Nightmares from the Deep: A Hidden Object Adventure is a bold mix of features from one of the most popular HOPA adventure games, and the free-to-play model. Set in the 18th century in the eternal Caribbean, the game allows players to immerse themselves in the colorful world of legendary pirates.
The player takes on the role of Aimee Duvall, an orphan whose tough life in the shady districts of a port city have made her resourceful and able to confront adversity. The story starts when the heroine is captured by pirates from the Society of the Black Spot. The villains are looking for the lost treasure of a Portuguese fleet, and their legendary Captain Bloodbeard seems to consider Aimee the key to finding the mythical fortune. Bootjack, her father’s friend, arrives to rescue the heroine just in time. The girl begins to understand that the medallion and piece of a mysterious map that she inherited may be much more than just a family keepsake.
Will Aimee succeed in solving the riddle and find her father?
Designing “a bold mix”
How about being involved in creating top-quality casual adventure games and at the same time fascinated with how free-to-play casuals make their way to the top of mobile games charts? The outcome can be only one:
It’s time to do our best and show something totally new to the world!
This philosophy led our team to a great challenge, probably the greatest of my game designer’s career.
Development of puzzle adventure F2P game, with gameplay, graphics and story on the same level of excellence as studio’s previous productions, with new features never before seen in any game on casual market.
Both production-wise and design-wise, this project was huge. Almost every step required well-performed research on casual market combined with developed intuition and skills of everyone involved.
Basic idea seemed fairly easy: Take what’s best from the two popular formats and make those best features work together. And then basic idea brings you more problems and riddles to solve every day. Every solution had to be iterated thoroughly to actually be realized. From the shape of procedurally generated locations, to the story that had to be interesting while smuggled in speech bars of random side-characters.
During making of NFTD: A Hidden Object Adventure, along with the team, we developed few interesting solutions to properly answer those arising problems and questions.
Here’s few words, on few of them.
Procedural generation of levels in casual adventure game
While making 2D adventure game, like any HOPA we made previously, we had to prepare hand-painted, detailed and vivid locations, to make exploration of our game one enjoyable and unforgettable experience.
We considered no excuses in quality while starting work on NFTD:AHOA 2D levels — obviously, that’s where our talented art-team skills were to be shown! Thus, our plan was to keep our stand-alone games’ highly polished graphical style, even with realizing how assets-heavy it may become as for a mobile game. And here the reality came along to mess things up.
Of course, places to explore in adventure game have to be interesting, full of details, colourful and live. But, in reasonable free-to-play format you just have to make the place re-usable, to reduce the production costs and weight of assets from the technological aspect.
More importantly from the design’s perspective, when players enter the same place in game’s world over and over again, they need to see that the world changes due to their actions. The game has to feel alive and never fully discovered. Otherwise, the whole experience may become boring habit quite quickly. And that would almost certainly kill enthusiasm among the players, causing big drop in game’s retention value.
In popular Hidden Object Games there is usually little pressure put on the aspect of entry points’ coherence — every place can be described simply as a big scene with more and more hidden objects dropped in as the player’s skill progresses. Obviously, in good games those elements are designed and drawn carefully. The aim of this fluent fusion of skills is to provide the best difficulty increase and balance of gameplay possible — because that’s what is practically building up the whole experience.
In case of our game, where we wanted to involve story and characters atop of the objects search layer, whole thing instantly became much more tricky than we’d ever expect it to be.
Inspired by the best trends among top-grossing mobile games, as well as by classic solutions found in interactive stories and rougue-likes, we decided to give a shot to the procedural generation. Maximum possible randomization of the 2D image, while keeping its consistency and logic. Locations are prepared and joined together in a way that allows to randomize each entry point’s differing look for every generated adventure.
That’s a huge step forward while crafting the gameplay which has to be re-used, sometimes many hundreds times. It turned out for us to be the practical method with impressive effects, but it also appeared to be significantly time- and assets-consuming. We discovered that fact when the production was at its bloom.
