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Casual Meets Core for a Drink: Developing Drawn

Chronicling the development of two of the most ambitious games to come from the casual portal's internal studios, Big Fish Games' Chris Campbell picks apart Drawn and its sequel, revealing inspiration and process in this more-than-a-postmortem.

[Chronicling the development of two of the most ambitious games to come from the casual portal's internal studios, Big Fish Games' Chris Campbell picks apart Drawn and its sequel, revealing inspiration and process in this more-than-a-postmortem.]

This article aims to provide some insight into the successes and challenges in creating both Drawn: The Painted Tower and Drawn: Dark Flight-- the latest adventure games from Big Fish Games Studios.

For those unfamiliar, Drawn [YouTube trailer for Dark Flight] is a PC/Mac adventure game series inspired by classic point-and-click mechanics and developed by a company (Big Fish Games) with an avid casual gamer following. Through a strong narrative and very distinct art style, the Drawn team set out to create a brand that both casual players and classic adventurers alike would enjoy. So, in summary:

Drawn was designed by a team of core and casual players to be an adventure game made for a website with a casual audience that display core gaming habits.

Cool, huh?

Who Dunnit?

Drawn is developed by Big Fish Games Studios -- the internal development studio of Big Fish Games.

For those of you who are not familiar with Big Fish Games, it's the world's largest developer, distributor and publisher of casual games, working with more than 500 developers around the world and also hosting an in-house Studios group (that's my team!) In just over seven years, there have been more than one billion games downloaded from the site.

When you're talking about download numbers that contain nine zeros, that means that a very, VERY dedicated group of players are visiting your site. Who are those players? The Big Fish Games core user is considered by most people to be the "classic" example of casual, which is primarily women over the age of 35 -- with play habits that dwarf my own.

Big Fish Games players report spending 12 hours per week on average playing games from our site. That's not time spent waving at their television or downloading apps to play on the go… That's pure, 100 percent, left mouse button on a PC/Mac casual gaming goodness.

The popular assumption is that since we're an internal studio -- making a graphically rich adventure game for such a dedicated group of players is 1. easy and 2. a guaranteed success, right?

Not hardly.

Where's the Item List?

The goal of the internal Big Fish Games Studios group is to make titles that introduce our players to new gameplay concepts. The most prolific genre of game on our site right now is hidden object puzzle adventure (HOPA).

Pioneered by the Mystery Case Files team in 2007, Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst introduced free-roaming adventure with key inventory items found through traditional hidden object scenes. Instead of a static scene to investigate, players could now move through the world. Inventory was given to players through hidden object scenes, and navigation arrows became an acceptable part of the game.

It. Was. Huge.

When we started the design process for Drawn: The Painted Tower, we decided that we would add another ingredient to this formula while stealthily removing the hidden object mechanic.

Some people might think it's silly to call a point-and-click adventure game a "new concept", but remember -- most of our users play puzzle adventure games. They are used to a certain level of hand-holding that we were going to remove. Namely, they expected to see a list on the screen that told them exactly what they needed to pick up in each scene.

Could we stand on the shoulders of the MCF giants and successfully create a new style of game that would appeal to two very different -- yet similar -- groups (core and casual adventure gamers)? What components would be required to attract the casual player just discovering adventure gaming? Would those components be offensive to players who grew up frantically searching through piles of 5 ¼" floppies looking for the oft-misplaced Disk 2 so Roger Wilco could actually be promoted to head (only) janitor?

With our cups sloshing with optimism, we began our Longest Journey through the Myst.

Lemons from Lemonade

It's important to understand how this whole journey started. At the risk of oversimplifying a very complex decision-making process, Drawn is a brand that was created using assets from a game that was headed in the wrong direction and ultimately canceled.

The Big Fish Games executive team allowed the team to make a decision on how to proceed -- start from scratch or incorporate the completed assets into a new game. This was a huge honor, very humbling and only came with one rule: make a great game. The entire rebooting process took two weeks (TWO WEEKS!) It was a very, very big decision in two very, very tiny weeks.

2_WEEKS.JPG

The easiest path (and the greatest chance for immediate success) was to fall back on the status quo and play it safe. We could take the assets we had and create a game that would be similar to other titles on our site. We could follow the proven formula and be almost guaranteed success.

As a team however, we wanted to create an adventure game that would help push the boundaries on what our players expected from a casual game -- to create a game featuring an incredible art style, classic point-and-click mechanics, ramping difficulty, the most imaginative puzzles and the best production values we were capable of.

