So we shopped Spellirium around at the Casual Connect conference in Seattle this past week, and the consensus was that the game was good … for them to poop on.
i’ve been billing Spellirium as a “word puzzle/adventure game hybrid”, or “Jim Henson’s Labyrinth meets Boggle.”
Er – that’s “Boggle”, not “Hoggle”.
To the casual games portals and bidnessmen i met at the conference, the phrase “word puzzle game” was tantamount to box office poison of Carrot Top-ical proportions.
Said one acquisitions director for a well-known casual downloadable games portal, “word games don’t do well.” He cited the only three word games he’s ever known that did do well: Scrabble, TextTwist, and “to a far lesser extent”, Bookworm. Apparently Bookworm Adventures, Spellirium’s kissing cousin, didn’t even rate.
At a reported development cost of over $700k, Bookworm Adventures is the casual downloadable industry’s Ishtar.
i did my research before embarking on this project. i knew that word games don’t sell. i even wrote that fact into our business plan. i was quick – perhaps too quick – to point out to him that there are no other word games quite like Spellirium. i wasn’t just shilling, though – honestly, no other game i know has tried to combine an early-90’s LucasArts-style adventure game with a word puzzle mechanic. All other word games i’ve seen have been just the mechanic, and that can get old quickly. Even Bookworm Adventures, with its worm-on-monster battles and its levelling and inventory systems, didn’t do story. Story is not a blob of text you frantically skip after the title screen, or an explanation of how Character X has to retrieve the Magic Y.
Note: this is not “story”.
i also tried to explain that Spellirium does word puzzling like no other game. We’re really stretching this simple mechanic to its farthest logical limits – you’ll be spelling words to paint pictures, navigate mazes, move objects, balance balls … in many of our modes, spelling words doesn’t even matter. It’s crazy, it’s creative, and i think players are totally gonna dig it.
We’ve already produced and playtested over twenty unique variations on our main game mechanic, seen here in prototype phase. One of the goals of Spellirium is to ensure that the puzzling is constantly fresh and surprising.
The casual games publishers do not dig it. “Anything that involves thinking”, they said, “is a non-starter.” The same acquisitions guy told me that one of our other games was “too cerebral”, and followed up by saying “i don’t wanna say that our audience is dumb, but … ”
And i won’t say that either. i’m sure that the Big Fishes and the iWins and the Gamehouses have more than their fair share of dim bulbs buying games from them. But i think the real challenge for us with Spellirium is finding the right audience. The casual downloadable audience is mostly female, and mostly older, and they play games to escape. Spellirium is not an escape in that clicky-gemmy, findy-object kinda way. It’s escapism in that “i’ve been transported to a fascinating and fun other world where there are characters who are more interesting than anyone i know, and places more vivid than i’ve ever visited” kinda way.
i actually feel like i have to escape Bejewelled whenever i’ve played. Is this lunch break ever gonna end?
i was never more dismayed during the conference than when i attended the talk by Luna Cruz from Boomzap, who talked about economizing story in her game Awakening: The Dreamless Castle. Look: i know i’m a wordy writer, and i know the Spellirium script could use trimming as badly as those ladies from the 1970’s skin mags. So it was with great hope that i sat down to hear Luna’s talk.
(Awakening: Not to be confused with that movie where Robin Williams gives drugs to all those old people.)
Early on, Luna said “We really needed to find a way to simplify this cut-scene and get the most important information out in as few lines as possible.” i was all ears. But then: “The original cut-scene had six lines of dialogue, which we knew was way too much for our audience, so we worked really hard and gave it a lot of thought, and cut it down to only two.”
You cut it down to – guh. What? How many lines? And you say six lines was too much for your audience to bear? i have to say six lines of dialogue before i can even establish one of my characters’ names. i was going to approach Luna after the talk and ask for her advice, but i began to worry that she’d look at one of our cut-scenes and start vomiting on me uncontrollably.
But let’s compare. Here’s the entire story of Awakening:
*** spoilers ***
A princess who can’t wield magic wakes up in a magic-imbued world and must escape the castle, with the help of a magic mirror and some ornery trolls who were sworn to protect her.
And here’s just the backstory to Spellirium:
*** no spoilers ***
In the future, a young apprentice journeys with an ill-fated monster to find his missing guardians, using a dangerously magical device to battle enemies and to overcome challenges.
