Conducted By Adam Ames
TPG was proud to interview the Twin Sisters of Development, Jeanne and Cathy Roiter from Her Interactive. They speak to us about their latest point-and-click adventure title, Nancy Drew: Tomb of the Lost Queen. You will read about their thoughts on setting difficulty levels, social networking, the use of a female protagonist, fears of texting and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Nancy Drew: Tomb of the Lost Queen.
Jeanne Roiter: At first glance, a college degree in Art History seems an odd fit, but it taught me there is no one way to view anything. Attack something from a different angle and you’re guaranteed to get a different result. As Lead Tester, my goal is to ensure that everyone playing our games has the best user experience possible. Which means test analyzes every aspect of the game and how they do, and sometimes do not, work together.
Cathy Roiter: I grew up all over the country, graduated from a liberal arts school with an art degree, am an avid birder, love to travel (especially when it involves birding), and adore puzzles, be they jigsaw, slider or logic. As the designer, I was involved in nearly every stage of TMB. That included story development, character design, puzzle creation, environmental logic, music direction, running focus groups, playing/testing the game, and a thousand and one other things during the project cycle. There’s never a dull moment for me.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Jeanne Roiter: I actually began at Her Interactive in Technical Support, working directly with our users. During that time, I learned a lot about what our users expect from the games, common issues in-game play and installation and became very familiar with our brand. One fateful day, I was dropped into the test team to help out and quickly discovered my true calling lay in the logical, creative and critical thinking required for testing our games. It wasn’t long before I moved into test full-time and later down the road into the lead position.
Cathy Roiter: My first gaming job was as the production intern here at Her Interactive. Shortly after starting, I got the chance to design the mixing drinks puzzle in The Haunting of Castle Malloy. It all grew from there.
Where did the idea for Nancy Drew: Tomb of the Lost Queen come from?
Cathy Roiter: Egypt had been tossed around for years as a possibility, but it was the increase in resolution that came with our new UI that really cinched it. The new resolution meant art would really be able to do the setting justice. At that point there was no question that Egypt would be the first game to take advantage of the changes.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Nancy Drew: Tomb of the Lost Queen?
Jeanne Roiter: Change can be good. We introduced an entirely new User Interface with this game and it absolutely improved the game experience with its intuitive design. Change can also be bad. Major overhauls, like the UI, usually require more resources and time.
Cathy Roiter: I’m most proud of the fact that the majority of reviewers commented on how TMB wasn’t a clichéd Egyptian game. We wanted to make it feel different and we did, through careful planning and design choices. As for the failure, that was definitely tied to trying to be too realistic. I backed myself into a corner by being determined to use nothing but 100% accurate hieroglyphs. Thanks to my walkthrough team, the realization that I was in no way fluent in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, and a decision to go with a little artistic license, I redesigned the hieroglyph system to one that actually worked with the game instead of against it.
In its current form, how close is Nancy Drew: Tomb of the Lost Queen to your initial vision?
Cathy Roiter: Farther away than I expected, but I’m happy with the end result.
Speaking about the Nancy Drew series in general, how do you feel about using a strong female protagonist without the need to be over-sexualized or using other stereotypical elements?
Jeanne Roiter: The Nancy Drew PC games were established long before I joined Her Interactive, but a strong female character remains, for me, one of the most compelling things about the product we create. I think it’s incredibly important to keep these types of role models current and relevant for both female and male players.
Cathy Roiter: I’m all for a strong female. There are so few titles that have any type of independent, intelligent and confident females, let alone having one as the main protagonist. I’m extremely grateful that I get to design for a series that does.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Nancy Drew: Tomb of the Lost Queen would run on the various PC system configurations? Also speak about any problems developing for Mac.
Jeanne Roiter: For this game we increased our resolution by about 30%. These enhanced graphics are immediately apparent when you see the game, but 64MB video cards started to exhibit performance issues while running the game. We ended up increasing our minimum system requirements to 128MB video cards, which is still incredibly low for modern PC games.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Nancy Drew: Tomb of the Lost Queen.
Cathy Roiter: TMB was a lot of fun to design. Not only did I grow up on Egyptian mythology, but I had also recently returned from an amazing vacation touring the ancient Egyptian sites. Art seemed to appreciate the slew of photos I dropped in a reference folder. Personal experience is the best design tool. There is nothing like getting out in the world and seeing what it has to offer.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being a PC developer?
Jeanne Roiter: While this falls out of my scope, it’s probably getting the product out and visible to the public. With so many titles on the market these days, it’s a challenge to get traction with new players.
Cathy Roiter: Living up to the fans’ expectations. Our fans are a loyal group and I always want them to love every game. We try to create a different experience in each game, which means that some games they’ll like more than others, but that doesn’t make it any easier to see less than positive reviews sometimes..
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Nancy Drew: Tomb of the Lost Queen and if you faced a similar challenge.
Jeanne Roiter: In addition to focus groups and Beta testers, the internal test team does their best to keep a critical approach to game difficulty. The first weeks of testing are quite informative as testers attempt puzzles for the first time. Towards the end of the project we may reach out to other departments, like marketing or sales, for fresh eyes. The goal is for our players to come out of a puzzle with the satisfaction that results from discovering a solution on their own terms.
Cathy Roiter: Our difficulty levels are something we keep a very close eye on. We offer two levels to play in the game itself, and run focus groups to test difficulty levels on puzzles or activities that we’re concerned about. I’m constantly updating and tweaking puzzle settings to offer just the right amount of challenge as I get feedback from testers, focus group panels and beta. A few games back, I moved hints from Nancy’s friends to a new Hint Hotline on the phone itself. While some of our fans miss calling for hints, the hotline has allowed us to provide leveled hints that better help the player than a single phone call ever could.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Nancy Drew: Tomb of the Lost Queen from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Jeanne Roiter: Online resources are a good place to find out about issues with a new release. Instant feedback allows us to get issues resolved quickly if need be.
Cathy Roiter: I’m constantly on the boards after a release to see how the game has been received. All feedback, be it positive or negative, helps confirm what we’ve been doing right or wrong. I also like seeing if fans are picking up the hints we drop in about future games. Looks like some of them are noticing a few of them from TMB!
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Nancy Drew: Tomb of the Lost Queen professionally?
Jeanne Roiter: Since our games have a smaller target demographic, the professional reviews often come from gamers who might not pick up a Nancy Drew title on their own. Hearing what resonates with them helps us incorporate design features that reach out to all types of players. This is an invaluable source of information as we work to make our games more accessible to a wider audience.
Cathy Roiter: I value the professional reviews a lot. They allow me to better judge how a new player to our games would feel after playing. It’s helpful to get that new set of eyes on any game.
There are rumors flying around the studio about your feelings towards texting. Why are both of you so adverse to the wonders of mobile technology? You do know that everyone is doing it, right?
Jeanne Roiter: I’ll admit it has to do mostly with the fact that I don’t want to lose one of the last vestiges of verbal interaction in our increasingly wired lifestyle. I’m also rather fond of my archaic flip phone.
Cathy Roiter: I wouldn’t follow the lemmings off the cliff either.