PopCap spills the beans on its Hidden Agenda for Facebook [Interview]

Hidden Agenda
Hidden Agenda

Fans of hidden object games get a surprise holiday in January. PopCap Games has announced that its first hidden object game for Facebook, the much anticipated Hidden Agenda, has entered open beta (i.e. it's live and playable). While the puzzler is available now, PopCap says that its "mainstream launch" won't be until next month with the release of Season 1: The Puzzle of the Poisoned Planner.

While this open beta test will offer 24 scenes to master, PopCap teases that this season is packed with 12 cases, 48 hidden object scenes, 25 characters and 30 buildings to create. In anticipation of the release, we sat down with Kurt Busch, Executive Producer for hidden object games at PopCap and GM of its Vancouver studio, to take a bit more mystery out of, well, this mystery.

PopCap is well-known for its hidden object games for download, so what inspired the studio to enter the ring with likes of Zynga and Playdom?

We actually started working out different ideas a long time before there were any hidden object Games on Facebook. We prototyped a couple of different approaches but weren't quite happy with them. Then in January we brought in Rick Davidson, the Game Director on Hidden Agenda. He put together a team of people he'd worked with before and we combined this with our core team of hidden object experts and came up with an entirely new approach.

Why create a new intellectual property for Facebook rather than, say, bring the Vacation Quest or Amazing Adventures series over? What was that process like?

Actually, we started out with Mystery PI, probably our most successful franchise. We thought the mystery theme worked perfectly for the audience and the platform. But Mystery PI is a straightforward HOG with no characters. As Rick and his team began to add characters and story lines, we realized we were moving away from the MPI world and into something really cool, so we decided to create a new franchise.

%VIRTUAL-Gallery-173085%How did PopCap come up with the title "Hidden Agenda," and how about the art style?

We were trying to find the right title. For the longest time, it was being built under the codename "FaceHog", which is not a bad PopCap sort of title. But we wanted something that conveyed the intrigue of a small town filled with conflicting personalities, and the fun of the hidden object Game experience. "Hidden Agenda" wound up fitting the bill perfectly.

Each character is hiding something. This is at the core of the story and the gameplay experience. The characters may appear easy to figure out because of their animal personalities but each and every one has a secret, a fear, a dark past or a hidden desire that he or she is trying to keep hidden from other characters in town. As you gain the trust and confidence of the townsfolk, you learn more about them. This knowledge opens doors and opportunities.

As for the art, we actually started with cartoony human characters. Nelson Garcia, the Lead Artist, started creating characters with animal features and it struck a chord with everyone. He tried a whole range of approaches, ranging from very human to very animalistic features and found the sweet spot you see in the game now.

Incidentally, when designing the characters for the two feuding families, he wound up unintentionally casting one side as carnivores and one as herbivores. We didn't confine ourselves strictly to that division, but it made a good starting point for bringing across the personalities of the characters quickly.

Hidden Agenda screens
Hidden Agenda screens

Aside from Hidden Agenda's distinct art direction, what else differentiates this game from the rest on Facebook?

Every part of our game is a hidden object experience, not just the traditional hidden object scenes. The standard mold for HOGs on Facebook has been to combine a conventional space-decorating game with a selection of HOG scenes. Since you need to grind the HOG scenes to advance the gameplay, the hidden object experience becomes more of a memory game and less of a traditional hidden object experience. Nothing wrong with this – it can be pretty fun. But we wanted a different approach.

Rick and his team came up with the idea of making the whole world a hidden object experience. So instead of buying and placing structures, you explore a town in the meta-game and find items and characters to complete quests. In the town, these are referred to as Jobs and you carry them out for the many characters you meet. Each Job is a scavenger hunt to find lost items, suspects, missing characters, or the tools you need to investigate a crime scene.

Completing enough Jobs allows you to open Cases, which are individual mysteries, made up of a number of traditional HOG scenes. Investigating these scenes gives you clues, which in turn can be used to solve each mystery. Closing cases allows you to expand the list of characters you meet and advance the overall story, helping you solve the ultimate mystery in the game.

Hidden Agenda images
Hidden Agenda images

What kind of story is PopCap trying to tell with Hidden Agenda, and to what audience?

The story opens with the mysterious murder of Albus B. Puckerwhip, the Town Planner, and the theft of his recently revised zoning plans. You are a Private Investigator that comes to town to unravel the secrets of the town and its residents.

It's the story of two families, bound by a common history but divided by a dark event in the past. One family is driven by progress and wants to see the town grow and industrialize. The other is bound by tradition and opposed to anything that changes the character of their hometown.

Each family is led by a patriarch and features a cast of characters with conflicting agendas. As the story unfolds, you'll be drawn into numerous cases that feature the colorful characters on both sides of the feud. And you will find out who killed Puckerwhip. We promise.

As for the audience, this is a game on Facebook, so by definition it's targeted at an audience that's engaged in games there. It will definitely appeal to older, female players but not at the expense of someone else who might enjoy the game. It's designed for anyone who loves mysteries, anyone who loves hidden object Games, and anyone who loves the way PopCap approaches games.

Play the Hidden Agenda open beta on Facebook >

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