They might not make games about shooting monsters in the face in post-apocalyptic American cities, but Brighton-based Relentless Software has made a name and a small fortune for itself nonetheless with its hugely popular range of Buzz! quiz games for PlayStation formats. Despite the series' ongoing success, however, the studio's keen to branch out, and the result is the Blue Toad Murder Files, an episodic murder mystery for PlayStation 3 set to start, and be published by Relentless itself, on PlayStation Network this December.
Taking up roles in the Blue Toad detective agency, you and up to three friends are deposited in a quaint little English hamlet, and before long you're on the trail of a murderer most foul, quizzing the townspeople and putting the clues together like a group of friends watching Miss Marple. There will be six episodes in total, and although Relentless is still quiet on an exact release date or price structure for the series, the developer was happy to have us round last week to speak to producer Jade Tidy and design director Paul Woodbridge about how the game is shaping up, and what it takes to unmask a killer in the village of Little Riddle.
Eurogamer: What were you setting out to do with Blue Toad Murder Files?
Paul Woodbridge: We started off saying, "We do Buzz, and Buzz has done really well. But what is Buzz? It's a bit like Trivial Pursuit." And we thought, "Well, what else is there that's a bit like Trivial Pursuit?" And we got onto Cluedo and the whole murder mystery idea. Can we do a social murder-mystery game for a similar crowd to Buzz?
That was the first thought, and we had a few different attempts at it. The first idea was a boardgame, to make the gaming equivalent of Cluedo. But then you start thinking there has to be murders and you get onto Miss Marple, Poirot, and everybody knows Agatha Christie stuff so we thought about making [TV and boardgame] meet. Obviously this is a computer game not a boardgame, so that's important, but also we wanted bits of a TV show. We needed some action.
Jade Tidy: The bit inspired by TV was the off-screen interaction between you and your friends in your front room. You playing around and asking "Whodunit?" before it came up. That seemed quite exciting: the fun bit.
Paul Woodbridge: But the problem with a lot of those Agatha Christie things is that it's too hard and no one ever gets it. And if they do get it then it was for the wrong reason. What we've done is make it a little bit easier. We want most people to have a good go at getting it.
Eurogamer: What do we actually do in Blue Toad Murder Files?
Paul Woodbridge: You can play with between one and four players. You choose your detective, all stereotypes: the Miss Marple old lady, the big pompous detective, the Enid Blyton schookid, etc. They're the Blue Toad Agency: this fictional band of detectives who solve murders. They all end up stuck in this little village, and needless to say that within the first five minutes there's a horrible murder and they go investigating who they think did it. The whole game is a deductive puzzle; you get all the information and you make your case. But in between those there are micro-puzzles: put these facts in order, for example. It's a bit like Professor Layton. But unlike Professor Layton these are tied more closely to the story.
Eurogamer: How do we actually collect the evidence, and how do we decide when we have enough to pick our killer?
Paul Woodbridge: Originally we wanted you to go round asking questions, specific questions, from dialogue trees and what-have-you. However, we decided you actually need all the information. Often when you play a game like Monkey Island you select every option anyway - you don't select three and decide that that's enough. So what we ended up doing is creating quite a linear story. Basically, everybody will see everything. And we know what you'll see; we know you've got all the facts you need to make your mind up, and we've organised the story in a way where you won't have all those facts until the end.
Eurogamer: How long will we be on the hunt for clues?
Paul Woodbridge: About an hour. Again, that was another of our criteria. Ideally it's going to be played multiplayer, and we want people to be able to say, "I've just downloaded this murder-mystery game, it will take an hour, do you want to play it with me?" It's the same length of time it takes to watch an episode of Poirot or something, rather than a three-hour game where people maybe start to drop out.
Eurogamer: How do we move our detectives around the village? What sort of freedom do we have? And once we're there, how do we scout out the information?
Paul Woodbridge: They're pretty railed, to be honest. Occasionally you get options - you can go to the pub or you can go to the train station - but you'll have to go to both of them at some point anyway. [Then] it's basically a cut-scene; you go to the train station, you see the Station Master chatting to an old woman, you join in the conversation. The Station Master wants you to help find the lady's lost bag, and you'll get the interactive gameplay puzzle to find her bag. At the end of that he'll take you to one side and you'll ask him about the murder. And that's basically how the whole game works: little bit of information, puzzle, another little bit of information, etc. Once you've done all of those, you'll be asked, "OK, so who was the murderer?"
