"I think the principle for what we had, the general process that we followed with The Stanley Parable — the process I followed with my new games — is we kind of have a team-wide ‘ideas document’ that we just fill in with any shit [we think of], and nothing’s a wrong answer," he says. "Then we specifically budget time toward the end of the [development], when we got the big chunks of the game locked [in], to add in polish, essentially."

During The Stanley Parable, a two-year project, Pugh says, the team spent the last two or three months of development adding secrets to the game. "But I remember specifically there was like a good two to three week period during the end when the rest of the game was done and it was just adding those little secrets," he says.

"I think it’s as direct to interaction between the designer and player of the game that you can get."

This late-game push to finish adding secrets to the game, however, isn’t the same as, say, a late-stage crunch. In fact, Pugh says, it’s a lot more freeing than other, more mundane stages of development.

"They’re more fun. … I don’t do a day of adding secrets and go, ‘Oh, whew. Hard day at the office,’ you know," he says. "It’s super playful, because I think it’s as direct to interaction between the designer and player of the game that you can get. A lot of it feels a lot more light and improvisational, which I like as well. It’s a good tone to put into any game."

Like Techland, a bit of The Stanley Parable’s development budget was taken up by Easter eggs; the fun wasn’t free. And according to Pugh, that bit took up a lot more than Techland’s estimated two percent. He estimates Easter eggs and secrets took up 30 percent of The Stanley Parable’s budget.

He points out, though, there was no set-in-stone budget for the game. During development, neither he nor Wreden collected checks. "There was no kind of money deal. … There was no budget for the game. We ended up spending like 10 grand overall over the two years on the game," he says.

By design The Stanley Parable is meta, self-referential and satirical of the video game industry. Its Easter eggs are no different. For example, if a player climbs on top of the computers in an early level, they can go outside a window and move beyond the perceived parameters of the level and game world, leading to what — at first glance — appears to be a bug. However, after a few seconds, the game’s narrator comments on what the player has done, revealing it wasn’t actually a mistake but an elaborate Easter egg.

This makes the line between Easter eggs in the The Stanley Parable and its narrative blurry. But, as Pugh explains, it’s at the benefit of the game's world.

"Because of the structure of the game, you very quickly get into a point where it’s like, ‘Uh. Is this a secret, or is this an ending?’" he says.

"I think specifically once you find one, it kind of opens the rest of the game up a bit," he says, saying that Easter eggs are a way to make a world look bigger than it actually is. "[Easter eggs] by themselves do two jobs: The first job is it encourages players to poke around more and play more with the game. And it also creates this feeling of scale and scope outside of what a [small] team can create. Because the players see this and they’re like, ‘Oh wow! There’s bound to be, like, way more of that.’ ... it makes the game feel more interconnected than it is."

They are also like small, internal advertisements for a game, he says. Especially in the current streaming-heavy culture where YouTube, for example, is filled with videos and channels dedicated just to finding Easter eggs in games, film, television and more.

"I love to, late at night, get up a video of people playing through all the secrets, and I really get off to that. It’s really [an] erotic thing," Pugh jokes. "But there’s also another reason. The masturbation, that’s the main reason, but the second reason, like, you’re always going to get press off YouTubers, and [that’s] always good. But I think broadly it just helps with word of mouth, and it just improves the quality of experience."

Little gags

According to various developers Polygon spoke to, the amount of time necessary to get an Easter egg into a game gets a lot more thought than the dollar costs. The reason: The vast majority of Easter eggs are small nods, added on a whim by a developer while working on something else. Hiding a quick message to players, or a secret picture, isn’t necessarily going to cost a developer anything extra — especially when it’s done in a person’s free time.

"[The Stanley Parable’s] secrets are more of a side effect than something we’d deliberately put in," Pugh says. "Mostly because you’ll have points where one developer is spending time with nothing to do because they’re waiting for the other person to finish a level mock-up or a draft of the script or whatever. So, the process [for] the secrets in a lot of the game was, I would just get bored making a level and I’d hide something in a texture or I’d hide something behind some kind of odd interaction that we would see the players trying to [investigate]. That process, over two years, is how The Stanley Parable ended up with such high saturation with these kind of secret things."

Longer, more involved and more elaborate Easter eggs, though, require more hands, more time.

"Implementation can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a month or more, depending on how complicated the Easter egg is," CD Projekt Red game director Konrad Tomaszkiewicz says. "And if an Easter egg requires us to create unique assets like special effects, character models [or] voice overs, it can take two, or even three months of work from a number of people from a variety of departments."

