A few months ago, in anticipation of the release of Awakening 2: Moonfell Wood, I got to interview the game’s designers for a short piece published on Gamezebo.com. I asked Boomzap’s Ran Wong and Christopher Natsuume a ton of questions, but unfortunately had to cut out much of their words for purposes of brevity. We’re now pleased to present to you the full, unedited interview – which might just have you itching to play the whole game all over again.
Tell us about the setting for Awakening 2: Moonfell Wood.
Ran: The basic idea for Moonfell Wood was to change the setting for the sequel to something outdoors – somewhere more expansive and open than The Dreamless Castle. We thought that a magical wood was a great “traditional fairytale location” that we could explore and offered a lot of scope for beauty.
Where did the name “Moonfell Wood” come from?
Ran: Well, mostly we just thought it sounded pretty. However, it also hints at importance of night and day in the game, and also gives the story a slightly darker, more sinister feel as Sophia leaves the safety of the castle and heads out into a dangerous new world.
What were some of your favorite fairytales when you were growing up?
Ran: Probably all the classic Disney tales at one point or another. But if it had to be the most memorable, it was probably Snow White. It was one of the first animated fairy tale movies I’d ever watched.
Was the story of Awakening: The Dreamless Castle inspired by any of these?
Chris: Actually, the basic idea for Awakening story comes less from fairy tales, and more from a challenge that we gave to the designer of The Dreamless Castle (Luna Cruz): Invent a story about a princess with no magic, in a world where everyone else was magical. The idea was that it would give the player a reason to complete challenges using logic and puzzle-solving – because she can’t use magic herself. Luna did an amazing job in taking a one-sentence challenge and creating this great character of Sophia, and a whole world for her to explore. It’s been fun to bring Ran into this world with Moonfell Wood, and see Ran and Luna work together to keep exploring it further.
What happens to Sophia in Awakening: Moonfell Wood? Does she find her prince, fall in love and live happily ever after?
Ran: It’s not quite as simple a fairy tale as that! It’s certainly no Sleeping Beauty, and a lot of things have changed in sinister ways during the hundred years or so that Sophia’s spent slumbering. She’s on a quest to find not a Prince Charming, but an entire kingdom that seems to have disappeared. Along the way, she’ll discover why she was put into an enchanted sleep to begin with, and the lengths to which both the forces of Light and Darkness went through to protect/destroy her. It’ll be a journey of hope, tinged with foreboding traces of darkness.
Unlike in most fairy tales, Awakening has no antagonist, such an evil stepmother or a jealous twin sister. Was this a conscious decision?
Ran: Ah, but it does have an evil protagonist, you just haven’t met them yet! Awakening was always planned to have a number of sequels that told the story of Sophia (from when she woke in her safe castle to when she discovers all of the secrets of her kingdom) – and rest assured a villain is involved! You’ll learn a lot more about them eventually… We like to build up our villains; it gives us time to get the ‘evil’ bit just right.
Should we have played the first game in order to appreciate the second one?
Chris: We know that a lot of people will be playing for the first time in Moonfell Wood, so it’s designed to allow players to jump right in. But if you find yourself liking this game, we certainly suggest that you go back and play (buy!) The Dreamless Castle. We have several recurring characters who help tie the stories together and give a sense of familiarity (in some cases, with a wink and a nudge) to those who’ve played and enjoyed the first game.
What were your design inspirations for the character art, backgrounds, and visual style?
Chris: The #1 rule at Boomzap is that everything we do has to be “Bright and Beautiful” – Awakening was largely based on taking that to its logical extreme in a fantasy setting. The architect for the visual look (Michael Gonzales) “discovered” the hand-painted look of Awakening when we were making the earliest demo we had for The Dreamless Castle, which eventually became a scene in the game. For anyone who remembers the garden scene from about 30 minutes into The Dreamless Castle, that was the first piece of art we ever made for the franchise, and incidentally the one that convinced Big Fish to make the game.
Ran: When we started Moonfell Wood, we wanted to evolve that style into something still very “Awakening” – but also new and interesting. We wanted the player to have a feeling of the world outside the castle being more dangerous, dark, and foreboding – but we wanted it to remain beautiful and magical. We discussed the idea of things like how moonlight would provide overall illumination, and how we’d light the rest of the forest at night in a way consistent with the world, yet provide dynamic, dramatic effects.
One of our original ideas was these magic mushrooms that glowed all sorts of colors, and some of our puzzles would revolve around these. Another idea were these crystals that were ‘growing’ out from everywhere in the forest. Eventually we settled on the crystals as they created a strong, inorganic contrast to the rest of the forest and added a sense of the supernatural to the world. It also didn’t hurt that they were really pretty!
The basic look of our goblins was already set in The Dreamless Castle, so in Moonfell Wood we could have a lot of fun playing with that look to create all sorts of personalities to meet in the forest. We actually used some real famous characters as ‘references” for our goblins – Albert Einstein and Gregori Rasputin, to name a few – to give them some personality.
As for the fairy world, the main character is the elusive ‘Fairy Queen’ who the players “met” by carrier pigeon in The Dreamless Castle. In Moonfell Wood, she has a more active role, so we spent a lot of time working on her. One issue we had was that we knew she was a few hundred years old, but we wanted her to be timeless and beautiful – so that was a challenge!
