[Chronicling the development of two of the most ambitious games to come from the casual portal's internal studios, Big Fish Games' Chris Campbell picks apart Drawn and its sequel, revealing inspiration and process in this more-than-a-postmortem.]
For those unfamiliar, Drawn [YouTube trailer for Dark Flight] is a PC/Mac adventure game series inspired by classic point-and-click mechanics and developed by a company (Big Fish Games) with an avid casual gamer following. Through a strong narrative and very distinct art style, the Drawn team set out to create a brand that both casual players and classic adventurers alike would enjoy. So, in summary:
Drawn was designed by a team of core and casual players to be an adventure game made for a website with a casual audience that display core gaming habits.
Drawn is developed by Big Fish Games Studios -- the internal development studio of Big Fish Games.
For those of you who are not familiar with Big Fish Games, it's the world's largest developer, distributor and publisher of casual games, working with more than 500 developers around the world and also hosting an in-house Studios group (that's my team!) In just over seven years, there have been more than one billion games downloaded from the site.
When you're talking about download numbers that contain nine zeros, that means that a very, VERY dedicated group of players are visiting your site. Who are those players? The Big Fish Games core user is considered by most people to be the "classic" example of casual, which is primarily women over the age of 35 -- with play habits that dwarf my own.
Big Fish Games players report spending 12 hours per week on average playing games from our site. That's not time spent waving at their television or downloading apps to play on the go… That's pure, 100 percent, left mouse button on a PC/Mac casual gaming goodness.
The popular assumption is that since we're an internal studio -- making a graphically rich adventure game for such a dedicated group of players is 1. easy and 2. a guaranteed success, right?
The goal of the internal Big Fish Games Studios group is to make titles that introduce our players to new gameplay concepts. The most prolific genre of game on our site right now is hidden object puzzle adventure (HOPA).
Pioneered by the Mystery Case Files team in 2007, Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst introduced free-roaming adventure with key inventory items found through traditional hidden object scenes. Instead of a static scene to investigate, players could now move through the world. Inventory was given to players through hidden object scenes, and navigation arrows became an acceptable part of the game.
It. Was. Huge.
When we started the design process for Drawn: The Painted Tower, we decided that we would add another ingredient to this formula while stealthily removing the hidden object mechanic.
Some people might think it's silly to call a point-and-click adventure game a "new concept", but remember -- most of our users play puzzle adventure games. They are used to a certain level of hand-holding that we were going to remove. Namely, they expected to see a list on the screen that told them exactly what they needed to pick up in each scene.
Could we stand on the shoulders of the MCF giants and successfully create a new style of game that would appeal to two very different -- yet similar -- groups (core and casual adventure gamers)? What components would be required to attract the casual player just discovering adventure gaming? Would those components be offensive to players who grew up frantically searching through piles of 5 ¼" floppies looking for the oft-misplaced Disk 2 so Roger Wilco could actually be promoted to head (only) janitor?
With our cups sloshing with optimism, we began our Longest Journey through the Myst.
It's important to understand how this whole journey started. At the risk of oversimplifying a very complex decision-making process, Drawn is a brand that was created using assets from a game that was headed in the wrong direction and ultimately canceled.
The Big Fish Games executive team allowed the team to make a decision on how to proceed -- start from scratch or incorporate the completed assets into a new game. This was a huge honor, very humbling and only came with one rule: make a great game. The entire rebooting process took two weeks (TWO WEEKS!) It was a very, very big decision in two very, very tiny weeks.
The easiest path (and the greatest chance for immediate success) was to fall back on the status quo and play it safe. We could take the assets we had and create a game that would be similar to other titles on our site. We could follow the proven formula and be almost guaranteed success.
As a team however, we wanted to create an adventure game that would help push the boundaries on what our players expected from a casual game -- to create a game featuring an incredible art style, classic point-and-click mechanics, ramping difficulty, the most imaginative puzzles and the best production values we were capable of.
To be clear -- this is what we wanted. However, we wanted to do it with someone else's money. It's one thing for the Big Fish Games executive team to ask us what we wanted to do. It's a whole different ballgame for them to give an admittedly young team the green light to try and introduce our players to adventure games.
One of the most humbling moments in my 37 years is when Patrick Wylie, the VP of Studios, told Brian Thompson, the game's art director, and me, "Sounds exciting. Let's try to ship in September and make sure it's awesome."
With the Executive Team's support confirmed, we were ready to throw our customers into the Maniac Mansion of adventure at Full Throttle.