To be clear -- this is what we wanted. However, we wanted to do it with someone else's money. It's one thing for the Big Fish Games executive team to ask us what we wanted to do. It's a whole different ballgame for them to give an admittedly young team the green light to try and introduce our players to adventure games.

One of the most humbling moments in my 37 years is when Patrick Wylie, the VP of Studios, told Brian Thompson, the game's art director, and me, "Sounds exciting. Let's try to ship in September and make sure it's awesome."

With the Executive Team's support confirmed, we were ready to throw our customers into the Maniac Mansion of adventure at Full Throttle.


Design as a Team Sport

Brian and I have very different -- yet similar -- backgrounds. I've been in the games industry for 13 years; he's been in the industry for seven years. I've played almost every game made since 1977; he's played a couple of games since the Commodore 64. [When Brian read this part, he asked me to make sure that everyone knew he was a core gamer. He has clear memories of Summer Games, Wing Commander and the other one that everybody played on the C64. Star-something. - Chris]

The most significant (and slightly) terrifying thread we shared however was that neither of us had ever designed a game from scratch. Sure, we'd both worked on numerous games in different capacities, but now we were looking at a pile of assets from a cancelled game, an empty Word doc, and a team that needed something to do.

Oh, and there was the big red circle on a calendar seven months away.

To give ourselves the best chance for success, we needed to leverage the experiences of the people creating the game. Our primary goal was crossover appeal. After all, that's one of the reasons we were given the green light. Luckily, the team just so happened to have that coming out of their ears.

We're nine people with very different experiences and fundamentally different perspectives on what makes a game awesome. We're casual gamers, core gamers, MMOers and even non-gamers. Some of our favorite games ever? King's Quest III, BioShock, Diablo II, Chrono Trigger, StarCraft II, Shadow of the Colossus, Animal Crossing, and The Neverhood.

I think to truly achieve crossover appeal, it has to be represented on the team and we had that. All we needed was a bucket and the ability to dip it into this intangible well of crossover gameness.

We had zero time to waste and a LOT to learn. Thus, the super-organic-iterative (SOI) process was born.

SOI (The Cart before the Horse)

The methodology is named SOI because: (1) I just made it up, (2) Soi is the name of one of the artists on the team (the most talented draftsman I've ever worked with) and (3) It works with the three words I mentioned earlier. Other potential names were bandied about during development, but the only one that came close to sticking was something about flying and pants.

Because Brian and I believed that every team member's ideas should be represented in the final product vision, we included the entire team in the design process. This was both good and bad. The benefit: since the entire team was ultimately part of the design process, instead of one or two possible solutions to a problem, we had 20. The unfortunate part: Instead of one or two possible solutions to a problem, we had 20.

Since we were all playing multiple roles, we decided that Brian and I would design a section, peel off, prototype it, we would all play it, iterate, focus test, iterate some more, and move from there. What could be more natural? I enter into evidence, exhibit A. Each loop through this diagram was about four weeks:

Fig_2._SOI_1.jpg
 

When you "peel off" from design and work on prototyping, design ends up sitting by its lonesome on a bench somewhere offering the occasional passerby a chocolate. We knew what the world should look like and we knew what the story should be, but none of those things survived one encounter with focus testing. By the time we had something the team and the customer liked, we would have to adjust the story to match the reduction in scope. Once that was done, Brian and I, comprising the core of the Design Team, would start designing the next area.

Being a new design team is tough enough without the added stress of knowing that your art and development teams are sitting behind you wondering what's coming next. Precious hours were wasted and questions that we should've known the answer to (like, "How does it end?") were left unanswered for far too long.

Couple of things we learned after a few loops through the process (and numerous rounds of focus testing):

  1. If you think all of your ideas are going to work the first time, they won't. Even if you think it's good, focus testing will be happy to tell you otherwise.
  2. Check your ego at the door. As soon as you think you've come up with a brilliant solution to a vexing design problem, a customer will tell you that it rates 2/10 on the fun scale. You'll be tempted to tell them they're doing it wrong. Don't.
  3. You can be clever after you teach the player how to actually play. Oh, and whatever you do, don't get clever WHILE teaching them how to play.

SOI… Did It Work?

