Series Spotlight: Margrave

Posted by Conor Murphy on September 12, 2012 in Game Development -- Share:

In this very special “Series Spotlight” we peer behind the development curtain of the beautiful Margrave game series. I recently caught up with the project’s Creative Director to discuss the development of  Margrave: The Blacksmith’s Daughter.

We wanted to take you back to the very beginning, when the game was just scribbled words and rough sketches on scraps of wrinkled paper. Luckily, the team saved a few of those “scraps” (of gold) and they have been included for your viewing pleasure below. You can also check out all of the sketches on the full storyboard here! 

Please introduce yourself/development team

It would be my pleasure! I’m Dave, the creative director. I’m kind of the daddy. Ben is my senior artist and right-hand man. He paints those utterly amazing backgrounds and also concepts everything with me and helps me define the style of our virtual worlds. The rest of the art is created by 2D Sally and 3D André, who are an unstoppable duo and make those glorious HO scenes and puzzles and cut-scenes. Lucy is my senior programmer, and I always turn to her when I need help with a puzzle or a line of dialogue. And Adrian is the guy responsible for those magical soundscapes.

How did you come up with the Margrave game series?

Back in 2008, company directors Greg and Graeme hopped on over to Casual Connect with a portfolio of solitaire and mahjongg games. It was at that conference that they saw their first hidden object adventure. Returning from Casual Connect, the guys delved a bit deeper and discovered a little-known game called Ravenhearst!

A year later, they returned to Casual Connect with their own take on the hidden object game. They showed it to the Big Fish gang, and Margrave Manor was born.

By the time they released the sequel – Margrave Manor 2: Lost Ship – it was obvious to them that the shape of hidden object games was changing, and they hired me to design the third in the series. They gave me a wonderful team to work with and we’ve gone from strength to strength.

What are the biggest technical challenges when you develop a game?

For me, the greatest technical challenge is figuring out how to get five hours or so of engaging game-play from a tiny team in twelve months. It’s the eternal battle between quality and quantity. The problem is compounded by the need to synchronize the schedules so that every team member has the same amount of work. To that end, we’ve all learned to become adept at multiple disciplines.

As a developer, after shipping a game, do you enjoy playing it just as much as you enjoyed making it? Or when it’s shipped do you take a sigh of relief and forget about it, knowing you don’t need to worry about it anymore?

It’s a sad truth that we never get to experience the game like our players. For one thing, the game is developed piecemeal, and is inexorably tweaked and balanced and edited along the way. The closest we come to experiencing as a player is, perhaps, when the multiple elements of a cut-scene all come together at once, or when the voice overs for a character are implemented and the character comes to life. But mainly, we watch the game mature in tiny steps, day by day. And invariably, when the game is complete, we tend to get hung up on the parts that we know we could have accomplished better. In all sincerity, the sheer pleasure of working with such talented and delightful individuals is more than compensation enough.

Margrave Workshop SketchHow many ideas have you had to abandon or drastically change because someone beat you to the punch?

None! My view is that originality is the unique composition of non-unique elements. So, whilst you and are are both made from the same basic components (pieces of dead stars!), this doesn’t detract from our individuality! The fact of the matter is that some themes are more popular than others, and some motifs work better in puzzle adventure games than others. It doesn’t concern me if I see a game open with another crashed car, or if another family member is taken hostage, or if I have to search for another sand timer in a hidden object scene. Because a game is much much more than the sum of its parts, right?

What do you find is the best approach for starting a new project? Do you think about the story (or characters or style etc.) you want to get across or do you worry about mechanics and gameplay first?

Once my bosses and I have decided on a theme and a direction, I begin filling notebooks and sketchbooks with every cool idea I can conjure, researching as I go. At that point, it makes no difference if an idea relates to a puzzle mechanic or a powerful plot device or a shade of green. Then I bring Ben in and see which ideas excite him most. He begins building a reference library for the art team and concepts a few backgrounds. While he is doing that, I kind of work backwards from the ending, and devise the act reversals and character arcs, which will form the spine of the story. Ben and I build a prototype of the first hour out of our concepts, so that we can all wander around our world and soak up the mood. This also allows me to get a sense of how I might pace the gameplay. This initial process is incredibly fast: our last prototype was up and running in just a couple of weeks!

Magrave Chamber SketchWhat do devs think about the people who get mad about a particular aspect of a game, whether it be story, customization, gameplay, etc. Do they take it personally or ignore it?

As creative director, my sole ambition is to please the players. If the players are happy, then my bosses are happy, my team are happy, and the lovely folk at Big Fish are happy too. If even one person is upset by any single aspect of our game, then it’s entirely my fault and not theirs! Yes, it does hurt if someone dislikes our game. I wouldn’t be much of a game dev if I didn’t care, would I? But I’m pragmatic about this: I understand that I can never please everyone. That said, it sure won’t stop me trying.

Do developers ever realize that the game they’re making needs a major overhaul? If so, is there a process to improving a game in the latter stages of development?

Game devs rely on something called the rule of the loop. Essentially, this means that the more we test a game and the more feedback we get, the better it will be. I guess that, for a game to require a major overhaul, something fundamental would need to be wrong in the first place. You don’t tend to see that happen very often amongst experienced devs for one of two reasons: either they have chosen to follow a time-tested path, or they have been at it long enough to understand what does and does not work.

Because we’re such a small team, I would never attempt to walk in the footsteps of the puzzle adventure leviathans out there! I have to take many (calculated) risks, which can be terrifying for us all. But I rarely feel compelled, nor do I have the time, to tinker with the more fundamental mechanics. And I always ensure I have a back-up plan should a gamble backfire!

Often, after designing a puzzle or a plot development, I’ll sit back in my chair and try to picture the faces of my players and imagine how they will react. Ultimately, there is no substitute for player feedback. It is like gold dust to us. We’re unconditionally grateful to every single volunteer who has tested and critiqued our game!

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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+