Like Dying Light and The Stanley Parable, the Witcher series is full of Easter eggs and references, such as nods to other franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Dark Souls. It also features the inclusion of Snow White’s seven dwarves as minor characters — a reference to the Brothers Grimm fairy tale — amongst other secrets.

But that time doesn’t necessarily mean the team is tirelessly working on one Easter egg and nothing else. In fact, Techland’s Pawlaczyk says, it’s quite the opposite.

"This isn’t back-to-back work, and it’s normally spread out over, like, a week or so," he says. "It can go slow because often you are waiting on others to finish up their part. And a fair amount of time is also used when convincing others on the idea."

"Very rarely do we create assets from scratch just for Easter eggs."

For Techland, Pawlaczyk estimates, adding Easter eggs can take a level designer about eight hours, programmers four or so hours, audio between two and three hours and then the QA team "have various hours [they work] so that often just gets baked in somewhere."

But there’s a trick Techland uses to cut down on some of those hours: Utilize assets it already has, but in different, unique ways.

"A lot of our Easter eggs are actually from assets that, when turned a certain way, lighted differently or manipulated just a little bit to look the part," Wojciech Dziuk, Techland level designer says. "Very rarely do we create assets from scratch just for Easter eggs."

Similarly, for The Stanley Parable, Pugh says, "each secret has a particular asset or resource that it leans heavier on." While developing the game’s levels, as an artist is working, he says, "They can just be doing their job and adding little gags while they’re waiting on other people to finish their work."

Bug up something

Easter eggs, by their very nature, are hidden, hard to find. They may be small references or inside jokes that only a select number of players or developers will appreciate. Or they may be entire levels or items, discoverable only after a player goes through a series of obtuse requirements. But, no matter the size, they’re never also-rans.

"We set aside time and resources for testing Easter eggs exactly like we would any other feature," Dying Light’s QA lead Michal Stachowiak explains. "If it’s in the game, assume it has the potential to bug up something somewhere else."

Stachowiak cites an Easter egg in Dying Light that was a reference to Bungie’s 2014 shooter Destiny. In the Northeastern area of the game’s map, players can find a "loot cave," a nod to a location in Destiny. At one point, he explains, the area’s enemy spawners were set wrong, so zombies would continuously spawn and multiply behind the cave’s walls. Despite a player being able to hear the zombies, the cave would be completely empty. Zombies would keep multiplying until the game eventually crashed.

"There’s a ton of reasons why we decide to not include some of them."

"You have to treat Easter eggs like any other standard feature or item in a game," Stachowiak continues. "You have to check it’s completable, that it doesn’t crash the game and that it can’t be used to break the game elsewhere."

According to Tomaszkiewicz, the moment CD Projekt implements an Easter egg, it becomes an "integral" part of the game. "Even a static object that is supposed to just stand there and look majestic when someone discovers it is a part of the location. So you’ve got to, at the very least, test them like you would everything else in the game, to see if they aren’t interfering [with] any other element in the game. … And we still need to continue testing them until the game’s release, because when you’re adding something new to the game, it can always cause unexpected complications."

For the studio, when it comes to its Easter eggs, it allows its teams a bit of autonomy. Developers and programmers will often hide secrets in the game, Tomaszkiewicz says, that other members of the team will find organically, as a player might, while reviewing individual sections of the game.

"Back when we were working on The Witcher 1, 'Star Wars' was huge, with Episode II having released in 2002 and Episode III releasing in 2005," Tomaszkiewicz says. "And we’re huge fans of 'Star Wars,' so Marcin Blacha, our story director, decided to [add] a 'Star Wars' Easter egg. I didn’t know anything about it at the time, and when I first heard one of the NPCs whistling the ‘Imperial March,’ I started laughing hard because of it. It completely caught me off guard."

Ideas like that, he explains, come out of everyday work for the team, adding personal touches to a game. Techland’s Tarnacka echoes this sentiment, saying it’s a way for developers to vent after working under pressures to meet deadlines. However, though an Easter egg may remain hidden to a player forever, there comes a time internally when all Easter eggs must be accounted for and revealed — for the sake of the game. That autonomy only goes to a certain point.

"[There] comes a point during development that we make a list of every Easter egg in the game and decide which ones make it into the final version and which ones don’t. And there’s a ton of reasons why we decide to not include some of them," he continues. "If we ever did decide to walk away from an Easter egg, it was [because] it was something that felt completely out of place, or because we thought people outside the studio wouldn’t really find [it] funny or interesting."

