Iwan Roberts

Hiding Buffalo

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 27 March 2006. Last updated on 17 July 2010.
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Iwan Roberts
Iwan Roberts is the founder and creator of Gumshoe Online.
Iwan Roberts
In Gumshoe Online, you play a gumshoe detective solving crimes in Wheaton City.
Iwan Roberts
An intuitive user interface simplifies and enhances the online gaming experience.
Iwan Roberts
A number of game characters are available with whom the player can converse during a case.
Iwan Roberts
The game has many well designed puzzles and brain teasers that must be solved to close a case.

All images are courtesy of Hiding Buffalo © 2006.

Have you ever wanted to experience the thrills of being a gumshoe detective in America from the 1930s? Better yet, what if you can take this gaming experience online? You can now do both with Gumshoe Online, a new web based adventure game developed by Hiding Buffalo. Gumshoe Online is the first gaming project from founder and designer Iwan Roberts. After finishing a degree in computer science, Roberts has initially worked for a number of large companies as a computer programmer. Although enjoyable, these jobs have never really provided the challenge he has been looking for, so he leaves work and enrolls in the University of Abertay to study computer games technology. His original plan is to use his MSc education to break into the games industry. Instead, he starts a software company with some friends and releases a detective game, a career choice that his family undoubtedly feels uneasy to accept. "It's not surprising my mother worries," Roberts says.

We are privileged to have this exclusive interview with the talented young game designer. In the interview, Roberts speaks of his role as a game developer, the challenges he faces designing an online game, the unique gameplay of Gumshoe Online, and what holds in the future for him and his company.

How do you start out to become a game developer? What previous experiences have prepared you as a game designer?

To be honest, before we developed Gumshoe Online we didn’t have any experience of designing computer games. However we’re all fans of the adventure genre, especially the classic point-and-click games of the early nineties and we relied a lot on this playing experience at the beginning of the project.

As fewer and fewer adventure games seemed to be getting released. We thought there must be plenty of other people, just like us, that’d love the chance to play a new point-and-click adventure game; so we started to create Gumshoe Online.

Congratulations on your success with Gumshoe Online. The game can be best described as a classic graphic adventure with a twist—the twist being that the game is web based and can be played online. This contrasts with traditional adventure titles that are sold as retail "boxed" games and played offline. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this new online gaming medium and distribution channel for an adventure game developer?

There are plenty of advantages and disadvantage to creating an online game but I don't think any of these are specific to adventure titles. I think many of the pros and cons are more closely linked to the technologies you decide to use rather than the genre.

The obvious advantage to selling online is that it allows developers to market games directly to their players, breaking the traditional publisher/developer business model. Unfortunately, this does mean the developer is also taking all the risks.

Getting noticed by players and gaining their confidence are key to the success of an independent online game. There are so many ways for people to spend their time online; it’s easy for a game to go unnoticed and even if people do find you, you still need to build up a relationship with them until their happy to buy your product.

These barriers can take an online game months or even years to breakthrough; while just seeing a boxed product can be enough for someone to purchase a traditional game.

The fictional universe of Gumshoe Online is set in the 1930’s. Why do .you choose this time period? What are the elements from this particular time period that make for good gaming materials?

When you tell someone that Gumshoe Online is set in the America of the 1930’s, it immediately conjures up images of hard bitten private-eyes, prohibition and organized crime. This decade produced a host of infamous criminals, many of which have become part of American folklore, such as Al Capone, John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde.

Being set in the 1930’s means our cases can still feature cars, poisons, zeppelins, all the elements you might need for a gripping mystery but without modern technology like mobile phones and computers that could take the fun out of an investigation.

Until recently, video games have largely ignored the 1930’s and it’d be interesting to know how many of our players would have joined Gumshoe Online if the game had a different setting; for example a detective game set in space.

Gumshoe Online is entirely created using standard web technologies such as PHP, HTML, and JavaScript. What are the challenges you face to ensure that a consistent online gaming experience is delivered to the player? How do you handle issues such as browser compatibilities (including support for older browsers), bandwidths, and server loads?

Obviously we want Gumshoe Online to run on as many browsers as possible but because we rely so heavily on word of mouth to promote Gumshoe, we decided it’d be counterproductive to allow older browsers to run a cut-down version of the game.

