Drawn Interview Part 1: Chris Campbell

Chris Campbell, producer of the critically acclaimed point-and-click adventure series, Drawn, agreed to give us a look into the world of PC game development via an e-mail interview.  You will also get his views on DRM, piracy, Steam, pricing, the beginnings of Drawn and much more.

Adam:

Where did the idea for Drawn come from?

Chris:

The idea of an adventure game with magical paintings that can be entered came from a painting that Brian did and my addiction to adventure games growing up.

The idea for Drawn as the brand it is today came from a thousand conversations between Brian and I, Peter, Rachel, Sean, Rebecca, Hamzah, Soi, Mike and Drew (also known as the Drawn team) and Patrick Wylie (VP of Big Fish Games Studios). The best ideas we had were often the combination of hundreds of smaller suggestions. I think that this makes Drawn unique. The entire team had a say not only on the individual chapters that make up the game, but also on the story, player motivation and all of the other things that make a game great.

Adam:

Did you create The Painted Tower knowing you would be developing the eventual sequel in The Dark Flight?

Chris:

We created The Painted Tower with the hope that we would get to create a sequel and finish telling the story that we wanted to tell. Building a brand that will support multiple installments is a huge risk and a massive undertaking. History is littered with games that set up a sequel, but for whatever reason didn’t get a chance to execute. We were very fortunate that the players on our site really loved Drawn and the character of Iris. We had people demanding a sequel in our forums the day we released The Painted Tower!
Adam:

What were the success and failures you learned from in developing both Drawn games?

Chris:

The last time someone asked me this question it took me 5000 words to answer it. I’ll try to make this brief:

We learned that we could be successful by doing something different. Designing and developing something outside of the status quo is a risk, but when it works, it is SO rewarding. A core gamer would say that an adventure game isn’t really that different, but in the casual industry, it’s a genre that is just now being introduced.

The biggest failures are oftentimes tied to the successes. Developing something new and different sometimes fragments your audience. Just like core gamers, some casual gamers only play games in one genre and when they’re asked to step outside of that comfort zone, they’re very wary. We’ve certainly tried to make that leap as easy as possible with a tiered hint system and puzzles that can be skipped, but some people just don’t want to explore a new genre until it’s a little more established.

Adam:

How do you go about setting the pace for a game like Drawn?  Did you have a target number of gameplay hours in mind before development began?

Chris:

My answer will be focused on adventure games because this question changes depending on the genre of game you’re designing. You need a gameplay target in mind before you ever start the design process. Without that, you could design yourself into a black-hole so to speak. Once you understand that you’re shooting for 4-6 hours (as an example), you know approximately how many assets you need, how long each chapter should play, how fast the development team should move, minutes of music you need, etc… All of this of course needs to work within the budget which can be a chicken-and-egg scenario depending on the studio. We need 4-6 hours of play and it will cost this much $$$. We have this much $$$ so we can afford 4-6 hours. At the end of the day though, you can plan chapter one to be 45 minutes – then have focus testers take 15 minutes and 1 ½ hours respectively. You really have to design for the experience and hope the average playtime falls at least close to where you want it.

Adam:

How did you come up with the Collector’s Edition content for The Dark Flight?

Chris:

Our goal in Dark Flight was to finish the story arc of (spoiler alert!) Iris becoming Queen and once we’d accomplished that, we wanted to show the reunion between Franklin and Iris. It wasn’t something that was necessary for the primary game, but we thought players who had developed any sort of emotional bond with either character would appreciate seeing them reunited. We also wanted to hint at what the kingdom looked like before the shadows and the last scene from the balcony of the sunny kingdom is still one of my favorite paintings in the game.
Adam:

You recently released The Painted Tower on Steam.  Tell us about your relationship with Valve and how making The Painted Tower available via Steam came about.  Are there plans to release The Dark Flight as well?

Chris:

This is where I need to call out Karl LeDoux and the team upstairs at Big Fish Games that manages the relationships with all of the different sites our games are distributed on, including Steam. We asked him if there was a way we could launch on Steam and he worked very closely with our team and the folks over at Valve to make it happen. We’ve already spoken to him about the sequel and have every intention of ensuring that Steam fans can play through Dark Flight as well!
Adam:

Explain how Steam Achievements are created.  How much is Big Fish and how much is Valve. 

