Whenever a new developer appears on the App Store, we like to try and get to know a little about their story so we can gauge what sort of games we can expect.
In the case of newcomer Tiger Style, all we had to do was play its debut title Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor and much of the team's story is revealed subtly through the intriguing exploration of Bryce Manor in the many shoes of the eponymous arachnid, as you'll discover in our exclusive interview with founders Randy Smith and David Kalina.
Pocket Gamer: Can you tell us a little about where the idea for Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor came from?
Randy Smith: The concept of playing an iPhone game as a spider that draws webs and catches insects was one proposal in a very large list of possible game ideas. Early on in the formation of Tiger Style, we sent around dozens and dozens of ideas for the first game we might work on, just one or two quick sentences to describe the idea.
From these, we selected a few of the most promising ones and wrote up quick “Concept Treatments” of them - essentially pitch documents to explore our ideas for the game and see how the team would react.
Spider emerged as a favourite because it had an immediate concept that players would get right away and because it was driven by a play mechanic that would give players a lot of creative freedom.
It’s crucial to us that the experiences provided by our games be owned and driven by the players themselves, since that quality is the key distinction of the interactive media. So Spider seemed very promising.
It seems that most iPhone developers would have either made an arcade game (the web spinning) or an adventure game (exploring the house, looking for clues), but what made you decide to combine the two?
RS: There are a lot of answers to that question. You could say it’s just in our DNA to make action adventure games with rich backstories, since David and I previously worked on titles like the Thief series, Splinter Cell, and Deus Ex.
I could also tell you about how the story for Spider emerged organically early in development as we built little test levels to see what would work best, and the set dressing like the bottle, glass, and boots in the level that's now the Entranceway suggested characters with feelings and motivations, and we wanted to know more about who these people were and what their story was.
But I think the best answer to the question is: Why not? Combining action and adventure makes for a higher quality, more well-rounded offering to our players, and that’s crucial to us.
Pure adventure games often have the problem that the player doesn’t really drive them - they tend to offer pre-authored experiences that players step through with limited ability to impact or change their course.
Pure action games give the player more ownership over the experience, but it's often limited to a narrow range of topics, in our case the topics of building webs and catching insects. An ideal combination is one that offers first a solid action base while also inviting players into an adventure with a story.
The control system allows you to perform some quite complex game mechanics, but is equally simple to use. Was this a significant part of the game's design?
David Kalina: It was always critically important for us to develop something that was accessible and easy to pick up and play.
A very early version of the game design called for an accelerometer-based movement system for the spider, but early playtesting indicated that this was the wrong direction.
Acknowledging the importance of nailing the controls led us to start our playtesting very early in the development cycle, and I believe our success there is a direct result of gathering feedback early and often, listening to our playtesters, and iterating on mechanics over and over until we got it right.
I believe it's something of a game design holy grail to attempt to build something that's simple to play and difficult to master. Jumping into Spider and moving around and building webs needed to be immediately comprehensible, but there's intentionally a lot of nuance and subtlety in the game dynamics.
If you spend a lot of time with the game, you can become better at drawing threads exactly where you want to draw them; you can learn to maximise your score by setting up perfectly positioned networks of webs; you can become more efficient which will enable more advanced play. All of this serves to increase the game's replayability.
The artwork is another interesting aspect of the game's design. Can you tell us a little about the process of creating Bryce Manor? Did you consider any other settings for the spider to explore?
RS: When Spider started, my girlfriend Julia Tabor (who is one of the Spider story collaborators) and I had just moved back to our native Vermont from Los Angeles, where I had been living somewhat against my will so that I could collaborate on a really exciting project at Electronic Arts with Steven Spielberg (that project, code-named LMNO, is still ongoing).
New England has an older, richer history than the US’s west coast, and in Vermont charming little villages with buildings practically as old as our nation are common. I know this is very typical for the UK, but in America, especially in the west, there's a ton of strip mall and highway culture that to me is very soulless and vacant.
So being back in Vermont was enormously refreshing and inspirational. The nearby city of Burlington has beautiful old mansions from wealthy families circa America’s Gilded Age. Bryce Manor is inspired by these merged with the sprawling, rustic farmhouses that dot Vermont’s landscape.
Each level of the game is the output of painstaking research and photographic reference collection, cut apart and pieced back together into a layout that would be visually pleasing, appropriate for web building gameplay, and compatible with our cross-sectional view.
We worked hard to find references that set the scene well in terms of antique furniture, personal effects, and so forth, with occasional hints at modern touches. Each element is unique; for example, the grandfather clock in the foyer is not a grandfather clock that already exists but a new design pieced together from elements we liked from a wide range of reference clocks.
I have no idea why we so often refused to cut any corners, other than the fact that we really wanted everything to be perfect.
