Story is not always the top priority in casual game development. Sure, it’s a great compliment to some games, adding an extra layer of satisfaction to the gameplay or a few laughs, but for other games it’s a downright hindrance.
That’s part of what put I-play in such an unusual position while developing Women’s Murder Club. They wanted more than a threadbare way to get from Level A to Level B; their primary motivation was a solid narrative.
“First and foremost, we knew we wanted the game to tell a great story,” said Tony Leamer, Director of Content Marketing for I-play. “When you’ve got the number one storyteller on the planet to work with (James Patterson), you need to make sure the game mechanics serve the story, rather than the other way around, as with many casual games.”
It was, the team felt, the right choice considering their source material. And, as they soon discovered, they had little choice but to do right by Patterson.
“We were all familiar with the books of course, but honestly we had no idea how massively popular James Patterson is and how legion his fans are,” Leamer said. “He has sold over 150 million books! Honestly, we felt most obligated to do justice to his incredible storytelling abilities in what was his first foray into an interactive medium.”
Finding a path
Sure, the story was important, but that didn’t mean I-play could slouch on the fun. The center of their game, seek-and-find, was a pretty clear choice for a mystery game.
The trick, however, was making seek-and-find believable in the gritty world of Patterson’s creation.
“Where many seek-and-find games have players locked into a formula of: ‘find random junk in a cluttered room, repeat,’ we wanted to make sure that, as much as possible, every element of gameplay, including the objects to find, helps to tell the story, or at least feels contextually relevant,” Leamer said.
Of course, there were occasional exceptions. Leamer admits he’s still not sure why inspector Lindsay keeps a razor blade in her office.
Though they had a strong base with seek-and-find, I-play they knew they couldn’t stop there.
“The casual games space is also crowded with mystery-themed seek-and-find games,” Leamer said. “That’s why we felt it was important to use seek-and-find as a launching point, as a way of drawing people in, but then to take the gameplay in a different direction, adding light adventure and puzzle elements in a way that are deeply integral to the story.”
One of the factors that made the integration of variety easier was that their game was centered on such a diverse cast of characters.
“One of the brilliant things about the books is that each of the WMC members brings both a unique set of skills and a unique personality to each story,” Leamer said. “We wanted to make sure that each of the games for the characters felt relevant to their skill set and their job. Cindy is a journalist, so words are her business. It felt natural to have her playing a word game. Claire is a Medical Examiner, so procedures are everything for her and the lab provides a great backdrop for a procedural type of gampeplay.”
She’s got the look
Gameplay variety was obviously the big hurdle, but much of the game’s 10-month development cycle was also spent making sure that the game’s look and sound captured the feel of Patterson’s books. This, Leamer said, was no easy task.
“If you’ve read any of Patterson’s books, particularly his crime books such as the Women’s Murder Club or Alex Cross titles, you know that they all have a very gritty realism to them and we really wanted to capture this in the game,” he said.
But there was always a danger of going to far in the hopes of being “real,” a factor even the book’s author took notice of.
“One major challenge though was capturing this reality without making it too real and potentially inappropriate for a mainstream, casual games audience,” Leamer said. “Horrible acts are described very vividly in James Patterson novels. Our goal was to capture this unseemly reality without alienating the audience. Honestly, when we showed him the final build of the game, one piece of feedback Jim [Patterson] had was that we might have played it too safe.”
The perfect fit
One of the greatest strengths of the WMC license was how well it fit into a casual game mold and how I-play was able to use it to inform every choice along the way.
At the same time though, the power of the license, and the series’ adoring fans, was part of what made i-Play’s job so tough.
“The biggest challenge may have been deciding what to cut and what to keep,” Leamer said. “With characters like this and given the team that was working on it, there were so many amazing things that [designer] Jane Jensen and the team wanted to do. Fortunately they got to do many of them and made an incredible game, but there is always stuff that gets left behind. Lots of ideas for the next WMC game though…”