I realize that thus far I might have painted our process in a negative light, but that's only because the beginning of the road was bumpier than any of us anticipated. I don't think we were unique in that; I think we were just another team making a game that we all cared deeply about.

Part of the challenge in working with any new team, regardless of whether you're making games or widgets, is that everyone is different. When you put a group of passionate creative people in a room, you will get differences of opinions. If you don't, people are just being nice. I can assure you they don't agree with everything you say.

We had more than our fair share of heated discussions on little things like potion versus water, so we decided that to be the most effective team possible, we needed two rules:

  1. At milestones, everyone was required to list five things they loved and five things they hated about the game.
  2. Criticism was encouraged if accompanied by a possible solution.

Where SOI really had an impact on the development process was is in creating the opportunity for team members to take on secondary roles. While each team member was hired for a specific role (artist, animator, producer, etc.), everyone also had the opportunity to put their inherent talents to use, even if they fell outside of their given role. I enter this link into evidence as Exhibit B. You can see that no one on the team had just one responsibility.

In the end, this process worked beautifully. The most important thing that happened is that we as a team learned to value each other's opinion, and that the whole is truly greater than a sum of its parts.

Rebecca summed it up quite nicely one day in a meeting:

"This process is a developer's dream and a large publisher's nightmare."

She has a gift. Brevity.


A Glorious Drawn

We launched Drawn: The Painted Tower in September of 2009 and it was a huge success. In fact, we were one of the top-selling games on Big Fish Games for the year 2009! We learned never to underestimate, overestimate, or generally assume you know anything about your audience without GOBS of testing.

We had successfully taken the road less travelled and it worked. After the launch, we officially granted ourselves new team status. We started calling ourselves "Team Drawn" and watched with rapt attention as Google Alerts announced that wonderful things were being said about the art and music. Comments were made about the revival of classic adventure games and great reviews were written.

There were also alerts making us aware that our game was available on umpteen torrent sites, the ending was too abrupt, and the game was generally too hard to get into due to a lack of traditional hidden object scenes and abundance of abstract puzzles.

While it was a tremendous success on our site, the industry was assigning labels like "adventure-lite" and "casual adventure." We'd succeeded in moving some of our players into the realm of adventure gaming, but were there elements that the traditional adventure gamer did not care for?

We cancelled our Google Alerts and began the great DIG for answers.

Introspective Text

Anyone who's launched a game will tell you it's a roller coaster of emotion. It's amazing how putting the collective hearts and souls of nine people into a product colors your view of what everyone says about it. Reviews that mention all of the little things you wanted them to focus on? Well, they get it. People who complain in the forums that something is too hard? Well they're obviously out to get you.

Once the emotion subsides, however, there are valuable lessons to be learned from every comment. We combed the forums, devoured the feedback, and tried to understand what might have gone wrong. Were there problems that we had overlooked? What did we need to make sure we addressed in the sequel?

…and why in the world didn't we see some of these before we shipped?

drawn_shot1.jpg

The Oops List

We realized that despite using a development method as original and innovative as SOI, we'd made a few critical mistakes.

The team identified four areas that needed to be addressed before shipping a sequel:

1. The Ending

The most frequent complaint in reviews and on the forums was the ending was too abrupt. See the chart above to see why that happened. The ending was designed/implemented eight days before launch.

2. SOI 1.0

We decided that maybe our process needed an upgrade in order to ensure the ending worked. SOI 2.0 would feature an actual design. The beginning, middle and end would be designed, the story would fit neatly over the top of it, and anyone who had a question on what happened next could get the answer.

3. Hint System

In Drawn, we really focused on changing the way that our players got help when they were stuck. As someone who's played a lot of adventure games, I know stuck. Not stuck like, "I need to go find the answer online real quick stuck." I'm talking stuck like, "I've been stuck through Freshman English stuck because there is no easy way to get unstuck stuck."

We never wanted our players to be that stuck.

For years, hitting the hint button has done anything but provide a hint. Using hints in most games today is akin to summoning a small monkey that comes out of the screen, takes control of your mouse, and does it for you. This isn't a hint. This is a problem-solving monkey.

We developed a tiered hint system. For each objective there were anywhere from two to 10 hints. The first hint would be just that; a gentle nudge in the right direction. You know, like a hint. As you progressively went through the tiers, more information was revealed.

