Ravenshire Castle was a fantasy, social, invest-and-express game for Facebook, set in the Ravenworld established by Ravenwood Fair. It was one of the first social games to incorporate true game-playing in the casual, decorating genre. It released to the public in 2012.
This is the story of its making.
Social Games R Us
Following a period of freelancing (and fighting for every paycheck), I was eager to take a permanent position somewhere. But while I was away, all of the traditional game developers were somehow replaced with Facebook game makers, and at the top of the heap was Zynga.
Everyone was looking to get a piece of the social game pie, including a company called Lolapps. While they had been trying their best to produce a hit with some gifting apps, questionnaires, and games like Critter Island, it was only after their fast-follow of Zynga’s Frontierville called Ravenwood Fair (designed by John Romero) that they actually got something on the map.
It was by far their most profitable project, so Lolapps threw everyone onto this game, pumping out more quests, more premium objects, more characters, more content. But if one game was good, many more would be better, so they decided to leverage the success of Ravenwood into its own franchise called Ravenworld.
But is it really a game?
I shouldn’t go further without stating that most of these social FB games like Farmville or Cityville or Dragonvale weren’t games in the strictest sense. They were “invest and express” products, meaning that people spent money to customize their homes. These homes looked pretty and that was mostly the goal. Aside from the visuals, there weren’t a lot of choices. There was little risk and reward. There was only a well-designed loop that demanded players return to their on-line homes to harvest and customize, and then visit their neighbors to gather more resources.
I understood these games, and while I appreciated some of their attempts to intertwine narrative to their experiences, I wasn’t a huge fan.
But then the PvP title Backyard Monsters hit the scene. Lolapps saw their success and wanted to do something more hardcore. Before I ever came to the company, they were planning on a PvP-centric, battle game called Ravenshire Castle. But the Design Director left the company, which left them in need of someone to take the reins.
I came to Lolapps without any experience with social FB games. However, I was toying with a design of my own: a make-your-own-dungeon game where other players could assault the dungeon you built. For me, this concept wasn’t new; I applied something similar in Wheel of Time where players constructed their citadels to confound their enemies.
I have long been fascinated with the idea of player-customized content where players make substantial and meaningful choices, and I thought it was the perfect time to apply these ideas to a FB game. This model had already proven to be successful: players construct their homes for others to visit asynchronously (meaning they don’t have to be on-line at the same time). I just needed to add some conflict to the mix, something like Backyard Monsters but with a lot more finesse!
Hard-core Ravenwood Fair?
After getting up to speed on their development process by designing my own content pack for Ravenwood Fair, I was assigned to Ravenshire Castle and I took a hard look at the existing design. While I was personally interested in PvP combat, I wasn’t excited about this direction for the Raven Universe. How could we expect a fan of Ravenwood Fair, which had virtually no conflict and almost no gameplay, to build up armies and attack their neighbors? It was a big leap from casual to hard-core, and I was worried our existing audience would abandon us.
Regardless. that was my assignment, so I absorbed the current design and hashed out a new one in the same vein, something I thought was a solid game. I prepared a presentation on it–but in the very first slide, I declared that moving in this direction might be a mistake.
Management agreed with me, and the design was shelved. My reaction was mixed. On one hand, it was the right call. But I had also spent a lot of time developing a design I liked, and positioned differently, it could have been successful. Regardless, Ravenshire was still my mission, so I went back to basics and tried to envision what a Raven fan would want from a game called Castle.
The majority of Raven fans were female. This was true of social games in general. So I went around the office to a lot of the females and asked, “In a game named Ravenshire Castle, what are the sort of things you’d want to do in it?” Some responses were predictable, notably “decorate,” but another term also popped up: “castle intrigue.” This was interesting. Castle intrigue meant story. It meant secrets. It meant eavesdropping. My mind started whirling.
This was Friday. By Monday, I had come up with a design, almost fully formed.