That’s because we were able to see how it actually performs only when facing almost final prototype. Mix of almost final level design joined with functional art and pre-balanced gameplay of first few locations shown us, that we took some really demanding (and expensive) task on ourselves. Then, it was virtually no way back.
So, if you ever plan to make such a huge game with use of procedurally generated levels, feel warned — it’s certainly an ambitious plan.
Hidden Object Scenes:
Matching casual feel with fast pacing
This is the most characteristical part of casual hidden object games: laid-back, relaxing gameplay. Difficult just enough to give players a challenge, but mostly not stressing and allowing them to explore the beautiful, hand-crafted world of images.
Most of typical HOGs (hidden object games) found on today’s market involves time limit on hidden object scenes as a main tool to balance the game’s difficulty. With time limit, the difficulty curve on progression charts looks different than in the classical HOPA game — its smooth increase is significantly fragile.
Every mistake of an artist and/or a designer can cause a stressful drop in feeling among the experienced players, letting down their expectations of their favourite logical gameplay.
No excuses here – each element of each scene must remain logical, visually attractive and at the same time enough challenging to demand some use of power-ups, helping in beating it in the shortest time possible. It’s very hard to craft this kind of experience suiting almost every player.
Having this knowledge, we still saw no better way to involve target players, than introducing time limit like other F2P games. At the beggining, we felt that this “mandatory” restriction for casual gameplay is not the best available solution. Later we learned, why it’s actually neccesary and why in the end it appears we made the best possible move.
F2P players are at the moment used to the confinements of gameplay, characteristical for the genre. Decreasing energy or currency required for exploration is something rather naturally found in every free-to-play game. Most of F2P opponents argue, that these factors are the intricate mechanism to “suck money out” of players — while they are supposed to get their product “free”, as the name indicates. I get the emotional reasons that stand behind this approach, still I couldn’t fully agree on it. Without those restrictions it would be very hard, if not impossible to even create an endless, consistent gameplay given away for free, not mentioning any profit for the developers. I mean, not in this economy system we have today.
To make things sweeter for everyone: There’s an unspoken trade here, between developers and players. Due to the strict requirements of free-to-play market, developers have to take monetizing issues into consideration to even stand a chance in getting to the public’s notion. But, with that confinements come also opportunities to transform the gameplay into more challenging, and thus even more rewarding for the casual players of F2P games. It is doable by careful iteration of gameplay’s balance in prototype phase, soon leading to research on almost-final product within small groups of beta-testers. Close contact of designers, programmers and quality assurance experts is crucial for this process to give the best possible effects. Effects unseen in most of the stand-alone intended video games.
To simplify the process: We infused our well-crafted hidden object scenes with the best features taken straight out of well-known HOGs. We took a good care to make them rich in puzzles, intriguing, relaxing and at the same time enough challenging for the short time left for casual players to explore them. Surprisingly, crafting the hidden object hunt part of gameplay brought us ourselves a lot of fun and lead us into making something genuinely fresh, beautiful and smoothly playable.
Sometimes all you need to do is to… copy. Find the best experiences while playing the copy. Choose your favourite few and point them out carefully, your way. This way you estabilish features that feel fresh, while being based mostly on existing, proven solutions. Paradoxally to some, in my opinion that’s exactly the way we should develop the casual genres. Non-invasively for the fans, focused mostly on pleasing the players, still giving your game the best you can.
Simple logic with sophisticated system
Mini-games in NFTD:AHOA are another dimension of casual gameplay. Adventures consist mostly of interactive gameplay related with story, characters, world and items. Hidden object scenes challenge players’ associative and adaptive skills in detailed, senses-feeding environment. Mini-games present players with intriguing and sometimes quite sophisticated logical puzzles.