Eurogamer: Is it competitive?
Paul Woodbridge: It's however you want it. Yes it can be competitive. Say we're playing three-player, you'll get your turn and decided where you want to go to - let's say the train station. Everyone will watch the same cut-scene, so you all get the information, and then you'll end up finding the bag puzzle. If you want to, you can do that totally on your own - your friends can watch you and laugh at you and then they'll get their go on the next puzzle. Or, if you're feeling a bit friendlier, you all help each other out. You might have the controller, but the logic/lateral thinking puzzles can all be done by quite a few people, a bit Crystal Maze-like - "Quick, push the button on the right!"
Jade Tidy: We've done the first round of user testing on the first episode and I'd always felt quite strongly about the co-operative element because it's just more fun. Paul has left the design open so you can decide [whether to be competitive or not] yourselves. It will score you, but it depends if you're really bothered about that. Everybody that played multiplayer all naturally went towards the co-operative play and seemed to have a lot of fun with that. But when it got to the whodunit, they all suddenly went back to being competitive and choosing their own suspect. That worked really well and was quite natural to have that process going through.
You're set in this village of Little Riddle and you'll be there for the rest of the series. When you first come into the village, the first scene, you've come in on a train and a train has got stuck further down the line. So you're stuck in Little Riddle until they fix that. You go off into the village to see if you can get a drink while you wait, and then somebody is killed in front of you and you decide to stay on to solve the new murder. You move around the village and get to select a location and decide who you want to go see, and quite quickly you find our there are four suspects. So you'll go see those four suspects and listen to what they tell you - what is their alibi? If they mention someone else who can corroborate their story then you can go and see that other person and see if you believe them.
Eurogamer: At the end, then, you get points based on if you guessed the murderer correctly?
Paul Woodbridge: There's three ways to gain points. There's the middle puzzles - did you do them quickly, did you make any mistakes? There's also something we call QA. There's quite a few cut-scenes in the game, as it seems to be the best way to get information across. But rather than people not paying attention - this is not Metal Gear Solid, you can't hit a skip button, and it'll be the same as if you had watched it or not - we ask you questions like, "What did the Station Master want to build in the village?" Basically it's just questions on what you've seen to make sure you've been paying attention. The final way to gain points is at the end, obviously, when you get asked which of the suspects is the murderer.
Eurogamer: So, there's an hour of gameplay, but what happens after that? Is there any replayability?
Paul Woodbridge: We've got about 12 puzzles in each episode and those can be replayed. On your first play-through you can give up on them if you decide you're fed up with the puzzle and want to move on. Just click the "give up" button and move on, we're not going to hold you back. We've got the Puzzle Compendium where you can go back over those puzzles trying to get better times or complete them for the first time.
Eurogamer: Is there any punishment for failing a puzzle?
Paul Woodbridge: No no no. It's the same as if you had gotten it right.
Jade Tidy: Yeah, that was quite an important decision.
Eurogamer: Are you worried that by simplifying and casting the net too wide that you might turn off the core people that use PSN?
Paul Woodbridge: Potentially, and this is something that's come up. We are aiming for... when we did the usability testing it went down well with most of the groups. But the group that enjoyed it the most was the family, the mum and dad and the two younger kids.
There is a little concern - are the people we're aiming for the people who buy games from PSN? But having said that, I'm a core gamer, and maybe I'm not aiming this game at me, but it would be great if I could say to my wife - who's not a core gamer - I'm going to buy this game, let's play this rather than watch Dancing on Ice.
Jade Tidy: Maybe the ideal market we're aiming for might not be on PSN. But this is an area Sony will hopefully do more in to bring that market to PlayStation 3. I also think maybe we are a bit too stereotypical about what a core gamer is nowadays. Because I class myself as a core gamer and I don't want to play a first-person shooter every day of the week. I quite like sometimes just going online and playing a Flash game for five minutes. Games are becoming these days closer to what you expect from films - you like a variety, and don't want to see action ones or rom-coms, you want different ones to suit your mood that day. And this is one where people can go, "Oh, we've actually got some choice here." There's nothing else like it, and I think that's quite refreshing.
Blue Toad Murder Files is an offline-only multiplayer game for PlayStation 3, and the first episode is due out this December via PlayStation Network. Head over to our Blue Toad Murder Files gallery for the first screenshots.