On the road to smartphone success, there significant are challenges -- game design, business model, and look and feel. How did one developer navigate those waters? This candid look back examines all of these crucial elements of building a mobile game.
Puzzle Craft is a cross-genre puzzle/town building game developed by Ars Thanea Games and published by Chillingo. The game got great reviews, and a great response form the public, who loved the addictive gameplay, and the unobtrusive in-app purchase model.
In this article we would like to look back at the production of the game and share with you some insights and anecdotes.
Behind the Scenes
Ars Thanea Games is a small, independent game developer, and a part of an advertising agency and production studio Ars Thanea.
The game was published on the 16th of August, 2012. The development of Puzzle Craft started in July 2011 and took almost one year, with a core team of four people, along with some outsourcing.
Our production philosophy was to start with simple prototypes and iterate, working on the ideas, expanding them and adding new elements. Later in the text we will analyze the process on several interesting examples.
The final version of Puzzle Craft.
The game was coded using Cocos2d. We also created a toolset for defining the gameplay and editing the village screen, as in such a small team we found it critical to separate the programmer’s work from the designer’s tasks. With the toolset we could test the gameplay and balance over and over, while the programmer focused on new features optimization etc. In the gameplay editor we defined all prices, puzzle parameters, and upgrades describing them with a set of actions defined in the code. The data was saved to an XML file, which we could download to the game and test the new parameters without the need to rebuild the code.
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The other custom-made tool was the village editor. We used it to define all the visual aspects of our village screen -- the placement of trees, the placement and parameters of building slots, the roads the villagers used etc. Both editors were made in Flash.
Shaping of the Basic Idea
We started with two base ideas: we wanted to make a game about building, creating, and caring about stuff, rather than a game about destroying; we also wanted to make a game with some actual gameplay.
Going after the building/creating core idea, we decided to make a town-building simulation, and the engaging gameplay core idea solidified in the puzzle element. We wanted to stand out form the other town-building games, and wanted the players to actually do something constructive, rather that just click and wait. Collecting resources by solving puzzles seemed constructive enough, and fun enough. So the basic gameplay cycle was born -- you want a new building, so solve puzzles until you have the resources you need; then you build the building, feel satisfied, and want to build another new building. At the beginning there was a simple prototype, with doodle graphics and duct-taped code. And it played so well that we decided to go for it.
Step by step, we started adding depth and new elements to the gameplay. The first challenge was to define the difference between the farm and the mine -- the goal was that the farm felt organic and peaceful, while the mine challenging and industrial. That is why every visit on the farm lasts for one year, and as you play the seasons change, while to go enter the mine, you have to use some of the food you gathered and the supplies are the only limit, you dig as deep as you can.
The first feedback from test players showed that there was a need for some kind of instant bonuses, that would allow them to change the situation on puzzle boards. There were also some disagreements on how many collected tiles should add you a new resource and how long a chain should add a bonus tile. Letting the players decide seemed like a good idea.
Thus the three cornerstones of Puzzle Craft gameplay were defined:
1. Tools acting as one-time bonuses giving more control over the board;
2. Workers, changing the tile-to-resource and chain-length-to-bonus-tile ratios;
3. Buildings, introducing lasting changes to the gameplay.
With the buildings, we have actually made a huge spreadsheet listing every changeable element of our game and basing on that list we started thinking on possible buildings.
At the same time we were playing and polishing the puzzle mechanisms. Distractions like the explosive gas, rats, and wolves were balanced and all mechanisms unified: at first long chains of dirt, grass and trees gave you no bonus tiles -- then we changed that, strengthening in the process the core themes of the mine puzzle screen (gathering dirt without tools heightens the risk).
Basing on a small number of mechanisms, we started building up the game, and after several months of constant testing and re-iterating of all the upgrades and prices ended with a quite deep and addictive gameplay.