You might not have heard the name Zeptolab, but there's a good chance you've heard of their games. Cut The Rope was a solid mobile hit, with its combination of cute characters and many, many puzzles. The studio has made another game, a web-based text adventure about video game development — a game that's since been called out for using sexist tropes about women in games.
The concept is innocent enough. You're a game designer, leading a team of other professionals to create a video game. According to the studio, it's a test based on the best questions from this year's ZeptoLab Game Designer Challenge. There's 20 questions to answer; some of the questions are problems or situations that might crop up during the development process for any standard game.
Some of the options are more a trek through history, like sorting the order in which Pong, Mario, Quake and the original Civilization were first released. One question is a multiple-choice question about what the purpose of a playtest is for: are you looking for technical bugs, testing the tutorial and so on.
And then other questions, like why targeting women with a Clash of Clans clone would be contradictory, are more inflammatory.
One of the three answers is correct, meaning that ZeptoLab believes one of the following to be true about video games: that women don't like competitive games, don't like conflict or don't like games revolving around construction.
That's despite the fact that 23% of Clash of Clans players are women, according to analysis from Newzoo almost three years ago. And it's undoubtedly news to the many female players predominately playing Call of Duty, Counter-Strike, Dota 2 and League of Legends and other competitive, conflict-oriented shooters.
As you move on from each question, there's a small animation above with two characters. They have a conversation, which typically feeds into the problem posed.
There's some neat questions: the latter screenshot, for instance, is a question where you have to put an algorithm back in order. Others include the appropriate difficulty for a match-3 game, and thinking of low-cost reasons to boost engagement is a practical task that makes you think more about how games are presented on the App and Google Play stores.
As the game continues, the quiz takes a turn: the game isn't selling well. It has a low retention rate on the first day, and a drastically low retention rate after the first week. The company's investors are pushing the team to get more downloads and to investigate why monetisation and retention is so low.
By the end of it all, you're assigned a personality trait of sorts — are you a good leader of developers, or not? I got a rating of around 65, with the game telling me that my audience was prepared to buy virtual items instead of a pair of high heels.
Rami Ismail got an odd compliment upon completing the test:
— Rami Ismail (@tha_rami) May 5, 2016
If you deliberately try and fail as many questions as possible, you'll be welcomed by a message reminding you that Shigeru Miyamoto and John Romero started out as newbies once too.
According to Ivan Verde, the challenge was deliberately written in what he calls a "silly tone" that was meant to highlight "a young game designer working for an unknown company in a crazy environment". "His colleagues posed strange questions and came up with even stranger answers, and analytics were busy calculating the sizes of the employees’ shoes. This company was all about chaos, not about a healthy working environment," Verde wrote in a Gamasutra blog post in February.
ZeptoLab readvertised the first stage of their challenge, which launched earlier this year as a competition to locate "professional and wannabe game designers in the form of a text adventure", around a week ago. The reaction on social media has been palpable, with gamers and developers questioning the humour and the intention behind ZeptoLab's writing of the questionnaire.
@Nerd_Shark69 girls : definitely hate minecraft
— (-д-；) (@sacaitlin) May 4, 2016
— John Kane (@gritfish) May 5, 2016
It looks like ZeptoLab tried to illustrate sub-optimal behaviours and processes within video game development. But while Verde says the story is "a bit sarcastic", the humour has been less than well received.