The key was another verb that fell out of intrigue: sneaking. Sneaking was active. It was non-violent. And it was filled with possibility. You could eavesdrop. You could search for secrets. And you could steal.
My dungeon idea came back to me in a rush. I never really wanted to make a game where the player built up armies and sent them to assault their enemies’ fortresses. That was a war game. I’m an adventure game designer. I enjoy crafting experiences. I want story. I always envisioned that the player would send his individual avatar into another’s dungeon to loot and pillage. Could I do the same thing with sneaking? Could you sneak into someone else’s castle, avoid traps and guards, and steal loot?
The idea was exciting. It was so much more engaging than visiting your neighbor to help them with harvesting resources. It had risk and reward. This wouldn’t be a landscape game like Farmville or Ravenwood Fair where you saw all of the buildings from the outside. You would make a castle from the inside, with throne rooms and kitchens and wizard’s dens. And how you built your castle was important. Where would you put your rooms? How would they be connected? Where would you place your guards and traps?
What’s more, I realized that by making your home beautiful, you’d be making it attractive to loot (which was good, because you wanted to be looted–as long as you could catch the guy doing it and throw him in the stocks, because you’d get a big reward for doing so).
But, of course, your new prisoner would be messaging his friends to come rescue him before you returned, so they could get a reward. It was a social game that actually had meaningful social interaction, and this social pressure was a lot more fun than traditional appointment mechanics (timing when the player had to return to harvest).
Note that the idea was never that you’d actually steal anything another player had acquired. You’d be “searching” decorations in the castle and the decoration would generate its own loot based on its rarity. Sneakers gained points and items, but the owner of the castle never lost anything.
So many ideas. So much potential. This could be the game that introduced actual gameplay to the “invest and express” audience, which was viewed as the holy grail. That audience was huge, much larger than mid- or hard-core players. If we could get them to play an actual game, we’d graduate them into gamers.
But was even this too hardcore? I presented my ideas to management and got the go ahead to start design. But I knew I had to make my core dynamic approachable, otherwise I’d scare my audience away.
The Sneaking Game
Now, Ravenshire Castle wasn’t the first game to introduce stealth. There are a lot of games out there that did it well, like Thief and Splinter Cell. However, those games were hard-core and their stealth dynamics were very demanding. I knew that, if I were to make a stealth game for the masses, I needed to eliminate mechanics like attention cones, hearing radii, and lighting/shadow models. Players needed to understand exactly what was happening at all times.
I decided to lay down a fundamental rule: if someone else was in the same room as the player, that character would become alerted to the intruder’s presence and act. That made sense, right? No hiding in shadows, or maneuvering behind other characters. Using this fundamental rule, I viewed the castle like a board game and each room was like a “square” on that board. What about corridors, you ask? I subdivided the corridors into “squares” as well, sections where players would be in danger if they shared it with another character. The player’s state would be obvious.
So I took it a step further to make my design even friendlier. People assumed that guards would be on patrol and players would have to work to avoid them, but instead, I placed each in a static location. On their own, they would never move. However, the castle was full of inhabitants like cooks and gardeners and housekeepers that were constantly wandering around doing their chores or eating or admiring the castle. If one of them stepped into the same square as the player, they would run to alert a guard. This would jar the guard into motion, and he would start searching for the player, starting wherever he was last seen.
I even color coded it. Squares with residents in them were yellow. Squares with guards were red. Avoid the red at all costs.
Note that this UI wasn’t obvious to design. How do you mark an area red or yellow? Change the color of the floor tiles? That was my first thought, but if you overlay the color onto the floor texture, sometimes it doesn’t show up very well. Do you make rules about what colors you can apply to the floor? That was a bandaid, and a horrible one, not a solution. In the end, I discovered the “pins” that form a 3D box around the area, and it worked like a charm.
So, the danger was clear and two steps removed. Get into the same square as a castle resident marked in yellow, and the guard would start searching for you once alerted. Get into the same square as a guard marked in red and you were captured. There was risk and reward, but the feeling of constant pressure was lessened. This system was clear and straightforward and, if I dare say, casual.