We wanted to use it to teach people how to think in the world of Drawn. The downside was that it wasn't a smart system. We made wrong assumptions on where they were stuck. So instead of a problem solving monkey, we summoned a monkey that sat on top of the monitor and flung… poor information. Players having difficulty found this frustrating to say the least.

4. Exploration

The Painted Tower was, well, in a tower. At all times, there were four walls visible and a roof over your head. This was due to both the limited development cycle and the number of assets we needed to use from the earlier project. In Dark Flight we wanted players to be able to explore the town outside the tower. Luckily, I'd drawn a really big map.

Plenty of work remained.


The Sequel

Success and expectation are joined at the hip.

If you, especially as a new team, do something well the first time with very little time to prepare, the expectation is that with more time to prepare, it will be more successful.

When someone asks you to do it again, except, "this time make it better," you really start to appreciate the idea that catching lightning in a bottle is a challenge. If you don't view a sequel to a successful game in this way, it's too dangerous to attempt as you'll probably be shocked by the results.

We simply needed to fix the weaknesses we'd identified while not damaging the things that made it great. Simple!

We rolled our sleeves up in October of 2009 and began working on our masterpiece. Ultimately, we spent 10 months doing what we as a team do best; finding creative ways to make people think, use their imagination, interact with art, and care about a little girl named Iris who needed to be saved.

Rather than get into the specifics of development of Dark Flight, I've taken the liberty of including a photograph of the new SOI 2.0 system in action. This will be Exhibit C:

soi_2.0.jpg
 

SOI 2.0 might look confusing, but it really is quite easy to read. Pick an area, and you'll see a good idea is either taped or drawn on the board. One thing that's important to point out -- there are no fewer than seven people's handwriting in this photo.

As development moved forward, the process was continually refined. Submitted for your review, SOI 2.1. This is the almost final version of the game broken into three chapters:

soi_3.0.jpg
 

Identifying weaknesses is one thing; fixing them another. At the end of the day, did we succeed in addressing the four issues we'd identified?

Yes and no.

Flight of the Phoenix

On August 31, 2010, Drawn: Dark Flight left the nest. The success was immediate! We went to the number one spot on our site, and stayed there. We received perfect scores in reviews and more thumbs up than the road on the way to Burning Man.

Dark Flight was considered perfection, or close to perfection, by more people than not. Terms like "cinematic," "epic" and "imaginative" were commonplace. We had finally created an experience that the entire industry agreed was a spectacular modern example of the classic adventure game. People who had never even heard of Big Fish Games were reading reviews of a game produced in our internal studios!

The game was almost twice the size and better in almost every way. Not only was it larger, it launched simultaneously on PC, Mac, retail, and was localized into ten languages. This was the first time that anything like this had been done on our site.

The decisions made for Dark Flight were validated by a high percentage of players and critics. What more could we, as a young team that had decided to try something new, ask for?

If you want this story to ride off into the sunset of happy endings, then you can stop reading here (and start playing Drawn!).

Quite simply, we wanted perfection in our eyes. Our plan of attack was perfect. Our execution was not.

It's hard to put into words, but it's strikingly similar to the feeling you get when you buy something and put it together using the included Allen wrench and screws. It looks perfect and your neighbor can even sit on it.

You know in your heart, though, that the two screws that were left over weren't actually extra.

A Wrong for Every Right

While it's tempting for us to think that game design falls outside of those pedestrian terms that apply to boring things like gravity and energy, one thing rings true:

For every action, there is indeed an equal and opposite reaction.

Most postmortems will list things that went right, and things that went wrong. I think they are more often than not the same thing, if we're completely honest in our assessment.

We as designers, gamers, artists and developers look at a problem and figure out how to fix it. If someone thinks the world is too dull, you add color. That fixes the problem of the world looking dull. It's remedied right up until two hours after launch when someone in the forums announces that the Pirate made of papercraft is too bright.

"I don't like all that color. I liked it better when it was blue!"

Keeping with the themes of brutal honesty paired with eternal optimism, here are both sides of the coin of the things we set out to fix.


Call It in the Air

1. The Ending

a. The Good

The ending for Dark Flight was E-P-I-C. That's not a spoiler, that's keeping it real. We pushed the production values to their limit and finished the story of Iris with a bang! I've seen it at least 1,000 times and still get goose bumps.

It wasn't as abrupt as the first game and players this time actually saw it coming. We made sure to pepper in story bits that acted as road signs announcing ENDING APPROACHING. The final chapter was designed in such a way that the pace became a frantic series of aha moments leading up to the final explosion of awesomeness.

