Ask the Developer – Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake
As the launch of Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake draws near, I was able to sit down with our very own Big Fish Studios development team last week to interview them about the inspiration behind the immensely popular Mystery Case Files game series.
Director Kale Stutzman and developers Garth Bonikowski & Ben Schofield were kind enough to answer a few of the questions that so many of our MCF fans want to know! If you like this interview, you will love Mystery Case Files: Shadow Lake!
Please introduce your development team…
Kale: Mystery Case Files has a pretty large team as far as the casual game industry is concerned. David Stevenson and I are the directors of the game – David for art and me for gameplay. We have 6 artists who all specialize in different aspects of the game’s art: background painting, 3D animation, visual effects , etc, and 2 programmers who moonlight as sound designers and copy writers.
How did you come up with the Mystery Case Files game series?
Kale: Adrian Woods came up with the Mystery Case Files series, we are just trying to continue his legacy.
Ben: Adrian Woods had a dream that he was working on a game called “Mystery Case Files,” and when he awoke he knew it had been a prophetic vision. Then he created the game from the name it had miraculously been given.
What made you want to be a game developer?
Kale: I was always making up games when I was a kid, mostly board games or new combination sports. I dabbled a little in text adventures but it was before computer game programming was as accessible as it is now. Later I realized that it was a great way to combine all my disparate interests like art, storytelling and math.
What did you do before you worked for Big Fish Studios?
Garth: I worked at Zipper Interactive from 2005-2011 and Novel Incorporated from 2011 to mid 2012. A friend at Big Fish recommended that I apply, and history was made.
Ben: I was a student at DigiPen Institute of Technology, where I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science in Real Time Interactive Simulation (with a minor in Mathematics).
What would you say makes Big Fish Studios different from its competition?
Garth: Great people on great teams, always pushing and encouraging each other to raise the bar, in every department.
Ben: The company culture at Big Fish is really neat, and I think that it shows through in the games.
From where do you draw your inspiration when thinking up new games?
Kale: On the team we take a lot of inspiration from movies. Especially for the current project, Stephen King was a major influence.
Garth: I drawn inspiration from cool or scary dreams, science articles, brainstorm sessions with co-workers… really anything and everything! You can never fully anticipate where a good idea is going to come from.
Ben: I think about the people who will be working on the game and try to come up with game ideas that best fit the team.
How long does it take for you to design a game from start to finish?
Kale: The game design doesn’t end until about 3 days before the game ships. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Some teams create a monolithic design doc that they follow to the end, no matter what. We create that document after a few months, but the design of the game is always changing and evolving as we create the content and come up with better solutions.
What’s the most challenging thing about making games? Was there any instance when you ever considered quitting or giving up?
Kale: What engine to use. It’s always a big hurdle because the engine decides all of the things you can do with your game design. 3D or 2D, videos or animations, the options are endless but no engine does everything well. We have a physics engine in our game, so therefore we can think up puzzles that have real-time physics interactions. Limitations are actually good; it changes how you design your game.
Garth: Finding a balance between making future-proof architecture and fulfilling urgently immediate needs. But both have to happen to make a great game. Between jobs last year, I considered taking my career in another direction; but I love making games! I’m super happy to have found such an awesome home at Big Fish.
Ben: Debugging can be pretty rough. Sometimes, you can spend days on a single problem without making any forward progress—like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Sure, it would be nice to just give up after a while, but we can’t release a game that doesn’t work.
What non Big Fish Studios game do you often find yourself playing nowadays, just for fun?
Kale: I like Scribblenauts a lot, but most of my favorite games are very old now. Check out Quest for Glory and Blade Runner for some amazing adventure games made in the last century.
Garth: Most recently, I was playing Darksiders 2, but my old playstation melted down twice! I’ll finish as soon as I can get it fixed again. I’ve also been playing Trails in the Sky on the bus.
Ben: I haven’t played any video games in the past 4 months, but I’ll probably try to finish Diablo III as soon as the game ships.
What’s your personal favorite among the Big Fish Studios games?
Garth: That’s a tough one, but I’m going to go with “Return to Ravenhearst.”
Ben: My favorite is Drawn: The Painted Tower.
In what direction do you think casual games are headed, especially with all the new gadgets and mobile devices popping up? Care to make any predictions about the gaming scene?
Garth: It’s interesting to watch as AAA console titles have become increasingly cost prohibitive, and their talented developers are moving to the mobile space. We’ll be seeing more and more “mid-tech” games focusing more on innovative gameplay, art design and direction, and immersive experiences and less on technically sophisticated runtime rendering. But the most important thing to remember is that there’s no single direction that games will go; there will always been an audience for any genre.
Ben: I think that the line between “casual” and “hard-core” games will become increasingly blurred. Also, I think that people will find new and interesting ways to play games, but the things that are fun now will always be fun.
Any advice for new developers?
Kale: Start making games. If you don’t have any ideas just make copies of games you like, the ideas will come later and if they don’t at least you’ll be good at problem solving. Game designers should learn how to program and learn the basics of art. You don’t have to ever be really good at either, but it really helps you explain your point to other developers and understand the game as a whole.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to the Big Fish members that play your games?
Kale: We hope you have as much fun playing Shadow Lake as we had making it!
Garth: You guys are awesome! Thanks for playing our games and for supporting the development of what I used to think was a lost art form. I’ve never been so happy to be so wrong.
Ben: Thanks for playing, and keep fishin’.