Chris Campbell, Brian Thompson, Peter Yiap
Big Fish Games Studios
First posted on 23 January 2010. Last updated on 06 April 2012.
All images are courtesy of Big Fish Games © 2010.
Without a doubt, the adventure game genre is enjoying a second coming in the casual game market. Increasing numbers of adventure games are now being distributed through casual game portals. In turn, many casual games are now incorporating adventure game mechanics in an attempt to elevate themselves beyond the monotonous (if not shallow) gameplay that so frequently plagues the said genre. These casual adventure games are a clever hybrid, drawing the best from each parent in order to cater to the diverse tastes of a larger gaming audience.
Drawn: The Painted Tower, developed in-house by Big Fish Games, is an example of this new breed of causal adventures. It combines traditional logic and inventory based puzzles with hidden object games and mini games, wrapped within a literal narrative that is both structured and progressive. In the game, the player takes on the role of a faceless hero (or heroine) who is tasked to save a helpless young girl named Iris trapped inside a magical tower. As the player races to the top of the tower to rescue Iris, pieces of the back story are slowly revealed to the player about the true identity of the little girl and the unjust tragedy that has befallen on her and her family long ago.
We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Chris Campbell (Producer/Designer), Brian Thompson (Art Director/Designer), and Peter Yiap (Lead Developer) of Big Fish Games Studios about Drawn: The Painted Tower. In the interview, they speak enthusiastically of the inspiration behind the game's story, the challenges they face during the game's development, the unique narrative and art style of the game, the current state of the adventure and casual game markets, and what fans may expect from the series (including a possible sequel) in the future.
Check out our exclusive gallery of previously unpublished concept art from Drawn: The Painted Tower!
- What inspired the story in Drawn: The Painted Tower, literal or otherwise? Likewise, what inspired the character of Iris, the helpless young girl whom the player must save in the game?
- Chris Campbell: The story was something that we went round and round on. We had lots of different ideas that got very complicated very quickly. We ended up with the story of Iris because it was a simple story we could tell with minimal interruptions to the game. It's a story that's pretty easy to grab on to and then enjoy the game. Brian has some type of super power about stories and the best way to tell them. When he came in one morning and summarized the story in 30 seconds, I knew we had a winner.
Brian Thompson: Oh if only that were true! The basis of the story came from a simple game-play idea of entering magical paintings. That led us to ask several simple questions. Who made these paintings and what is their story? Where they make the paintings and why? One night, I was talking with my wife, Melinda, about the story and she quickly became overwhelmed with all of the complex directions and possibilities I was presenting. She suggested (thankfully!) keeping the story very simple and actually came up with Iris' plight: Iris is special and has magical abilities. She is trapped at the top of a cursed tower and you as the player must save her. Since Chris and I really wanted to tell a story that was mysterious and magical but was grounded in simple archetypes, this became the foundation for the storyline in Drawn. The character of Iris evolved out of the simple idea of innocence and creativity.
- The story of Drawn: The Painted Tower is a familiar fairy tale. Yet, its tone is grimmer and edgier than that typical for a children's fable, not unlike the original and much darker writings of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. How do you classify the narrative style used in the game? In what ways has the game's darker story been pacified for a younger audience?
- Chris Campbell: I don't think we pacified the story really. Version 12 of the story – now that was dark! Originally we had Franklin falling down a flight of stairs and we opened with Iris standing over his grave. It was a bit too sad. She was not just trapped in the tower, but trapped in the tower alone. She was far too bitter and lost that innocent quality that we really like about her. We added Franklin back in because he has a large role to play in the overall story arc and he worked as a hint mechanism to get people started who weren't familiar with adventure games.
I don't know how to classify the narrative style other than minimal. We scattered letters around the tower that would give more information to the player if they chose to read it. The largest story delivery in the game is at the end of the cave painting mini-game. We really kind of sum it up there.
Brian Thompson: Yes, minimal and compelling. Oh as far as super powers go, Chris has me beat. Being sworn to secrecy, however, I cannot in good faith give away his secrets in this particular interview. More to come...
- A running theme of the game's story is the principle of balance: light versus dark, fire versus ice, magic versus science, good versus evil. To what extent is this symbolism a deliberate philosophical message of the game, beyond that of a simple storytelling device?
- Chris Campbell: Some of the elements are in because they were easy to explain to a new player on what needed to happen. Others came about because Brian and I sat in a room and thought it would look really cool to have a jet of fire shoot across the room and melt ice on the other side.
As the story continues in the next game, these symbols will be made clear. Fire was deliberately associated with the dragon which we think of as evil, and ice with the Griffon which we see as good. The Phoenix symbol used throughout the game though was intentional, and it also represented Fire as a force for good too. We actually tried to combine magic and science in some areas like the fire and ice gears at the end of the game.
