Animal Magic

Zoo Tycoon dev Blue Fang talks about it new Wii and DS title, and why the family market should be taken seriously

Best known for its esteemed Zoo Tycoon games, this year Blue Fang has expanded the reach of its animal centric titles to iPhone with Lion Pride, and DS and Wii platforms with the THQ published World of Zoo. spoke to Alex Chouls, the studio's creative director, and Scott Triolam, chief operating officer, about its hopes for the new World of Zoo, as well as the family console market as a whole and what Blue Fang is offering that market that not enough other developers currently are.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about Blue Fang's history and what you've been working on up until now?

Alex Chouls: Blue Fang has been making family friendly games about animals for over a decade now. We made the Zoo Tycoon series for Microsoft - Zoo Tycoon 1 and 2 and a bunch of expansion packs - which was a very successful franchise. We found with making those games the things we wanted to concentrate on more was interacting with the animals. We have close relationships with a lot of local zoos, and we get to see the animals up close and personal, and wanted to bring that experience to players. It's just a magical experience getting close to animals and that was the focus on the Wii game we've just made, World of Zoo.

Q: Was the interactivity the Wii controls offer the reason you wanted to make World of Zoo on that console?

Alex Chouls: Exactly. It was a match made in heaven for us. We were interested in exploring the animal interaction and the Wii controller was just perfect for that.

Q: Were you trying to create Zoo Tycoon for a younger audience with World of Zoo, or is it an entirely new kind of experience?

Alex Chouls: It's more of a new experience. The gameplay is much more about interacting with animals than the management and tycoon type gameplay of Zoo Tycoon. We put a lot of effort into the animal behaviours in the game. We took some liberties with the animals in the zoo, but we also tried to get the authentic feel of each animal.

Q: There are already a lot of animal based games on Wii and DS. Was that a concern for you when you were exploring the idea of a zoo game on those formats?

Alex Chouls: Yes, we definitely looked at those games. We feel that we've got much better technology and a great development team here - we've got animators from Disney, and technology guys from MIT - that has built some really compelling technology and also approaches the game from a multi-disciplined point of view where everyone's working together to just create compelling animal performances. We've really focused on the performances of the animals. Plus we're dealing with exotic animals, which I think is cool. It has a much broader palette than a lot of the pet games out there which have domestic animals. We have danger and awe and mystery - all these kinds of emotions are there with exotic animals.

Q: You have a partnership with National Geographic for the game, which suggests an educational aspect. Was that something that you really wanted?

Alex Chouls: Yes, that's something Blue Fang has always done. We make games that are fun but also that parents can feel really good about buying their kids. There are a lot of games out there that frankly upset parents. They look at the state of our industry and a lot of it is a lot of death mongering and violence and destruction. We make creative, fun experiences that are constructive. For example, in WOZ we have an animal creator that lets you make almost any animal you can imagine. So we really focused on creative, fun, constructive play that the parents can feel really good about buying and kids enjoy playing.

Q: How did you go about designing the animals in the game? You mentioned you spend a lot of time in zoos looking at real animals - is that important for your designers to do?

Alex Chouls: Absolutely. We have a huge library of DVDs and we also visit real animals at zoos. For World of Zoo we came up with an art style that we think is very charming. It's kind of cell-shaded but it's not too cartoony, so you don't lose the authentic feel of the animal in the art style. But it let us push the design a little bit further than what the real animal might do.

Q: You released your first iPhone game recently - Lion Pride. What was your thinking about going into iPhone development?

Scott Triola: From a studio perspective, we wanted to release a product on that new mobile platform. That was a new experience for us from a development standpoint in that it allowed us to work faster and on a smaller scale. It was also exciting for us to go direct to the consumer for the first time. Every product we've done to date has been through traditional publishing, so from a business standpoint we were really eager to put our own product out there.

From a creative standpoint, we actually had a separate team within Blue Fang - a small team - come up with the concept and execute on that. The focus was taking a proven gameplay mechanism and bringing a new gameplay twist to that all set within the animal kingdom. We came up with the concept of Lion Pride where, unlike a successful iPhone game like Flight Control where you're routing aircraft using line drawing, the player uses line drawing to control the movement of animals. The objective of the game is to survive, catch prey and feed your cubs, so there is a strategy element and it's a different implementation of the line drawing mechanic. So really for us, it was just a chance to try something new on a new platform and evaluate what worked and what didn't both creatively and from a business standpoint.

Q: How did it do from a business standpoint? Was it a success?