Converting these designs into game-ready art involved handing them off to our art team of about four artists, who, using traditional art materials, Wacom tablets, and Photoshop, recreated them in Spider’s signature style of digital illustration that evolved as we collaborated on the game.
What was the most challenging aspect of Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor's development?
RS: For me, I think it was wearing so many hats - managing the team, directing the creative efforts, designing the levels, mastering the soundtrack, recruiting new team members, and so forth.
Spider wound up being a really large production for such a small team, not to mention that we were building a new studio from the ground up at the same time, so David and I both wound up covering a lot more bases than previously in our careers.
I very nearly bit off more than I could chew. Because Tiger Style doesn’t have a full time artist yet, I even wound up being the acting art director for the game, which, since I have no formal art background, was a very difficult position to fill.
Fortunately, our art team is composed of a bunch of rock stars with great creative insights who took a lot of initiative, so the job didn’t turn out to be as hard as it could have been.
Which aspects of the game are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of the fact that we found a topic that we were passionate enough about to put in some loving attention to detail; the kind that has the potential to raise a product like a video game up to the status of art, assuming it resonates equally well with players.
Specifically, Spider, among other things, is very much about the excitement of exploring an abandoned space, discovering little tokens and clues, and attempting to piece them together into theories about who used to live there and why they left.
We really poured a disproportionate amount of effort into this, finding just the right elements, staging them carefully for the player to discover, cross referencing them into a cohesive, if elusive, story.
Secondarily, I’m really proud that it’s a fresh and relatable story for a video game, not about space marines, super powers, or saving the world. One thing I like about what has been known as “casual” games is that they are so often about unique topics that would seem very risky for a AAA console game, where the parameters are much more narrow.
DK: I'm proud that we made a game that's mechanically unique and yet entirely accessible. One of my greatest thrills was watching my mother successfully play the game. She had never played video games in her life, and yet she sat down with it and understood the game right away.
Are we likely to see any updates, online play or new levels in the future? Is there any potential for a multiplyer aspect?
We're planning an update to be released in a couple months or so that will contain new levels featuring the best of Spider’s gameplay and shed more light on the Bryce family mystery. Maintaining the high quality level of Spider is important to us, so we won’t release this update until we’re sure it’s ready.
A multiplayer Spider sounds like it could be great fun, but it’s outside the scope of this first release. There’s a real risk of multiplayer play to feel “tacked on,” and we would hate that. When Tiger Style releases multiplayer experiences, they will have been envisioned as multiplayer from the ground up.
Are you considering porting the game to any other platforms, or is the iPhone the best place for Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor?
Our ambition is to help realise the potential of the iPhone and iPod touch as a high quality gaming platform, so Spider was developed exclusively for these iDevices. I could imagine Spider also working well on the DS or maybe the Wii, but for the foreseeable future, Tiger Style is going to be an iDevice-only studio.
Several developers are looking at creating enhanced iPhone 3GS versions of their games. Is this likely to be something we'll see with Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor?
Our attitude towards the iPhone platform is that we want to make games that are accessible to the widest possible range of players. It's unlikely that we would choose to make a game that excluded a large portion of the iPhone and iPod touch market.
It's for this reason that we took great pains to make sure that Spider was playable on every iPhone and iPod touch on the market, running every OS from 2.0 on.
Also, Spider is a game that is focused on gameplay, not technology, so we don't feel like there's a particular need to push hardware features that wouldn't make a significant difference on the game experience.
Bryce Manor looks like a fascinating place. Are there any hidden references, Easter eggs or other in-jokes we should keep an eye out for while exploring?
CK Bryce is named after a gravestone that my friend Melisa found in her backyard when she was mowing one day. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and we spent a whole day doing genealogical research into who this “CK Jackson” character might be and why his headstone had wound up there.
This research unearthed an entire, intriguing story of partially connected threads - cemeteries that over the history of Portland had been formed, then exhumed and moved, missing records between one cemetery and another, his wife buried a few blocks down the street, a record from a nearby prison that seemed to match his name, some old photos that may have been his family members. Part of the magic was that nothing could be verified, so we had to fill in the gaps with our imaginations, and another part of the magic was that he wasn’t very out of the ordinary, just some normal guy it seemed, and it’s fascinating to note the imprint that every individual leaves in the canvas of history as he or she passes through.
“Jackson” wasn’t quite the right last name, however, since we wanted one that evoked the Gilded Age of America, so I changed it to Bryce, which had a nice ring to it. But being named after CK is a testament to the spirit we wanted the Spider story to capture.
Thanks very much to Randy and David for taking the time to speak with us, and if you haven't already downloaded Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, get on over to the App Store and start spinning those webs.