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Interview: Making Friends With  Carmen Sandiego  On Facebook

Interview: Making Friends With Carmen Sandiego On Facebook Exclusive

February 21, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

February 21, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Much talk surrounds the birth and growth of brand new design forms on Facebook, but the social network was recently a launchpad for the revival of two classics: Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego, mainstay brands from an era when gaming on the computer had a far different shape.

Blue Fang Games was the developer tasked with the challenge of bringing The Learning Company's familiar brands to a new platform, testing out how new models of social interaction and monetization could blend with gameplay considered familiar, even defining. Lead analyst Darius Kazemi tells us the aim was to stay true to the original design, while updating some of the key elements for new social audiences.

"We definitely wanted to keep the original tones of the game intact," Kazemi says. "If you look at the original Oregon Trail, it's an incredibly dark, brutal game -- and while our aesthetic style doesn't really match that, there's a lot more projectile vomiting than you'd find in most games."

"For Carmen Sandiego in particular, we really did try to retain the irreverent sense of humor and the sort of 'bad' puns -- I think Rob, Chris and Jay [Dubbin, Dahlen and Katsir, the game's writers] all did a fantastic job. We had many, many thousands of text bytes that had to be written for the game."

At the same time, having developed Zoo Kingdom on Facebook as a follow-up to its Zoo Tycoon brand, Blue Fang was already familiar with its options on the platform. Social features can be much more than just posting to each other's walls, Kazemi notes: In Carmen Sandiego, friends who are also playing the game can be revealed as criminals, and the world map shows small notes of the cities that friends are currently visiting on their crime-solving quests.

"If anything, we erred on the side of caution in using the Facebook platform," Kazemi says. "There's a lot of stuff you can do, and we try to use the stuff people are used to seeing in games. You don't want to risk creeping people out by bringing in information that they maybe didn't know you had access to. We don't incorporate users' personal data unless it's very explicit or commonly-understood that your friends are playing the game and that certain things are going to appear."

Part of the reason that the Carmen Sandiego games were so widely popular in their heyday was because they were actually educational. Many of today's adult gamers will tell you they learned geography from the game's objectives, and learned research skills from scanning the Fodor's Guides that often came with games.

Whither Carmen in the Google era, then, when a clue about the world is just one browser tab away? "We definitely designed with Google in mind," Kazemi asserts. "That was absolutely part of the design from day one; it would be futile to fight against that."

So the team focused on upping the challenge ante with the harder cases as players progress, phrasing clues in such a way that they're still tough to Google; that players may still need to read and learn a bit, or employ deductive reasoning.

"One of the things I can do is see what clues are giving players the most trouble," says Kazemi. "And some of them are the ones that involve some wordplay that Google can't necessarily immediately help you out with. Others might refer to a neighborhood by its name -- but that neighborhood might exist in a bunch of different cities."

The result? In order to succeed at some of Carmen Sandiego on Facebook's tougher challenges, players need to hone their internet research skills the way they once had to learn to use an index with the original game.

"In terms of looking at player behavior, what we discovered from looking at the data was that on easy cases, people tend to fail at the logical deduction side, where you have to figure out who the crook is," Kazemi adds. "But then, on hard cases for the advanced players, it really comes down to answering clues correctly. We're re-balancing it so that you can start to see medium and hard cases earlier in the game, because those are actually really interesting."

In Carmen Sandiego, time is money, literally. Players are given an allotment of time to solve each case, and each action -- quizzing witnesses, traveling around the world -- costs time. It's possible to resolve all the cases within the time given, but errors might mean losing the suspect. Players can buy in-game currency they can spend to keep global flights from costing time, or to give them a second chance at identifying a crook.

The easier the cases are, the less likely it is the player will feel the urge to spend any of the coins at all to make the game easier -- and given that players start with a given amount of free coins to try, it seems like players might be engaged with a game for quite some time before they feel the need or desire to spend real-world money on in-game currency.

Oregon Trail, on the other hand, is different, requiring costs immediately to solve the various ailments that strike the player's party and ensure their successful passage. "For Carmen, you don't just get new users and expect to see an immediate revenue increase," Kazemi explains. Carmen Sandiego, then, appears to be something of an experiment in delayed monetization -- will players who invest in the game long-term actually contribute to the game's revenue?

"It's always a challenge to analyze the performance of a game," Kazemi suggests. "It's easy with a game where you get all these new users and immediately see an increase in revenue; it's nice to see events that are obviously attached to each other like that, and it's a much more dicey proposition to say, 'well, there could be a five or six day delay [until a revenue boost appears].'"

"It's exciting to be able to have both these games side by side and be able to look at them... they're fundamentally different games across a lot of different axes. And then to cross-reference that with Zoo Kingdom, which is a more traditional type where you're building a zoo and there's a harvesting mechanic... it'll be nice to have that information."

Kazemi hopes that the premium the studio places on quality will help with the performance of its games on Facebook, a space where many argue that quality or visual depth doesn't matter nearly as much -- if at all -- versus a hooky mechanic that keeps players clicking. Carmen Sandiego in particular is visually engaging, with music, unintrusive sound, and a creative paper cut-out art style that makes it stylish.

"It's to do with our pedigree as a traditional game developer," Kazemi says. "It's the same creative people at the company and I think that just carries on in our culture."

Any lessons for other developers working in the social space? "Launching two games in two weeks is totally crazy," Kazemi laughs. "I'm not sure I recommend it. As far as other things, we've been extremely happy: This is our first time releasing games on major licensed IPs, but launching with a big IP behind your game is advantageous in many ways. There's a lot more press coverage and a lot more interest compared to Zoo Kingdom."

"I definitely think there's a sweet spot for mid-sized developers taking advantage of recognizable IP," he adds. "I'm not sure it scales to the big folks, but for a mid-size developer, I think working with established IP is one of the few ways that you can compete with the really big social game publishers out there."

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