Interview: Lee and Susan Cummings | DOCTOR WHO LEGACY

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Interview with Lee Cummings and Susan Cummings

There have been various Doctor Who games in the past, none of which have been particularly well received - at least to the level of Legacy. Did playing or researching any of them give you any indication on how a Doctor Who game shouldn’t be done?

Lee Cummings: When Susan and I decide we want to work on a specific game, or type of game, we have this general rule that we try really hard not to play other games in the genre, or related to the content of the game we’re making. During the development of Doctor Who Legacy the BBC asked us to look at Worlds in Time, so we played that for about an hour to get a grasp on how they handled certain things like narrative and companions, and when the Google Doctor Who doodle came out we played that, however that’s the entirety of our experience with Doctor Who games in recent memory. When we decide to work in a world we really want to create an experience very much grounded in not just the gameplay we want to create but our own personal interpretation of the world and characters, and not have that influenced by someone else’s vision of what they wanted to create.

Doctor Who is now arguably one of the biggest brands in the world. How did working with such an iconic show inform your approach to the project? Did it make things easier or more difficult?

Lee: The difficulty really came from the pressure we ended up putting on ourselves. As a lifelong fan of the show I found it really easy to get out of bed and get to work in the mornings, but it was equally as hard to walk away at night. We were keenly aware that this would likely be our one and only chance to work with something we loved so dearly, so we pushed ourselves incredibly hard during the year. During the last couple of months we were working something like 17 hours a day (including the weekends) because every little detail had to be perfect. We would fixate on finding just the perfect name for an ability for a character (for hours and hours), or we would tweak a piece of art over and over. We re-balanced and tweaked the first few hours of gameplay dozens of times to make sure it was as accessible as possible to as many fans of the show as possible.

Both Susan and Lee have a background in producing AAA games. How does the experience of working on free-to-play games differ?

Lee: As well as working in the Doctor Who universe for the first time we also had the daunting task of designing and producing our first free to play game. Free to play is a completely different ballgame from traditional boxed games.

Susan Cummings: In the console/retail world, it’s a massive effort over a long period of time (years) to get a game to market and then a huge sigh of relief that it’s in the hands of sales, retailers, marketing. In the world of mobile free to play, getting to market is just the beginning. You launch and then the focus is on constantly improving the experience. Adding new content, listening to your fans. It’s a service you are ultimately providing, not a one off sale.

Beyond the branding, how would you define the differences between Legacy and other free-to-play games? Are there any aspects of free-to-play you saw as pitfalls that you wanted to avoid?

Lee: We had a few rules from day one on the game - one of which was that we wanted to create an experience which didn’t include any of the things we dislike about lots of free to play games available right now. We didn’t want an energy system because, well, we  hate them and wanted nothing else than for fellow Whovians to play as much as they wanted whenever they wanted, and an energy system seemed to be absolutely at odds with that. We wanted to create a real game, a real gaming experience, which wasn’t balanced against people having to spend money – the game launched with 25 – 30 hours of gameplay and every minute can be played completely for free.

Susan: We’re quite proud of the fact that one of our first reviews called us ‘the most moral free to play game’ to date. That means that we really accomplished one of our major goals in making our fans feel that this was an experience that truly could be enjoyed for free. It’s not that we don’t want people to spend money - of course, we do - but we don’t want them to feel like they are getting a bad, incomplete or unsatisfying experience if they choose not to. It’s a balancing act, a very fine line that we have to walk.

Seeing as Legacy was released so close to the 50th Anniversary of the show, pressure and expectations must have been high. Was Legacy always intended to be part of the Anniversary, or was that just a happy coincidence?

Lee: It was actually a happy coincidence – when we started talking to the BBC about the possibility of doing a Doctor Who game we didn’t have any idea about how long development would take, or how big the 50th Anniversary would be. As development started it became clear that the stars would possibly align quite nicely, and everything just fell into place.

Once you’d secured the licence, how did you and the BBC begin putting together the game? How much input did the BBC have in the process?

Lee: From the very start we worked hand in hand with the BBC. When I received a build our producer at BBC Worldwide was sent one. Every fundamental of the project was put together with huge input from the BBC – from the art style, the story, game design, balancing, choice of characters, music, sound effects – pretty much everything was discussed with the BBC.

Susan: They have been very supportive, very additive. We’ve had the opposite experience with licensing partners, where feedback felt inappropriate to the medium or too heavy handed… not here, the BBC has been very respectful of our vision for the game and has kept their feedback in line with the spirit of the game we set out to create.

How big a part did research on the show play into the development of the game?