Chris: (cutting Ran off) There are some other new characters as well – but we don’t want to spoil TOO much of the story!
Were there any ideas that you abandoned during the development process, or any changes made due to the results of the beta tests?
Chris: First of all, we want to put a huge thank you out to the Big Fish production team and beta testers. On both The Dreamless Castle and Moonfell Wood, the guys at BFG really took a pretty good game and made it great through beta testing and the changes that they spawned. Honestly, some of Awakening’s biggest fans work at Big Fish; their love for the franchise and respect for their audience definitely shows.
Ran: One of the biggest gambles we took with this game was creating a much more expansive, free roaming environment. We tried to give the player the freedom to explore as many relevant areas as reasonably possible from the get go; but when we put this in front of our users, many of them were overwhelmed by the scale of the areas. We ended up focusing the game-flow – closing off some parts of the game until the player finished other parts to get players moving in the right direction with minimal frustration. This ended up creating a large number of design changes, but we think they ultimately delivered a much better experience.
Chris: Interestingly, sometimes even your successes require redesign. One of our experiments in Moonfell Wood was to make a companion for the player to find early in the game. This was such a huge hit during the beta tests that we went back and redesigned some of the game to make more use of the little guy.
In terms of gameplay, does Moonfell Wood have the same ratio of puzzles to adventure as the first game? Should we expect more mini-games, and perhaps less Simon Says sequences?
Ran: *Laughs* In general, players can expect an average of 2-3 major puzzles and a host of more minor puzzles for each of the 40+ locations they’ll visit, so while the ratio is about the same, but the game is a good bit longer, so there is more of everything. You can definitely look forward to a lot of new and challenging mini-games. We’ve taken care to learn from the feedback we’ve received from The Dreamless Castle – so, yeah, not so many Simon Says sequences.
Do you adhere to any process or philosophy when designing puzzles for a game?
Chris: One thing our audience seemed to love about The Dreamless Castle was that it was challenging without being too frustrating, a core philosophy that we’ve tried to stay true to in Moonfell Wood. Essentially, we look at how many people get frustrated and press the “skip” button when playing the game, and if it’s more than a few, we redesign the subgame. We still leave the skip button for people who aren’t into that particular subgame, but we try to design a game where they never push it from frustration.
Ran: I think one of the things we do that helps is to keep a ‘logical’ approach to the design of each puzzle, in that our mini-games don’t contain overly absurd elements, or things that just don’t make sense. Because the game is set in a fantasy setting with magic and fairies, we can still take a huge number of liberties, but we try not to add in things that don’t make sense within the world rules we have created. This results (at least, we hope it does) in a rich yet believable world where players can still use their intuition and common sense to solve things, and that it limits the level of frustration.
Are there any plans to continue the series? Will you be porting Awakening 1 & 2 to other platforms?
Chris: Yes and yes! We have just finished a version of The Dreamless Castle for iPad/iPhone – and it’s now available through iTunes. As for sequels, absolutely – we’re already developing the sequel to Moonfell Wood, and are really excited to continue Sophia’s journey.
I understand that Boomzap is a virtual office, where developers work individually from their own homes and practice web commuting. Tell us what it’s like. What cities are you based in and do you ever meet up?
Chris: Yep – we’re a 100% virtual office – everyone in the company works from home, and we don’t have an official “office” anywhere. Our staff is all around the world – the founders are an American living in Japan and a Norwegian living in Singapore, so that gives you some idea of the diversity. Boomzap has people working all around the world, but the Awakening team in particular has people in the USA, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, and Russia.
Ran: Everyone works on a flexible schedule, and manages their own work from home. It takes a lot of discipline to keep working in this environment, as there isn’t anyone standing over your shoulder telling you to get to work – but the staff love our games so we stay very productive. A large part of Boomzap’s hiring process is finding people who genuinely love making casual games so much that they can be trusted to do a great job with minimal whip-cracking. <!–[endif]–>
Chris: As for meeting up – honestly, most ‘Zappers meet more often to eat, sing karaoke, and drink than to actually work – food is delicious and cheap in Southeast Asia, and they take full advantage of that! Also, travel in Southeast Asia is relatively inexpensive, so sometimes people will fly to meet each other – but these tend to be as much about having a vacation and meeting other “Boomzap friends” as it is about working.
Are there other Boomzap games in the pipeline that casual gamers can look forward to?
Chris: We will also be bringing Antique Road Trip to iPad very soon. We’re also just finishing up the sequel to Antique Road Trip – we’ll let you know more about that in early 2011. And then… well, let’s keep a few surprises for the next announcement!
Is there anything else you’d like to share with Boomzap’s fans?
Chris: Honestly, we just want to thank everyone for playing our games, and say that we’re so excited to share some more of our Awakening world with you. It’s really a privilege for us to be able to dream up a world like this, and then share it with millions and millions of people – sometimes it seems unreal. Boomzap is celebrating its 5th year of making casual games this year, and we still have a hard time believing we can get away with having this much fun for a living. To say that we are truly grateful is an enormous understatement. Thank you so much!
Ran Wong is the Game Designer for Awakening: Moonfell Wood. He is Singaporean, and lives in Singapore. Prior to Awakening, he was the Designer for our Wii title, Pirates PlundARRR! Christopher Natsuume is the Creative Director and Cofounder of Boomzap. He is American, and lives in Yokohama, Japan.