At the moment Gumshoe Online is compatible with the following browsers:

• Internet Explorer

• Firefox

• Mozilla

• Netscape

• Opera

Players can check their browser’s compatibility by visiting our test page http://www.gumshoe-online.com/checkz.php

Depending on which set of statistics you believe, Gumshoe Online is compatible with between 70% and 90% of all web browsers. Obviously we’d like to increase this figure and making the game more accessible to Apple Mac owners, by supporting the Safari browser, is a long term goal of ours.

We wanted Gumshoe Online to play on any machine straight from the box and for most people that's exactly what happens. The only real fly in the ointment is that Real player or Media player need to be installed to play the game’s music.

Being web-based, we try to keep the amount of information the game downloads to a minimum. We never wanted Gumshoe Online to be a broadband only experience, so there’s a setup screen that allows you to change the game’s image, audio and animation settings.

To keep Gumshoe Online running smoothly we rent a dedicated server and keep a close eye on its performance. If the game does start to slow down we’ll simply move to a faster server, it’ll probably be more cost effective than trying to re-write mountains of code.

The game is played as a series of crime cases. Are these cases connected such that what a player does in an earlier case may influence elements of a later case? What are the elements, such as character attributes and inventory items, that are common among these cases?

There isn't a direct link between any of the mysteries but characters and locations do reappear in different cases.

Ideally we’d like to have a number of different authors contributing stories to the game and obviously this’ll be a lot easier to achieve with independent cases.

Having independent cases also means you’re not forcing people to play mysteries they aren’t interested in.

Gumshoe Online features many characters with which the player can interact during a case. How is this character interaction handled online? In other words, how is this interaction handled differently compared with traditional adventure games that are played offline?

I think the level of character interaction we’ve achieved is pretty similar to that of a boxed adventure game. Obviously there are some technical issues, for example we’re limited to the amount of animation we can use; so you won’t find game characters following you from room to room or lip-synced conversations. This lack of facial animation is perhaps the biggest drawback, as it means all the emotion of a conversation must be transmitted through the text.

Gumshoe Online allows players to talk to characters, ask them questions and each character also has a tolerance to the player. By asking questions, especially pointless or annoying ones, the character becomes less and less tolerant until he or she refuses to talk to the player.

How many hours of gameplay can a player expect from each case? Can the player save the progress any time during a case and return later to continue playing?

It really depends on the case, a Gumshoe Online mystery can take anywhere between 2 and 9 hours to complete.

To help players choose a case, every mystery has an information page that outlines the story and gives a few facts about that case. For example our last mystery "Something in the water" has:

• Approximately 7-9 hours gameplay

• Over 180 clues to unearth

• More than 140 rooms to explore, spread across 11 locations

• The chance to interrogate 23 new characters

• 16 mind bending puzzles to solve

• Over 1300 items to examine

The amount of gameplay is always a tricky thing to assess; we base our estimate on the quickest route through the case and draft in a few non-gaming friends to see how they get on.

But we’re keen that the "estimated hours of gameplay" doesn’t become a target for players to try and beat. We’d much rather people take their time and explore every inch of a case, rather than rushing to the case-solving screen.

Players can save their progress at any point and each player has three save game slots available to them. I should point out that Gumshoe Online automatically keeps track of a player’s progress, so these save games allow detectives to switch between different cases.

While Gumshoe isn’t an easy game to play, it doesn’t penalize players for making mistakes. We’ll never kill the player or maliciously remove pieces of evidence, so the detective doesn’t have to save their game just in case something goes wrong.

What kinds of puzzles can a player expect? Where do you draw your inspirations to develop these puzzles?

The initial idea for any new puzzle should really come from the story itself; too often puzzles feel like an afterthought, put into a game just to hinder the player. The inspiration for our puzzles comes from a variety of places usually films and TV shows but sometimes other games.

So far we've asked players to solve all sorts of puzzles, including re-wiring a fuse boxes, cracking safes, decoding secret messages, assembling winches, testing chemicals, unpicking locks, fixing an elevator and even defusing a bomb.

If someone is having trouble solving a particular puzzle we're always willing to help but the forum’s probably the best place to go for any tips.

Gumshoe Online features both free and paid contents, the latter of which requires the player to pay a small nominal fee to play a case online. What is the cost? What is your rationale for choosing such a method of content distribution? What are the challenges have you encountered attracting players to pay online?

A case costs between $5.99 and $7.99 to play. Once bought, a player can replay a case as often they like and there’s also a free introductory case that lets the player get a feel for the game and acts as a tutorial.

Perhaps the hardest part of selling online is gaining the trust of a potential customer. So we hope that after playing through the tutorial people will come back and buy a full mystery.

