Grey Alien Games has been making premium downloadable PC and Mac games since 2005. This British game studio has brought casual game hits including Regency Solitaire, Spooky Bonus, Fairway Solitaire (2007 PC/Mac version) and Unwell Mel to life.
The theme for Regency Solitaire came to writer and researcher Helen Carmichael while she was watching Downton Abbey in 2013. She had recently moved back to Bridport, Dorset from Canada with husband Jake Birkett, and the couple were keen to revisit their favourite historical locations in the UK.
Regency Solitaire was born as the history-buff couple set out to conduct in-depth research into England’s visually sumptuous high-society past. The duo visited museums, castles and stately homes like Stourhead in Wiltshire and the Victoria and Albert museum in London for inspiration.
The solitaire gameplay seemed to logically follow. “Card games were hugely popular in the Regency era,” Helen explains, “and since gambling was also a common pastime, many families’ fortunes were often lost and won at the card tables or the gentlemen’s clubs known as ‘gaming hells’.”
THE PLOT THICKENS
The game’s romantic plot concept was important for pulling the design elements together. In Regency Solitaire, you play as a charming high society girl Bella, who must win back her family’s wealth after her dimwit brother had gambled it all away. To avoid an arranged marriage with the hideously boring (but fabulously wealthy) Mr. Bleakley, Bella takes charge of her own destiny/love life; while the player, on the other hand, wins a plethora of solitaire rounds by visiting historic English landmarks like Bath and Brighton.
“As researcher and writer I have done my best to go to the original sources and locations to make every detail historically accurate,” Helen says. “My hope is that players really will feel they have spent a few hours in England of 1812.”
FUNDING AND TEAM
Grey Alien Games pitched their idea to GamesLab South West and received part funding for the project. They went on to work with their experienced team of art contractors to convert their ideas into beautiful renditions of the past. Specially-composed classical music was provided by a Dutch musician.
Helen carefully researched historical detail for character costumes and backgrounds: Many of the landmarks in the game hide behind-the-scenes historical tidbits to tantalize lovers of the era. Netley Abbey, the picturesque gothic ruins featured in Bella’s travels down the South coast, for example, are the self-same ruins that a certain Jane Austen visited and lived nearby in 1807-1809.
Meanwhile Jake continued to develop a “Golf Solitaire” card game engine with fresh new mechanics and visual novel-style, slide-on characters to drive the plot forward.
The game features a ballroom decoration metagame that was tricky to design because each item directly affects the gameplay and had to make sense in the historical context. The fully decorated ballroom features in the final chapter of the game as a reward for the players.
Jake also added attractive power ups with satisfying sounds and visual effects that elevate the solitaire gameplay to a new level. Then 180 levels were carefully designed and tested before the game economy was balanced using numerous spreadsheets.
Jake also added standard metrics to the game so that data could be collected from beta testers to aid in further tuning before launch.
ADDING A CHALLENGE
One popular game feature that the couple only thought of towards the end of the project was the addition of “hard” and “easy” modes. The game was primarily designed with the casual player in mind, so relaxing and rewarding gameplay was key. However, by adding some really challenging goals in terms of multipliers and “perfect hands” to the hard mode, this brought a whole new level of challenge and replayability to the game.
RELEASE AND RECEPTION
Regency Solitaire was released in January 2015, initially on casual portals such as iWin, Big Fish Games and other online stores. It was immediately successful with the casual gaming audience, receiving great reviews.
Grey Alien Games then went through the Steam Greenlight process, and the game launched on Steam for PC in May, 2015. A Mac version followed in July.
“We did not know how the Steam audience would respond to this type of game,” says Jake, “but in fact it has been well-received, with overwhelmingly positive reviews.”
Exposure on Steam also helped to generate further press interest in Regency Solitaire. The game had good reviews by the likes of Rock Paper Shotgun, Boing Boing and Felicia Day.
The positive reception on Steam has prompted Grey Alien Games to design their next title, something of a prequel to Regency Solitaire, with a Steam audience rather than the casual audience in mind. “There will still be wigs and corsets, but expect a lot more adventure and exciting duels,” says Helen.
Regency Solitaire has been recently shown at PC Gamer Weekender in London, then GDC, and will be showcased at Rezzed in London in the beginning of April. The game is available on Steam, direct from the developers, and from numerous other online retailers. Meanwhile. the Grey Alien Games team is now working on their next title, Shadowhand, planning to release it in the beginning of summer.