Big Fish Games‘ Fetch is about a young boy on a journey to rescue his kidnapped dog. Chosen as Apple 2013 Editors’ Choice award, it took a team of nine people working just over a year to create the game. Conor Murphy, an online marketing manager at Big Fish Games, sat down with Chris Campbell, Senior Producer, and Brian Thompson, Art Director, to discuss the development of Fetch.
Conor: Where did the initial creative come from? Who started the storyboards for Fetch?
Chris: One of my favorite things about our team is that when we release a game, it’s very difficult to pinpoint who came up with what idea and when. The initial conversations around the idea that would become Fetch started in February 2011, and a few weeks later, we’d settled on the idea that a hydrant would take Bear one stormy night, and the boy would go on a journey to save him. My second favorite time in the development of a game is this brainstorming process. We have a TON of ideas, and at the time, all of them are good. You have to be honest with yourself during this process because while all ideas might be good, they’re certainly not all good to use as the basis for a game.
Once we developed the premise, we asked everyone on the team to draw anything and everything they could think of that might be cool on these giant sheets of paper we had taped to a huge table in our area of the studio. One of our awesome artists, Hamzah Kasom Osman, sketched an alligator one day as part of this exercise, and I ended up designing Chapter 2 around the sketch. Throughout this process, Brian Thompson, Peter Yiap, our lead developer, and myself are constantly trying to organize as many cool ideas as possible into one wildly imaginative and coherent experience. Our preproduction is like watching nine people stand around a giant vat of super creative soup and toss whatever they have handy in. It certainly wouldn’t work for most teams, but for us, this is critical to our process.
Conor: Can you tell us about the thoroughness and time it took to create the game and quality images likened to “Pixar for casual gaming”?
Brian: First of all, we are huge fans of Pixar films and their approach to storytelling, so I cannot tell you how flattered we are as a team to hear the game being described this way. I believe the Pixar comparison comes from the story and how it is told, as well as the visuals and animation. Part of what Chris and I believe makes a great product is the personal investment of each person on the team. Each and every part of Fetch came from the great creative soup we as a team have been brewing and refining for the last four years. It’s not always the prettiest and most tasty thing, but it contains some wonderful one-of-a-kind gems. I know a bit about the going-ons of studios like Pixar, and I think we share some of the same philosophies. We have learned some valuable lessons in the past by trying too hard to tell complex stories (and then dealing with the painfully bad results), so we decided very early that Fetch would have an incredibly simple story. At its heart, Fetch is a good old-fashioned adventure with a simple premise: when his beloved dog is stolen, a boy embarks on a daring adventure to save his furry friend. It seems that the stories that often resonate the most with most of us are basically very simple. I think it is this simplicity that creates the freedom to create engaging and endearing characters, funny and goofy scenarios, and in the end, a product that touches the player and pulls on their heart strings.
From the art side, when I first started thinking about our next project, I had a couple big overarching goals for the art direction. First, I wanted to continue the high production value standard that we had established in the Drawn series. Second, I wanted a new challenge for the art team and a departure from what we had done in the past. And third, I wanted the game to have a nostalgic feel to it. With Drawn, we focused on a very stylized and painterly world, and with Fetch, I was interested in going for a more graphic 2D look. I have always loved the background art of older Warner Bros. cartoons like Wile E. Coyote and The RoadRunner, combined with the colorful styling of Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle. Contemporary artist Scott Wills and his amazing work on Samurai Jack was a major influence as well. Combining these goals and influences, with the big-hearted story we had really cemented the character of Fetch. Early on, we had played with different animation solutions for our characters. Our fantastic animators Mike Baran and Rebecca Coffman started modeling Milo and Bear off of some of my early sketches, and we played with different texture solutions. I wanted the characters to pop from the painted 2D backgrounds, but still feel very much a part of the world. We did a lot of tests on the look of the characters while the illustrators on the team, Hamzah Kasom Osman, Soi Che, and myself were creating final background art based on the environment concepts we had produced in early-preproduction.