I think they are the most demanding of all the game’s elements. They can provide real challenge for casual players, especially on higher levels of difficulty. Again, every single mistake in smooth gameplay and balance design could result in accidental frustration. With our experience in mini-games used in our previous games, we made everything we could to provide players with puzzles that they will love to master. Laid-back at the beggining, demanding and satysfying in later stages of the game.
To create this kind of experience, designers had to split rules of every mini-game into small, individual portions. Then we needed to browse through their logic to find the pattern of difficulty increase. With this knowledge, we were able to make each different mini-game demanding more or less at the same degree when presenting players with the constant confinement of time limit.
Here’s where procedural generation had to meet pure design and programming prerogatives. All the dirty moves allowed, to deeply understand and beat the game you’ve just created. One example of unusual designer’s skill to control balance and gameplay progression: use of calculation charts.
Let’s take match-3-like puzzle mini-game for instance.
- Obstacles and tokens are divided into types. Each type is then divided into its possible appearance on the grid: as a single token, cluster of them, or a functional group.
- Later, possibly many various grids are introduced, each consisting of different types of obstacles mixed into playable levels.
- Those prototype levels are then presented to the beta-testers, to find out what are approximate skills and time needed to beat each level. How much does it take to break through each of obstacles, in relation with other ones?
- Then you collect the data, add some of designer’s gut-feeling, maths and heavy iteration to create working, pre-balanced levels editor.
- Finally, if your calculations were correct, what you get is a handy tool for designers to provide new levels with increasing difficulty for updates — in practically no time.
Deep understanding of created mini-game’s mechanics comes free of charge.
Vast world to explore
Metagame is the visit card of every major F2P title. Here the player is experiencing the vast game’s world, filled with adventures, colourful characters and the game’s main mechanics. This time production plan was fairly simple – make possibly the most functional hub for all the game’s features, with especially top-notch graphics, animations and clear user interface. Everything as simple as possible, while giving the feeling of an endless content, just waiting to surprise the players with its well-polished feel.
With hard work of everyone involved, the meta-game was growing steadily, becoming more rich with every passing Agile sprint. Was they the programmers taking care of fluent, bug-free functionality, the graphic designers turning their marvellous concepts into state-of-art world and characters full of life, or the writers introducing their particular wit and clever wordplay into the game’s narration.
I think after many iterations our soft-launch meta-game world map turned out to be exactly the impressive visit card our game needed!
Just dive into it!
At the project’s beggining noone thought it’s going to be “a piece of cake”. Of course, with that attitude we just had to be right! That’s why our work on NFTD: AHOA consisted mostly of mastering the best possible way to combine many-years skills and experience of Artifex Mundi team with playful improvising on totally new challenges.
Now, after some time has passed from prototyping phase to the released build, I realize how much we owe to the producers. Without proper workflow and excellent plan it seems next to impossible to me to ever deliver this kind of game. Whole team firmly embraced this big challenge. With so many points of risk, not fully recognized market, and a great need for improvising skills. Even with that in mind, our casual-setup artists and designers have put as many passion into the project as they possibly could, while carefully crafting the gameplay balance and inerasable features related with monetizing issues.
Very few of us actually had faced making the casual F2P before the production process has begun. The team was very experienced in providing the great quality fun with casual adventure games, but when we left our comfort zones to try as many new things as possible — the waters we travelled on turned out to be hostile.
The crew and the ship were ready for everything. And soon we faced everything.
Our fingers were constantly on pulse of what’s going on in mobile games market. We focused thoroughly on gaining every possible lecture, book, expert conversation on free-to-play games development, to later incorporate what we’ve learned into this massive, uncharted project.
Words would become too complicated to give away the size of that kind of endeavor and richness of the gameplay created. The best way to describe it, is simply to try it out.
The initial version released on iPad contains:
- 740 addictive adventures to dive into
- 300 intriguing quests to tackle
- 38 collections to piece together
- Eight stunning locations and 14 scenes to explore
- Nine challenging mini-games to play
- Hundreds of unique characters and over a dozen powerful Talismans
I had my good share in design of every part of this vast title.