The History of Hidden Object Games
– An Interview with Patrick Wylie, VP of Big Fish Studios
Hidden object games are a big part of the success that the casual games industry is seeing today. The genre has especially been defined and moved forward by the series of Mystery Case Files games that has seen over 100 million downloads worldwide.
We sat down with Patrick Wylie, VP of Big Fish Studios, the makers of the Mystery Case Files series. He talks about the origin of the game genre, the development over the years, and also the future of hidden object games.
Mystery Case Files: Huntsville is noted as being the first hidden object game, what were the ideas that drove the making of this game?
In 2005, Adrian Woods, (game designer/developer at Big Fish), Bill Meyer (game artist at Big Fish) and I came onboard at Big Fish, and Adrian started working on a game he called Scavenger Hunt. We quickly realized that it would be cool to add some mystery to it, inspired by Cold Case Files (a legal reality show that documents the investigation of unsolved crimes). The player would be solving a mystery, which would help to build a supporting narrative behind the game.
Huntsville was the first hidden object game that Big Fish Studios developed. There had been other hidden object games around in the market, but they were not formally called hidden object games, and were targeted at kids.
There was actually one PC game out there at the time that was similar to the games we see today. It was a huge game (around 300MB) and was only available on CD-ROMs in retail stores. It was called “I Spy Spooky Mansion”. In that game, you would go into a room and somebody would give you a rhyme, which you would then use to find the object. It was more like where we wanted to go, but still it was very much geared towards kids.
How was this game received, since it was so different from the hidden object games of the time?
At that time, most of games we had on our portal were marble poppers or match 3 games. We were known as the “mahjong studio” with our game called Mahjong Towers, which still does extremely well. When the development all came together and we finally launched it, it was an immense success. The difference in the number of downloads compared to our other games was massive – Nothing on the site compared to Huntsville..
The next morning, Paul Thelen (the founder and CEO of Big Fish) invited us in to his office, told us the numbers, congratulated us, cracked open a bottle of champagne and then immediately asked us: When can you have the next one ready? That was the beginning of the Mystery Case Files-series, and basically the invention of the hidden object games genre as we know it today.
The first games had a very different quality to them than the newer ones. How has the game genre evolved over time?
In the next Mystery Case Files, called Prime Suspect, we added more characters, more mini-games and puzzles to break up the hidden object scenes, and that went really well. Then in December 2006 came Ravenhearst, and it was an even bigger success. Adrian had wanted to put a bigger story into it, so he created Charles Dalimar and Emma Ravenhearst, the residents of Ravenhearst Manor. Bill and Adrian also came up with the idea of creating intricate puzzles inspired by Rube Goldberg machines. They were fantastically humorous and very difficult, almost too difficult, especially since there weren’t any hints.
In the next game, Madam Fate (2007), we had a lot of word puzzles as well, so we were beginning to have a wide variety of different puzzles in the games. On the hidden object side, we added scenes within scenes, as well as morphing objects. These were so popular that people got upset when we scaled them down in the next game. It was always so amazing how players would fall in love with something so quickly, and then want that plus something new in the next game. As you can expect, the pressure was pretty tremendous to outdo ourselves.
People didn’t actually like the main character in Madam Fate, but they loved the game as a whole, with its creepy atmosphere. Around that time, we had hired Brian Thompson and Jeff Haynie, both of whom made huge contributions to the style of Madame Fate. Brian brought a lot of artistic styling to the game, while Jeff added cinematic realism and depth to it.
Where is the competition in the creation of hidden object games? Aren’t there others out there making these games?
Well, we as a company had launched 3 hidden object games like these before anyone else had launched one. Likely because the rest of the world didn’t know how successful they were. By the time people figured it out, we were pretty advanced in the genre. You could tell because the first games from other developers were homages to Huntsville and Prime Suspects, while we were already moving forward to Madame Fate, and the Ravenhearst series.
The hidden object games you create aren’t just about finding hidden objects, though; the story is a big part of it. Where do you pull the inspiration for this similarity to adventure games?
Adrian has always been a fan of The 7th Guest (an adventure game from 1993), and I come from a studio where we created adventure games for kids, so we were naturally inclined towards adventure games.
Another part of it is that as the technology for download games has slowly progressed, it has allowed us to move in this direction. In our minds, when we developed Return to Ravenhearst, our goal was to create an adventure game with hidden objects and puzzles, rather than the other way around.
How do you see hidden object games progressing in the future?
There are a lot of interesting new developments in the hidden object games coming out these days. For instance, I love the concept of the helper, which we see in some games, particular from the guys at Boomzap games (creators of the Awakening-series). These helpers can go and grab things for you, which makes it more believable and magical for you as a player.
The story is still a big part of the games, and I like how some of the new games totally immerse you into a universe, and I think many things can still be done here. It is great to see the games from Elephant Games (makers of the Hallowed Legends-series) and Blue Tea Games (makers of Dark Parables-series), you can just tell they put a lot of passion into their games.
I think the future of hidden object games is also tightly connected to the platform and format, too. The next generations of hidden object games are going to be impacted by the opportunities on the mobile platform, but most definitely also by the free-to-play trend that we are seeing.
(Big Fish Games latest Hidden Object Game is a free-to-play game called Dark Manor, see the trailer in this article. )