Chris:

I can’t speak for other games, but for Drawn: The Painted Tower, all achievements were created by the core Drawn team, which was a LOT of fun! We have our fair share of inside jokes, and some of those have now been immortalized in achievements. One example is the achievement Beam Me Up. One of our developers, Sean Richer, designed the number puzzle (at the top of the ladder) in The Painted Tower. Once it was in, we realized it was the only puzzle in the game that would be more at home in a Star Trek episode than Drawn, but we didn’t have time to start over from scratch with a different puzzle. We decided that we would reward players for skipping it by paying homage to Star Trek. So Beam Me Up means, “I don’t get this puzzle. Get me out of here.”
Adam:

Tell us about the exclusive retail deal you have with Wal-Mart in regards to The Dark Flight. 

Chris:

Paul Handelman is our Director of Licensing and he came to us a few months before launch and told us that Wal-Mart was interested in not only launching Drawn: Dark Flight exclusively, but on the same day we launched on Big Fish Games. We worked closely with his licensing team to finalize content, dates, ESRB submissions, box art and the myriad of other things that a retail launch needs. As far as I know, this is the first time any game on our site has received a simultaneous launch in retail and at www.bigfishgames.com!

One thing though – in the casual industry, you can polish and tweak your game right up until launch. In the retail world, you need to wrap it up about six weeks before it appears on store shelves. When you work with a ten month development cycle, six weeks is a huge amount of time. It was worth it however because the day we launched on the site, my wife came home with three copies purchased at different Wal-Marts!
Adam:

How do you set pricing for online and retail outlets?

Chris:

Pricing for games on our site is standardized. Collector’s Editions are $19.99 or $13.99, and standard editions are $9.99 or $6.99. The lower price is for Game Club members. As for pricing in the retail environment, I’m not qualified to speak to how they determine what a game will cost. I do know the Collector’s Edition of Drawn: Dark Flight launched at $19.99 in Wal-Mart.
Adam:

How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as opposed to retail?

Chris:

There are a couple of different ways to look at this. Being a part of Big Fish Games Studios, it should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of digital distribution. For me, games are the ultimate impulse buy and being able to do that any time of the day or night is awesome.

I also think that retail is still an important part of the gaming ecosystem. I like going to the store and looking at the wall of games and trying to decide which one I want to play. I especially enjoy ripping the cellophane off a new game.

There is also the practical matter of bandwidth. Some people can’t download hundreds of MBs of data when they want due to a number of reasons. They have to be able to buy the games they want to play in the store. We shouldn’t punish people for something that might be outside of their control.

In five years, this might be a different conversation, but right now – we need both retail and digital.
Adam:

What is your stance on DRM and piracy?

Chris:

Good question. My first thought is that if you put 100 people in a room, you would get 100 different opinions on DRM – it’s a very polarizing topic. I should mention before answering, in addition to being the designer/producer for Drawn, I am also a diehard PC core gamer so I’ve seen great solutions and horrible solutions. With the increasing popularity of digital downloads, DRM is a necessity – just as the rudimentary copy protection (i.e., seventh word, third paragraph, second page of the manual) in the ’80s was a necessity. So the question is not whether I believe it’s needed, but how it should be implemented. First thing – don’t require me to be connected to the internet to play a game I purchased. It’s my game, so if I want to play it on an airplane I should have that option. Second, don’t install low-level software onto my machine. If I uninstall a game I purchased, there should be no special program needed to remove the DRM for that game. There are two game managers on my PC at home – Big Fish Games and Steam – and I think both work really well. You buy the game, you play the game and the DRM is not intrusive at all. The games are protected, but I as the user don’t have to understand how to remove something added to the registry to know how they’re protected.

Piracy costs passionate people their jobs and has a direct impact on families. Unless your game is supported by micro-transactions or something similar, the business model around selling games doesn’t work with people playing your game for free. The worst is when someone plays a game you’ve released for free, and likes it enough to steal the other one as well. That really stings.

Look at the number of games being released right now across all platforms. Each of those games are made by a team that believes in something enough to spend money and time making it. The competition for player’s attention and hard-earned money is fierce. The last thing that anyone can afford is a large group of people that download the full game for free. We have free trials of all of our games for a reason. If you’re not sure you want to purchase it, play the demo. If you like the demo, purchase the game.

I truly believe that most people playing pirated games don’t do it to be evil or mean. They are simply focused on what they’re doing and not imagining that there are thousands of people that are doing the same thing.

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