FuturLab's Dan Chequer told us about the level design of PowerWash Simulator, the balance of realism and fun, catering to players' love for parkour, and the game’s success.
Hello, I’m Dan Chequer, Design Director at FuturLab, based in Brighton in the UK. I have been working in the games industry since 2001, where my first role was as a Junior Designer at Wide Games on a game called Prisoner of War for the PlayStation 2 (and eventually for PC and Xbox). I later worked at Zoë Mode on two entries of the EyeToy: Play franchise, first as Senior Designer for EyeToy: Play 3 and then Lead Designer on EyeToy: Play Sports.
More recently, I worked as Lead Designer at Wish Studios on That’s You and the Knowledge is Power games, all of which are local multiplayer-focused experiences for the Sony PlayLink range of games where mobile phones are used as the controllers for the PS4 or PS5.
I joined FuturLab in 2020 as the Lead Designer for PowerWash Simulator, for which a prototype of the game had already been made and released on itch.io. The prototype had done a great job of proving the fundamental appeal of the cleaning process. It also established how the jobs were to be constructed and began to indicate what sort of scale the jobs could be without overwhelming the player.
My first goal when joining was to establish where on the ‘realism spectrum’ the joint CEOs James Marsden and Kirsty Rigden intended the full game to be. I concluded that there were actually two separate aspects to this question. We agreed on an 8/10 for the realism of how you clean but a 4/10 for the realism of what was cleaned.
With this agreed, I spent a lot of time researching the equipment and terminology used in power and pressure washing to ensure that while the game may not be entirely realistic, it would feel authentic. The jobs themselves could get more and more far-fetched, both in theme and scope.
Establishing how to get a progression system into the game was an early challenge to solve. When I joined, James said they were unsure how to take that demo and turn it into a full-length game. The multilayer dirt system was a breakthrough moment for this aspect of the design, as it provided a need for the player to upgrade their washing equipment in order to combat new increasingly tough dirt types introduced during the career mode, hidden beneath the all-encompassing easier dirt. The progressive power of the washers could also accommodate the scaling up of the level sizes, along with the increased prevalence of the tougher dirt types.
The idea for the game was partially born from Kirsty watching pressure washing videos that were going viral online at the time. Rather than trying to actually simulate the act of power washing, instead our goal was to replicate the satisfaction of watching those videos. Anything that would get in the way of the actual cleaning was left out of the experience, which is why concepts like power and pipe management are absent. It’s an idealised, almost dream-like interpretation of the experience, just like those videos are.
The relationships between pressure, range, and coverage formed the core of the game’s design and are the player’s fundamental considerations while cleaning. All of the various combinations of washers, nozzles, and extensions provide variations of those three factors. Different players have different preferences and washing styles, and although the end clean state is always the same there is no right or wrong method to get there so the game provides a lot of freedom to the player for how to approach the process.
We wanted the levels to feel like they take an authentic but feasible amount of time to complete, and even though some of them take a long time to finish, it is magnitudes quicker than it would take in real life!
As the cleaning process itself would remain quite uniform throughout the experience, it was essential that variety was provided through what was being cleaned, so the fundamental rule for the levels was that each one needed to feature something unique in terms of its shape and form. Land vehicles were particularly challenging, as they can be classed as four wheels, body, doors, and windows so they all needed something so the cleaning experience could be differentiated.
Buildings have a lot of scope for variation. Although they often share a lot of similar elements (e.g., doors, windows, roofs) their function is not as restrictive to their form as many vehicle elements are (such as wheels, which are always perfectly round by definition). Their context also provides more room for a perceived variation in the player’s eyes. Variety in dimension is very important, along with including unique elements wherever possible.
Before production started, a list of levels was formed along with their intended progression order, and that list remained remarkably stable throughout the game’s entire early access development cycle.
We established early on that all levels were to be accessed vertically with the use of navigational equipment: a stool, a ladder, and scaffolding. The dimensions of those – along with the height of the player character’s exaggerated jump – were established very early on, and all buildings and vehicles were created with respect to those values. Ladders were extendable so that they could accommodate a range of heights, and the scaffolding had variants with extra floors added to allow taller levels later in the career mode.
That said, it was important that the things being cleaned looked authentic, so we were careful not to over-design or distort their forms too much. We wanted to maintain the real-world proportions of the buildings and vehicles, so just like in real life the player would have to make sense of the shapes and work out how to go about cleaning something that appeared to have a plausible in-world function. All the while, we wanted to keep the friction of the experience to a minimum, as we were conscious that we didn’t want the puzzle aspect of the game to get in the way of the relaxing, satisfying experience.