There are people who argue that everything on the Internet should be free but I’m sure that even these people would understand that Gumshoe Online is a commercial product. It might use web technology but it’s a bit more complicated than someone’s personal webpage. Gumshoe Online is a full point and click adventure game that just happens to be played with a web browser.

I guess we could have financed the game through advertising but I’m not sure we’d have generated enough money and if we ever tried to move the game to a more traditional gaming platform, we’d still have to convince a publisher that a market exists for a new adventure game.

The game looks extremely polished. How big is your development team? What are the challenges you face as a developer working with a limited resource and budget?

We're a small team, just three people but we’ve also got a number of freelance artists, writers and musicians that we can call upon to do specific work. In total 11 different people have worked on the game.

Before we release a new case we ask some of our most experienced players to go through the mystery looking for bugs and spelling errors. These testers also take an active part in the game’s user community and we recently made a couple of them forum moderators.

How long does it take to develop a scenario or crime case? What software developmental tools do you use, such as for the graphics and scripting of the game?

It takes between 6 to 8 weeks to build a case, depending on the mystery’s complexity and the amount of new artwork that’s required.

Most of the game’s scripting is done with our own custom built editor. This editor has a drag and drop interface, which allows us to build rooms and locations quickly and with the minimum of fuss.

More complex tasks such as building puzzles and creating the game’s dialog are done using a standard text editor. This might sound a little laborious but our scripting language is very open-ended and therefore difficult to automate.

We had thought about releasing the editor to the user community and let them develop their own Gumshoe mysteries but this isn’t practical until the editor covers aspect of developing a case.

Because most of the artwork is done by freelancers we let the artist choose their own drawing tools.

The adventure game genre has struggled commercially compared with other game genres in recent years. How much of the blame should the developers bear? How much of the blame should the consumers bear? As a developer, how do you address these shortcomings with Gumshoe Online?

You could also argue that publishers are to blame for moving away from the genre but I think the problems are more to do with the genre itself rather than anything else.

In comparison to other genres, adventure games ask an awful lot from their players. They require a lot of concentration, take a long time to play and have limited replay value. These elements can make the genre a little daunting for new players, especially in comparison to more immediate, action orientated games. It’s the difference between reading the book or watching the film, they’re both fun but in a different way.

I do think it’s a shame that the comic side of the genre seems to have disappeared. I know humor in games is a difficult thing to judge but a list of the all time greatest adventure games would include quite a few comic masterpieces, for example:

• Day of the tentacle

• Grim Fandango

• Full throttle

• Monkey Island

• Leisure suite Larry (the first one) (the first version of the first one)

I’m not sure Gumshoe Online really addresses any of these problems but this question did give me the chance to rant on a little.

Jane Jensen, who in the past has designed "traditional" adventure games (such as the Gabriel Knight series), has recently started developing online games (Inspector Parker) and games aimed at casual gamers (Booby Trap!). Are you also aiming more at the casual than hardcore game market with Gumshoe Online? How similar or different is a "typical" gamer playing Gumshoe Online compared with a "typical" gamer playing other games?

Gumshoe Online wasn’t specifically designed for hardcore or casual gamers. Instead, it’s a game that’s designed for anyone, in a format that everyone can access.

It’s this level accessibility that probably explains why our users don’t match the traditional gamer stereotype. Gumshoe Online players tend to be a little older; about 60% are over the age of 40 and we also have a higher proportion of women than you might expect; 70% of our players are female.

Currently Gumshoe Online is played in over a 180 countries.

Your game has garnered a strong online community presence, an element not often seen with traditional adventure games. What part does this online community play in enhancing the gaming experience?

It could be because so few adventure games make additional or episodic content available to their players. Once an adventure game has been released, there seems to be very little dialog between the developer and the players until the sequel’s ready. To build a strong online community you need to give players a reason for coming back the game and a reason for chatting to one-another.

I think the reason why our online community is so strong, is that we’re always happy to talk to our players and we encourage them make suggestions about the game. It was the user community who first suggested a "save game" feature and it was negative feedback from users that prompted us to remove the case time-limit.

What can we look forward in the future for Gumshoe Online?

More cases; our next mystery "The murky truth" is currently being tested and it should be available by the end of March. This new case revolves around events onboard a luxury cruise liner and players will have to search every inch of this ship to find the truth.

Thank you for this exclusive interview. We eagerly await the next case on Gumshoe Online!

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