Luna can tell her entire story in the same space that it takes me to write a synopsis of Spellirium. We’re dealing with apples and oranges here. Which suggest to me that the audience, likewise, is like apples and oranges.
Three panels from a Spellirium cutscene.
What Sort of Gamer Plays Spellirium?
The suggestion was repeated to me by a number of people at the conference, when i asked whether i should just scrap Spellirium and take up pork farming: i need to find the right audience for the game. So what sort of gamer plays Spellirium?
The pervy sort. Next question.
We tried to answer this question way back before production began by stating the obvious: people who play word games will play Spellirium. So we built a game portal called Word Game World and stocked it with word games leftover from the MochiMedia/Dictionary.com contest they ran last year. Here are the less-than-stellar results:
Yes – that says “40”, not “40k”.
The trouble is that now we found ourselves with the challenge of generating an audience for TWO properties. It makes more sense to just bring people straight to Spellirium, than to drive them to the game via the scenic route. That, and many of the word games people have made have turned out less-than-scenic, if you get my drift. (Yet another nail in the coffin for the genre – too many people making it look bad)
Beer Covers a Multitude of Sins
i got a hot tip from my fellow Christian game designer pal Grant Shonkwiler (who you’ll remember from our earlier post on the impossibility of Christian gaming). These days, Grant designs games for tabletop bar cabinets (like any good Christian would … i forgot to ask if he got paid in hooch). He designed a word game for his company that was a smash success with the audience, and offered that bar patrons love word games. It reminded me of Norm MacDonald’s old SNL Weekend Update punchline: Germans love David Hasselhoff. You hit the right niche with the right product, and you’re sailing.
So what combination of Knight Riding and Baywatching will Spellirium have to pull off to find its Germany-sized pool of rabid fans? Here are some facts about what i *think* a Spellirium player is like. i think the game will appeal to both sexes, but i’ll use masculine pronouns for simplicity:
- He can kick ass at Scrabble. Don’t mess.
- He does crossword puzzles on his way to work. In pen. He may even feel that British cryptics are far superior to American-style.
- He watches movies. Among his favourite films are Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Road Warrior, Twelve Monkeys, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Princess Bride, The Last Unicorn, Dragonslayer, and The Goonies.
- He reads. He likes sci fi and fantasy. He may enjoy Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Lloyd Alexander, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Terry Brooks, and Neil Gaiman.
- He plays games. He quite liked Puzzle Quest, Bookworm and Bookworm Adventures, digital versions of Scrabble and Boggle, Wurdle, TextTwist, LucasArts and Sierra On-Line graphic adventure games – possibly even Infocom text adventures or MUDs – as well as Out of This World, Beneath a Steel Sky and the Fallout series.
- When he’s playing a game that has story elements, including dialogue or cutscenes or even blobs of text, he does not – does NOT – push the A button to skip. He becomes particularly upset if he accidentally skips story, even if he’s not particularly enjoying that story. If he’s gaming with a dumb jock fratboy friend who blithely skips past all the story sequences saying “let’s just play already, d00d”, he punches that friend in the throat. (Then he gets his ass kicked, because he’s a lover, not a fighter.)
i know, friends. i know. i’ve just described myself. (Or perhaps Jerry Holkins / Tycho Brahe from Penny Arcade – i’m convinced we’re the same person.) i am a little concerned that i have not paid enough attention to the needs and wants of the market, over the needs and wants of the me. i have not designed Spellirium as an ineffectual, casual click-fest with simple puzzles and two-line cutscenes. i thought, perhaps foolishly – perhaps arrogantly – that if i designed a game that i desperately wanted to play, there would be others like me for whom this game would be a breath of fresh air.
If the world was as full of me as i am of myself, i’d be a wealthy, wealthy man.
Was i wrong? Like chocolate and peanut butter, is our word puzzle/adventure game hybrid born of two great tastes that taste great together? Or is it born of two disappointments – an overly cerebral genre that repeatedly fails to perform in the marketplace, and an outdated genre that saw its best days twenty years ago? Should we finish Spellirium and bury it as quickly as possible, or should we keep working to realize our vision – the vision of a smart, funny game for well-read, literate players that melds two genres like no other game before it?
Muffy and I simply *luuuurve* your game, Ryan.
i defer to your judgment and expertise. If Untold Entertainment needs to become a Hidden Object Game developer, please tell me now so that i can go get a lobotomy and get myself fitted at the Vagina Depot.
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