Lee: Before we even approached the BBC, Susan and I had seen every episode of the post relaunch seasons (twice), so we were in a pretty good position to sketch in most of the game really quickly. And of course we grew up with Doctor Who and had a solid grasp on Doctor Who’s history and canon. As we dug into the details we went back and watched all the episodes again (multiple times) and did a pretty significant amount of research online to make sure every single detail was as close as we could get it.

Susan: It’s been a real pleasure to see how observant of the small details our fans have been. We get emails frequently pointing out the little touches they’ve noticed… names of abilities, costumes, locations, etc. It’s lovely to see that it doesn’t go unnoticed.

Obviously, a Who game can’t have the Doctor running around blowing everything up, or using a gun. Did you always know it was going to be a puzzle game, or were there other approaches you considered?

Lee: Susan and I made a puzzle game together years ago (Puzzle Kingdoms), and we had been itching to make another one (it’s one of our favourite genres). From the start we wanted to make a game which wouldn’t feel like another episode of the show, but rather let us go through the entirety of the show’s history and convert the amazing episodes, Doctors, allies and enemies into gameplay. The only realistic way to do that is through a puzzle game of some sort.

Susan: Thanks for noticing this - it’s true, we feel like the gem matching, puzzle mechanic is keenly suited to Doctor Who. There are some who I feel unfairly assume this was a quickly made game that is cloning prior gem matching mechanics. Rather we felt that this was the perfect mechanic to adopt and evolve for our purposes, allowing us to extrapolate ‘combat’ into gem matching. The Doctor doesn’t use a ‘gun’, he uses his brain.

One of the most striking things about Legacy is its artwork, and Seed Studios have a very distinct blend of Eastern and Western design. Was there anything in particular that made you take the look of the game in this direction?

Lee: From the very start we wanted to make a game which was accessible to Whovians all over the world, of all ages. The first real consequence of that was that we wanted an art style which would be appealing wherever you are in the world, and I think the first art discussion call between us, Seed and the BBC specifically started with the line “We need something which is a mix of East and West”.

Susan: Our Art Director, Pest Jiang at Seed Studio, has done a tremendous job creating a unique art aesthetic for the game which BBC has embraced and supported since the beginning. I can’t tell you how many times I opened up a new art file from Pest and couldn’t stop smiling. Some of my personal favourites are the Peg Dolls, the Skeletal Dalek, the Spoonhead Doctor.

Were the team working on the game big fans of the show? Are there any particular episodes from the show’s past you’d particularly like to see included in the game?

Lee: Favourite episodes - Girl in the Fireplace, 42, Family of Blood, Caves of Androzani, City of Death.

Susan: Silence in the Library, The Shakespeare Code, The Pandorica Opens, and of course the Master episodes at the end of Series 3.

We noticed when playing there’s a small ‘TV’ icon next to the name of some of the episodes – is Tiny Rebel considering looking at more than just TV episodes in the future, such as tie-in novels or Big Finish audio?

Lee: Right now we’re focussed on continuing backwards through the seasons from the TV show, however I’d love to look at the Big Finish series somewhere down the line.

How far back would you like to go when adding additional content from the show’s past? Could fans really be facing Zarbi and Krotons at some point in the future?

Lee: Our original pitch to the BBC ended with the line “we won’t be happy until we get back to An Unearthly child”, and every system in the game was built with that goal in mind. If the community likes the game and gets behind it, we’re in it for the long term.

Many fans of the show and the game are doubtless looking forward to additional series being added, but do you think there are any other ways the game could be expanded, not only in terms of content but in gameplay and platforms too?

Lee: When we started the original design we made sure that it was as extendable as possible – one part of that was to make the puzzle board as fully data driven and designer led as possible. There are lots of really cool things we’re planning to do which were designed from the start, are part of the code, but not yet part of the gameplay. In terms of platforms we built the game using Unity specially because it’s so wonderfully multi-platform, and we hope to release more information on our platform plans pretty soon.

Susan: Coming in the near future we’ll be adding other modes of play to the game, leaderboards and achievements. Also, we’ll be adding, at the very least, other mobile platforms and browsers, and quite possibly console support.

What can we expect to see from Legacy in the next few months?

Susan: Quite a bit actually. We've been very focused this month on the Advent Calendar giveaways but we're also working forward on content from Season 5, new modes of gameplay, and new features like cloud saving, achievements and leaderboards.

Lee: The game was built from the ground up as something where it would be easy to create and deliver new content quickly. We're really listening to feedback from our fans right now as we create new levels - in fact, we're expecting to launch a fan inspired episode for Christmas, based on a great idea that was suggested to us.

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