Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst is the fifth title in one of the most popular hidden object game franchises in casual game history, but how close did "R2R" come to abandoning its hidden object game roots once and for all?

This was just one of the issues touched on when Gamezebo sat down with Return to Ravenhearst’s Lead Designer Adrian Woods, Art Director Jeff Haynie and Producer Chris Campbell, and Big Fish Games VP Patrick Wylie as they reflected on the making of the game. (Read more.)

Gameplay in Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst is radically different from its predecessors in the Mystery Case Files series. Why did you choose to evolve Return to Ravenhearst into a point-and-click adventure game (while still keeping its hidden object roots)?

Adrian Woods: We wanted players to experience a degree of immersion that surpassed previous games. I’ve always been a fan of adventure games and saw a lot of crossover between the hidden-object and adventure game demographic. It feels like a natural progression to dismiss the conventional map screen and let players directly explore a more detailed world. Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst was originally planned to contain no hidden-object scenes but we felt that experience might feel a bit jarring for fans of the series.

How did Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst compare to Mystery Case Files: Madame Fate in terms of development time, and budget?

Patrick Wylie: Surprisingly, Madame Fate and Return to Ravenhearst had very similar budgets and schedules. Efficiencies came with leadership from Adrian, Jeff and Chris. Jeff led the art group to new heights while still creating an environment of creative freedom. As a result, the artists flourished and were able to develop twice as much art at even higher quality in the same period of time.

For Return to Ravenhearst, Adrian and Jeff started design work before Madame Fate was even finished. This helped create an energy that the team was able to feed off of throughout production.

Another efficiency that we had was that we began the art on this project much earlier which also contributed to more efficient pre-production and production phases.

Cost for both games was between $500,000 and $1 million per game.

A few additional costs included the introduction of live orchestra scores that we worked with Somatone on for Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst as well as Azada: Ancient Magic and Hidden Expedition: Amazon. The other new cost was live characters. Both of these were worth every penny!

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

Adrian Woods: Very smooth. This is a game I’ve wanted to make for some time so I had a pretty solid vision in my mind as far as story and general game design. The biggest challenges were decisions involving the blend of hidden object and adventure genres. Getting it done in under a year felt overly ambitious at times, but we made it.

Jeff Haynie: I agree, very smooth. Adrian and I outlined what we wanted to do, then executed on it. We had very few roadblocks.

Chris Campbell: I’ll make it unanimous. This was the most efficient team I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Everyone worked tirelessly and truly believed in what we were creating; I think it shows. And the talent level… wow!

Any funny or interesting stories that you can share about the game’s development?

Jeff Haynie: During the filming session with the actors, we had great moments. One case was the performance of Charles Dalmir was so over acted that during the next few months you could hear in the office “Victor! Take the device and run far, far, far, far…away!”

Adrian Woods: …and Charles licking baby Victor was unexpected AND delicious!

Chris Campbell: Well hearing the actor say, “run far far far far…away!” was also interesting because while dropping the voice over into the game, you could hear that clip echo through the entire studio multiple times a day. That went on for about a week. It was fun watching the reactions of people who weren’t used to it. Adrian has really good speakers on his computer, really good.

Patrick Wylie: Well, there were also a lot of fun discussions regarding the twins area of the game. You should see what was designed for the basement area!

Chris Campbell: I didn’t think we could talk about that (grins).

Adrian Woods: Maybe for the next game….

Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst is the first time we see live actors being used to represent characters like Victor and Emma. Tell us a little about what it was like to work with the actors.

Adrian Woods: The actor who played Victor was a VERY interesting fellow. Most of the script was changed because he would just start talking. It was funny so we kept it. He was like a cross between Robin Williams and Edgar Allen Poe.

Jeff Haynie: (laughs) Wow. Great visual! It was a learning process. I’ve done a lot of book-covers using models before but not at this scale. Working with video and action parts involved much more planning and staging. It was well worth the extra work! I knew that we could do a lot in post-production with effects so I didn’t stress about getting the actions perfect.

Chris Campbell: Seeing these characters come to life was really awesome, but also a huge challenge. Emma is a popular figure in the series and giving her a voice and a face – it was something we spent a lot of time on to try and get it right. Jeff did an unbelievable job in taking those characters and making them part of the world. He might not have stressed over it, but I was a little nervous! Watching him go through that process and make revision after revision to get them perfect – it really was a testament to how each member of the team worked.

What other games or media did you draw inspiration from for Return to Ravenhearst? The scene with the twin girl ghosts in the hallway reminded me a lot of that scene in The Shining, for example.

Adrian Woods: Yes, we’ve borrowed a good deal from horror movies and books. The default names in the high score list should look familiar to fans of a certain poet and author. Game-wise, you can see a lot of Zork, Myst, and 7th Guest. Rachael Ray is a big influence as well.

Jeff Haynie – We were influenced by a lot of old classic murder-mystery movies, such as Hitchcock, Orson Wells, Rebecca, Psycho and the third man. Scenes like the bathroom curtain with the mannequin (Psycho) and the house burning down (Rebecca). We also pulled influences from old adventure games like Myst, 7th Guest and Full Throttle.

Which part (or parts) of Return to Ravenhearst are you most proud of, and why?

Adrian Woods: I appreciate working with such a great team of talented artists.

Jeff Haynie: Well first of all I’m proud of the team. I’m proud of how everyone contributed to keep the world cohesive and believable by matching the style and working as one artist. Also, I’m proud of the balance of the game. It’s not perfect (what game is?), but when you look at each part i.e. gameplay, visual design, audio design, story, flow and puzzle design, each area has enough focus and polish to deliver a strong immersive experience.

Chris Campbell: The adventure aspects of the game. I grew up on the classic adventure games, so being a part of this title… I feel very fortunate. Adrian took adventure and hidden-object styles of play and combined them creating a game that will redefine what people think a “casual” game should be, and what’s possible.

Patrick Wylie: I am very proud of the team for taking an already extremely strong franchise and growing it to a whole other level. The team meshed so well together and you can see it in the end. I love this game and I am proud to work with this team.

What’s next for the Mystery Case Files series?

Adrian Woods: If we told you that, it wouldn’t be a mystery.