How Roald Dahl, SolaRola and LucasArts adventures helped make Mystery Mania

EA spills the beans on its upcoming oddity

How Roald Dahl, SolaRola and LucasArts adventures helped make Mystery Mania
| Mystery Mania

It’s not often you come across a mobile game as unusual as Mystery Mania, and it’s even rarer to find such a quirky title coming from one of the major publishers.

And yet this charming “point and click puzzle game” comes from a heavyweight partnership between EA and development whiz-kids Progressive Media (they of SolaRola fame).

With the game’s release imminent, we thought we’d catch up with the man behind the Mystery Mania concept, EA Mobile producer Scott Humphries…

Pocket Gamer: Mystery Mania is quite a unique game - perhaps you could tell us a little about its conception?

Scott Humphries: This is a game that’s very near and dear to my heart. It came from wanting to do something that hadn’t been done before on the platform, and doing it in a way that was crafted for mobile.

There had never been a point and click game on mobile that had the casual mentality and accessibility of the point and click games that I was a fan of. Games like Samarost, Submachine, Gateway - all these escape-the room puzzle games on the internet that I had really enjoyed over the past couple of years and I kind of felt they were under-represented on the mobile platform.

Also being a fan of the LucasArts games from the late '80s and early '90s and the Sierra games from the same time period, I thought that this type of game could potentially be great for mobile, if done in a way that didn’t involve complicated commands and a complicated inventory system.

What was the thinking behind reviving the point and click genre? What kind of audience will it be appealing to?

We really wanted to make a very accessible point and click puzzle game, because it’s definitely underrepresented on the platform. More and more touchscreen devices are emerging on the market, so it was a no-brainer as far as interfaces go.

We also thought it would be great to access that nostalgia factor for people who had played those LucasArts and Sierra games back in the day.

There’s a very playful feel to the game - tell us a little more about that side of it.

We wanted to make it kind of a toy experience. We wanted to add what I like to call “surprise and delight,” which is really experimenting with unexpected and pleasant results - clicking on a radio, for instance, and the antenna bouncing back and hitting your character in the face and knocking him against the wall. Things you could experiment with just to see what would happen.

That playful style contrasts with a quite melancholic storyline though, doesn’t it?

In all the adventure games that I played there were always great stories. Monkey Island for example, had an awesome story, including really rich characters and environments that you could explore.

I think the story in Mystery Mania resonates with movies and books that I grew up liking as a child. I wanted the story to feel nostalgic, like a storybook, but also to have the tinge of an adult sentimentality.

Whether you’re a younger audience or an older audience you’ll be able to get something out of it, because there are some darker elements near the end of the story that pull you deeper into it, but at the same time fit along the lines of the fairytale.

There seems to be a hint of Tim Burton in there, a sort of dark fairytale feel.

Absolutely, I’m a fan of his films. Also Roald Dahl books where you’ve got this character who’s discovering their surroundings for the first time, learning about their past and learning who they are.

And some more adult-oriented themes such as: who am I? What does it mean to be human? - pretty heady stuff, but not too much!

The game has a unique visual style thanks to the use of vector graphics - was that a functional decision or a stylistic one?

That really came out of the “surprise and delight” thing. We knew that we wanted to have unexpected results when you’re exploring this mansion, but the limitations of mobile kind of inherently prevent that because you don’t have a lot of asset space for animation, or for things to have in the mansion.

We knew that the vector engine would save a lot on this, and we also knew that a lot of these Java handsets did that well inherently.

We knew that if we could find an engine or a developer who could do that (vector graphics) well we could really pull this off.

And that’s where Progressive Media came in, right?

About the time that we were designing this and looking for a good developer, SolaRola came out. I played it and I just thought it was amazing, I thought it was one of the best mobile games that I had ever played.

And as I was playing I realised that Progressive had done a lot of great stuff with vector, and it was a lot of the same stuff that we were looking at doing with this design.

So I contacted Thomas Nielsen from Progressive and let him know about this design. They were really excited, they thought it was a great fit for what they do. They were just coming off of SolaRola and had an open spot, so we started prototyping.

The art style has an almost Japanese quirkiness to it. What was the inspiration behind it?

The art design really comes out of two main areas - we wanted to make sure that everything was simple enough to be managed by a vector engine and simple enough to scale across multiple devices.

So we wanted to make sure that things pop well, so all the interactive objects in the game are in colour and non interactive objects are black and white. That’s kind of a clarity thing that works well across multiple devices.

The other thing was working within the confines of the engine in a creative way. We knew we couldn’t get super-detailed with vector so we knew we had to have a kind of stylistic art design that worked with the engine.

We went through numerous iterations of characters - we had human characters, robots, hybrid Frankenstein's monster-looking things. One of our concepts that came out of all the character design that we did was this little character with a CRT screen for a head.

That's F8, little chap you play as in the game. So what's the reason behind the CRT screen for a head?

We thought it was really interesting because getting a human character to express, say, a feeling of love, was going to be really difficult on a small screen.

The thing that we found with this character was that we could easily express emotions through symbols on his CRT screen, so the emotion of love could easily be expressed by a heart appearing on his screen, for instance.

So we designed around that a sort of futuristic-mixed-with-old-'50s-sci-fi-technology universe to fit this interesting little robot character. The story wrapped around that character.

So it really started with us creating F8 and both Progressive and EA getting really excited about that character, then we really wrapped the shells of the onion around him to create the art design and even to lend into the fairytale story.

It certainly feels like it’s been designed from the ground up as a mobile game, which you can’t always say of many mobile games. How do you get to that point?

One of the things that works well for mobile is designing agnostically, because there are so many different devices that we have to cover.

This game is launching on hundreds, if not thousands of devices all over the world that vary from 128KB footprints all the way up to 2.5MB footprints. Figuring out the best design that can work across that large spectrum of handsets is very challenging and very exciting. It’s one of the things that I love about working on mobile.

We were prototyping Mystery Mania before we found Progressive, and one room using sprites and sound effects was filling 232KB, which is just ridiculous.

We knew we had a problem, but when Progressive came along their engine was so robust that their first prototype they did for us with two rooms, great visuals, sound effects, musics and even physics was working in the engine, and that was taking up just 86KB. We knew that we were onto something great!

You mentioned earlier wanting to do something new in mobile gaming with Mystery Mania. Do you think that mobile gaming in general has hit a bit of a dead end?

I don’t think so. I think there’s still lots of great games that you can design for the platform. Mystery Mania is an example of us thinking outside of the box.

We (EA) have traditionally launched a lot of branded games, and we really wanted to try our hand at doing something original for once, being able to create this game, this character and this universe from scratch and really designing it for the platform.

I think it’s still possible (to push the envelope) in non-branded products and I still think it’s possible even in branded products.

When we designed Spore, we had a similar mind-set that even though we had this great brand with a very rich universe, we knew that we had to think within the confines of the devices we were designing for.

Keeping your design on these devices very honed to a razor's edge is going to be the best way to design. Once you get to whatever the core of the game is, wrapping the entire experience around it is the best way.

Our thanks to Scott Humphries for speaking with us. Stay tuned to Pocket Gamer for our review of Mystery Mania in the near future.