[correction: After some Twitter back and forth with Brenda Brathwaite herself, it was made clear that the engine for Ravenwood Fair was indeed NOT developed by the folks who worked on Wizardry. In actuality, it was coded by a one Sean Cooper, who, according to Moby Games, is behind many EA titles like Populous, Syndicate and Dungeon Keeper Gold. One must note that Brenda Brathwaite herself is behind Wizardry, the title noted in this feature.]
The first SF Game Developer’s Workshop (SFGDW) of 2011 gave us a tremendous surprise as legend John Romero, designer of such highly regarded titles as Doom and Quake, took the podium to give a post mortem of his latest title Ravenwood Fair. Now, here’s the surprise: it’s a Facebook social game.
Several hundred people gathered in a hot room at the San Francisco Art Institute Tuesday to learn how Romero and Lolapps creative director Brenda Brathwaite (just as legendary) created a game that has earned more than 10 million monthly average users (MAU) since its release in October. Ultimately, they came to learn how the game changes the way we view the social space, as it essentially marries AAA qualities with that of the viral.
The Game: in Ravenwood Fair, players find themselves on a floating rock, tasked with changing the landscape, chopping down trees and building attractions to create an epic fair. The challenge comes when monsters emerge from the spooky woods, threatening your progress and the people. This may sound similar to a Frontierville, yet it already eclipses your pet friends and farm towns for sure.
Romero and company steer the game further away from the pack as they focus on the essentials – video, audio and interaction.
The Video: “The engine they used was written [coded] by the guy who made Wizardry [dungeon crawler]. It was very well written and what it can do very well is put a lot of things on screen fast.” Romero noted that in games like Frontierville, the engine requires each object to be drawn separately, resulting in poor graphics because it’s being pulled in too many directions at once. The engine he trumpets renders everything in one shot, so wherever the player looks, the graphics are all there in real time.
This also gives players the ability to develop and develop until their world really looks like a bustling fair with tons of moving parts. What gamers can then expect, as they expect from all AAA titles, is a lack of pop-ups, no stuttering and a richer experience – already far beyond the majority of games found on the Facebook platform, as well as some found on traditional consoles.
The Audio: To get the best soundtrack, John worked closely with the composer from day one. “What most Facebook developers do is treat audio as something tacked on in the last minute. That’s just not how it is done.” That’s especially not how it’s done in today’s smack-you-in-the-face-awesome titles like Red Dead Redemption.
So, Romero took the time to go back and forth with the composer, digging through tracks until they found a sound that fit not only with the mood of the game, but also the lore they were trying to establish. True AAA fashion.
The Interaction: for this, the team hearkened to the design of the first few iterations of Sid Meier’s Civilization. “What they did well was they gave a carrot for gamers to let them know there was always something new on the horizon. The proverbial carrot, not a real carrot.” What Brathwaite is talking about is setting goals for the player – the tried and true quest.
It turns out, in the social gamespace, there is no such thing as too many quests. The average facebooker is playing during his/her lunch break and wants to accomplish something quickly. The plethora of quests goes a long way to provide that. “You want to get in, get shit done, and get out feeling like you’ve done something,” Brathwaite says.
In the end, players have much more quality on their hands than what they initially see on the surface; and quality isn’t something you typically associate with social games, especially those found on Facebook. Yet, Ravenwood Fair has it hammer strong.
What’s more impressive is that Romero and company only had 2 ½ months to pump the game out, with a team that never published a game in their life. This is an insane and impossible dash compared to the typical 4 years life cycle of hardcore productions with seasoned gaming vets. Brathwaite likened it to the shape of an egg.
Starting at the bottom, you expand as you move from concept to design. At the half way point, you start to close in, polishing and polishing until release. However, “John was down here [at the bottom] while I was working to polish things that haven’t even been made. I was designing quests for a game that I didn’t even see.” Not recommended for the faint of heart and those just starting out.
Now, when all is said and done, the production (minus the crazy 2 ½ months) sounds more like what happens at AAA studios. It is definitely far reaching to suggest that gamers will soon find a Call of Duty killer on the social network; but, it’s safe to say soon we’ll find more games that satisfy a more sophisticated gaming taste on Facebook. It’s also safe to say that Brathwaite and Romero have found themselves once again on the Avant Guard bringing quality to a newer segment of the gaming population.