Developer Spotlight: Murder, She Wrote

Posted by Conor Murphy on November 12, 2009 in Game Development -- Share:
Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She WroteWe’re happy to welcome Donald E. Marshall of Legacy Interactive as today’s guest blogger. Donald is acting as the Senior Producer for Murder, She Wrote, an upcoming release on Big Fish Games.

When we saw the very first build we knew it was going to be an incredibly immersive and engaging Hidden Object game. Everyone has at least one memory of Jessica Fletcher and her sleuthing skills, and the game brings those memories right back. Legacy has done a great job of re-creating the sleepy town of Cabot Cove and all the characters in it.

Murder, She Wrote follows Jessica through five different murder mysteries around the world, on a journey the player will not soon forget. If you were a fan of the beloved TV show, you will most definitely enjoy this tribute to a classic. A big thanks to Donald for taking the time to share his experience with us. Take it away, Donald!

From TV to PC

My name is Donald E. Marshall and I am a Senior Producer at Legacy Interactive. I was lucky enough to be chosen as the producer for Murder, She Wrote, one of our upcoming games based on the classic TV series by the same name. Having grown up in a small, New England town, I know what it’s like to be part of a close knit community where people know and care for each other; to feel so safe you never need to lock your doors at night. Working on a game where the characters are constantly finding murder victim in gardens, behind white picket fences, and at the local ice cream social was an interesting perspective.

While most gamers raise their eyebrows when I mention Murder, She Wrote, it’s not hard to see how this property can be very successfully adapted into a casual game. The name is still highly recognizable among just about anyone over the age of thirty and is one of the most successful television murder mystery series of all time. Its stories are compact, memorable, well written, and thrilling without being horrifying. The heroine (world-renowned mystery novelist, Jessica Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury) exudes wisdom and a clever style that helps her think through even the toughest dilemma.

Murder She Wrote

Making the Game

When translating a movie or television series into a game you have to be very careful to capture and maintain the original feel of the licensed property. It is critical the game maintain the feel and tone of the Murder, She Wrote television show. If Jessica doesn’t speak in her signature folksy-yet-straightforward tone, the chances the game would feel like a natural evolution of a show would be very slim.

Luckily, we met up with Anne De Borgo early in the development of the game. Anne is recognized as one of the best Murder, She Wrote fiction writers. Not only did she help us capture the voice of Jessica but a supporting cast of characters who found their way into our game as well (Sheriff Mort Metzger, the local law enforcement officer that often enlisted her help, Seth Hazlitt, the town doctor, and even Emma McGill, Jessica’s nearly identical looking British cousin).

Murder, She Wrote had a very comfortable way of dealing with murder – a quality that set it apart from other murder mystery shows that came before it. When developing the game, we were able to cover a wide variety of subjects that kept the feel of each case somewhat “homey” and small town. This style resulted in each of the hidden object scenes and puzzles having a feeling of homespun New England charm.

The main character, Jessica Fletcher, is a well developed character with a style all her own. In order to maintain this style, we wanted to avoid evidence requiring high-tech equipment to analyze it. Jessica isn’t part of the CSI team and doesn’t generally have access to microscopes, blood splatter analysts or that sort of thing. Evidence needs to be observational, noticeable to the naked eye and something that tells a story when pieced together.

Writing the Story

Once the characters and they tone of the game were set, we had to create a story for the game. Rather than our team creating these stories, we’re extremely excited to announce Anne has created a collection of five all-new Murder, She Wrote mysteries written just for our game. Three of the cases bring us to Cabot Cove, the murder-prone Maine township Jessica called home. Here gamers will delve into stories that were the trademark of the show: a garden competition that turns neighbors into bitter rivals, a lobster fishing industry that’s fallen on hard times, and a missing person case involving star-crossed lovers.