As discussed with our music/sound partners, Clean Cuts, we punched them in the eye and ear holes!

b. The Bad

As mentioned above, we gave the player notice that the ending would indeed be there soon, and if they would be kind enough to cooperate and expect it, we would really appreciate it. The honest truth is that we wanted to do a different ending.

We had grand plans for the ending from the very beginning of the game. Instead of simply triggering the ending, the player would interact with Iris to defeat the King. We wanted a series of puzzles that would allow players to control the pace that they saw the big events happen. We wanted the player to participate in the final battle.

Our process of iterating on something before designing the next area finally caught up with us. We had time to create a great ending, but not the perfect interactive ending we wanted.

2. SOI 2.0

a. The Good

Now that we, as a team, were on our second game, those alternate roles that each of us had taken on in developing the first game really became evident. We were a finely tuned machine with each of us addressing the entire experience -- not just our primary area of responsibility. The fact that we created a game twice the size in 1.25x the time is a testament to our process working better than before.

b. The Bad

Our plan was to have the entire design baked from the beginning. Much like the first game, the original ideas didn't survive contact with either focus testing or our lead developer Peter. The original design was just too large. We wanted to create a world with five chapters, each of them featuring a different art style.

Out of the gate, we were very ambitious and wanted to tell a story not necessarily suited for delivery in a game. As a result, our ending changed multiple times to keep up with the reduction in the scope, which was one of the primary reasons we couldn't include the ending we all wanted.

3. Hint System

a. The Good

We reworked the system and I'm pleased to report the monkey now appears and has a very intelligent conversation with the player which then leads them to the aha! moment we hoped they would have. Instead of assuming where they might be stuck on an objective, the system reads their inventory and knows exactly what they need to do next. This required increasing the amount of hint text written five-fold, but it was worth every minute.

Another interesting tidbit we noticed in focus testing was that people were reticent to use hints. When asked why, they equated it to being punished. Punished! If players get stuck and the only option is to puzzle through it or "get punished", perhaps we're doing it wrong.

Not wanting anyone to feel like they were being bad, we changed the label. Instead of asking them to get a "hint", we let them ask for "advice".

Problem solved.

b. The Bad

We made a smarter system, but didn't realize until too late that people were getting stuck in between hints. We had a hint for every objective in the game, but we didn't have enough objectives. One objective could sometimes equate to 12 steps that linked two very disparate tasks. We had overcompensated to satisfy fans of the first game and experienced adventurers.

Such huge tasks meant that new players were falling off early because they found the objectives too abstract. This problem was compounded by the most egregious examples being in the first 15 minutes of the game.

4. Exploration

a. The Good

Dark Flight is an almost a perfect combination of linear adventuring while retaining a sense of exploration. We take players on a magical journey through an eerie underground catacomb, a massive library full of flying magical books (and a Children's Area that must be seen), and a section of town featuring giant musicians, marionettes, a theatre cart and the super-epic Violin Door.

Fans of The Painted Tower had high expectations on what the world outside the tower should be and we delivered on those. Adventure players were all of a sudden taking Dark Flight seriously because the world was HUGE compared to the first game.

b. The Bad

Turns out the reason we have maps in every gas station in the country is because people don't always remember how to get where they want to go. Sure, you know you need to go to Seattle, but might not remember which interstates you should take to get there.

We really, really should have provided players with a map. The frustration stemmed from knowing the violin was supposed to be given to the marionette, but not remembering where in the world it was. The size and openness of our world caused a ton of headaches for new players.

So, on behalf of the entire Drawn team, thanks for reading this. We've been given the opportunity of a lifetime and the chance to share it with you means a lot to all of us.

Rarely does a team get to create something completely new and original. We were given the reins and the opportunity to guide our game in the direction that we thought was best, and it's something that none of us take for granted.

As much as this article covers, it's only the very tip of a very large iceberg. The number of things we as a team learn every day is truly astounding. My hope is that you've learned something about the way that we work, or at the very least been entertained by our journey.

Regardless of the slice of the overall industry we represent, I want to believe we're all after the same thing. We want everyone on the planet to play our game. We want everyone to think that our game is the most creative, awesome, different, can't live without it experience they've ever had.

Whether or not this extreme level of optimism exists on other teams in other companies, I don't know. I do know however, on some level it should.

And that's all I have to say about that.

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