Fore play: How Big Fish found one of the great duos

Peanut butter and jelly. Ham and eggs. Laurel and Hardy. … Golf and solitaire? OK, so it may not seem like the most natural combination. But by drawing on the best bits of both, Fairway Solitaire may have created a whole new perfect combination to rank right up there with PB&J.

It takes a fanatic

The idea of combining golf and solitaire was actually not a new one, it had been kicking around the halls of Big Fish Games for some time before industry vet John Cutter latched on to the concept, originally created by programmer Glen DeBiasa and artist Tabitha Borchardt. Cutter said it immediately struck a chord with his past.

"I’m pretty much a fanatic about the sport," he said. "I learned to play golf when I was 7 years old and I had a fairly impressive junior record, winning a bunch of city and state tournaments. I even competed on the Pepperdine University golf team for a couple of years. I still watch – and enjoy watching – golf on TV… so yeah, pretty much a golf nut."


First mock-up from the design document

The big question, of course, was where those two ideas should meet. Appropriately enough, the base idea of the game is drawn from golf solitaire, though it’s been heavily modified. For starters, while golf features a standard card layout, Fairway Solitaire is much more flexible.

"In the beginning, I thought of the different hole layouts as actual holes," Cutter said. "In fact, in my early sample hole layouts I had a group of cards representing the tee box, and another representing the green. I later abandoned this approach in favor of more interesting and varied layouts; drawing inspiration from some of the Mahjong games out there."

It’s a trap!

As Cutter was creating "holes" or stages, he struck upon the idea of including other aspects of golf such as sand traps and water hazards.

"These are staples on any real course. I liked these so much as strategic elements that I left them in when I switched to the more creative hole layout style," he said.

Artist Matt Laverty’s first pass

But, obviously, Cutter couldn’t fit all of golf into his game, and some ideas had to fall by the wayside.

"I had originally wanted all the courses to feature a full 18 holes, like real courses, but I worried that gamers would be frustrated if they played that many holes, only to "fail" on the last one and have to start all over again," Cutter said. "So I made most of the courses 9 holes and this seemed to work out pretty well."

Other things were left on the drawing board too, like a seek-and-find minigame that players were supposed to go through whenever they lost a ball.

The feel of the course

Beyond including some basic golf mechanics, the team also wanted to further cement the melding of the two pastimes by making their game share some of the same aesthetics as a day on the greens. It not only highlights the golf elements but, Cutter says, makes for a more enjoyable experience overall.

"One of my theories about game design is that there is a direct correlation between the quality of an action’s feedback and the perceived enjoyment of that experience. So with that goal in mind I was pretty diligent about giving players great feedback each time they "play" a card to the foundation," he said. "I really wanted this action to feel like a golf shot, with a nice solid "WHACK" sound and the card spinning and arcing down to the bottom of the screen."


Matt continued to work on the main screen

The look of the golfers inhabiting the courses was key too, and it was a controversial subject … at least under Cutter’s roof.

"The original female avatars featured ‘realistic’ female bodies. But towards the end of development I thought it might be better to use more idealized female figures … you know, curvier and sexier," Cutter said. "The problem was that I forgot to mention the body change to my wife. She fired the game up to help me test it and a few minutes later I heard, ‘What did YOU do?’ My wife apparently loved the realistic body and she then proceeded to lecture me for the next twenty minutes about how not all women are shaped like Barbie dolls. I think I slept on the couch that night."

A long drive

One of the trickiest part of the game’s development was how much of it had to be done long distance between Cutter, DeBiasa, artist Matt Laverty and programmer Jake Birkett.

"It would have been easier to explain things in person, to say, for example, ‘No, I want the cards to spin like this [John makes a spinning motion with his hand].’ Instead, we had to do everything via e-mail," Cutter said. "I keep a folder of ‘important’ e-mails for each project I work on and I just added up the e-mails in my Fairway Solitaire folder. I have sent and received roughly TEN THOUSAND e-mails about this game since early 2006. No wonder my hands are constantly cramped into little knots all the time."

Birkett says he still has the evidence of the copious amounts of correspondence between the staff, in a folder containing "pages and pages" of handwritten notes that he’d made during development.


The final online version

But perhaps (and it’s a question that can’t be answered) that’s where the secret to Fairway Solitaire lies. Maybe golf and solitaire aren’t naturally the best combo. Maybe, in the end, it was this level of care that made them the perfect pair.

"That’s the kind of attention to detail that went into it," Birkett said. "We iterated some of the game elements a LOT, for example the ‘resume game’ dialog had about 6 iterations. I probably drove Matt (and John) half mad with my constant tiny tweaks to stuff, but it all added up to a quality finish."


The final download version

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