The Focus Test
But was it really? We prototyped just the sneaking game in a version without any real graphics, but with a lot of the features described above. I released it for people inside the company to play, and they loved it. Immediately, people were fiercely competing for the high score on the leaderboard. But that wasn’t a true test. These employees didn’t represent the Raven fan I was chasing.
So we set up a focus group. We contacted local Ravenwood Fair players and asked if they could come into the studio to test our new prototype. When I asked what their gaming background was, a few said that Ravenwood was the only game they played. One said it was the only game they ever played.
After the test, I asked what people thought of the experience. A moment of quiet, then they explained that they enjoyed it. A lot. And after checking the leaderboard, I realized that the person who had never played a single game beyond Ravenwood beat everyone else.
I thought we might have a winner on our hands.
I love story, and Castle provided an opportunity to tell one. I regret that most of what I developed remained under the hood, never to be released. It was a true tale of castle intrigue: love and betrayal and ancient magic. I developed characters with histories, agendas, and secrets. Even their conversations with each other during the castle’s daily life hinted at larger plots.
In fact, as I state in the Wheel of Time development post, I also used story here to address a fundamental moral issue: why is the player stealing from other castles if he’s “the good guy?” That’s because Ravenshire Castle had fallen into ruin, picked clean by the neighboring kingdoms of all its treasures. The only remaining inhabitant was Sebastian, turtle and advisor to the (absent) king. Prince Patrick (the only character who crossed over from Ravenwood Fair) reveals that the player is the rightful heir to the castle, and he sends you back there to claim your birthright.
When the player finally arrives, you find that Ravenshire is a mess. Sebastian first sends you to rescue someone who used to work there, and then subsequently out to recover stolen ancestral treasures. It’s not stealing if you’re just taking back what’s yours!
Here are a few of the characters that played roles in this tale.
If you didn’t notice, we had some incredible artists and animators working to realize Ravenshire. I couldn’t have asked for a more talented or dedicated team. Here are some examples of the concept work they put together.
As described, Ravenshire Castle was about story, decorating, and gameplay. Here are some examples of some of those things happening, including some of Dren McDonald’s fantastic music score.
If you watched those videos and noticed some bugs and performance issues, your eyes were not lying to you. The final days of Ravenshire were not as smooth as I would have liked. Some months before we were scheduled to release, 6Waves (a Chinese publisher) and Lolapps merged. And then 6Waves proceeded to shut Lolapps down as a developer. Most of LoLapps’ employees involved in game-making were laid off, including me. A skeleton crew stuck around to push the game out the door in whatever state it was in.
Honestly, I was happy it shipped at all. Since Legend, I’ve had experience dedicating years to a few projects that never shipped. But while the bones of a good game were there in this case, it was plagued by problems out of scope of the remaining crew, and it never had a chance to catch on as I hoped.
That said, I remain dedicated to the concept of players creating experiences for other players and in a relatively casual environment. This concept drives a lot of my thinking, and I suspect I’ll return to it in the future.
Ravenshire was a rough project, but also a chance to work with some smart, skilled, and talented people like engineers Peter Henry, Jonathon Howard, and Tom Wu; designers Chris Hockabout, Ben Jans, and Josh Babich; artists and animators Sergio Lobato, Meng Her, Lars Edwards, Emily Stone, Ziv Pesso, Irene Lepe, Andrew Vera, René Ramirez, Connie Kang, Leo Aquino, Joshua De Leon, and many others I’m definitely forgetting (it has been a while). We had big teams at Lolapps.
No question that I learned a lot while I was there, and the journey was definitely worth it.
To finish out, here are some of Sergio Lobato’s (the first art co-lead) original concepts for Ravenshire’s characters. We ended up with a brighter, more cartoony approach (which was the right move for how little space they took up on screen), but I always appreciated Sergio’s perspective on them.