Hitching a ride with Mad About Pandas.

To characterise Mad About Pandas (MAP) as simply a game studio does not quite encapsulate the team mission. More of a creative media production studio, the Berlin based MAP involve themselves in nearly all aspects of tech based creative communication. According to their biography, the team at MAP has already worked with some of the key players in the international game industry including Ubisoft and Disney. The team also self-publishing a game which generated 2 Million Downloads and became 5th best reviewed iPhone game in 2011 (on metacritic.com). The team was also rewarded with prizes like the German Developer Award, the German Computer Games Award, the Red Dot Design Award.

2020 will see the release of what could be one of their most ambitious projects to date, the award winning multi format game “Hitchhiker”. Back in January of 2018 Hitchhiker was picked up as a Humble Original and the original prototype was available to their subscriber base. Since then the game has been under further development and has edged closer to a full release. We had the opportunity to fire some questions at Patrick Rau, Founder and CEO of MAP and delve a little deeper into the studio and the game.

PK: What was the lightbulb moment that sent you down the path of game development/ Project Management? 

Patrick Rau: 2005 I had an idea for a game in which an Alien Gang from the conservative square planet Sririus steals police patrol spaceships to fly to various planets in the galaxy to shoot traffic signs into the worlds with lasers to manipulate traffic. This idea was picked up, fund and published by Ubisoft (http://www.galaxy-racers.kunst-stoff.de/story.php). That’s how everything started. 

PK: You’re working on completing Hitchhiker now, so I have to ask just how big of a push was being part of the Humble Original program and what was the immediate impact?

Patrick Rau: Without the funding from Humble Bundle it would have been very difficult for us to produce the original prototype. And the Humble Bundle community showed us we were on the right way. With the prototype and the positive feedback we got through the Humble Original program we had a great base to pitch the full version of the game to publishers.

PK: What has been the longer-term impact over the past 10 months?

Patrick Rau: Being able to start at a smaller scope— one thirty-minute ride– gave us the perfect ‘sandbox’ opportunity to figure out how to execute a very unique and abstract game concept. Hitchhiker would have been hard to figure out in a single pass. 

PK: You are working with Versus Evil, a really well-established publisher based in the US – is there an advantage to working with a US based publisher?

Patrick Rau: Our writer is from the US, lives in Berlin. That’s actually one reason why our story is set in the US. Our co-production partner sits in Mumbai. And as you said, our publisher in the US.
Everyone is very much invested to make this game. I am very happy to have such an international setup. With Versus Evil being a publisher focusing on Indie titles we found the perfect partner for this game.

PK: Hitchhiker is seemingly a simple concept, but these are often the hardest concepts to make work in a game environment, for instance in filmed content the viewer gets to absorb the details within the frame to help augment the story or the tension of the scene, whereas in an interactive environment, often the player can be preoccupied with tasks and activity to fully absorb the environment and the tension in the scene – is this simply “game balance” or a much more purposeful process of ensuring that the player doesn’t miss the small things that bring more tension the experience.

Patrick Rau, Founder and CEO of Mad About Pandas

Patrick Rau: The tension between linear narrative and player agency is a difficult balance, as you say, and we had to develop a few tricks and solutions to guide the player’s attention. [PK: you will need to buy the game to find out about these tricks]

PK: The concept is so broad and their so many opportunities to the endless road trips and endless human interactions where or how do you know when to stop developing?  How big is big enough?   

Patrick Rau: The “passenger road trip” experience at the heart of Hitchhiker feels totally open-ended to us. It’s a set up that offers both infinite freedom (the story can go anywhere) but also plenty of helpful constraints (lots of things the player can’t do, limited sense of agency). We’re big believers in creative constraints: the things that can’t happen in your story universe are a big part of what gives it shape. And the fact that the passenger is a Hitchhiker gives the premise a broad emotional resonance: we find that most everyone who plays the game can relate from their own experiences to the feeling of being on an uncertain journey and a search for personal meaning. 

PK: Mad about Pandas is a sizable studio with lots of really interesting projects happening, how big is the team and how many projects is the team working on at any one time?

Patrick Rau: At the moment we are about 15 people surrounded by a network of freelancers. Everyone is actually working on Hitchhiker. However, we would like to have 2 productions at the same time so that overhead costs etc. are not sitting on one project only. This would be more cost-efficient and also more secure for the studio

PK: Does the studio have a speciality, a common thread that you can find in all the MAP projects?

Patrick Rau: Mad About Pandas games are all about fun and unexpected relationships between player and environment. Our games often involve driving, although not in a conventional racing game sense, rather as a way of letting the player explore the world around them. We’re interested in surprising the player with the way that the environment reacts to their prompts and reflecting something back at the player through this interaction. 

PK: Given that there are several children’s gaming projects in the studio’s portfolio, I have to ask about the process of creating those games, particularly given the absence of data from young users of tablets or PCs – is it mainly focus group driven?

Patrick Rau: We did a lot of kid’s games. But it is a very difficult market and we didn’t have much data. They all won many awards though. But we are now focusing on games for grown-ups. However, we might have a cool surprise for kids coming up soon.

PK:  I ask everyone this: How do you browse games on Steam – how do you select a game to play on the weekends? 

Patrick Rau: I think the best source of information about cool new stuff is my team!

PK: What’s the next 12 months look like for MAP?  

Patrick Rau: Getting Hitchhiker out there and hopefully be able to work on a sequel. We also have some other potential projects lining up. So far 2020 should be good.

Special thanks again to Patrick and his team and we look forward to catching a ride in 2020 when Hitchhiker finally comes out. You can find the links to MAD and Hitchhiker Game below: