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Interview: Big Fish On Evolving Adventure Games For Drawn

As the PC casual downloadable market shifts massively, Big Fish Games talks to Gamasutra about Drawn, an original IP adventure game-influenced franchise representing intriguing creative aspirations.
Big Fish Games is best known as a PC downloadable casual game portal, but the well-funded, Seattle-headquartered company also has its own internal development studio. One of the PC game series produced by that studio, Drawn, starting with Drawn: The Painted Tower, has a relatively rich and creative aesthetic for the world of casual games, which is often stereotyped as simpler and more approachable. Recently, Gamasutra had a chance to speak to art director Brian Thompson and senior producer Chris Campbell about the second Drawn game, Dark Flight. The title blends rich illustrations with a dark fairytale atmosphere [YouTube trailer] to produce a game that has a heritage in classic PC adventure games -- but tries to adapt that style to a wider casual audience. This interview takes in the studio's creative process, the duo's history and inspirations, and how they balance the need of appealing to an audience with their creative aspirations. Could you provide a little background on yourselves and the game? Brian Thompson: I just came from an illustration background with a focus on entertainment design, concept design, and environmental design with a strong focus on storytelling. And that's why I landed at Big Fish; it was just a really compelling place to tell some stories, and we could execute something in a year that we felt entirely proud of and give people just a really neat visual experience. For me, that was one of the main goals. Chris Campbell: I've been teamed with Brian for the past at least couple years on Drawn specifically. My background is I worked at Nintendo in product development for eight years... I left Nintendo and got into the mobile space, did some mobile gaming applications. And then I landed at Big Fish. I've always been a really big gamer; I grew up with the classic adventure games. Return to Ravenhearst was the first game I ever played in the casual space that introduced adventure elements: hold inventory, use inventory, find lock, find key, aha, and go through. And Drawn pushes that even further, the very traditional point and click adventure. It's a fairytale storybook adventure, but it's also something else... We asked our players to see the world, or certain parts of our world, through the eyes of a child, but it's not a game that's made for children. So Brian, you weren't working in the game space before you came here? BT: I was. I was a lead environment artist at Surreal Software before this. I came on after The Suffering [during] the This Is Vegas project, which was like a six-year endeavor for Midway. That was a really amazing experience because I was in charge of redesigning Las Vegas, which was really great. Unfortunately, that project didn't see the light of day. I got into games because it basically offered an opportunity that was really hard to find as an entertainment designer. You know, doing conceptual art and seeing that come to life in a game is so rewarding. This is just like the perfect marriage of all those for me. I like to tell stories. I like fantastic artwork. CC: Drawn was a totally rookie junior team, and we used to say, "This is how you make a game without actually making it the right away." But it's still an awesome thing. The way that we work is such a different process. Brian and I will talk and draw things on a whiteboard, and then he does really rapid thumbnails, and we build it in PowerPoint and play through it. "Oh, that's really awesome." And then somebody says, "What happens next?" And we go, "I don't know. Let's figure out something really awesome." You have a limited budget, which limits your scope -- but that, in its own way, takes away constraints because you have a little more freedom to focus on more creative things, right? BT: Right, we talk about that a lot, the creative challenges and the team as a whole having to really jump on those and find solutions. And like Chris says, it's very collaborative. I agree with you; those limitations are very freeing in a way. CC: The key thread in Drawn is the story, and it really is an immersive single player, story-driven experience. But even with the technology limitations and having to support a computer that's six years old, we still want it to be very cinematic, The production values are still extremely high, especially for what people expect from a casual game. Going into it, we wanted to open the game up and grab more people. Even from the main menu, there's a casual mode and an experienced mode; it doesn't say "easy", and it doesn't say "hard". The game has a real strong aesthetic focus, which is kind of an interesting choice in this market, which tends to emphasize themes that are really simple, like Diner Dash for instance. And the art direction trends more toward readability than directed aesthetic. Is the direction you took the result of your strong desire to make a game that has a fantasy aesthetic? Or is it audience-facing, too? BT: It was a game and style that we wanted to make. We just really wanted to make something that grabbed people, and pulled them in. It immediately felt immersive, so you could just dive into it, and you weren't like, "Oh, the art style turns me off," or, "It's too cartoony," or "This is too realistic. This is too Gothic." While we tried to serve what the customer would want to see, mainly we wanted to make a game that we were proud of. For me visually, the opportunity was very rare. CC: It's not easy, but I think we could have taken a different approach in the art and probably pleased 75 percent of the people, but I think it's more rewarding in the end. At the end of the day, this is the style. In a focus test, it does turn some people off. Some say, "Oh, you know, it's really dark." But the people who really enjoy it are very passionate about it. I think there's a real emotional hook. Are we leaving some people on the table? Maybe. BT: Trying to please everybody, especially from an artistic standpoint, will ruin your soul a little bit. CC: Yeah. We actually did focus tests with core players, people who only play Xbox 360 or hardcore PC games. When we asked if the style appealed to them, their response was very favorable. Brian and I have always thought that this and other adventure games can get out of that box a little bit, can pull some new people into this style of game. That's another reason behind the decision. BT: I have, because of my background, a lot of friends who aren't gamers, but they're artists. This is a game where that would appeal to them because they can get in, they can play the game, but as they're playing, they're just seeing artwork that they really like. To go back to what you said about casual games and demographics, I think that those labels aren't that helpful, the casual, hardcore; it's not as bifurcated as we are led to believe. Do you think of your audience in terms of certain demographics? CC: I think that's one of the real challenges, because we