Most people can follow a recipe, but it takes a special kind of culinary talent to be able to throw ingredients together and make up mouthwatering dishes on the fly. It’s this creative side of cooking that Gamelab and Brighter Minds Media wanted to explore with Top Chef. Brighter Minds Media Game Producer and Online Sales Director Ran Flastersteingave Gamezebo a behind the scenes look at the making of this kitchen management title.

How did the idea for a Top Chef game come about?

Brighter Minds has been creating children’s product with television licenses such as Bob the Builder and Caillou for a long time, so for our first casual game, we considered what television shows might make for a fun game. The popularity of food-themed games was obvious from hits like Diner Dash and Cake Mania, and the way in which the show’s judges eliminate contestants on each episode of the show was a great fit for taking players forward from level to level, giving them a goal of being the last chef standing and claiming the title of Top Chef.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with a pre-existing IP (in this case, the TV show)?

One of the advantages of working with a television license is that there are certain aspects of the show (music, characters, lines of dialogue, etc.) that are immediately available to us and we know they should be successful in the game because they have already helped make the show a success. After all, it’s in season 5 already!

Another big advantage is that there is a whole team of people (in this case – the great staff at Bravo) who know the show inside and out and are willing and able to contribute ideas along the way and help us to create as good a representation as possible of the show.

A major disadvantage that can happen with some licenses is the delay in production time as you must wait for a large multimedia corporation to provide feedback and approvals on the different milestones of a game project, but this was not the case with Top Chef, as our contacts did a marvelous job of responding quickly to all of our needs (while still getting the rest of their jobs done!).

Where you fans of the TV show before you started working on the game?

Anybody at Brighter Minds or at Gamelab that wasn’t already a fan of the show quickly became a fan when watching previous episodes as research for the game. Personally, I had never watched it before but was immediately hooked. It is not a reality show in the typical sense, where people with varying personalities are forced to live together and fake drama is created by the show’s producers.

Top Chef shines because it is about a group of contestants who truly want to perfect their culinary skills and have the opportunity to open their own restaurant with the prize money. There is tension, and not all the contestants get along, but it is always real. The judges are knowledgable because they are chefs and food critics and authors themselves, the challenges are interesting, and the best food wins. Attitude is also very important on the show. You have to be a chef who is willing to work hard, take criticism, and learn from your mistakes. The chefs who think they already know it all are often in for a rude awakening as they are asked to pack their knives and go.

What are some of the key features of the TV show that you felt it was most important to get across in the game?

The importance of fulfilling the challenge you are given was very important. If your challenge is to create a sweet dish and you give the judges broccoli and jalapenos, even if it’s good they’re not going to be able to reward you since you didn’t follow instructions. You wouldn’t serve crab cakes and canapes at a baseball game and you wouldn’t serve chilli dogs at a formal dinner.

Other than that, we wanted to stay true to the personalities of judges Tom and Padma, and were elated that they were able and willing to give some of their time to record lines for our game. When you add a certain ingredient to your dish and Tom says "I’m really looking forward to tasting that dish," you feel on top of the world even if in your real life you only ever make cereal and mac and cheese.

With so many other cooking games on the market, what steps did you take to make Top Chef stand out from the crowd?

The most important item here, and a lot of credit goes to Gamelab on this, is that other cooking games provide you with a recipe and you simply follow along and complete each step on the list. In Top Chef the game, like on the show, we wanted the creativity of cooking to stand out, allowing players to create their own recipes with a large set of ingredients to choose from. This has resulted in some extremely delicious looking dishes and some that sound, well, less than edible.

I have read some reviews that complained about the awful dishes that were created in the game, but who chose those ingredients?  =)   On the flip side, I have watched players who really took the time to learn their ingredients and become experts at the game, and they have created dishes that honestly made my mouth water. Everyone working on the game at one point or another had to take a break and get some food after seeing a particularly tasty in-game dish.

The gameplay of selecting appropriate ingredients based on given criteria is similar to Jojo’s Fashion Show, another Gamelab title. How did you adapt the fashion-themed gameplay of Jojo’s to fit cooking?

In all honesty, this was the most ambitious and most difficult part of the project. Unlike the fashion world, where sight (and perhaps touch) are the senses that matter, the inability of a computer game to provide taste or smell made it tough to figure out the best way to judge a player’s dishes. The solution here was to reward players for two important accomplishments with their food – following the challenge requirements (if you’re supposed to make a spicy dish and you pile on the chili peppers, the judges will be pleased) and putting together ingredient combinations that work well together (there are over 400 "classic combos" in the game, my favorites are Orange + Lemon and Jalapeno + Avocado)

How would you describe the development process overall? Smooth? Difficult?

It was a fairly difficult process, especially seeing as we changed direction in a major way two and a half months in to make sure that our game had enough focus. The original plan was for players to go shopping for ingredients before choosing their recipe and stepping into the kitchen. We went back and forth with ideas to try and keep the shopping aspect in the game, but at the end it was decided that the game’s focus in the kitchen provided plenty of challenge for players on its own.

We also had a change of Project Managers mid-way through the project, as well as a change of the contact at Bravo that worked with us on approvals. All four of these people were great working on the game, but the change in personnel was a tough one to take in mid-project without any loose ends getting lost in transition.

Any funny or interesting stories from the development process that you can share?

When we were very close to finished with the game, I was taking turns playing it through and testing it with three friends at home one night. On the second to last level in the game, we just could not make it through – those judges are tough! We took turns being the person controlling the mouse, and we all helped each other out. As we kept playing and missing out, we kept getting better. We’d remember more and more correct ingredients each time. By the end of the night, we had one person who was an expert on German food and one who was an expert for Thai ingredients. We would all pitch in with ingredient choices and we were all cheering on the person with the mouse. We finally beat the level on our 8th try… the sense of accomplishment was huge. We celebrated a bit before everyone went home. It was two in the morning. We had all just gotten caught up in the challenge.

We adjusted the difficulty on that level before releasing the game so it wouldn’t be quite so hard, but I truly had a good time working as a team, and I found out how good you could get if you played enough to learn all the qualities of certain ingredients. Like anything in life, practice makes perfect. The more you play Top Chef, the better your scores will get. You’ll be creating five star dishes with ease.

Also, it was funny to see that so many people agree – you can’t go wrong with bacon!

Although there are only 24 classic combos with bacon, most everybody on the game development side as well as players who helped us test the game in various stages of completion never felt so good about the ingredient they had just put in their dish as when that ingredient was bacon.

Any last words for your fans?

Thank you to everybody who is cooking up a storm in Top Chef. We hope you enjoy the heat in that often stressful kitchen, and that you are pleased with your culinary results. We are hard at work creating new fun experiences for you all in the future. Thank you, thank you.