Another interview that I managed to get at Eurogamer was with one of the developers of the Facebook-based game Merlin. Based upon the TV series and also as a standalone entity, I spoke to Bossa Studios lead designer Mike Bithell- who was a lovely chap and I hope I get to talk to him more in the future.
Nickie: What platforms is Merlin being developed for?
Mike: It’s a Facebook game and is both browser and Flash based. What made us want to design a game of this type was the technology. What it allows us to do is that it enables us to design a game that is easily accessible and has a deep-rooted, social connection. Most people use Facebook these days, and I’m sure a lot of your friends do also- as opposed to designing a game that’s based on XBox Live Arcade. Again, with a social-based game, you’ve got to work hard to bring people in and get them involved in the game, where with Facebook you can immediately get people in, get them playing and having a good time with it.
Nickie: Being a popular tv series, what kind of things can fans of the show expect?
Mike: Okay, so we knew that we had to get this right and that’s why our closed Beta is only open to big fans of the show. We announced and showed off the game for the first time at Comic-Con to an audience of Merlin fans, so all of our closed Beta players are big Merlin fans. That’s crucial for us. What are we specifically doing to cater to them? We are taking the story and putting it there, front and centre. The people who love Merlin as a show and love all the excitement and adventure? We of course do all that, but the stuff I love the most and what makes the show is the relationships between the characters. Especially between Arthur and Merlin, and the friendship going through the show. So we’ve really tried to hold all that together. We want your to have interesting, character-driven relationships. So you discover fairly quickly at the beginning about Merlin’s secret, that he has these magic powers. You meet Arthur, who of course thinks that you’re an idiot because you’re just an out-of-town villager who’s rubbish. And slowly, you earn Arthur’s trust and respect. Merlin starts to become a little worried about you, because you have these strange powers of your own. It’s all about this evolving, character driven base to the game which is such a big part of the show. The idea is to bring the player into all that and expand on this involved universe.
Nickie: What were the main challenges of designing a video game based around a television series?
Mike: There was a lot really. Being truthful to the show was an important thing to us, but there’s a way it’s told on television which is obviously 45 minute to an hour- depending where you live in the world. It’s a story with a beginning, a middle and an end and then obviously a series arc as well. The game is a much more on-going experience where you can come and go and play it over time. Making it so it worked and made sense was hard to do that. What’s fantastic is that we can take things from the TV show that worked and we can build in that structure from the series to the game. Other than that, we have to work in the authenticity from the show to the game also,to make the game real and believable. Like should Merlin be doing every day things in the show like chores? Well, Arthur bosses him around and makes him do them in the show- so why not put that into the game also?
Nickie: When you were approached for making the game, were you a fan of the programme?
Mike: Oh absolutely, I had watched it before but there were members of the team who were much more life-long fans. What I love about it- is that it does that thing that Harry Potter did as well, where it’s aged with it’s audience in terms of maturity. So it’s started off very cheery, very almost child-like and it’s evolved into this darker more brooding type of show.
Nickie: How much creative freedom did you have when designing the game and how much influence did the BBC have?
Mike: Actually, Merlin is produced for the BBC by The Shine Group who we’re also a part of. So we actually have leads and awesome interactions with the show makers. We have the creators, the designers, the actors. Everyone’s involved, working on the game in some way. Even right down to little things, like our spiders making the right sound effects when they die- those kind of details. So basically, it’s been a collaboration. It’s been about extending the Merlin universe in a meaningful way, how can we take it further so of course both sides have a lot of opinions on how we create the game from this awesome mish-mash of content.
Nickie: With Merlin being a Facebook game and designed with Flash technology, would you ever consider making an HTML5 game in the future? Obviously, most software and hardware developers are starting to move away from Flash now and moving far closer to HTML5- what would you say about that?
Mike: Our rule has always been we will go wherever our players are and use the technology that they can use. HTML5 is awesome and it’s great for gaming, but at the moment the uptake and adoption of the technology is not quite where we want it to be. So, Flash is obviously installed on most computers but there is plenty of other engines- HTML 5 is great, Unity is great and all these other emerging technologies. We will jump straight on them when they become popular to give the player the best experience possible. For now, we’re actually pushing Flash fairly well. It’s stable, we can get 3D graphics and we know it will work on most computers. But the bottom line is, that we are absolutely agnostic on gaming technology and we will release on whatever platform. Whatever we need to do, we will do.
Nickie: What genre would you put this game in? Eg, RPG, strategy, etc…
Mike: It’s a Fantasy RPG style strategy game. What’s great about this game is that if you’ve never watched Merlin on TV, you still know who Merlin is. The entire Western world knows this mythology, knows these characters. And there’s a great history with it as well. The story has evolved over the years and every generation has tweaked it to include their views and opinions and politics. It’s nice to be a part of that history, that lineage and Merlin is definitely a show that does that.
Nickie: Would consider making any other games from popular BBC programmes in the future? Such as maybe every geek’s favourite- Doctor Who?
Mike: Yeah of course, never say never. We don’t have any immediate plans, but yeah we always want to make cool games that people want to play. So if the opportunities come along, we will absolutely jump on them.
Nickie: How does this game relate to the legends of Arthur?
Mike: I think that there has been a really cool thing, and when you talk to the creators of the game and the show- they’ve always pulled from this amazing web of stories and bring in characters from the vast Arthurian legends. But also pulling from the folklore of Britain. And because we are trying to extend beyond the boundaries of the show, we had to do that as well.