During early access, it became apparent that a sizable portion of the player base preferred ‘parkouring’ around the levels rather than using the navigational equipment. As such, from then on we tried to provide methods for the player to do just that while being careful not to make such opportunities look contrived or artificial.
From the start, we knew that we intended to eventually bring the experience to VR, so considerations related to that were always factored into the job designs, such as ensuring that the player would teleport to any location using a combination of navigational equipment and line of sight pointing and that they could comfortably walk through doorways and stand under any ceilings without requiring prolonged stooping or crouching. The art team had to be very careful to ensure that performance would be achievable for VR platforms also.
Level creation is a back-and-forth process between the artists and the designers. Much of a level’s layout and design is established by an artist, and a designer would then review the model and provide feedback for any elements that need to be adjusted for reasons of navigation or cleaning comfort. Any challenge found in the jobs was normally a byproduct of the inherent size and/or complexity of a level and rarely something deliberately added. In fact, the main goal during the review process was to remove as many of the friction points as possible. A lot of work goes into ensuring that surfaces are at pleasing angles relative to the player character’s height and position and that the levels can be navigated comfortably.
Once we are confident that a level design is both going to be satisfying to navigate and to clean, then it is broken down into separate washable elements. This breakdown plan is documented by a designer and then passed to the artist to implement on the model.
Each time one of those elements is completely cleaned the player is rewarded with a visual and audible acknowledgement. In the early stages of washing a level, the names of these elements are not particularly important, but they become crucial near the end when the player needs to track down the final patches of dirt, especially on larger levels. As such the design team put a lot of thought and effort into naming each of the elements of a level so that, should they be one of the last elements to be cleaned, the player can deduce their location. Geographical clues are often present in the names, such as ‘Front Door’ or ‘Upper Wall Trim’.
Players also tend to anticipate when they think a part is going to be completed while cleaning it, and that anticipation and payoff contribute a great deal to the satisfaction experienced. So it is important that surfaces and elements are split along edges that match the player’s expectations, and avoid frustrating hunts for dirt hidden over unexpected edges or surface lips that would be better suited as a section of a different element.
The dirt that is to be placed on the level is identified as early as possible in the process, and many of the levels had their dirt planned long before they were created. For example, the first level to introduce small areas of rust was the vintage car, and this tougher dirt variant informed the level’s position in the career campaign.
We are confident a level is going well if it has a unique composition, provides as much contrast with the dirt as possible, and can be navigated and cleaned comfortably.
As a level has to be slowly and methodically cleaned by the player, considerations as to its readability and ease of exploration don’t apply in the way it does for levels in many other games where the player is constantly progressing through a space to a new area and needs to know which way to go.
Instead, in terms of readability, the most essential factor for the player is being able to quickly and easily see what is clean and what is still dirty. To achieve this, nothing is more important than the contrast between the clean and dirty state.
For example in the Backyard level, a patio table was originally a dark grey colour, which was not providing enough contrast with the dark grime placed on it. The table was changed to be a creamy white in a later iteration, vastly increasing the satisfaction of cleaning it and the ability to see what still needed to be done.
The player is able to crouch and even go prone, but there is still a limit to how low they can go. As such, smaller vehicles were built to ensure that their undersides could not be seen, to prevent ambiguity as to whether those undersides needed to be cleaned or not.
Once the player has almost completed a level, small bits of dirt are yet to be found on a variety of objects, and that is where the naming of the different elements comes into play. Thankfully, by that point, the player is already intimately aware of the layout of a level as they have already explored almost every square inch of it, and can (hopefully!) deduce where in the level the dirty element would be using its descriptive name and their mental map of the level.
Trying to establish exactly what makes a game successful is always tricky as often a lot of it has to do with timing and circumstance. On release, it certainly seemed to strike a chord with players working their way through the global struggles of the time.
I personally believe that much of the game’s success comes from the core game mechanic being so clearly implied by the game’s name, which quickly and clearly communicates to players if it’s something that they think they will be interested in doing. In early access, the game was aligned with what the early adopters expected it to be, and judging from those early customer reviews it often exceeded their expectations. The game concept could have easily been played solely for laughs, and I think it was a pleasant surprise for many players as to how much love and sincerity the team had poured into it.
The game quickly achieved an ‘Overwhelmingly Positive’ customer review rating on Steam and has maintained that to this date, and this seems to have provided players who may have been interested but cautious the confidence to give it a try too.
The game’s visibility and popularity also got huge boosts from the community, with many high-profile streamers and YouTubers playing the game.
On release, it was a novel idea for a game that intrigued people enough to look into it further, with the implied promise of providing a new gaming experience. I like to think that the game knows what it is and just as importantly what it is not, and that clarity of focus is appreciated by the players.