Few people will be unfamiliar with the Mystery Case Files titles. The Big Fish Games series is arguably the most prominent example of the hidden object genre, having almost single-handedly sparked an interest that continues to grip the casual sector today.
The various iterations of the franchise have sold more than six million units between them across a variety of platforms, including PC, handhelds, consoles and smart devices, and still to this day enjoys a healthy audience.
But in 2012, the Mystery Case Files creator Adrian Woods left Big Fish Games.
He has since resurfaced as the founder of new studio Fezziwig, a Seattle developer that opened its doors in February 2014 and is currently putting the finishing touches on its first title, a puzzle/adventure game entitled Escape the Hellevator.
But what led Woods to branch out on his own?
"I started Fezziwig after eight years of working as director of game design at Big Fish Games," he explains.
"Many moons ago, I created the Mystery Case Files brand that rocketed Big Fish to dominance in the Mac and PC casual games space. I put my heart and soul into designing and programming new gameplay features to each game. Things like the ‘door puzzles’, mixing hidden object gameplay with point-and-click style navigation, objects that morph into other objects, and so on.
"These mechanics were then implemented into over 1,000 hidden object, puzzle and adventure (HOPA) games produced by Big Fish over the last five years. They are developed by outside talent all over the world and Big Fish has published one every day for about six years. Several other companies make clones as well. The games are mainly enjoyed by older women and subsequently catapulted Big Fish to dominance within the space."
But as any casual games leader will tell you, the audience served by such titles is unpredictable, migrating to a rival title – or something completely different – as new formats and hits emerge and word of mouth spreads.
"Our female audience started getting smartphones and tablets, so they migrated away from the desktop and are now spending a lot of their time on Candy Crush Saga and casino games," Woods says. "Big Fish wisely purchased a gaming company in San Francisco which has become their main source of income with Big Fish Casino."
After several years iterating on the point-and-click games, I became burned out and really wanted to start learning something new
And while this was indeed a wise move for Big Fish Games, it was a step towards a new direction that Woods didn’t particularly want to follow.
"After several years iterating on the point-and-click games, I became burned out and really wanted to start learning something new," he says. "I didn’t want to make slot machines so I thought I would give it a go on my own.
"One night I installed Unity and I felt myself kind of wake up again. I’ve made over 100 puzzles in Flash over the years and I’ve always wanted to build a traditional Flash ‘escape the room’-style game – so I built one in Unity. These games are immensely popular in Japan with a split of 60 per cent women to men aged over 26. Most of the online and mobile variants of these games are produced in Japan."
Teaming up with fellow Mystery Case Files alum Moksha Marquardt – now art director at Fezziwig – Woods began work on his own ‘escape the room’ title, something that eventually became Escape the Hellevator.
The title puts players in the role of Clarence Ridgeway, a dying man whose trip to the emergency room is interrupted by a mysterious priest. Trapped, Clarence is forced to relive his sins on each floor of the building unless he can find a way out.
While previous entries in this genre have centred around static views, Woods has found a novel way to differentiate his project.
"The game keeps the player in a fixed position in the center of a room as they touch the screen to pan and look around," he says. "It’s similar to The Room in regards to navigation. It keeps the metaphor of escaping a room but adds a new level of immersion with a focus on puzzle solving vs traditional first person movement.
"A similar ad-supported free game surfaced as I was developing my game and they’ve had over one million downloads in a few months. The response to the style and input of the game has been very positive."
Escape the Hellevator is due for iOS, Android and Amazon this summer. You can find out more about Fezzwig at the studio’s official website.