We managed to get an exclusive interview with Paul Woodbridge, Design Director at Relentless, to coincide with the launch of the site for new PSN game Blue Toad Murder Files. In exchange however, we had to give him somebody to motion capture being murdered.
In completely unrelated news, the Tea Boy position at Critical Gamer is open again…
CG: Blue Toad Murder Files is a radical departure from your usual output. How and why did you decide to make this game? Was it partly to avoid being known as ‘that company that makes the Buzz games’?
PW: We’ve been working on Buzz! for a few years now, and in that time we’ve accumulated a huge mass of weird and wonderful game ideas. Although we’re all very fond of Buzz! it’s always nice to stretch your legs and visit new pastures, especially when you believe you have a great game that’s just begging to brought to life. The hardest part was trying to decide not only which one had the most potential, but also which one was the best match for the talent and experience we have here at Relentless.
CG: So why a murder mystery?
PW: Well we believe that one of the most important aspects of a social game is that the core concept is already understood by most people. When you say “who wants to play a quiz game?” or “who wants to play karaoke?” you instantly strike a chord with people whether they are gamers or not. They can relate your game to other experiences in their life, and also have a damn good guess at what they will be expected to do. When I say “it’s a murder mystery” you know that a crime will be committed and that you’re going to have to use your powers of deduction to work out who the guilty party is.
CG: You’re being terribly coy about releasing information about the game without being prompted. Why is that?
We decided that we’d rather release comprehensive details about the game when they were ready, rather than let them spill out in unsatisfying dribs-and-drabs. On that note, the website www.bluetoadmurderfiles.co.uk is now live and should contain everything that there is to know.
CG: What you have said though, is that the game is intentionally linear. Why make that decision? Will it, and the nature of a murder mystery, hamper replayability?
PW: We knew early on that we wanted to make the videogame equivalent of TV murder mystery. Poirot, Midsummer Murders and Jonathon Creek were our influences – not only artistically but also in how they are ‘played’. These are stories where the viewer is presented with a set amount of information and they have to mentally sift through it to find the clues that point to the culprit. When Poirot gathers all the suspects into a room and starts highlighting their actions the viewer is essentially being told that they have all the information that they need and that it is time to tell the other people on the sofa who they think did it. Controlling the amount of information that the player has to process is vital- if they receive too much then the difficulty increases, yet if they learn too little it may be impossible to solve.Regarding the replayability, we have had a few ideas about features that will provide additional challenges but they are still to go in so I won’t say too much about them. Beyond these I think that The Blue Toad Murder Files provides a fun and intriguing story for the players to solve. If you are willing to re-read a book, or watch a repeat of a TV episode you have already seen, then I see no reason why this is any different.
CG: From what we can gather, a lot of the player’s time will be taken up with watching cut scenes. Are you confident that the sort of people likely to consider this game in the first place won’t have a problem with that?
PW: I’m confident that everyone, whether they are early-adopters or not, will happily watch their favourite TV series. Just because you love Metal Gear Solid doesn’t mean that there is no longer any point in watching an episode of 24. I don’t see any problem with lots of cutscenes provided that they are part of the gameplay. Whilst watching them you will be picking up clues and information that will enable you to complete the challenge at the end. This is different from a cutscene that only pushes the story yet has no bearing on the gameplay. In focus tests we have found the players have keenly paid attention to these cutscenes, so much so that we’re currently adding a replay feature for those who think they might have missed something.
CG: Are Relentless big murder mystery fans then? What stories/games influenced Blue Toad?
PW: Murder Mysteries are one of those things that most people seem to enjoy. It was an easy sell internally, and as development has progressed our combined knowledge of the genre has massively grown. Of course our writer has been a big fan for a long time, and even used to write and host murder mystery parties.
With so many books, TV series, films and games out there we’ve probably been influenced by far more than space will allow. I like to think of our game as the result of an intimate night between Poirot, Professor Layton, and the Carry On series.
CG: How will gameplay work?
PW: As the players visit locations around the village they will have to gather clues and solve puzzles which could be anything from decoding a diary, to listening to an old incoherent woman trying to describe her bad. As they learn about the case they will be questioned about the clues that they have picked up, rewarding the observant and allowing the less so to catch up. At the end of an episode they will be presented with the possible suspects, and have to deduce from what they know who the guilty one is.
CG: Why is multiplayer offline only?
PW: I feel that a lot of what makes this game great socially would be lost over a network connection. In focus tests the groups have shown a lot of interaction, trying to help each other, shout at one another, laugh together, and in one case we even had a couple get cuddly towards the end of the episode. This non-competitive interaction is often lost when you can’t see the other people, and turns the game into something we haven’t designed it to be.
CG: You’ve previously compared Blue Toad to the first Professor Layton. What did you like and dislike about that game, that you kept in mind when developing Blue Toad?
PW: Along with seemingly most the people I know, I love Professor Layton. It’s a brilliant game with varied interesting puzzles, and great production values. However, when developing Blue Toad our primary goal has always been to provide a fun and interesting murder mystery puzzle for the players to solve. We started with the story and then added the puzzles, whilst I imagine Layton started with the puzzles and added the story. This change in method has resulted in our game feeling substantially different.
CG: Why six downloadable ‘episodes’ rather than one complete story? Do you plan a long running series if it becomes popular enough?
PW: When making a social game it is important to restrain the length of the game. If Buzz, SingStar or Guitar Hero took 6 hours to play then they wouldn’t have worked. It’s important that you can say to your friends and family that the game will last a reasonable time and won’t take up the rest of the day unless they’re really enjoying it. Of course this also fitted perfectly with the TV analogy we’ve been going for. As season one is still being developed we haven’t really had time to even think about season two. When we’ve done the post-mortem we’ll be able to make a better judgement.
CG: Generally speaking, writing in games is nothing short of terrible. Why do you think this is?
PW: I have a few theories, but as this is Relentless’ first game with a story then they would only be idle speculation. From our perspective we knew from the very beginning that if it was to work we would not only need a great script, but also have the writer integrated into development very early. Fortunately we able to find a great writer early who not only had experience writing murder mysteries, but was also able to write in the style that fits perfectly with our vision for the game.
CG: Would you like to branch out into other genres using this model?
PW: We’d love to. However at this stage I think we’re just waiting to catch our breath. Once we’ve done that we’ll try to work out how to proceed.
CG: What next? Another completely new project?
PW: I think I saw a ‘Secret Project 2’ mentioned on our website. Very exciting! Can’t say a single thing about it!
Don’t let an innocent Tea Boy’s death have been in vain. Investigate The Case Of Relentless Making Something That Isn’t Buzz at www.bluetoadmurderfiles.com