- Unlike most other casual games, Drawn: The Painted Tower is not developed in Adobe Flash but with a proprietary game engine from Big Fish Games Studios. What is the technical framework on which the game is built? What advantages does this custom engine have over Adobe Flash as a development tool for casual games?
- Peter Yiap: Well, we have a love hate relationship with our game engine. We're able to accomplish some things really fast and easy like setting up navigation scenes and adding inventory items which would take some time to do in other engines. However – other things like adding in video support...that was a really big chore to add into the game engine where it's already built in when using Flash. With the increase in resolution from 800x600 to 1024x768, more pressure has also been put on the graphics renderer. Since our game engine interfaces directly with DirectX/OpenGL, we were able to put quite a few more things on screen before we started to see slowdowns.
Brian Thompson: Peter rapidly became our favorite "buffering magician". The engine became sort of a big monster to wrangle; the more we pushed the engine the more Peter along with Sean and Rachel needed "augment" the code. In this way, a stubborn but loveable Frankenstein was created. We made that monster do all kinds of gymnastics we originally thought impossible.
Chris Campbell: ...and to answer the question specifically as it relates to Adobe Flash – we're using Flash for a couple of huge projects that you'll see very soon, just not for Drawn.
- When did the development of Drawn: The Painted Tower begin? How large was the development team? How long did the development and testing of the game last?
- Chris Campbell: Well, Drawn was born from another project that we changed direction on. When we changed direction, Brian created one image of a painting on a wall. It was such a powerful image; we built the new game around it. The irony is that the painting that spawned the idea never made it into the final game! The team was 9 people and we built Drawn in 6 months.
Brian Thompson: I'm sure that painting will crop up again, it seems to be my albatross. Yeah, after many months of slogging through tough waters developing a game that had many merits but was fraught with challenges, we salvaged what assets we could and started fresh. This took a lot of work and many lengthy conversations. The teams' collective energy really galvanized us, and in just a few short weeks we had a proof of concept for what would eventually be called Drawn. (Shout out to Rebecca for coming up with the name!) The team used every bit of the next 6 months to produce a quick prototype, develop the game, and get it tested and launched on our target ship date. We are hugely grateful to Pat Wylie, Vice President of Studios, for taking the risk and being confident enough in our ideas to let us run with this and make something special.
Peter Yiap: Like Chris said, Drawn came from another, very distinct, project that we decided to change directions on. The decision could have went either way, but Pat Wylie, Paul Thelen, Jeremy Lewis, and the other executives were willing to take a chance on a new IP, which is very cool since it was such a different game. They had faith in the team and we took Chris and Brian's premise of "The Tower" and built upon it, adding our own ideas as we went along.
- The story of Iris is told mainly through lost letters, hidden journals, and brief flashbacks triggered by magical paintings that are scattered around the cursed tower where Iris is imprisoned. Why is the decision made to tell the story in this manner?
- Brian Thompson: With Iris being trapped at the top of the tower and Franklin turned to stone; Chris and I still needed a way to communicate the relationship between the two and also a way to hint at the larger drama. We specifically kept the story minimal, giving bread crumbs here and there for the player to find and create their own ideas around. The cave painting is where we reward the player by telling the larger back story. This is an emotional point of the game where Franklin narrates the events leading up to the curse on the tower.
Peter Yiap: This was Brian's idea which I thought was brilliant. We almost decided to add the typical journal to use as a way to tell the story but since we were on a very tight time crunch, Brian decided to just add notes here and there. Since they were so easy to put in we decided that would be the best way to tell our story and the journal was left by the wayside.
- Drawn: The Painted Tower is an unusual hybrid of casual and adventure games. From your perspective as a game designer, what is the distinction between casual and adventure games? To what extent will the casual game market help to revive the dwindling interest (according to some critics) in adventure games among mainstream gamers?
- Chris Campbell: I am so glad you mentioned revival of adventure games! I grew up playing the classics that everyone else played I'm sure. Anything Infocom, Sierra or Lucas Arts was an automatic purchase and an immediate addiction. When my wife and I moved to Seattle 12 years ago my first comment to her was, "I wonder where Sierra is?" There are a lot of game companies in this city, so that's saying something.
Our hope is that the casual market will help continue the revival of point-and-click adventure games. I think there's already some good momentum with all of the recent releases of remade classics. Drawn was designed to straddle the line between the classic casual game and adventure game. We wanted to create a game that a fan of Hidden Object games could get into without feeling overwhelmed. We focus tested Drawn A LOT. We really wanted a gentle difficulty ramp. Some of the later puzzles are really hard, and seeing people on our forums who don't typically play adventure games beat Drawn...it's a great feeling!