The other two cases take us first to Vermont where a surprising death at a maple syrup factory reveals a struggle to control the maple syrup industry and then to England for a Shakespearean murder on the London stage complete with espionage and international intrigue. My goal for Murder, She Wrote is to create a game that will bring back the warm memories of the television show while being strong enough to be enjoyed by those without any prior knowledge of the series. Although we’ll be adding to what many regard as an classic American television show, we expect this game to be recognized as a an instant classic. We have large shoes to fill, as Murder, She Wrote has won dozens of awards, but we’re up to the task.

The Art Behind the Game

The most demanding part of making a hidden object game is creating the huge amount of art required, and Murder, She Wrote is no exception. With 30 unique environments and over 75 scenes, the game has been a huge undertaking. Moreover, when making a game based on one of the most beloved series ever made for American television, not just any art will do. The visuals need to capture not only the look of the show, but also one of the best-known actresses ever to grace stage, screen, or television. The challenge only became greater when we found out Angela Lansbury herself was onboard and would be approving her own image for inclusion in the game.

Murder, She Wrote ran for 12 seasons. Though Angela Lansbury stubbornly refused to age much during the run of the series, the look of the Jessica Fletcher character needed to be updated. Clothing, make-up, and hairstyles of the mid-80s were quite different from the styles of the mid-90s. Which version of Jessica would we settle on? Which hairstyle and color? Which clothes?

We went through many possible looks and fashions for Jessica. In the end we focused our attention on trying to craft a more ageless, non-decade specific look. By avoiding any specific age, we hoped to achieve a timeless feel throughout the game – not one set in the 80s or 90s, or even necessarily now.

For the first time ever, I’m happy to show the new look of Jessica Fletcher!

Murder She Wrote - Jessica Fletcher

As for the look of the game, it’s been important for us to make sure we catch the basic look of the show while translating it into an art style that would work well for a hidden object game. Even though Murder, She Wrote was a murder mystery show, the design elements were never dark or dingy – it had a bright color scheme, even though it was set in the solid earth tones and whites of New England.

This use of bright colors in the show turned out to be perfect for game play purposes. In short, it was the most colorful, brightly lit murder series ever made and perfect for our purposes. In fact, a co-worker at Legacy mentioned when his team was developing the CSI: NY game, they found matching the show’s use of shadow and gritty-looking environments resulted in frustrating game play scenes. In Murder, She Wrote it almost looks as if you could host a picnic at the murder scene!

Murder She Wrote - Murder Scene

The Game Play

Do you get as frustrated as I do with hidden object scenes that are just too small?</p

Rather than shrinking items to tiny, eye-straining sizes, we found it seems to work better if we keep them at larger, reasonable sizes. Whenever possible, items have been incorporated into the background scene by placing them in locations where they can be camouflaged into the color scheme (red masks hanging against red wall paper or a wooden sign hidden against a hardwood floor) or “contextual” hiding places (hiding fruit in the fruit bowl, or a wrench in a tool box). Even better, I like to position the object out in the open when there’s a contextual hiding place in the scene as a decoy. For example, putting a slice of apple on the lip of a martini glass when there’s a fruit bowl in the scene; most players will be searching the fruit bowl while the “hidden apple” is sitting just a few hundred pixels away in plain sight.

In developing Murder, She Wrote, we’ve come up with a novel way to present items in the search list. Rather than giving players a list of items to find in the scene, we present them a half built item list with all the vowels missing. In each and every scene the missing vowels can be found in the scene as typewriter keys from Jessica Fletcher’s typewriter. As players locate each vowel, the letters fill in the blanks on the search list. Players are not forced to find the letters – if you can determine the item names on the search list without vowels, more power to you. But, personally, I think finding the letters to fill in the search list is a lot more fun. I love the clickity-clack sound of a vintage typewriter as the letters cascade down the list and replace the blanks with the missing letters.

Murder She Wrote - Hidden Object Scene

Written by

Conor is a Marketing Manager with Big Fish, working out of the Seattle office. In his spare time he enjoys watching science documentaries and playing old school adventure games. Get in touch with him on Twitter! or Google+