Behind the Game: Unwell Mel

By Erin Bell |

Like Fairway Solitaire before it, Unwell Mel was a successful Web game that found a new audience as a full-fledged PC download. Was Big Fish Games ever worried that people might not want to pay for what they could already play for free? Not in the slightest. Big Fish Games Studios VP Pat Wylie, Lead Game Programmer/Designer Jake Birkett, Senior Game Designer John Cutter, and Art Director Rhonda Conley talk about the making of the match-3 that pokes fun at the hypochondriac in all of us.

What made you look at the online version of Unwell Mel and think, "That would make a great PC download game?"

John: The online version (programmed by newcomer Molly Jameson), was very popular and we all thought, “Yeah!  That will be a fun and easy to remake as a download title.”  Unfortunately, nothing is ever that easy when it comes to computers and game development (But it was still fun).

Jake: The online version was (and still is) very popular. It had a unique comedic-medical theme that made it stand out from the plethora of Atlantis, Egypt and Tropical Island match-three games out there. Also I had already programmed four match-three games and we felt that we had a solid understanding of the genre to make a new and strong match-three game with John’s design direction.

Rhonda: Being able to flesh out the art further was great. With the online version we started down a path of trying out a retro animation look, but we were able to take it much further with this download version.  Roberto (the artist) and I specifically looked at Disney’s short-film “Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom,” and the backgrounds in the original “101 Dalmatians,” cartoon feature for inspiration.

Pat: It really is a case of looking at a successful game and finding the best way to broaden its appeal. The team had a proven track record working together and really adding a level of polish that you don’t often see in games. Our goal is to make differentiated and great games and I hope we achieved this with the latest version of Mel.

What kinds of features did you focus on when fleshing out the online version for a download audience? Were you ever afraid that people wouldn’t be willing to pay for something they could already play for free?

Jake: We focused on improving the existing power-ups and creating some new cool ones including the ICU which changes how you play the game for a limited time. We also added some great, fun bonus items that appear after big matches like the Mega Pill and the Medical Grant challenge. Then we added the power-up salesman so that the power-ups could be introduced gradually over the course of the game.  Another thing we focused on was the idea that Mel is very ill at the start of the game and you gradually make him better over the course of the game – this isn’t possible in the online game because new level packs are often introduced.

I was personally never worried that people wouldn’t buy the game due to there being a free online version because I knew that the download version would offer differentiated and sometimes improved features from the online version. Also, when we converted the online version of Fairway Solitaire to a download version, it performed very well, so the confidence level was pretty high for Unwell Mel. Not everyone plays online games so we were reaching a different audience.

John: I think our primary concern was to take what worked so well for the online version and really refine it for the download audience by offering higher-resolution graphics, more animations, better sound effects, more features (like the Calendar) and so on.  

Online Unwell Mel was designed to be open-ended, as we wanted to offer additional Disease Packs.  So in that version of the game Mel repeatedly comes in with a disease, gets cured, and leaves happy. But we wanted to offer players a satisfying ending in the download version so we made the decision to give Mel ALL the diseases right at the start (He looks pretty awful). As players cure Mel’s afflictions, his condition gradually improves, until he eventually looks normal again at the end of the game.

Rhonda: The theme and style of the game made for some interesting conversations, not just with Mel but the backgrounds and other bits of art. The art style is cartoony and colorful, but the game takes place inside Mel’s body so…how to make a spleen come off as happy and cheerful made for some serious debate.  

Some of the diseases afflicting poor Mel are hilarious. Who came up with these, and what are some of the ones you’re most proud of?

Jake: John Cutter is a wizard at silly names and puns. Some made me literally laugh out loud and snigger when I was testing the game such as Traumatic Wegiosis – that one gets me every time.

John: I came up with a lot of the disease names, but I had input from the online team. One of our moderators (ion_kaye) came up with some great ones. This kind of thing is normally ignored by developers and players alike, so it’s extremely gratifying to hear that.  

I think I’m most proud of:

  • Traumatic Wedgiosis
  • Acute Purse Fever
  • In-Law Ulceritis
  • Luck B. Malady (that was for Sinatra fans)
  • Paul Bunions (that disease has a level named “Big Blue Oxymoron”)

Rhonda:  Yeah about John’s punny names – I don’t know how he comes up with this stuff, just off the top of his head seemingly. It’s constantly amazing!

Pat: I have nothing funny to add other than saying humor is hard in games and from what the forums are saying, we have succeeded on some level.

Any funny or interesting stories to share about the game’s development?

Jake: I’ve actually had a bad year of health whilst programming Unwell Mel and I’m wondering if seeing the game’s name every day had a psychosomatic effect on me (of course players get to make Mel well again, so hopefully it will have a positive effect on them instead). Therefore I’ve decided that my next game will be called Super Rich and Healthy Jake.

John: Well, my wife’s name is “Melanie” but I usually call her “Mel”.  So that has lead to some funny comments and conversations. For example, her Mom called one night and asked me how I was doing.  I said, “I’m trying to finish off Mel.”  That left me with explaining to do. Also, Jake and Roberto weren’t in Seattle, so I sent and received nearly 8,000 e-mails during the game’s development. No wonder I came down with a case of Carpool Tunnel Syndrome.

Rhonda: Mel’s outside manifestations of his illnesses also went through a few iterations. Since the first time I drew Mel I have felt very fond of him, and somehow the idea of drawing him with all kinds of hideous maladies seemed appropriate because who wouldn’t want to help the poor fellow feel better, seeing him so.

Jake: To add to Rhonda’s comments about Mel’s illnesses, remember when he had a hairy tongue?  I saw that on a screenshot the other day and it was pretty scary! Then Rhonda sent a mock up with a blue tongue but it was still quite long and Mel looked like a demon or something. Also I kept moaning that the backgrounds were too gross and at one point we had some green guts piled on a red blood splattered background and my colleague, Dora, said that it looked like something from Left for Dead (a zombie game), which she was playing at the time. Now the guts are violet on green which is much less visceral.

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