Ancient Spirits: Columbus’ Legacy was released by Big Fish Games on Columbus Day, October 11, 2010, exclusively for 30 days. Columbus Day commemorates Italian voyager Christopher Columbus’ landing in the “New World” in 1492. Developing this huge casual-adventure game was also a “new world” for our studio cerasus.media in Berlin, Germany. We experienced so much during the adventure that it is hard to pin down the essence of “What went right?” and “What went wrong?” As we look back at the development of Ancient Spirits: Columbus’ Legacy, however, there are definitely some lessons we took with us.
What went right?
The game is graphically consistent, as if flowing from a single source. That, with the challenge of more than 40 different scenarios, demanded everything our graphic designers had. After the detailed first draft, a color layout was designed to establish the color range. Afterwards, the details were completed and objects were put into position. When the player experiences a level, many of the objects they are looking for are hard to identify because the objects are painted over; there are no annoying photo snippets in the sets. This was one of the goals of our graphic designers, who invested a lot of time in it during post-production. In addition, we chose to abandon the popular “darkened main object” concept that many other games use. The objects are also well hidden in light levels, whereby one sees a beautiful color range instead of shades of grey.
The interface should be a functional gateway between the game and the player first and foremost, but still look good in the game. Players must be able to access certain functions and information immediately without unnecessary clicks. We originally envisioned using a pop-up window for access to important functions (ghost glasses, flashlight…). This proved to be cumbersome during Beta testing, so we re-configured this feature shortly before the release. “If the way is too long for the player, he will not follow it.” With this principle in mind, we created a new interface with easily-recognizable elements that are also easy to use.
Virginia Carter, Archeologist
There were even changes made to the main character over time. Virginia (MacNara at first, later Carter) is less cartoonish and delicate. She is an engaged archeologist who believes in her work. A resolute woman who fearlessly pursues ghosts!
The Player Controls the Game
It is hard to design a difficulty level that works for most players while working on the first game in a genre. We learned this the hard way during Beta testing for Ancient Spirits: Columbus’ Legacy, which is why we now offer players the option to turn off clues in the game (Expert Mode). Players who prefer a less difficult game are led to their next challenge by sparkle-effects. Players who want a harder game can turn these effects off to raise the difficulty level.
Another customization option is the ability to turn scroll functions on or off. When we began developing the game, we wanted to make the four locations (beach, cemetery, entrance to the ghost town, and archeologists’ camp) scrollable to give the players a new experience. Unfortunately, testing showed that half of the players hated this option, while half of the players loved it. What to do? We decided on a button that players can use to toggle on and off at any time. All search options remain, and newly-found objects need not be searched for. This is a solution we are very proud of and that every player should be satisfied with.
What went wrong?
Life is all about the details
In Ancient Spirits: Columbus’ Legacy, we inserted some minor details that players do not see right away, but that we hope – as was the case with one of our Beta testers – makes them break out laughing when they notice them. These are little effects that occur when the cursor is placed over certain objects and that help to round out the playing experience. In hindsight, I have to say that we did not incorporate enough of these effects in the game. This would have enhanced the game by making it more lively.
A good idea does not make a good story
The original ideas in the story were simple: archeologists, ghosts, historical references, and a deadly riddle. Unfortunately, packing all of these ideas in and retaining consistent gameplay was harder than we thought. The story is sometimes long and “confusing” for some players. To fix this, we added clues that lengthened the story – but these proved too easy for many experienced gamers. We remedied this by adding an Expert Mode, although there is still there is much to improve upon in future games.
Qualitatively speaking, this game is no Mystery Case Files or Drawn. We would classify it as lower upper-class or upper middle-class. The ideas were very ambitious, but could not always be perfectly implemented. The game was also designed for Nintendo DS and the iPad. We learned a lot over the past few months and hope that our experience will help us improve future games.
For us sailors, finishing Ancient Spirits: Columbus’ Legacy means the end of an exciting, stressful, and instructive period. But with the classic Mountains of Madness from H.P. Lovecraft (visit www.cerasus-media.com for more details), our next challenge is already in sight. This next game will have less to do with the classic Hidden Object genre and lean more towards an Adventure game. I am certain we will profit greatly from our experiences with Ancient Spirits: Columbus’ Legacy.
Holger Neitsch is a Project Manager at cerasus.media.