It’s a common theme in literature for characters to be saved when all hope seems lost by a mysterious, magical force … and that was exactly the sort of divine intervention that Todd Kerpelman’s team at Pogo were seeking as they tried to come up with the nigh impossible … a tycoon game no one had thought of.
“Most of us enjoy tycoon games and we thought that we should do one of our own. So we started brainstorming different themes, trying to come up with something that hadn’t been done yet,” Todd Kerpelman said.
Much like those characters of old, Kerpelman’s team was saved by a fairy godmother. Once the team started thinking about the oddball game that could be built around a magical beneficiary, the ideas started to come faster than you could say bippity boppity boo.
“Setting things in a magical world was kind of nice because you didn’t have to ground everything in reality. You can just sort of say, oh, it’s magic,” he said. One little hiccup in their plan was that most godmothers of the magical variety are known for their wish granting (see “Cinderella”). But there’s not much tycooning to be done in the wish business, with players able to just fix their problems with the flick of a wand. Pogo’s own wish for a central gameplay mechanic was granted when they stumbled on potion-making. “We realized that bringing in ABC ingredients and making XYZ product was pretty compelling gameplay,” Kerpelman said. “We though about creating some sort of wish currency that you could convert into magical spells, but it was a little more abstract and something that would have required a lot more time, but it’s something we’d still like to look at.” Ironically, while the fantasy backdrop expanded the team’s possibilities, it also forced them to limit the player’s choices.
Kerpelman uses not allowing experimentation in spell recipes to illustrate the point. While players hear complaints about lemonade quality, he muses, they instantly know how they need to lower the sugar, use more ice, etc. But when villagers complain that a headshrinking potion doesn’t work well, what does an amateur potion-maker do? Add more eye of newt? The team quickly eliminated the possibility of tinkering the recipes to keep the game from becoming an excercise in frustration. “The advantage of setting things in a fantasy world is that you have the freedom to do whatever you want, but people don’t go into it with an innate knowledge of what things do,” Kerpelman said. Besides an original setting, Fairy Godmother Tycoon’s creators also endeavored to set the game apart with an fresh tone, a fine balance between not offending players and actually being funny. “My humor is sort of like that: Making fun, but not mean-spirited,” said Kerpelman, who was originally hired to write a humor section for Pogo.com. “I had some experience trying to make this type of humor that’s fora a mass audience and is also not offensive to anybody.” That level of humor isn’t easy to maintain. Kerpelman said that maintaining that tone throughout the development process was one of the major challenges of the production. “There were a couple of stories that were written by other people and trying to get a consistent tone across all the stories was, I think, the most difficult. I ended up kind of rewriting a lot of those other stories to make it fit in with those other stories, which ended up being more work than writing them myself.” That’s not to say that the game’s humor is completely without claws. For example, the peace and love crowd get a ribbing from the dragon characters, who all seem to have been to one too many Woodstocks – “Puff the Magic Dragon” anyone? Kerpelman said that he was initially hesitant about hippie humor, as he felt it had been pretty well tapped over the years.
“Then Chris Miles, our art director, drew a picture of a hippie dragon that looked exactly like my guitar teacher,” Kerpelman recalls with a laugh. “It was just so funny I knew we had to do it.”
Kerpelman’s team also faced some of the challenges that vex nearly every casual game developer, namely perfecting balance and the game’s difficulty. The problem was especially pronounced in stages where the player had to put rival potion makers out of business, which required several tweaks to the enemy AI to make sure that rivals neither went out of business immediately or soldiered on indefinitely.
The problems were eventually ironed out, and others began to get their first look at the game. Pogo’s Sean Clark said that it helped that the game’s concept is so odd that casual game fans can’t help but be intrigued.
“We showed the game a lot to our business partners, and what was interesting was that as soon as you would mention the name there would be a sort of little giggle as they were trying to figure out how it all worked,” Clark said. “And once they saw the art they were really into it.”
Now around a month after its release, the game has started to receive a lot of positive feedback from casual gamers. But they’ve also started talking about what they’d like to see when, and if, the Godmother makes her return. Fans can take heart – Kerpelman’s been thinking about the same things.
“I sort of wish we had branched out into some gameplay around creating coaches out of pumpkins, that sort of thing … and I think that’s something we can explore,” he said. “I think people want to turn it more into a sim fairy tale village, and that’s definitely something we can look at too.”