Not in Kansas Anymore

The Wizard of Oz™ by Spooky Cool Labs

Published: January 4. 2013

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Spooky Cool Labs follows the Yellow Brick Road to success with its recently launched Facebook game, The Wizard of Oz

In a rather interesting merging of the old and the new, The Wizard of Oz has been reanimated as a freemium Facebook game by Spooky Cool Labs, a Chicago startup, in conjunction with Warner Bros. Interactive. The game is a fully 3D adventure, and follows Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion on their quest to find Oz and get Dorothy back to—yes—Kansas.

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“The movie is so iconic and the story was so well told in the original film that I knew we needed to capitalize on this well-received story first,” says Spooky Cool chief creative officer Brian Eddy of the game’s early direction. “I wanted to pull players into this amazing world that we’ve all fallen in love with.” The team also believed that a city-building game mechanic would feel most natural to the Facebook audience, which led the them to their original concept to tie the movie’s adventure to “city builder” gameplay. The idea was to allow players to create their own Munchkinland as a way to reach the Emerald City, helping Dorothy find her way home in the process and thereby falling in line with the original story.

Existing social games provided the initial source of inspiration. “We all played a lot of social games to understand what players enjoyed about them, and then added in a bunch of fun features [that] we believed would be new to our audience and offer an enjoyable experience.” These additions included mini-games and the adventure down the infamous Yellow Brick Road. For Eddy, past work experience also helped fuel the creative fire. “A lot of my inspiration goes all the way back to my experience developing arcade games,” he says. “In an arcade, a game needs to grab a player and pull them in on the first quarter. Social games are no different; you need the player to have a great experience right from the start that engages them so they’ll choose to continue playing.”

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Chief technical officer Chuck Hess agrees. “We looked to games we grew up playing, with fun and exciting mechanics,” he says. “Games that would make you laugh or feel anxiety over beating bosses or puzzles.” He says that the list is a long one, but includes the likes of Super Mario Brothers, World of Warcraft and Sierra Online adventures such as King’s Quest. In a rather newfangled twist, part of the game’s appeal comes in collecting virtual “Wizard of Oz” memorabilia. Right from the game’s launch, in fact, Spooky Cool has offered players the opportunity to collect items ranging from Dorothy’s ruby slippers, as well as other items the Wicked Witch of the East left behind and shards from Glinda’s wand.

> Unity gave us a huge head start, and allowed us to focus on the game right away instead of creating the tech before we could get to that point...

To get all of its ideas moving as quickly as possible, the team turned to Unity. “By using Unity we were able to get the initial game up and running pretty quick,” says Eddy. “Within a month we had a user-created world with some buildings and Munchkins walking around. Unity gave us a huge head start, and allowed us to focus on the game right away instead of creating the tech before we could get to that point.”

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Rather remarkable was the short time from the initial “we should make a Wizard of Oz game!” to a working build of the game. “One of the nice features of Unity 3D is rapid prototyping,” says Hess. “Once we secured The Wizard of Oz license, we had a basic working model of the Munchkin town within a few weeks. From the basic prototype the game grew into what it is today.” The team is made up of 35 people dedicated to creating and maintaining The Wizard of Oz, including programmers, artists and game designers. There are other support teams on the publishing end, for community and customer support, metrics and marketing.

The decision to work with Unity was made right from the get-go. “We chose Unity very early in the development process,” says Hess. “We firmly believed social games would benefit from 3D graphics, and Unity was the clear choice. We looked at a number of Flash based 3D engines but felt they were very early in the development process and very limited in functionality.” For the team, it came down to specific tools as well. “Unity also has a very good editor that allows developers to quickly add and implementing assets. The ability to add custom scripts to the editor has also allowed us to automate repetitive tasks and reduce development time.”

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For Hess, one Unity 4 feature stands out as well. “Flash Stage3D support is Unity 4’s most promising feature,” he says. “It will open a whole new target audience to game developers. One of the challenges of the Unity3D platform is the relatively small web player installed base, compared to Flash. Developing in Unity and publishing to Flash brings the best of both worlds together.” NGUI, available on the Asset Store, was also a boon. “It has allowed us much greater control over interface elements, and allowed us to involve art directly in interface creation,” says Hess.

As the Facebook game market continues to expand both technically and in terms of its sheer scale, Eddy wants Spooky Cool Labs to be well ahead of the curve. “We believe Facebook is a great platform for games, and believe The Wizard of Oz can help raise the bar in terms of quality,” he says. “The big challenge for us is user acquisition: There are a lot of players on Facebook, but it’s getting more difficult to get them into your game. We think once we’ve gotten them to play The Wizard of Oz, they’ll be back for more fun with their Munchkins.”

Tools of the Trade

For Spooky Cool Labs chief technical officer Chuck Hess, Unity’s workflow has been crucial to the development of the studio’s recently launhed Facebook game, The Wizard of Oz. “Asset bundling has been extremely helpful,” says Hess. “Social game users require quick load times, and we were able to accomplish this by using asset bundles.” The game uses roughly 500MB of assets, and the team has used multiple strategies to reduce load times. “This includes removing 90% of our assets from the main codebase, which reduces the game load time significantly. We also use progressive asset downloading—we only ever load assets the player requires as they're needed and then cache them locally.” Hess says the result is a beautiful 3D game with load times comparable with 2D flash games, and sometimes even better.

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