My first impression of Pie Trap Studios’ upcoming game Forage Friends was not “Wow, what a cute mobile game!” It was, in fact, “Holy shit, look at those cute baskets!”
At this year’s GeekGirlCon, the Pie Trap Studios booth was festooned with a variety of crafts and goodies from local artisans—themed teas by Seattle-based tea shop Friday Afternoon, cold-pressed themed soaps by Sammamish’s Pass the Bar Soaps, and foraging baskets woven by Patricia Galvanin.
The booth was cute (and the merchandise was adorable), but what kept me talking to Priscilla Firstenberg (co-owner, CEO, and creative director at Pie Trap) was her passion for Forage Friends. Forage Friends, which is currently in development, is a cozy mobile game intended to help players build positive habits, such as walking, by using the type of psychological tricks that keep players hooked on their favorite game. Instead of loot boxes and pay-to-win mechanics, however, Forage Friends will use mechanics like farming and chatting with NPCs to encourage players to build healthy habits.
Firstenberg, a 19-year veteran of the games industry, initially became interested in the intersection of games and health during some downtime from contract work back in the early 2010s. With more time on her hands and a growing awareness that she wanted to improve her own health, she started dabbling in apps like Zombies, Run!, which uses an audio narrative combined with personal goal-setting and in-game incentives (such as the sound of zombies chasing you) to get you to run. But despite the fun premise, it didn’t get her hooked the way games like Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley tend to.
“There’s a misconception that unhealthy people are making these choices deliberately,” Firstenberg says. “That you chose to be lazy, you chose to not do these things. And that is not true. We’re kind of just the victim of our genetics, our mental health, and our environment. Trying to figure out how we can bypass that is where we got the idea of building habits and… habit stacking into our game.”
But Pie Trap, and Forage Friends, wouldn’t truly begin to take shape until 2020. Doing a lot of self-reflection, Firstenberg decided she wanted to start her own studio with her partner, Chris Whitaker. With decades of experience between them, they aimed to make an impact beyond just making a game people might like to play. What if microtransactions could be used to donate to organizations in need? What if addictive gameplay mechanics could be used to build positive habits? What if a gaming studio could embrace remote work, eschew crunch, and support its employees to a greater standard than Firstenberg and Whitaker were used to?
While one arm of the studio focuses on producing assets and consulting for other gaming studios, another focuses on producing their answer to those questions: Forage Friends. Conceived as what Firstenberg refers to as a “healthified game,” Forage Friends aims to blend the fun (and addictiveness) of games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley with an incentive to walk—a building block in creating healthy habits.
In-game, the player’s walks translate to time spent hanging out with Forage Friends‘s seven companions, residents of the town your character inhabits. You can build relationships with these characters, including both friendships and romances, with any kind of relationship written to be equally fulfilling. And there’s plenty of content—a small novel’s worth per character. There’s no punishment for not spending enough time with the game, either.
“Traditional gameplay focuses on overcoming obstacles and challenges,” Firstenberg says, “But we are actually just focusing on emotional attachment or investment. Your plants don’t die—they do go back into a seedling form, but you don’t lose them. Basically, we’re trying to remove anything that could [cause the player to rage quit].” Villagers won’t suddenly start to dislike you if you take time away, either. The goal is to reward participation, not to punish breaks—if players seek out the game for its rewards rather than staying away out of shame, the hope is that they’ll be able to build and sustain habits longer and more effectively.
Walking, measured by a mobile phone’s internal pedometer, is the game’s primary method of engagement, but Pie Trap isn’t interested in policing how people choose to engage with it. For people who can’t or don’t want to walk, there’s no punishment. There’s no concept of cheating, because the goal is to help the player build habits. At the current stage of development, players can shake their phones, strap them to their arms, or use other methods of activating the pedometer, but Firstenberg and the rest of Pie Trap hope to add more methods of engagement over time, especially with player feedback.
Firstenberg is adamant that, while Forage Friends involves building habits, especially around walking, it’s first and foremost a game. “We kind of cringe at the idea of being called a gamified health app,” she says. “We actually are more of a healthified game. It just so happens that the main currency and economy built around this game involves doing things that [have] real-world benefit [to] the player.”
The difference, according to Firstenberg, is that they approach the design play-first. Much like edutainment games, health games can be frustrating to actually play because the focus is always on the health goal. In Forage Friends, the goal is instead to make players have enough fun to keep coming back, which makes habits, chores or other “to-do”s more entertaining to accomplish. Walking, or however the player chooses to engage with the pedometer, is a benefit of playing rather than the draw itself.
“Mobile games are a huge cesspool for really bad addiction,” Firstenberg says. “Psychological strategies are involved… what I mean is, there are some huge companies where I know people on the inside [who] tell me how upper management hires legit psychologists who study addiction, particularly gambling addiction, and use that knowledge and those studies to take advantage of their players. They’re trying to figure out how to make you lose control over what you buy. Knowing this, Pie Trap asks the question of, “How do we reverse UNO card that? How do we use addiction for the greater good? Can we make someone addicted to improving themselves?”
Forage Friends is currently in development, and aiming to release this year, beginning with a public beta. In addition to the obstacles that often pop up in game design, Pie Trap aims to keep crunch out of their business unless there’s explicit consent of all parties, plus extra pay for those that choose to participate. This means that tackling these challenges in a manner that’s sustainable for employees and less likely to result in a lower-quality game could push the release window into 2025. The goal is to offer the base game for free, with the potential for a subscription model or microtransactions for new features, such as additional characters. Firstenberg also hopes to work out a way for a portion of those transactions to go to charities or other organizations of the player’s choice.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.