do so much user testing. We tested the core, traditional 18 to 25-year old guys, but also our typical Big Fish demographic, the 35-plus female. And there are design challenges when you're trying to appeal to both, and there are some really creative solutions we have to come up with. At the beginning of our game, you can say, "I'm a casual", or "I'm an experienced gamer." If you choose casual, it opens up a fork where you get tutorials that come up on the screen. These objectives are very simple in casual mode, whereas in experienced, they're very kind of vague and kind of poetic. We also learned that people that have played a lot of hidden object games feel like they're being punished if they click the word "hint", so we changed it to "advice," and it truly is advice. It basically says, "I'm not going to give you the answer until you click several levels down." It's a smart system, so it knows exactly what you're holding in your inventory, what you need to do next. That's our first safety net. And then the second safety net is you can actually get a visual representation. "Okay. I need to pick that thing up that's on that rock." I feel like that's actually a really under-represented thing in game design, paying attention to what the player is doing or not doing, and then giving contextual hints. I think people think about them first in the casual market, but actually, they're really valuable tools for every market and every audience. CC: Dead Space has changed the way that I navigate through a third-person shooter. I love that glowing line. You push a button, and it says, "There's a line. Follow the line." I'm like, "Yes! I don't have to bump into walls, or go into the bathroom, or whatever it is." When deciding how to implement a tutorial, there are at least a thousand ways to do it. BT: First and foremost, we come to it thinking, "Okay. How can we handle this situation in a unique way?" And I would counter by saying that games don't do that very often. [laughs] The game provides a lot of hints to help players if they get stuck. Can you talk about that a bit? CC: There's no penalty. We're not removing inventory items or robbing them of any puzzle because our ultimate goal is we want them to see the ending. We want to get them there. BT: We don't dock them for using hints. Even in the first game we did that out of this strange obligation, and for the next game, we were like, "Why? Why make somebody feel bad for experiencing your product?" It seems to me that with this series, you have a real aesthetic drive, which is a little bit rare. You can't have like a fully formed aesthetic in a game without visual, sound, art, story, everything. CC: In Drawn, the sound and the music are just so critical to the experience. A lot of people in both sides of the industry look at it like, "Well, it's extra. Let me take one percent of my budget and add some sound and some music to it." I'm a total sound guy, so that's what I feel. So, how many people are in the development division of Big Fish Games? CC: I'd say around 40, and nine people worked on this project. Do you have similar sized teams working on each project, or is it different depending on what's happening? BT: Mystery Case Files has a bigger team by just one or two people, and we also have people working on iPhone and iPad titles. CC: The small team is just kind of fun because on any given day, I'm asked to produce, write, design, or improve sound effects. For my past 13 years in the game industry, all of those experiences kind of blend into one work week. (laughs) So this is a lot of fun. BT: And for Chris and me, with all that gaming experience, we didn't really have design experience, so when we started this game, we were total new designers. And that was also really refreshing. We didn't come in with any preconceived notions of the way it was supposed to be done. There is a lot of debate about design and the necessity of having designers. How do you feel about that, having made a couple games? BT: I think that it is important to have vision holders, like Chris and me in our case. We're kind of the leaders of the team, but we have a very collaborative, organic sort of design process. So, we put together the main design, and a lot of time it will come entirely from Chris, and then he throws it to me, and we bat it back and forth, and it becomes a new thing. A lot of my design ideas come from visuals that I have, then I'll throw them to Chris, and I'll get his input. The necessity for design is definitely apparent. The necessity for people to be the leaders on a team, even a small team like this, is very crucial. CC: We often joked that we should do a postmortem for Drawn 1 on how not to design a game and still be successful. Because everything that you've learned comes from the designer, it's given to the team, the team implements that, then the producer says, "Where's art? Where's development? Where's sound? Let's make sure all these things come together at the same time." Working with a really small team, we'll have an idea or someone on the team will have an idea playing through it, and we'll huddle up; it's very informal. There's no Scrum. There's no official methodology behind it. We huddle up, we get a whiteboard, and we start asking, "Is it fun? How can it be better? Does it support the brand? Does it support the player?" How do you stop feature creep and endlessly iterating in that case? CC: I think we have to keep each other responsible, but Peter Yiap, our lead developer, is a real big part of it, because Brian and I can't get really excited about something and be like, "This is going to be awesome!" He'll grab his hatchet and come in, saying, "Wait a minute. We don't have time. " BT: Yeah. Or it's simple like, with a particular big scene, he'll say, "We have an overdraw limit. You cannot have this many layers going on. You can only have this many layers per scene." And I then I have to work within that. When Peter says something like that, I listen. I respect him. CC: But at the same time, the dialogue between everyone is so good, a lot of times Peter will say something like that, and we challenge him. "Well, there is a way. You just haven't done it." And he'll come back a day later and say, "Okay. I've actually figured it out, so we can really blow it out." But it sounds like your development process is sort of fundamentally built to how your studio functions. These would be hard processes to use in other studios, right? BT: Yeah. If you were to work with a larger partner or something, I guarantee you that they would want all this documented. There's a certain expectation of this kind of documentation that needs to be there; people will ask, "Okay, well if you've got this inventory, what are all the use cases? Show me the tree?" It's just like, "Well, what tree?" CC: It would be really difficult for a group of nine people to grab our methods and say, "Okay, now we're going to make a game." You have to have a lot of trust in each other. I think in Drawn 1, there were a couple of ups and downs, and we're all getting on the same page, saying "Okay, this is the vision. This is ultimately what we see Drawn being."

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