"Something that often gets an Easter egg killed is the legal side of things."

As the team members tell it, there’s a variety of reasons they may choose to cut Easter eggs from a game. According to Tomaszkiewicz, if an Easter egg doesn’t make sense in The Witcher universe, it gets the axe. If Techland doesn’t have an emotional response to a secret, Stachowiak explains, an idea may be abandoned early in the process — especially, he adds, if it’s buggy or problematic to other areas of the game.

"Often it’s the really clever ones that, if they’re bugged out, we’ll fight ... to keep them in," says Techland’s Stachowiak.

"While not [a] bug issue, something that often gets an Easter egg killed is the legal side of things," Smektala adds. "The team will present a certain idea in writing, or even with it already prototyped, because someone found the time to do it. But then our legal advisors will look at it and, if they feel that we’re hitting too close to a recognized entity, they advise to get rid of it."

But one question remains: After all this consideration, all this work, there’s never a guarantee that any players will find — or understand — an Easter egg. So, how does a developer justify their inclusions?

Justifying the hunt

According to the developers, they never question the importance of including Easter eggs in their games. Players will find them, even if it takes a while.

"We’re all human after all and [we] see the value in Easter eggs for both the players and for us [as] a team. Given how DIY it often is, you can’t actually nail down a price in numbers, but there has never been a question of ‘Why are we doing this? This is a waste of time,’" Pawlaczyk says.

"Even today people are still finding Easter eggs in games that were released 15 or 20 years [ago]."

His opinion is supported by Piotr Mistygacz, Techland senior level designer, who points to streaming services such as YouTube and message boards like Reddit. "[Pretty] much like 99 percent of all your Easter eggs get found these days," he says. "So there is never really a concern that nobody will ever see it. This ease of access also adds great value to that remaining one percent. If your players find out there is one secret that nobody has been able to find yet, they become even more intrigued."

"Also, oddly enough, despite everything that goes into making a game, I’ve noticed that the team is often most proud of the Easter eggs in the end," Smektala adds. "It’s never ‘We made a massive AAA game!’ but rather ‘Check out this funny reference to — insert joke — we hid in the game!’"

"It’s a way of expressing who we are and appreciating the things we like, love and which inspire us to create," Tomaszkiewicz says. "It’s a great feeling to see your hidden message being discussed by players who found it, sometimes elevating them to the status of elaborate ‘conspiracy theories.’ And it’s just as awesome to get a shout out back from other creators. ... I mean, even today people are still finding Easter eggs in games that were released 15 or 20 years [ago]. It’s positive madness at its best."

Easter eggs, Tomaszkiewicz says, are supposed to be exciting and secret. And that expression through secrets, he says, differentiates Easter eggs from other in-game features such as DLC. As the constant rise of DLC continues, it may be easy to think developers will be more apt to sell off every secret as a bonus feature, but he points out the ability to choose something from a menu immediately discredits it as an Easter egg.

"I think part of it is the process of putting parts of yourself in something and then letting it go into the world."

"You know, it’s a good void to shout into, and then weirdly in two year’s time people get all of that noise at once and then start shouting your noise back to you," Pugh says. During his interview for this story, he talks about a particular hidden message he put in The Stanley Parable, questioning whether or not it was worth it to include the many secrets he did, wondering if anyone would ever see them. "So, what’s happened here, right now, you’ve sent me a message from me about, like, three years ago when I was sitting at my computer with nothing better to do. Yeah, that’s interesting. That experience in itself is reason enough to do it, I think."

Pugh reiterates the sentiment the developers at all three studios have been hammering home this entire article: Easter eggs are personal touches to their respective entertainment products. They are funny references, personal messages and even ways to blow off steam — especially for Pugh, whose first game that made money was The Stanley Parable.

"There’s this feeling of hammering away at this big marble block and wondering if anyone will look at it as closely as you’ve looked at it," he says about the game. "And two things can come out of that: Either nobody looks at it as closely as you look at it, in which case you’ve made a beautiful piece of sincere art for yourself. Or people, thousands and thousands of people, will look at it way closer than you ever wanted them to and so you’ll see videos of them [online] clicking on a thing that you could have added something behind, and you just sat there in your parents’ house just screaming, ‘No! No! Don’t do that! No!’ But I think part of it is the process of putting parts of yourself in something and then letting it go into the world.

"And to [transition] seamlessly from that pretentious remark to the secret through line, that’s what secrets are all about! ... Yeah, secrets are cool."