Where Cards Fall wins Apple Design Award

Snowman
11 min readJun 29, 2020

Where Cards Fall has won an Apple Design Award. To receive this level of recognition is an honour, and we’re so proud to be partners with an incredible studio like The Game Band.

2020 Apple Design Award Winner, Where Cards Fall.

It all began in 2015 when we started working with them on a project called House of Cards.

After a change to the title and the addition of many talented people to both teams, a game that had begun in a University of Southern California dorm room transformed into a launch title on Apple Arcade.

Now, almost a year after its release, we sat down with The Game Band Founder and Creative Director, Sam Rosenthal to reflect on the evolution of the game and the decisions that shaped this award-winning title.

Where Cards Fall had been in the making for 9 years prior to its release. How did this period of time allow for it to develop its own unique identity?

I grew and changed a lot over those nine years, which is fitting for a game about coming-of-age. When I first started working on Where Cards Fall, I had only a vague sense of how video games were developed. The game started as a student project and stayed alive in my free time while I honed my skills in the video game industry. I learned how to design puzzles while working on Where’s My Water?, how to make expressive controls while working on Skylanders, and how to blend storytelling and gameplay while working on What Remains of Edith Finch.

Where Cards Fall was a fixture in my life through all of those years — a coffee shop side project I would always return to, both out of love for the game and to remind myself why I decided to make games in the first place. Most of my job opportunities were from companies that made highly addictive, slot-machine style games. While financially tempting, I knew they would push me in the opposite direction of my artistic goals.

I decided to be patient, and I’m grateful that I was in a fortunate enough position to be able to do so. The tension between making what you want to make and making what is financially viable became a cornerstone of the game’s latter half. Every artist has to find a way to live, which means they can be exploited into making things that are detrimental to society. This wasn’t something that I thought about much as a student, but once I entered the workforce, it was constantly on my mind.

Almost everyone that joined The Game Band worked on more commercial projects beforehand and wanted to change direction. Some were veterans of the video game industry that wanted to work on a more heartfelt game under better working conditions. Others came from different fields, but saw pieces of their own journeys in the project and offered us their unique sensibilities.

Together we tore down the foundation of the student project but rebuilt it into something stronger. We shared stories about our experiences to clarify the scenes and the overarching metaphors. And we all talked about why we decided to spend our lives creating.

None of us entered our respective fields to make a lot of money or to become famous. We just wanted to positively affect other people’s lives. The protagonist in Where Cards Fall has no desire to create giant, monolithic skyscrapers — they’re drawn to communal architecture. They want to make spaces that bring people closer to one another.

Presenting an early version of Where Cards Fall at USC.

Were there any elements of the design that were born out of a functional need but actually ended up enhancing the game’s visual design?

We treated UI as an integral part of the game’s visual style rather than as a layer on top. Whenever we realized we needed to communicate something to the player, we incorporated it into the art style.

Our early playtests revealed that players needed to see the grid that governs the game rules to choose the right sizes for their card structures. We adjusted every one of our environments to subtly reveal it. We arranged grass to highlight individual squares in the woods, used concrete tiles in more urban environments, and added soft indentations to the clouds in the dreamscapes.

The line that draws the character’s path is another great example. Players needed a preview to predict and react to the character’s movements. The character is passionate about drawing and usually carries a sketchbook with them, so we went with a hand-drawn style to reflect their artistic pursuits.

Since the game itself takes place within a person’s mind, it felt natural to use the UI as a way of reflecting how they see the world. The more I work on video games, the more I see the rules and systems that govern everyday life. Where Cards Fall’s protagonist is an artist and architect who sees their environment as a canvas, waiting to be reshaped.

The Game Band team working on Where Cards Fall.

What were some of the leading principles that lead to Where Card Fall’s polished design?

Every person on the team was a perfectionist about their own work. Our technical director Brandon would cringe if he saw the cards behave erratically when dragging them around a level. Our art director Josh color-corrected every single level in the final weeks of the project because they weren’t up to his standards. I got into an argument with our producers about making the eyes move on the card structures, which was a technical risk at that point in production but felt essential to the game’s themes.

The producers’ responsibility was to make sure the game actually shipped on time and at a high level of quality, so in a lot of ways they had it the toughest. They were dealing with a team of perfectionists who wouldn’t let anything go and kept poking at us until we finally admitted what was really essential.

Where Cards Fall on iPad.

How were the controls of Where Cards Fall informed by the design of Apple devices?

Players tend to interact with the platforms in the ways that they’re used to, especially if they don’t play many games. We focused on interactions that would be familiar and understandable to anyone with a basic literacy of each platform. On iPhone and iPad, you control the cards with a pinch. To move the character, you just tap to where you want to go. Our Mac controls should be familiar to anyone who has ever dragged a box on their desktop. You just click and drag to spread the cards. On Apple TV, the whole game can be played with the Siri Remote. You slide your finger along the touch surface to choose where to move the character, and with a click, you can spread the cards.

We drew a lot of inspiration from the old Photos app on iPad. This was before the shift away from skeuomorphism in iOS7, so that should give you a sense of how long ago we developed the core mechanics! At the time, photo albums were arranged like stacks of photos that you could spread out with two fingers. It was such a nice, tactile interaction that felt like a good basis for spreading out cards.

Where Cards Fall on Apple Arcade.

