The Dark Side of Casual Games

Posted by Conor Murphy on October 29, 2009 in Editorial, International -- Share:
Vampire Saga Concept Art

This time of year always results in a flood of frightful entertainment. For gaming it’s no different. Alawar Entertainment’s Vampire Saga: Pandora’s Box was recently released on Big Fish Games. The game has been very positively received by our audience peaking at #1 on our charts and remaining in the top 10 since its release.

In this post, we’re happy to welcome Yershov, producer of Vampire Saga: Pandora’s Box as our first guest blogger. Take it away, Yershov!

Come to the Dark Side

People like to have their nerves rattled, and the entertainment industry has always been happy to oblige. Hollywood releases a new horror film nearly every week and they never fail to pack theaters with eager viewers. In hopes of repeating this type of success in the gaming industry, casual game developers have begun to incorporate a surprising new theme into their projects that we call, "The Dark Side".
Vampires, zombies, ghouls, and other creatures filled with evil intentions and motivated by the darkest of desires.

While there were early concerns casual gamers would reject such dark plots, that turned out to be unfounded. This new casual game play theme has been a hit with mystical plots holding their own against more traditional story lines.

Vampire Saga – The Back Story

The source of inspiration for the developers of Vampire Saga: Pandora’s Box was the story The Boy Tar: A Voyage in the Dark (1860) by Mayne Reid. In this book, a young boy hides in a trading ship’s cargo hold and, in so doing, falls into a trap. When cargo containers block all of the exits from the hold and the boy panics. Nevertheless, he finds within himself the strength to escape.

A similar series of events happens to Matthew Ward, the main character in Vampire Saga. The only difference is the containers hold the remains of history’s greatest villains, including Vlad Tepes, more famously known as Count Dracula. Therein begins Matthew’s journey…

In exploring the vampire theme, we found it to be multifaceted, fascinating, and nearly inexhaustible. Each writer who has turned to this theme has crafted a different kind of monster. The bloodsucker Bram Stoker described in the novel Dracula hardly resembles the antagonists of Steven King. This freedom to craft our story as we saw fit was the reason we put Vampire Saga at the top of its production list. The developers wanted to make more than just a single game. They envisioned a collection of games each with a different storyline, all united by a general theme. Various plots and sundry fates were all meant to lead players to the dark side of casual games.

Vampire Saga – Developing the Game

The most important aspect to the developers of Vampire Saga: Pandora’s Box was the logic of the gaming world. They wanted even the most fantastical twists and turns to obey the laws of physics, forcing the hero to find everyday solutions to his problems. If Matthew needed to break through a boarded up door, for example, he’d need to swing an axe, as magical spells and mystical powers would not be available.

As for game play, we wanted to incorporate a non-linear style to the Vampire Saga. It was decided that many of the active zones (areas you can click on or take action with) would need to be triggered before they could be interacted with. For example, in the captain’s quarters, there are shutters. Behind those shutters is a rope ladder leading to a lifeboat. However, in order to trigger the shutters so they can be interacted with, Matthew must have a crowbar in his possession. If he hasn’t located the crowbar, the shutters are not active and cannot be clicked on. The crowbar is found in a later scene so the player has to move Matthew forward in the game to find the crowbar and then return to the captain’s quarters to interact with the now active shutters.

Such a non-linear game path (forward and backward) allowed the developers to use single backgrounds multiple times while still adding new content to the game. Other such situations included returning to the galley for food, returning to the cargo hold for rope, and returning to the captain’s quarters for a telescope. As soon as the relevant trigger is activated, these scenes change and new active zones appear along with the corresponding mini-games.

To alleviate any confusion caused by this style of game play, the developers included hints. While not instructions to go to a certain location and do a specific thing (such as "Go to the captain’s quarters and enter this code into his safe"), these hints offered subtle suggestions to help Matthew find a solution. More hints were added to the diary, where many of the events happening in the game are recorded. By reading between the lines, the player can uncover answers about what to do next.

The Vampire Saga art team redrew each game scene several times depending on the needs of the plot. In all, they created 40 spectacular locales and hid more than 300 objects drawn in an authentic Victorian style. Animated interludes tied together the many chapters of the story, including the finale.

Moving Forward

So what’s next? Looking forward, our team plans to further develop the vampire theme. The success of Vampire Saga indicates casual gamers enjoy horror and want to see a continuation of this series. Our producers are exploring other pathways for games including sequels, prequels, and spin-offs.

Practically every culture has its own tales about the children of the night, which means we have enough material for many, many stories. A stone tossed in water makes ripples. Who knows where they will end up?

Vampire Saga Artwork

Bedroom

Bedroom 1

Bedroom Final

Bedroom Final

Living Room Sketch

Living Room Sketch

Living Room Annotated

Living Room Annotated

Living Room Final

Living Room Final

Ship Deck

Ship Deck

Captain’s Quarters

Captain's Quarters

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+