Eipix Entertainment is a game development studio based in Novi Sad, Serbia. Founded in 2005 by a small group of friends, today it is a home to about 300 people. With the current output of 25 hidden object puzzle adventure (HOPA) games a year, it’s safe to say it is the most productive HOPA studio in the world, with its sights set on branching out into other video game genres.
Mystery Case Files (MCF) is arguably the most famous hidden object franchise ever. Created in 2005 by the internal studio of Big Fish Games, it played a key role in defining a genre in which we at Eipix primarily operate. The previous 11 sequels have registered more than a billion plays and created an army of devoted fans.
In other words, when we accepted the Big Fish Games’ offer to take over the development of future sequels, we had some big shoes to fill. However, there was no hesitation.
“By the time we were offered the MCF franchise, we had already developed a relationship of trust and reliability with Big Fish, and they already knew we weren’t afraid of challenges”, says Mirko Topalski, the CEO of Eipix.
“It all stems from a few years ago, when Big Fish first offered us Hidden Expedition, another of their prize franchises. They contacted me at some crazy hour, well past midnight by our local time, so I knew it must be something big. When they mentioned Hidden Expedition, I think I said ‘yes’ before they even finished the sentence. They kept going on about the deadline, the money and all the aspects of the operation, and I just kept saying ‘yes’, because we were desperate for a chance to prove ourselves.”
“We worked on Hidden Expedition and it went well, which led to more sequels, and we were also handed two other popular franchises from the Big Fish catalogue, Dark Parables and Phantasmat. So, when we were offered Mystery Case Files there was no doubt we were going to accept it. You don’t say no to the holy grail”, concludes Topalski.
Difficulty x 2
Even before we started we knew that it was probably going to be the most demanding project we have faced yet, but even with that knowledge we did our best to make things even more complicated for us. Given a chance to work on the greatest HOPA series of all time, we chose to swing for the fences.
Ever since its inception, MCF was a once-a-year affair, traditionally released around Thanksgiving. Together with Big Fish, we decided to go for the surprise factor and release two sequels in the span of a month, while doing our best to keep the second game a secret for as long as possible.
We also chose the Ravenhearst story arc, the best known narrative of the series with three full games to its name and a bunch of additional info scattered across other installments. According to all participants, this proved to be the biggest challenge.
“The convoluted storyline and story elements from previous games made it very difficult to create a great, new and engaging story that would not seem repetitive”, says lead game designer Rajko Nikolic. “That happens to all expansive story worlds that are not planned far ahead. Most people are not aware of the limitations imposed by that. Still, as frustrating as the process was, it also made us dig deeper to unearth surprising and rewarding results.”
How we did it
The two games, Key to Ravenhearst and Ravenhearst Unlocked, were designed not as one big game split into two parts, but as two separate entities that made sense on their own, but also followed a single timeline that would fit in with the existing MCF lore, tie up all loose ends and push the story in a new, surprising direction.
Working on two sequels of the greatest HOPA franchise of all times simultaneously had the company in a proper state of emergency. Normally we have different core teams working on different games, but the scope of a Mystery Case Files double feature required a coordinated effort from a number of teams and individuals. More than any other game before, it was a collective operation.
“We sort of outlined the general storyline, and then separate teams went to work on their respective games”, says Dragan Trifkovic, producer on Ravenhearst Unlocked. “Of course, we had to work closely with the other team, and there was plenty of overlap between team members at various points.”
“The biggest problem for us”, Trifkovic continues, “was figuring out how to make a game that’s a direct continuation of the previous installment, and yet also a standalone game that could be enjoyed even by players who know nothing of the backstory.”
Ivan Jankovic, lead game designer on Ravenhearst Unlocked, gives a more in-depth look at how the story was structured. “As narrative threads are concerned, we couldn’t allow ourselves to slip into a paradox. It was all about living up to the legacy and continuing the story naturally. For example, we had to be extra careful not to spoil too much at the end of Key to Ravenhearst, craft a satisfactory finale for the players, and leave a hook for Ravenhearst Unlocked in forms of subtle clues and hints.