What elements of the game’s visual and sound design helped define a world that players could become totally immersed in?

We wanted Where Cards Fall’s dreamlike atmosphere to take center stage, so we rarely entertained ideas that shifted focus away from it. Earlier I talked about the UI, and one of the other reasons we embedded the UI in the visual style was to minimize distractions. It’s difficult to get absorbed in a game world when the screen is cluttered with meters, stats, and menus.

The art style that Joshua Harvey developed is governed by a set of rules that was inspired by Bauhaus design. Shapes tend to have a mathematical underpinning, much like vector art, where all the bends and twists are created with uniform radii and corners are finite. When detail becomes too small to be legible, it’s abstracted into lines. All of the puzzles are framed in more or less the same way, so there aren’t any jarring breaks in composition.

The sound design was a joint effort between our audio director Kristi Knupp and composer Torin Borrowdale. We wanted the soundscape to feel naturalistic and mostly devoid of the synthetic sounds often associated with video games. Kristi played with tons of different card stocks to create the card sounds and went out into the field to record the ambiances.

As for the score, we wanted it to function as an accent to the emotional palette but were careful not to use it as a crutch. Torin knew how easy it is to rely on music to create an emotional connection and made sure that it didn’t overpower the rest of the game. The music wasn’t developed in isolation — it was meant to complement Kristi’s ambiances. Early on, I gave Torin a playlist with songs to represent each scene in the game. I read an interview with Richard Kelly where he talked about doing something similar while directing Donnie Darko, and I thought it was such a great idea for setting a starting point.

The Game Band at their LA studio.

The puzzles in Where Cards Fall can be devious, yet they are always one “ah-ha” moment away from revealing themselves. Can you speak to your process of puzzle design?

My design process always starts off as messy exploration and eventually becomes a search for constraints. I originally thought big, sprawling puzzles would be intriguing, but quickly realized that smaller ones created the most interesting challenges. The smaller puzzles gave the player fewer platforms to rest their feet, which meant they had to plan several moves ahead. Since Where Cards Fall’s gameplay is primarily about reimagining space, I committed to this style of puzzle and removed all of the ones that didn’t adhere to it.

Once I had an overarching puzzle style, I began to develop smaller rules. A pile of cards should be used in at least two different places, otherwise it feels extraneous. Players should never have to restart a puzzle since that discourages experimentation.

Generally speaking, most puzzles have a signature concept. One might be about using two flat structures as a base for a large house, while another might require you to leave a pile of cards on top of a structure to be used later. There never was just one way to express a concept, but there was usually a best way. If two puzzles had the same core concept but different designs, only the more interesting one made it into the game. We have a small set of mechanics, so I wanted every puzzle to give the player a new idea for how to use them.

The story of Where Cards Fall and the gameplay complete each other. Can you speak to your approach to narrative in video games?

Video games are capable of reflecting the world we live in differently than passive media like novels, movies, and TV shows. One of my main ambitions as a video game designer is to find new ways to express ideas in the form’s native tongue.

For Where Cards Fall, we matched the process of solving a puzzle with the process of reflecting on the past. It’s messy and not always logical. You can drill down on the wrong idea or search for patterns that may or may not exist. Every once in a while, you uncover a connection and the feeling is euphoric. You follow that link somewhere else and the process begins again.

When designing a game that uses discrete mechanics to express a theme, every mechanic has to contribute to the theme in some way. Nothing made it into the game purely for the sake of gameplay. If Where Cards Fall didn’t have thematic ambitions, we could have used arbitrary theming for all of the mechanics. Games do this all the time. What does it really mean to collect stars at the end of a level? What do points represent? Of course, most game developers don’t impose this enormous design challenge upon themselves. But we felt it was worth a try.

My thoughts on how to best express theme in games have shifted since working on Where Cards Fall. I watched a documentary on Frank Gehry while doing research for the game where he said that by the time he finishes a building he doesn’t like it anymore. His thinking has already moved past it. I’m enormously proud of Where Cards Fall and especially of the narrative risks we took, but I have other ideas for how I’d like to express a theme in the future.

I’m grateful for critics like Ian Bogost, who challenge conventional thinking on video game storytelling. In his critique of What Remains of Edith Finch, he concluded,

“If there is a future of games, let alone a future in which they discover their potential as a defining medium of an era, it will be one in which games abandon the dream of becoming narrative media and pursue the one they are already so good at: taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.”

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that paragraph. Narrative is one tool we have to reflect the world we live in. It’s not the only one.

A moment of reflection in Where Cards Fall.

How does it feel to win an Apple Design Award and what’s next for The Game Band?

I’m a lifelong student and admirer of Apple’s approach to design. It’s a dream come true for our work to be recognized by the best of the best.

Apple has a remarkably human approach to technology. Their products are enjoyed by enthusiasts, but their audience is everyone. While their competitors boast about tech specs, Apple showcases how their creations fit into your everyday life. I have similar ambitions for The Game Band. We want our games to reach people who already love games, but it’s even more important for them to reach the people who don’t. Our games will always be approachable, and will always be about human experiences.

I named the studio The Game Band for a few reasons. Like great bands, games are made by lots of different people that come together to make a cohesive sound. Great bands also surprise people. They reinvent themselves, push their limits, and defy their audience’s expectations. We hope that we’ll surprise you too.

Play Where Cards Fall on Apple Arcade: apple.co/-CardsFall

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