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Casuality:  Luxor, Mah Jong Quest, Fish Tycoon  Devs Talk Postmortems

Casuality: Luxor, Mah Jong Quest, Fish Tycoon Devs Talk Postmortems

June 29, 2006 | By Beth A. Dillon

June 29, 2006 | By Beth A. Dillon
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The team leads behind the casual games Luxor, Mah Jong Quest, and Fish Tycoon met for the fascinating panel 'Casual Games Postmortems: How To Make A Great Casual Game' at Casuality Seattle on Wednesday, June 28. The panel immediately jumped into breaking down the process of creating a successful casual game, from idea to launch and sales.

Luxor - Through Ancient Sands To Victory!

Darren Walker, Lead Programmer of Mumbo Jumbo, spoke about the casual game Luxor. Luxor is "a puzzling expedition through ancient sands", as described on RealArcade, and uses a Puzzloop-style ball shooter to match similar colored balls in the game.

When asked by the moderator about the influence of Zuma on Luxor, Walker hesitated, commenting: "Zuma was certainly a factor." After thinking about how to integrate the basics of Centipede and Galaga with puzzle game mechanics, the developers worked from the core mission to have a game without negative in-game actions, such as anti-power-ups, that would discourage players.

Luxor began with five prototypes, and several iterations afterwards of balls on a spine. With a team of three people, one programmer, one designer, and one artist, they were challenged to complete the game in three months, but nonetheless managed it.

After initial development, the Luxor team focused on polishing the game. Once the prototype was done, they were confident and continued to add features. However, when the game was sent off to [Real stuiod] GameHouse, the team was told the game wouldn't be published. Yet after a weekend, GameHouse came back on Monday after they had been playing it all weekend, and told the team they wanted the game after all!

The polishing phase mainly consisted of getting the opinions of friends and family. They intended to keep polishing the game and adding features, according to Walker, but after Christmas, management told them to wrap it up and send it off.

Luxor "skyrocketed" at launch on Real/GameHouse, as described by Walker. There were a few initial bugs, but within a week they had solutions. Walker continued, "It's very important to expand your market in other distribution models."

Walker learned lessons about the influence of a casual game. He has since also experienced the self-fulfillment of meeting people "off the streets" who have "actually played" the game he made.

Mah Jong Quest - To Success?

Jim Stern, VP of Production at iWin, started off by relating the creation of Mah Jong Quest. He used Jewel Quest and Mah Jong as comparisons, since they were the most popular game titles on iWin. They wanted to take these games further by building a story that fit the game play for the purpose of invoking emotion and a reason for playing and coming back to the game.

At first, Stern's team went back and forth on the target audience. They wanted to appeal to both new players and players familiar with original Mah Jong. To solve this, they added tutorials as well as a standard set of classic games combined with an optional "brain teaser" puzzle mode.

After going through the storyline phases, they went back to complete the scope of the game and add content. They chose the artistic vision of one out of three artists that prepared sketched, and continued on with a team most often of four people. They thought the game would take 2-3 months and $40,000, but it ended up actually taking 9-10 months and over $100,000.

During development, they ran into vast unexpected challenges. According to Stern, it took a while for the team to get on the same page with goals and tasks for everyone while still making sure everyone felt involved. The art went through iterations, and a budget for changes was calculated in. Levels were much more difficult than what they first anticipated, but after considering tabling the product, they resolved the problem by building out a separate puzzle section and adding more iconic graphics and pop-ups.

After those hurdles, Stern had no doubts about the game doing well. For the team, the next step was about finishing the game and dealing with the changes necessary for the mobile version. They had to make adjustments based on the lack of a mouse and come up with new ways to navigate through cell phones.

For the polish, the team went over graphics over and over again, and worked on the User Interface (UI) closer to the end. Play testing was mostly internal, but they outsourced compatibilities to test on other platforms. Although they did not use a focus group, they did have a beta group of players who were familiar with Mah Jong. They added a tracking system to trace data, such as how long a player stays in a level before leaving.

At launch, they successfully hit a cord with both people who are Mah Jong players and those who aren't. The different modes were appreciated, reported Stern. However, there were some bugs, and they had to go back to distributors to re-launch with solid build. Since then, Mah Jong Quest has versions for Flash, mobile, and Mac, as well as versions in at least 9 different languages.

"It's worth getting input," Stern began about lessons he has learned. To avoid a derailed focus, they spent much time on planning. "Don't let the developer tinker too much," he ended.

Fish Tycoon - Swimming To Victory!

Carla Humphrey, Executive Producer for developer Last Day of Work, shared her experience with the fish-breeding simulation game Fish Tycoon. After the success of their game title Plant Tycoon, a real-time plant breeding simulation, they came up with Fish Tycoon as a derivative. "People love to have fish in their computers," Humphrey said. They were aiming for everyone, because at the time they weren't aware of the casual games audience.

The team scheduled for 6 months, since Fish Tycoon was already created for PDA and taken up by Big Fish Games. "Nine months later we realized it was less of a porting project and more of a complete rewrite," said Humphrey. They had team of five and really no budget. They funded the game with revenue from past handheld games.

They realized soon into the project that they effectively didn't have a design document, since the handheld version didn't work. They had to work with a bigger theme than what they were used to. Everything took longer, such as converting the fonts, implementation and design, beautifying the game, and supporting the launch. "In the PDA space, a game is just released and the next day you move on," Humphrey said. Unexpectedly, they are still supporting Fish Tycoon after 6 months.

Although they were confident that the game was fun because of the success of the PDA version, they had doubts about the usage difference in the desktop version. Most of their concerns related to the "golden hour," the first hour of trial. The handheld version was not time limited, but feature limited. They had to add fish to the trial, which weren't actually available in the beginning parts of the PDA version.

Humphrey feels that, in retrospect, Fish Tycoon didn't have enough polish. They had beta over their forums for 3-4 weeks, and then a beta at Big Fish Games to optimize conversion. "Big Fish Games was holding on and encouraging fine tuning and work on the 'golden hour,'" said Humphrey.

Fish Tycoon soft-launched through Big Fish Games. They supported the launch with a direct mail campaign, followed by marketing and press release. They got a wide portal distribution, and the game sold well wherever it was distributed. Unfortunately, expressed Humphrey, the release was staggered on the portals. "Since it was so different, we should have given them more lead time to get excited about the game," she said. After the Windows release, they also came up with both Flash and Mac versions.

Humphrey learned many lessons during Fish Tycoon. Taking a risk and making a very original game was important, though it was not without its problems. "Firing most of our staff 2/3rds of the way through development was a wise decision," she joked. She followed up the comment with an explanation of the game completion, and how having one person complete the project really was helpful.

Conclusion

The panel offered final words of advice to developers working on casual games.

Walker recommended working on a prototype of game mechanics to test for fun. Walker believes that by sticking to a design document and testing, especially in the areas of compatibility testing and play testing, games will be more successful. "Listen to the advice of your wife," he concluded.

Stern also suggested focusing on the prototype first and to polish later. "Plan for the future, don't limit yourself to what your expertise is." He recommended branching out in many forms, including multiplayer, community strategies, and platforms.

Humphrey warned: "Work on the core first. If you have problem from an engineering point of view, do it first." She also advised taking risks and hiring "rock stars" of the game industry, and nothing less.


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