Interview with Steven Zhao, Blue Tea Games

Most casual gamers may have only heard of Blue Tea Games with the recent release of Forbidden Riddles: The Mayan Princess, the #1 game on Big Fish Games as we speak. But not me, I’ve been a fan ever since I discovered an indie gem of a game called Cactus Bruce and The Corporate Monkeys, which I wasted countless days and nights playing (what can I say, I’m a sucker for games with coconuts and angry monkeys). We sat down and talked to Steven Zhao (but not over blue tea) to talk about his current projects, his experience as an independent game developer, and corporate monkeys.

How did you come up with the name Blue Tea Games? Does Blue Tea exists? What does it taste like?

I think it was a ten minute discussion with a friend many years ago. I told him I needed a consumable object that was not only curiously unique but also something a person would want to try. Durian milkshake didn’t pass, so Blue Tea became the final name.

Oddly enough I did drink an unofficial “blue tea”, although I wished I hadn’t. It happened in a little tea shop located in a touristy part of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The tea tasted too murky, and it’s sweet; I’d probably get the same pleasure from washed up newspaper mixed with licorice.

Blue Tea Games first came on my personal radar screen when you released Cactus Bruce and the Corporate Monkeys. For those who do not know, it’s a game about a pirate cactus who must catch coconuts then throw them back at monkeys. In my book, it’s among the most creative and under-rated games I have ever played. What were you on when you created this game? Seriously, how did you come up with a game featuring a cactus pirate, angry corporate monkeys, a puffer-fish, and coconuts?

Funny you mentioned that. A radio reviewer who loved the game once said that I must have been high when making Cactus Bruce. But, what I was aiming for was capturing a game that embodied the “curiously unique” motto, and the thought process came down to combining a common characteristic with a unique feature. Thus, a pirate is a common protagonist, and a cactus is well, not a pirate. By the same logic (or lack of), monkey + disgruntled white collar workers = corporate monkeys.

What is your favorite game that you have created?

This is a tough call, Forgotten Riddles (“FR”) first followed closely by Cactus Bruce. Both games are labors of love, but I was able to create FR as I envisioned it without time and fund constraint.

What are your favorite games from other developers that you are playing right now?

Hipsoft’s Build-A-Lot. That game is just fantastic in many ways.

You just released with your publisher Big Fish Games Forgotten Riddles: The Mayan Princess. One of the main complaints about hidden object games is that there are too many released and they are all the same. Yet, your game has a big twist in that you are actually solving riddles by finding the objects in the game. Can you give us insight into how you came up with this twist and the design of this game?

When I was a kid, I think it was my parents who found me a booklet on riddles. It has questions structured as riddles and your job was to fill in the blanks. I wanted to bring this medium to games and also have it be suitable for the casual space. Then, divine inspiration kicked in, and that’s when I asked myself: “Instead of filling in words, wouldn’t it be more fun to let the player find the riddle answers in a confined space? To do that these riddles must describe objects in a location, wait, isn’t that a hidden object game?” In my opinion, the beauty of it all was this format wasn’t forced at all, it just came about naturally.

How many riddles do you have in this game. How’d you come up with all of them?

Exactly 1500 unique riddles. I credit this to my artist Shawn, he created around 95% of the riddles. Early in the development, I was in the process of finding writer(s) for the sole purpose of composing riddles. Shawn wanted to give it a try, and knowing he majored in English, I let him have a shot at it as well. He blew the competition away by creating ingenious riddles in the quickest time. Not only that, because he was also responsible for shading and placing the riddles objects in the game, the whole process was streamlined.

In your biography on your Web site, you are personally credited with designing and programming the following games since 2003 – Teddy Tavern, Ballmaster 2, Ballmaster, Meeklits, Cactus Bruce, HeliumMan, and now, Forgotten Riddles. That’s a lot of games in just 4 years. What is your background? How did you create 7 games in . . . 4 years?

I started creating commercial games back in 2002, but Blue Tea Games was formed a year later. My reason for starting commercial titles was to support myself in college, mainly for tuition and housing.

Back then shareware games were fairly simple, so it was possible for me to create a finished product in 3-4 months. The first commercial title I made was HeliumMan, a mean looking smiley face with four arm cannons. Early in HeliumMan’s development I only completed one level and wanted to give up. Luckily back then, was a hot place to have your software listed. However to have your game go live required a 16 week waiting period. For the heck of it, I’ve decided to submit HeliumMan and claimed that the game was a finished product. In the next 15 weeks I completed the other 30 levels and finished the game. I had to skip half the university lectures to have made that possible. But ever since that experience, I had no trouble building games quickly and effectively.

You have developed games independently as well as worked with a publisher to produce games. What are the pro’s and con’s of each approach? Do you for-see an increasing role for publishers in the casual games space? What do you think about the state of independent games in the casual game market?

For developing games independently (a game that can but not specifically targeted to the casual audience), the advantages are you can create any games you want, be closer to your customers, and potentially carve yourself a niche. The disadvantages are the slow return, or any return, plus the challenge of marketing your game.

For developing games with a publisher, the advantages are the funds to help you get started, high visibility when game launches, and their support and feedback (extremely helpful for FR). The disadvantages are in some cases you don’t retain the IP, your game choice are limited, and there’s a barrier between you and the customers.

As production value rises over time, the costs of creating a game will give publishers a bigger role in funding developers. Although one can argue that this process would produce more clones of popular genres, I see it as a chance for developers, notably those with solid track records, to experiment with innovative and engaging titles. One prime example I can think of is Azada.

Where do you see the future of casual gaming in 5 years?

If we look five years back at the game genres that dominated the casual space, in my opinion it’ll give us a good understanding of where the next five years will take us. One such progression is games will be more in-tuned with real life. We started out with match-3s, arkanoids, and Zuma-style ball poppers. Now we see games that let you run your own pizza franchise, build houses, and solve mysteries in a haunted mansion. Down the road, these games will merge with engaging storylines and further convince the players they’re part of the game.

Can you give us any hints about your upcoming games?

Forgotten Riddles 2 is in the pipeline, and sticking with our “curiously unique” motto, I can say that those who’ve played the first one will find the second iteration a fresh and engaging experience.

Any final words to your fans out there?

I love to hear your feedback. Your compliments let me know I’m doing a good job, but your suggestions and criticisms help me grow and become a better developer. You can check us out at

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