Spoiler warning: This program is still being shown to the public. If you want to experience it without any idea of what to expect (which is the best way to experience it), then don’t read this post.
In late summer 2019 I continued to make programming and develop my IRL experience design skills.
I had learned (the hard way) that “Stealth Mode” was a really bad idea for something so experimental. Anything I developed had to be developed alongside testers who liked what what I was aiming for.
Over 500 people had seen the Eureka Room during the 2018 East Austin Studio Tour and I had received some great press and enthusiastic validation of the concept. The 2019 tour was just three months away and I needed something new and awesome to show.
It’s much easier to surprise and delight people who have never been to your world. It’s much harder to do it when they come back loaded with expectations.
The tour happens right before Thanksgiving. The idea is that artists will have the opportunity to sell art to people just as they are getting into holiday shopping mode.
I didn’t have anything to sell and admission was free but the timing inspired me to make a Thanksgiving-themed program. I liked the idea because Thanksgiving was inherently a group activity (which is what the Eureka Room loves to do) and also it gave me some good creative constraints.
I’m generally not a fan of the development process called “Think up a cool name that will get the attention of the market and then figure out what that is and make it”. But…. I keep doing it again and again and again. It’s like the marketing team keeps showing up to the design meetings and I can’t chase them away.
I brainstormed a bunch of Thanksgiving related Eureka Room ideas. Here’s a tiny sample:
- Thanksgiving warmup
- Thanksgiving earthquake
- Thanksgiving catastrophe Re-enactment
- Thanksgiving table disaster
- “Please pass the…”
Eventually the name “Turkey Volcano” appeared. I liked the imagery of it and also the multiple interpretations people could have of it: Was it a Volcano made out of Turkeys? Was it a Volcano FOR Turkeys? Was it a Volcano SHAPED like a Turkey? (The marketing team chimes in: “Oooh guess you’ll have to come to go to The Eureka Room to find out for yourself!”)
But first… I would have to find out for myself. All I had was a name.
I had been wanting to integrate props into The Eureka Room for a long time and had kept that in mind while brainstorming names. I got online and purchased some things I thought might work well.
Now I had: a name. some props. a few vague ideas about how this would work.
What’s the next step?
Show the program to some testers.
Nevermind that I had no program.
Not wanting to repeat my House of Psych mistake, I brought the testers in early. WAY early. Not a single line of script, single note of music, or single frame of video was created. GREAT.
The goal was to find the Core Mechanic of the game. What would the main motion/action of the program be? It had to be fun and remain fun through the end of the 10 minute program. I made a list of things to try.
About five friends showed up for the test and we didn’t even go into The Eureka Room for the first 30 minutes. I got a lot of questions answered as I could see how the variations of actions would work with real people. Not only that, but they offered a lot of good ideas on their own (both through telling me and me just watching to see what they enjoyed and didn’t enjoy).
We eventually made it down to the room and tried the same thing in a closed space. I had a test pattern that ran through different random designs so we could see what that was like. That, surprisingly, brought out some of the best ideas due to pure chance.
Over the next few weeks, I developed the script and visuals and music a little and people would come back and test a little. The iterative approach took the 8 months design of House of Psych down to about 1 month for Turkey Volcano. (House of Psych was about 20 minutes and TV about 10, but still…)
I really can not express fully enough how much a difference it made to the development process to have other people involved.
Not only did it help speed up development – it was more fun and I learned more. And asking friends over wasn’t all one-sided. They enjoyed the act of co-creation which was an “experience” in and of itself.
The strangest thing about this conclusion is that I already knew it. I’ve worked in engineering. I know the waterfall method1 is a usually a terrible idea. But I think the fear of it being judged can put a bug in your ear that says “don’t show anyone until it’s done and pefect”. The problem is that getting it perfect with no input is a long long shot.
On the other hand, when you involve people from an early stage then they know (if you set expectations well) that the idea is an infant. They won’t be demanding it walk.
1: The waterfall method is when each department works more in an assembly line fashion than a collective team. Each department does their work then passes it on without much consideration of downstream effects. Resulting in situations where designers make designs that are impossible to engineer or engineers make products that are annoying to use unless you are an engineer.