“We knew that every decision we make would have tremendous impact on the well-established MCF universe. The Mystery Case Files lore is incredibly detailed and it was a great responsibility to provide answers to some of the burning questions, to tie up all the story elements from previous installments, and deliver fresh adventures that would explore the characters in depth”, concludes Jankovic.
With so many different teams and people involved, coordination was paramount. David Dzambic, our senior producer who oversaw the entire project, had a whole bunch of tasks to juggle. “He drank a lot of melissa tea to try and stay zen”, Miso Ignjatov, junior producer on Key to Ravenhearst, explains. “We haven’t seen much of him once the games were complete. He must be on sick leave or something”.
Dealing with pressure
If you talk to anyone involved with the project, one word pops up more commonly than any other: pressure.
“The amount of pressure working on the game that started it all is, simply put, immeasurable”, says Nikolic. “It creates friction even between the best of colleagues, but, in the end, we’re all just looking to do the best job we can”.
“The sheer scale of it, it’s bigger than anything I’ve ever worked on before”, adds Miso. “Much more content, much more programming, much more thought, much more risk. The stakes were definitely higher with this one. Making the fans happy, making us happy, and doing the game justice took a lot of work and countless overtime hours.”
There were a number of things we needed to hit just right. You need your game(s) to fit into a pre-existing framework and mimic the key elements of the series, but at the same time you can’t simply rely on old tricks. Striking that fine balance between respecting the legacy and adding fresh elements was a process, with a lot of trial and error before reaching a point where we were happy with the results. Vladimir Lokic, the lead game artist on Key to Ravenhearst, describes the process. “We really had to step up our game. You have to stay within a certain art style, but add your own touch to it. It is rather unique and kind of difficult to achieve at first. We had to revisit the first couple of scenes 5-10 times before it really felt like a MCF game.”
Lokic also says that the most rewarding parts of the game are those that gave him the most headaches: “Man, the Alister’s Enigma (a giant puzzle box containing info from previous games, puzzles and all the clues players pick up during the game) was the most difficult thing I ever did. We put an enormous amount of work into it, and personally, I feel it is our proudest achievement to date”.
Talk to a few game developers, and chances are that at least some of them will find the post-release period even more nerve-wrecking than the development process. Whatever hectic and tiring the process sometimes is, you still maintain some amount of control over it. Once you put it out, it’s all out of your hands.
One benefit of taking over an established and beloved franchise was that we were getting input from the fans as the game was still developing.
“Forums and social networks are generally a great place to see what fans want”, says Nikolic. “MCF fans are quite vocal about their wishes. Out there, we found inspiration for many aspects of the game.”
Still, there’s no escape from the final reckoning – the word of the public. Once your game is out, everything is put to the test. Story, artwork, gameplay, programming – everything is analyzed and dissected, and every weak spot is exposed.
“The continuation of a legacy, that isn’t easy to do, man”, concedes Ignjatov. “The fans can be ruthless and notice the smallest of mistakes. They even see missed opportunities and that hurts us the most as developers, because we believe it’s our responsibility to remember and consider everything.”
“When the game was out, I was extremely happy”, he recalls, “but when the play-through videos started popping up, that’s when I got a bit nervous. Watching those videos, we all saw some steps that lead to perfection that we’ve unfortunately missed. But, no worries, we’re very fast learners.”
Working on the MCF two-parter was an enormous learning experience – one that pushed our creative and productive capacities to the very limit, but also provided us with insights and perspectives that allow us to look forward at the opportunity to build upon what we already did and keep chasing the ever-illusive perfection.
Mystery Case Files: Key to Ravenhearst Collector’s Edition was released on October 28, and, as the devs write this text, it has spent three straight weeks as the most downloaded PC/Mac game on the Big Fish Games website. Mystery Case Files: Ravenhearst Unlocked Collector’s Edition has been released on November 24, and the Eipix team hopes it will share its predecessor’s fate.