Peter Yiap: I don't see our game as a hybrid between a casual and an adventure game. I see it as a casual adventure game, an adventure game that is user friendly and easy to pick up. It has easy to moderately difficult puzzles but nothing too vague where users are left scratching their heads as to why a certain solution works. Among the casual market adventure games are still relatively new and we're trying to ease them into it gradually while still giving them a challenge. I don't know if there will be a complete rival of adventure games among the mainstream audience, but hopefully we get a few of them wanting more point and click adventure games.
- Gameplay in Drawn: The Painted Tower includes a gamut of logic and hidden object games. To what extent is an effort made to disguise these games (particularly hidden object games) within the narrative structure? How is this treatment different from those in most other casual games where they are more obvious?
- Brian Thompson: Drawn actually has only one or two hidden object areas as they are understood by our audience. We very much wanted to differentiate Drawn from traditional hidden object games while still having enough grounding elements to pull in even the most die-hard hidden object fans. Many of these players have never played an adventure game and don't even know what it is. I like that, because they won't try to label their experience. I hope that they just enjoy it and tell their friends that is it simply a great game. As a side note, most of the visual and game play ideas for Drawn came out of very organic and boisterous, sometimes heated conversations amongst the team. I think this collaboration became a signature element in our design process. Most of the great ideas came suddenly, sometimes accidentally out of this great working environment.
Chris Campbell: I agree with Brian. One of those grounding elements was the window puzzle where you have to find 6 shards of glass. The Hidden Object player knows that they need to find 6 specific items, but they have to travel to 4 different screens and use an inventory item to find them. We really tried to ease people into the idea of exploring the whole world to find what they needed. Our first rounds of focus tests, people were waiting for a list to tell them what they needed to find. Once we got the context sensitive cursor working and Franklin's hints – then they really took to it.
- It is difficult not to draw comparisons of the art style between Drawn: The Painted Tower and Tale of Tales' The Path. What is the art style used in Drawn: The Painted Tower?
- Brian Thompson: I have always enjoyed darker storytellers like Tim Burton, Lewis Carroll, Edward Gorey, and The Brothers Grimm and I have always gravitated toward stylized and whimsical imagery. I am a huge fan of Enrique Ferndandez and other contemporary graphic novel artists that are pushing shape design and stylization. The style really came out of this mixture of influences and inspirations. The painted worlds of Iris and the quirky depressed town of Stonebriar, together represent a perfect mix of my favorite styles. I am also very fortunate to have two immensely talented painters, Soi Che and Hamzah Kasom Osman, working with me as well as Rebecca Coffman, who produced the amazing animations you see in the game. It was a blast working with Chris because he and I have similar imaginations so we worked together really well on visualizing the game. Plus he has super powers.
Chris Campbell: Yeah. My favorite part of the design process was when Brian would look above my head and start to see the room that we were talking about and what it would look like. I really can't say enough about the art team. They are all such talented people.
- Drawn: The Painted Tower features a haunting and atmospheric soundtrack, a rarity when compared to the cheesy music found in most other casual games. Who is the composer? What is the process of scoring the music for the game?
- Chris Campbell: Clean Cuts did all of our music and the recording for Franklin's voice and they were such incredible partners! I haven't had a chance to be that involved in the creation of music before, and it was an absolute blast. The team over there really believed in Drawn and what it represented. Brian and I would come in, find a delivery of music and then almost reboot a messenger service server somewhere with the rapid fire questions to each other along the lines of, "OH did you hear THAT part?!?".
I really need to call out Tori Pavone, Wall Matthews, Chris Kennedy, Austin Caughlin and Kendrah Polk (and the rest of the team!). Their music and Franklin's voice really made the game for me.
Brian Thompson: Absolutely. Chris and I would await every music delivery like kids on the night before Christmas! I think the music in Drawn stands on its own as being a truly beautiful work of art.
- How many hours of game play can the player expect from Drawn: The Painted Tower? Who will best enjoy this game?
- Brian Thompson: We designed the game to be about 4 to 6 hours for a typical user. Some have finished it in less time and many have taken much longer. I think Drawn will appeal to many people of different ages and backgrounds. The game play is inventive and fresh while still being grounded. Drawn has a simple fairy tale story that I think is beautiful and compelling, and the visuals are differentiated from what you normally see in the genre right now.
- The game ends rather abruptly and suggests, in no uncertain terms, that the story of Iris is not yet finished. What lies ahead for the series? What sequels, if any, are currently in plan or in development?
- Chris Campbell: Oh that. The team is hard at work and my favorite thing to mention is the town you can see outside of the windows of the tower. So I'll just say, "town."