Behind the Game: Emerald City Confidential

By Erin Bell |

The idea to make an adventure game based on the Wizard of Oz novels was one that indie adventure gamer designer Dave Gilbert had been playing around with in his head for a while, but it took a meeting with PlayFirst at the Game Developer’s Conference – and a subsequent publishing deal – to finally make it happen. Dave takes us "behind the game" for a closer look at the making of Emerald City Confidential, his witty "noir" take on the land of Oz.

Where did the inspiration come from to blend Oz with the "noir" detective story atmosphere?

It was always a dream of mine to make game based on the Oz books ever since I got into game development, but I could never think of a really good concept for one. Then one day I was watching “The Maltese Falcon” and, for some bizarre reason, I imagined what the Scarecrow would be like if he were played by Peter Lorre. I laughed, of course, but the idea took shape from there. I started assigning other Oz characters to classic film actors. Dorothy became Gloria Graham. Betsy Bobbins became Judy Holliday. Ruggedo became Sydney Greenstreet. It started out as pure fun, but after awhile I thought “Hey this is kinda cool.”

When PlayFirst approached me later on and asked me to pitch a game, I knew right away what I wanted to do. It helped that the creative director at PlayFirst (Kenny Dinkin) was reading the Oz books to his son at the time, so he especially liked the idea.

How much input did PlayFirst have in fleshing out the concept?

They did make one or two changes at the beginning (more on that later) but for the most part they trusted me to do my thing and gave me a lot of freedom. I hear that’s rare, so perhaps they spoiled me!

What was it like to work with PlayFirst? How was it different to working alone on the Blackwell series?

It was very different! With Blackwell it’s mostly blind guessing to determine what works or what doesn’t work, but PlayFirst has been doing this for years and can instantly look at a feature and go “yeah, that’s not going to do the trick” or “Hm, that will leave the players totally confused.” There were also a lot more resources at my disposal. I could get advice from their art director, or their lead designer, or their marketing department.

They also had an entire QA department working on the game, which is something I never had before. One aspect that I found fascinating was the usability test. They rounded up some testers and put them in front of the game and set up cameras which recorded their every reaction to the game, so we could see when they were enjoying themselves and when they got frustrated. Some of the things we discovered blew my mind!

One interesting thing we learned was that the testers didn’t think of Petra as their avatar, but rather a prop on the screen to interact with. During the first scene of the game, you need to use a crowbar on a door. But instead of clicking the crowbar on the door, a lot of the testers clicked the crowbar on Petra.  The logic behind this was interesting. They were giving Petra the crowbar so she could use it on the door! They got very frustrated that Petra wouldn’t take it.

It seems a bit backwards, but when you think about it the logic makes perfect sense.

Another stumbling block was dialog trees. When presented with a dialog choice screen, a lot of the testers took a LONG time to choose. They were worried that they were going to make the wrong choice. We had to adjust the first dialog tree to let the players know that it was OK to choose anything they wanted to and it wouldn’t be wrong.

Tell us about the character of Petra and how she evolved.

Funny enough, she originally started off as a man! When I pitched the project to PlayFirst, I had a male gumshoe as the lead character. One of the first suggestions from PlayFirst was “Hey, you should make the detective a woman.” I balked at first, but then I thought about it and realized it actually worked better. Just by making the lead character female, I was able to break away from the “hard boiled, toughguy P.I.” cliché we’ve all seen so many times. You don’t often see a female in that role, and the mere act of gender swapping made the character much more unique and interesting. Also, as a female she could wear that awesome pillbox hat.

A lot of familiar characters have been given new roles and personalities in ECC. What were some of your favorite characters to "make over" from their Frank L. Baum counterparts?

Too many to mention. I had *great* fun with Jack Pumpkinhead, who’s philosophy to answering questions is to just deny everything. I still laugh at some of the lines I gave him. I really enjoyed writing lines for Dee (Dorothy), since she’s so delightfully nasty and self-absorbed. Actually, my favorite character in the game is one I made up especially for the series. If I knew how much fun I would have writing for Anzel, I would have put him in the game more!

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

We had a tough job. The point-and-click adventure game has existed since the 80s, but it is a genre that the casual audience had never seen before. So we wanted to make the game accessible to the casual audience, but we didn’t want to disenfranchise the point-and-click adventure game fans who love this kind of thing. Striking that balance was difficult. It took a lot of testing and a lot of back-and-forth discussion, but in the end the game was better for it and I am proud of what we ended up with.

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

Too many! One of my favorites is when the voice actress playing Glinda and the voice actress playing Mombi met each other in the audio studio. They instantly went into character and pretended to fight with each other. I thought I would cry from laughing so hard. Speaking of voice acting, I had two cameos in the game (the Gump and Ugu) which were great fun to do.

How has the response been to the game so far? Are you happy with it?

So far, so good! I admit I was worried for awhile. Before it went up for sale, I wondered if would it be too different for the casual gamers and too casual for the adventure gamers. But thus far, my fears have been unfounded. Both sides – for the most part – seem to really like the game! The reviews have been great and the customer response has been very positive. I like that very much indeed!

Will you be making more games with PlayFirst in the future? What about a sequel to ECC? 😉

I’ll definitely be making more games with PlayFirst! As for a sequel, it’s a possibility but it’s too early to say. I’d love to make one, if the wind blows that way.

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