[In this postmortem, Miguel Tartaj, lead game designer for Kat Games, recounts his story about making his long-held dream come true in the form of casual adventure game Dream Chronicles. This postmortem highlights that, as the development processes in the casual industry draw closer to traditional games development, so too do the experiences of the developers.]
Even before the first breakaway hidden object games hit computer screens, my team at Kat Games had a dream: create a game with an unproven mechanic in the casual space, a game deeply committed to building a story world, a game where every action the player took connected her to a mysterious and compelling storyline.
But this dream required pushing the boundaries of what we had seen before -- art budget, performance, and player appetites would all be put to the test. "Dream weaving" became a recurring theme for us as we moonlighted on Dream Chronicles during other projects, hoping the game would one day get the funding and attention we felt it deserved.
In the end, Dream Chronicles has been well-received both by the public and by websites such as Gamezebo, which explains that the game is "...best described as a casual cousin to epic, hard-core adventures like Myst and Uru... In traditional adventure form, your quest in Dream Chronicles is accomplished location by location. Each scene, 32 in all, incorporates one or more puzzles to be solved, with thorough investigation crucial to advancing."
With the February launch of the sequel, Dream Chronicles 2: The Eternal Maze, I wanted to share with the Gamasutra development community the many decisions leading up to the development of Dream Chronicles, our quest to find the right partner, and the key learnings that we unearthed during the creative process developing the title.
I Had a Dream: A New Casual Game
When we first envisioned Dream Chronicles, we knew we wanted to rise to the challenge in the space to innovate on existing casual game models and create the first casual adventure game "for everyone."
For starters, the gameplay had to be anchored in a strong story world -- something that we found to be critical in successful casual games -- and a vision we later found to be a strong shared value with our eventual publisher, PlayFirst.
While developing this story world, we also knew that we needed to find some creative ways to minimize costs -- without sacrificing our vision. We explored one way to do this by limiting the number of "graphical characters in the game," which meant keeping the game in first person.
We focused on coming up with various storylines to support this, and eventually became excited about the idea of centering the story on a character who wakes up in the aftermath of a sleeping spell cast by an evil fairy. Creating a world around a "dreamlike state" such as this really excited us and I knew we could make something different. After reaching consensus on the design direction, we started incorporating an appealing Art Nouveau style into the game.
We also wanted to break the mold in terms of gameplay -- in Dream Chronicles, every scene is different. Introducing casual gamers to the adventure style of gameplay was a core vision of ours. This was a departure from other casual game styles at that point in time, where the setting remained the same but the situations and challenges varied from level to level. In Dream Chronicles, a player's actions directly impact the storyline as she progresses through the game and it is critical that there is a very gradual ramp in difficulty as the game progresses.
While I was convinced of, and extremely excited about, the whole game concept, I have to admit it was a little daunting to think of the challenges ahead at this early stage of the project. It wasn't like anything we had done before nor was it like any of the games that typically grace the Top 10 charts in the casual games industry.
To make matters worse, there was no data to tell us what the market appetite for a game like this would be. How would we ever bring this to market? With these challenges stacked against us, we really thought our big game idea was simply a pipe dream.
The Dream Team
Over the course of 2005, I shared the game idea with two potential partners, but it didn't go anywhere. Keeping the challenges in mind, I moved onto other projects, but kept dreaming of the day when the right opportunity would come along.
I'd heard of the publishing model in casual games, but I didn't really consider it until I was faced with a critical decision; Kat Games could spend and risk everything we had to try and get Dream off the ground, or we could look for a publishing partner to help. I had to come to grips with the fact that my goal as a developer was to "make games," but that there's so much more to be done to "make money" from games.
I thought hard about who my partners should be; it had to be a publisher who could provide me with the creative input and non-development support. I also needed a partner whom I trusted and had a track record of successfully navigating the casual games market.
I first met PlayFirst's Creative Director Kenny Dinkin and Director of Publishing Craig Bocks at Casual Connect Amsterdam in 2006. I was impressed by their dedication to creativity and innovation and could immediately sense that they shared my vision to make this unique game a reality. We eventually signed an agreement to partner on what came to be known in June 2007 as Dream Chronicles.
Through the process of development the team at Kat Games, including Pablo Vietto, David González, Miguel Angel Liñan and myself, worked closely with the PlayFirst team. Specifically Michelle Woods, Kenny Shea Dinkin, Craig Bocks and PlayFirst's supporting teams of QA, marketing and sales made us feel like true partners from day one.