There were many challenges in figuring out just how to design the background art to serve the character actions. This is largely how backgrounds have been designed for cartoons and animated features forever. But unlike a feature film where you have a captive audience, a game world must be designed very specifically to provide necessary contextual clues for the player. These clues vary from very subtle to very obvious depending on the required message. A priority of mine on the art side is always to make the characters, their animation, and the environments feel very related and tightly integrated. We would iterate on the animations until they felt very smooth, and the animators worked very hard to create continuity of animation style across all of the characters. In Fetch, it was very important that the player really feel the emotion of the characters, so this gave us the opportunity and challenge to push the physical acting, as well as in some cases, facial expression. Rebecca and Mike really tackled the challenge and really enjoyed it. From the goofy robotic antics of the Dog Catcher to the big ol’ sweet-heartedness of Gil the Gator, and the ridiculousness of our voracious Coconut Bird, what you see is the results of truly talented animators having a ton of fun.
Conor: How many people did it take to make Fetch?
Chris: The core development team within Big Fish Studios for Fetch was nine people: myself, Brian, Peter, Sean Richer, Ryan Hoaglan, Hamzah Kasom, Soi Che, Michael Baran, Rebecca Coffman and Bear (little gray dog that lives at my house). We’ve been a team since late 2008 and have three prior games under our belts, so we work incredibly well together. As Brian indicated, we’ve been making this awesome soup for so long. We’ve been at the point of finishing each other’s sentences for years now. I think that’s a big reason we were able to build a game like Fetch in only 13 months. The only things we as a team don’t handle inside our studio in Seattle is music and voice over. Our team has worked with Clean Cuts for our audio for a few years now, and because they can also finish our sentences, we just call them Team Fetch East.
I do think it’s important to point out though that while nine of us lived and breathed Fetch for a little over a year, there are a lot of other people that helped it become the game that we’re so proud of. Big Fish is a big company and a lot of awesome people help us bring the game to market. I wish I could thank everyone here, but if you play Fetch, I made sure they were listed in the credits – along with all of their dogs.
Conor: How many hours did it take to make Fetch?
Brian: The game took a core team of nine people, 13 months. An interesting thing to note is that when we set off to make Fetch, we were a team that had made three successful, first-person, point-and-click adventure games for the PC, and now were trying to create a mobile avatar-based adventure in a new engine for the first time. Needless to say, we had a fairly long pre-production phase as we sorted through a remarkable amount of challenges and made a mountain of mistakes. But we love a challenge, so we huddled up and said “Bring it!”
Conor: Can you talk about the launch and promotion of Fetch to mainstream, including the exhibit at Seattle Museum of History & Industry. Was the seed planted ahead of time? Any big outlet that really helped push it mainstream?
Chris: Working with MOHAI on the Fetch exhibit was such an incredible experience, and came as a complete surprise to us. Because game studios are such an important part of Seattle’s economy, MOHAI wanted to include some information on the local game industry when they moved their museum to South Lake Union. Ann Farrington, the Creative Director for MOHAI, came to visit us in the studio one day to ask us questions on the industry in general, and we gave her a demo of Fetch as part of that meeting. She suggested that we consider creating an exhibit on the making of Fetch because an exhibit focusing on the development of a game hadn’t been done before. Several conversations later, Brian and I were frantically trying to distill game development into a handful of steps that would help teach everyone how a game was made. This is actually a lot harder than it sounds.
It took us three months of work to get the exhibit ready, and I can honestly say it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of. We got to tour the museum as it was under construction and watched as an exhibit based on our game was built piece by piece.
As far as an outlet that pushed Fetch into the mainstream – we had a lot of interest in the game as we were developing it. The Wall Street Journal wrote an article and a local television show filmed Bear playing in the park next to MOHAI. Apple also featured Fetch as their Editor’s Choice worldwide the day that it launched. It was surreal.
Conor: Any takeaways of what would be done differently? Any unexpected stories created because of the influence of the game?
Brian: I don’t think we would have done anything differently. Like I mentioned, we made many mistakes. In fact, we have fully embraced mistake-making as an integral part of our design process. But our days are spent coming up with crazy, inspired ideas, chasing them down, and giving life to them inside a game, so mistakes are bound to lurk around every corner. We just try to learn from each one and move forward.
I think the greatest thing that came from making Fetch is the effect it has had on players. Young and old, game reporters, school kids, families, GTA fans and housewives, have all loved the game. Fetch tells a story that is hopeful and sincere, and it moves and breathes in a special way that could only be achieved by a special team. I think we left something wonderful behind, and I am so proud of that.