In this week’s “Series Spotlight,” we take a look at the newest game in the Mystery Trackers series, Mystery Trackers: Four Aces. I was able to talk with Peter Efimov the Chief Product Officer of Elephant Games to talk about the creative & artistic processes behind this amazing series of games. Check out Mystery Trackers: Four Aces today!!
Please introduce your development team…
I am the lead game designer at Elephant Games, and I am very proud to introduce the team working on this project. They are very talented people, and I can always rely on them. When I have an idea for a project, it often looks much different in my head from what it turns out to be in the end. Our team’s inspiration, inventive minds, and tons of enthusiasm make the ideas better, and together we can create great things!
How did you come up with the Mystery Trackers game series?
The idea of the game didn’t happen right away. Originally, we were planning on creating a dark fairy tale with a completely different storyline and art. It had unusual interactions and no hidden-object scenes. We were 70% through the development process when we realized that we had taken the wrong direction from the very start. It was not the right time for such a game, and we needed a hit. That is when we changed our minds in favor of a mystery game. The only things in Mystery Trackers: The Void from the initial idea are some scenes and the evil teddy bear in the mailbox. The audience kindly welcomed the series, and we are going to celebrate its 2nd anniversary this year with the release of the fourth installment.
What made you want to be a game developer?
As children, we love playing games, and they are usually created by adults. At the age of 6, I figured out that your own games can be just as good or even better. Many years later, when I was on my way to choosing a career, I didn’t want to let my childhood dreams go and asked myself, “Why should I?” These were the years when the iron curtain over Russia had finally been removed, and we felt that any dream could come true. Nine years have passed since that time, and we keep moving forward no matter what, trying to create the best video games for our players.
How do you get inspiration for a game?
I consider myself a happy person, because I never felt the urge to separate my work from my private life. Spending time with my family, with my son, going out with friends, playing computer games of different genres… I am open to new thoughts, ideas, and discoveries. When you like your work, when it is such a creative work, you can draw your inspiration from anywhere.
When we were developing Mystery Trackers: Black Isle, we were thinking of adding something unusual into the game, and we decided on a dog. Someone from the team had seen a miniature pinscher not long before, and they suggested this breed. I did a little research and found out that these dogs are often called ‘elves,’ and that is how our little Elf became a character in the game. And now he will have a special place in the next game in the series.
How long does it take for you to design a game from start to finish?
There might be dozens of ideas swarming in your head, but each of them requires careful consideration. Sometimes, it is just like a light goes on, and you know, “This is it!” When exploring an idea, we always think of what series it might fit the best… or if it is meant for a separate one. When an idea becomes a working title, the real work starts. It usually takes from 6 to 8 months, or even more, to complete the implementation of an idea into a well-functioning game.
What are the biggest technical challenges when you develop a game?
Over the years, we learned to deal with all kinds of technical problems that get in the way of creating a game… I can’t think of anything especially challenging. I would simply say that some issues are more serious than others, but the great people who work here don’t give in to difficulties.
What is your favorite game at the moment and why?
As an avid game player who appreciates different kinds and genres of games, I would say Fallout 2. This RPG is an instant classic for many people. Personally, I would mostly praise it for the deep storyline and the drama of the post-apocalyptic world. I believe that a strong plot is one of the most important aspects of a game, and we always remember that when creating ours.
Any advice for new developers?
My main advice is not to be afraid. Fear is what stands in the way of many talented people, and it is a shame when it happens. I am sure that any game, even if the idea might sometimes seem ridiculous, can find its audience. On the other hand, if something doesn’t work out the way you would like it to, it is still a nice opportunity to learn from mistakes.
I sincerely wish new developers inspiration, patience, and trust in themselves. The world is full of players looking for new games, and a project developed with love will always find an admirer.
What does your development team do that’s different?
Well, I can tell you what we are, and it’s up to you to decide whether we are any different. We love our games. We are young, curious, and fearless. We are hard-working and tireless, and together we make a very creative and talented team. Besides all that, we develop our games in a small Russian town where no one has ever done anything similar, and our families and friends are really proud of us.
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?
During the development process, we go through the games and pull apart chapters dozens of times, polishing the game play and eliminating the bugs. So I can’t say that we eagerly start playing when the game is released. But, you know, there’s a certain charm in launching a game in the company of your close friends and saying with pride that, yes, our team created it!
Have you ever had to sacrifice a feature you really didn’t want to give up to keep a game in budget or meet a deadline?
Yes, it sometimes happens that we are forced to sacrifice a feature, sometimes even after it has been implemented, and that is hard. Just like if you were getting ready for a costume party and had put all your time and effort into creating an outfit, but it suddenly turns out that the theme has changed. You remove all of the carefully-applied decorations or simply box up the costume and hide it on a far shelf. However, if a feature was a really good one, we keep it on hand and hope to use in a future project.
How many ideas have you had to abandon or drastically change because someone beat you to the punch?
Fortunately, we haven’t faced anything like this during the 9-year history of our company. I like to think that this is thanks to the high speed of development and the originality of our ideas. Or perhaps it is just good luck.
If you could remove one cliché from the Video Game industry, what would it be?
I think the world of games, movies, and fairy tales lives on clichés, and they become a close part of our work. However, even when we base things on ideas well-known to our audience, we try to find a new twist, something completely original. My personal pet peeve is the “one-dimensional” villain with straightforward motives. The world is not all black-and-white, and even villains have many sides to their characters. And this is the direction we try to stick to in our games.
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?
I think every developer chooses their own approach. We usually think of a project as a complex combination of imagining a plot, envisioning art that will make the game beautiful and eye-catching, thinking over the characters and their ordeals and motives, considering the technical side of realizing the project, and suddenly there it is – a new game! Sometimes we need to make changes along the way or include an idea that popped up in our heads. This is a creative process, and we don’t follow any strict pattern.
What 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?
I can confirm that we constantly monitor the opinion of our audience. We are open to feedback and always ready to learn. Constructive criticism makes games better and gives us tips for future projects. Moreover, it is great to see players’ messages on the forums, where they share their opinions, find nuances in a storyline, try to understand the characters’ motivations and the reasons for their behavior. Some fans even made puppets from the cut outs that were included in the Collector’s Edition of Mystery Trackers: the Void. You should have seen the exultation in our office when we saw the pictures of them on the Internet! We truly love our players.
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?
You test our games throughout the whole process of development, and we do everything in our power to release as clean a game as possible. As to the changes at the latter stages, we can make them if they are crucial. For example, we were not happy about the quality of the video cut scenes in Mystery Trackers: Black Isle, and we reworked all of them and changed all of the characters when the game was very close to its release.