The creative team at Silverback Studios, a small, independent game studio in Halifax, Nova Scotia, has turned their passion for creating fantasy-laden games into an award-winning reality with their Empress of the Deep series. The casual adventure game, which currently includes two parts, The Darkest Secret and Song of the Blue Whale, immerses players in an exotic world of hidden objects, puzzles, mini-games and more.
Dreamed up by Silverback founders, Willie Stevenson and his wife Colleen Shannahan, and created almost entirely in MAXON’s CINEMA 4D, the Empress series chronicles the journey of Anna, a young woman who wakes up from a coma in an undersea temple and must escape and regain her memory. Everything in the game is mouse-driven, explains Shannahan, Silverback’s development strategist, and there is a journal to help players, who are primarily women over 30, keep track of their progress.
The puzzles are one of the most popular aspects of the games, which are user-friendly with challenges akin to Saturday morning crossword puzzles. In search of relics and unique objects, Anna travels through lush worlds under the sea and on shore. Non-violent and available in several languages for Mac, iPad and PC, millions of the Empress games have been sold all over the world—demand has been particularly strong in the Soviet Union.
Impressive plot and artwork
Both Empress 1 and 2 have been recognized for having storylines that hold players’ interest. But it is the artwork that has really helped get the game noticed. Visually stunning, with hints of both fantasy and mythology, Empress of the Deep: The Darkest Secret earned Silverback the Best Art and Character Design honor in The Great Game Awards in 2011. (Check out their site now: http://www.silverbackgames.com)
“It’s nice for a little studio like us to win against the big guys,” says Stevenson, Silverback’s creative director, who says each game includes about 150 shots with each taking anywhere from three days to two weeks to create depending on complexity. Though the images used in Silverback’s hidden-object games are primarily stills, they do include some animated elements, such as opening doors.
Stevenson’s background as a painter and TV producer means he brings a unique bag of tricks to the world of casual game design. “I don’t like talking in numbers, I like directing lighting as if you’re lighting a real set and saying: ‘Throw a few more yellow lights here. Make them a little more reddish,’” he explains. Lighting, or sculpting with light, as Stevenson calls it, is one of the keys to making award-winning visual. “You really have to have your shadows and all your colored lights and the contrast as a part of your design from the start,” he says.
Casual gaming in 3D
Ironically, the Empress series almost never happened. Stevenson and his team were hard at work on creating what would later become one of their successful real-time games, Ben & Kranky, when the economy tanked and they lost their financing. Making matters worse, Shannahan was several months pregnant with the couple’s second child and money was tight.
Nearly bankrupt and seriously contemplating quitting the gaming business, they refinanced their house to pay bills and took the advice of one of Silverback’s distributors to change directions and create a casual game that would, hopefully, make some money. Stevenson’s first concern was artwork. He didn’t want the standard 2D fare of the genre, so he decided to go with 3D instead.
After struggling with the learning curve of moving to 3D and trying different software, Silverback’s artists opted to stick with CINEMA 4D. “Because it’s so easy for artists to immerse themselves in,” says Stevenson, who taught Tom Cooper, head of the studio’s 3D department, how to use C4D when he joined the creative team three years ago at the age of 18. The ease of camera movement is one of the things Cooper and Stevenson appreciate most about the software. “It’s far more versatile to work in 3D than 2D,” says Stevenson, “I really like the way you can quickly create sprawling vistas.”
Creating such lush scenes requires a lot of models, and Silverback creates most of the objects in game scenes themselves. They do use some stock models for things like trees. In order to make extremely complex scenes without creating unmanageable file sizes, artists often used XRefs (extended reference) for objects of all sizes from plants to castles and hot air balloons.
Empress’ success means Silverback will be able to self-finance their next venture, while also potentially increasing their team of 3D artists to 15. Scheduled for release late in 2011 is Empress 3: House of the Phoenix. The third and final chapter of the Empress series, this highly anticipated game will take the player’s experience one step further and features a 360-degree panorama.
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Article by Scott Strohmaier
Scott Strohmaier is a writer living in Los Angeles with his wife and son.
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