Scott Triola: It was success in terms of units sold. In terms of revenue, I'd say we made a small profit on it. One of the things we decided from the outset was to charge 99 cents so we really didn't focus on trying to maximise revenue; we went into it with the goal of understanding as much as we could creatively and from a business standpoint about how that platform works. For that it was a tremendous success. We were featured by Apple on their page, we were a top ten strategy game in over 35 countries in August and we really got in the groove in terms of creating content, updating the app and learning the best way to do that. We're very happy with the product and how it's done, and right now we're evaluating what our next steps on that platform are.

Q: Going back to World of Zoo, you've released at the busiest time of year. Is that because you see this type of game selling well as a Christmas purchase for children?

Scott Triola: Absolutely. One of the great sales drivers of our previous Zoo Tycoon games was that they got tremendous word of mouth among parents and organisations that evaluate products for parents and families. Obviously we watch the critical reviews but what we're really excited about with World of Zoo is the early feedback we're getting from parents, from kids that are playing it, and also from the different organisations that look at products and recommend them. We have very high hopes for the franchise and we hope that the word of mouth that it can generate can be as great as it was for Zoo Tycoon. And it's releasing globally - the zoo context and gameplay has universal appeal - so we expect to see strong sales both in the US and internationally.

Q: The games that you are developing are focusing very much on creativity and open-endedness rather than stories and action. Are those the types of games you want to continue making in the future?

Alex Chouls: Yes. We feel like the animal kingdom is just a very rich territory that we can mine for a long time and people love animals. In fact, the pet industry is bigger than the game industry. It's also challenging work. Researching animals and trying to capture that experience is a tremendous challenge for a game developer. People love animals, and we're happy to keep making those types of games.

Scott Triola: We also want to make the best experience for the given platform. With the Wii console we wanted to bring the player face-to-face with animals and using the Wii-mote to let the players interact with the animals was a natural fit. I don't have anything we can talk about today, but we also have a project underway that is more within the tycoon style of gameplay for another platform. We'll be announcing something on that in the not-too-distant future.

Q: Why did you choose THQ as a publishing partner for World of Zoo, and how was working with them?

Scott Triola: One of the things that we were very impressed about with THQ was their knowledge of the family market and the audience we make games for. Some publishers are focused on more core games, and have expertise in creating and marketing games to that traditional gaming audience. One of the things that THQ brought to the table was an understanding of what the family market really values and how to market a game to them. They have done a tremendous amount with Nickelodeon and Pixar titles for example. It's a really different approach marketing to that consumer - the packaging, the messaging and all the other marketing elements. So among the publishers we talked to, we were really impressed with THQ's understanding of that market.

And also, at the time, THQ had licensed Zoo Tycoon from Microsoft and the were publishing Zoo Tycoon DS. We were very impressed with how they handled that IP and the sales they were able to garner from that title. It was just a good fit in terms of their focus and our focus.

Through the course of development they've been very good partners from a creative and business standpoint. They give us good feedback - they're valuable in that area - but they're also very respectful of the developer and ultimately give us creative control, which is ultimately what you're looking for.

Q: Do you think there are enough developers out there making high quality family titles at the moment? Or is the market still too dominated by dumbed-down platform titles and similar?

Scott Triola: I can talk for hours on this topic... There's a lot of product coming into family space and I think there is really interesting debate is over the issue of quality. There's a lot of product of low quality that's put out into that market under the philosophy that with the proper licence, anything will sell to that audience. And I think we've seen the result of that strategy when you look at the Wii platform and the amount of poor product out there aimed at the family market.

We believe that the family market is very appealing and there aren't many developers taking that market seriously with quality content. We like being in a place where we believe we make much higher quality content focused on that consumer. Our games are original IP, and we take these consumers very seriously. So, while there is a lot of product in this space, there are not that many developers making quality products. We think that's what make Blue Fang stand apart and what we believe will make World of Zoo stand apart.

Q: A related issue is perhaps the low software ratio associated with Wii at the moment - people are saying it's because there's too much low quality Wii product...

Scott Triola: Well, there's a circular argument going around in the industry. There's a low tie ratio on the Wii platform therefore it's not worth investment, therefore we'll just put out a bunch of low quality titles. From a consumer's standpoint, a lot of families have bought those low quality titles and once you spend 40 hard-earned dollars on a game that just isn't very good, you're less likely to buy another product. Or, you're more likely to buy from a proven brand like Nintendo that takes quality seriously.

I think we've entered a bit of a downward spiral here in this industry that we need to get out of. And again, World of Zoo, to our credit and to THQs credit, is a AAA original IP product that was designed ground-up for the Wii. We're hopeful that our game will cut through the noise and, through word of mouth, positive reviews and consumer feedback, that it will stand apart from all the lousy animal games and family games that are out there right now.

Alex Chouls is creative director for Blue Fang. Scott Triola is chief operating officer. Interview by Kath Brice.

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