[In this extremely in-depth postmortem, Mediatonic's head of games Paul Croft and producer Jim Griffiths look back on the development of the PlayStation Mini/Xbox Indie (and more) title Monsters (Probably) Stole My Princess, which performed well despite some major snags.]
Monsters (Probably) Stole My Princess [YouTube trailer] was our first project for PSP and, thanks to the PlayStation Minis initiative, also our first for PlayStation 3 (in a roundabout way). Our background is in Flash game development for corporate clients and although we'd previously dabbled in some iPhone game projects under our own Mediatonic brand, Monsters was our first real stab at entering the console mainstream.
Once the project had been finished and launched via PSN in April 2010, we then created an Xbox 360 version using XNA, which launched in August 2010.
Working within the constraints of the Minis platform, we knew we had to create a tight, small-footprint game that would be easy to learn, yet difficult to truly master.
We drew on our Flash sensibilities to devise an immediately accessible title that we could wrap in our own distinctive art style and place in a comedic universe, where our characterization and visual design would (hopefully) provide entertainment alongside the raw game mechanics -- and all in under 100 megabytes.
The concept design team was just two people -- myself (head of games, Paul Croft) and writer Jim Griffiths, who was also producer. We initially started out with the vertical platforming mechanic and went through a few themes before we hit on the core idea of Monsters (Probably) Stole My Princess.
Our original idea was for a platform puzzler where the player was a monkey with a bell, and the player could use the bell as a grappling hook to defeat enemies. "The Waterfall of the Dirty Gods" was our original concept pitch, where the player needed to climb to the top of several different waterfalls and ring their bell to stop the gods from washing their filthy bodies in the water and polluting the waterfall. However, we did not feel the theme was quite right for the game.
The concept then coalesced into a guy chasing after monsters that he thinks have stolen his princess, which adds a unique irony to what could have been a relatively dry and abstract game design, while keeping the platform race concept intact. Critical to this idea was the player character, the Duke.
For us, building a good game is all about creating a really compelling story and characters along with a great interactive design, so once we'd sketched out the Duke, the rest of the concept had a reference point to develop from. What's more, framing the game's central story as a demon hunting down the presumed kidnappers of his beloved princess was an excellent excuse for our artist to draw giant, awesome monsters.
The Duke was well formed as a character before we'd even discussed his look with our art team. We were looking to develop a player avatar that embodied the 'let's go!' attitude of the game mechanics. As such, The Duke embodies the entire game concept of dynamic action and movement, as well as doing things just for the joy of doing them, regardless of the consequences. As the game was our debut title for Minis, we wanted people to be able to jump in and get going immediately, so it fits that our player character should somehow match that notion.
In deeper sense, that immediacy reflected our idea of what players would actually want to do -- jump around and bash monsters -- which is the exact attitude that the Duke has within the game's story. His search for the princess is as much about having an excuse to go on a gleeful (non-lethal) rampage as it is a noble quest to rescue a damsel in distress.
We could even go as far as saying this concept reflected the core values of the Minis platform as well as our expectation of what players actually want. However, that's the benefit of hindsight at work. At the time, it just seemed like the right way to go about making a good game!
Naturally, any good player character needs "good" enemies to create the basic tension in a game. With our main concept developed, we needed to come up with a good hook for the player's opponents, so we designed the titular monsters with the Duke's colossal misconception at the forefront of our minds.
We thought that the most natural perception for players was to take the Duke's viewpoint, so we wanted to play with this as a mechanism for humor, which we worked very hard on getting right. We couldn't just spell out this misconception to the player, which, in any case, the Duke was only using as an excuse to have some fun, so we set about staging the 'reveal' in several ways to let the player "discover" what's really going on.
The most obvious method for this was that on first glance, all of the monsters are large and frightening and appear to be engaged in some kind of sinister activity (wrapping something in a web, standing poised with a knife about to plunge down) but when the player watches a little longer, the monsters are actually engaged in quite normal activities (wrapping a present for a birthday party, about to cut a cake for a teddy-bear's picnic) and peacefully going about their business.
This central idea came from the earliest sketches of our first prototype monster, Squishface Octo-thing, who is really an avid gardener rather than a merciless kidnapper of princesses. The rest of the monster cast followed from that first concept.
The second method we used for the reveal was to place visual giveaways at the top of each level that revealed the monsters' true nature and that they had nothing whatsoever to do with the disappearance of the Duke's princess. For example, Squishface had a beautiful little garden at the top of the tower, where he grew flowers. The spider creature wrapping a present in his web gets to the top and there is a little skull-spider party with all the young spiderlings wearing party hats (and hiding from the Duke -- awwww.)
Of course, the Duke actively disregards this evidence even when it's staring him right in the face. That could have made him seem TOO aggressive or vicious, so we tried to handle that carefully and make it so that everything he did was without actual malice. He was only ever interested in the chase and the drama, and once he'd knocked the monster around a bit, he'd happily wander off in search of the next adventure.
All of this may seem quite convoluted in hindsight, but it all tied in to what we wanted to achieve: a fast-paced game with a fast-paced story that let the player think about it, enjoy it and try to work it out if they wanted to, but that players could just ignore it if they didn't want to pay attention, which would lead to a little surprise as a payoff at the end of each level.