My meeting with Big Fish Games' Patrick Wylie was one of my last meetings at GDC, but it was also one of my most satisfying. It turns out I'm not alone in my esteem for the great Fairway Solitaire app this company has put together; "This game is growing our audience," Wylie told me.
That's quite a big statement. Big Fish has been around for a while making PC titles designed for a very casual audience, usually hidden object games and other casual time management fare. It's been trying to break out in the iOS market for about the past year and a half. Before Fairway Solitaire, the company hadn't really had a hit on this level, and I'd argue it was because the company was playing around with its standard casual titles rather than digging in deep.
It makes sense when you consider this game's rocky past. Back in 2008, Wylie says Big Fish Games had one of its biggest PC hits with a hidden object game, and one of the developers got the idea to do a solitaire game with a golf framing on it. However, the decision was that Big Fish should catch a wave with hidden object titles and ride that trend for all it was worth. Fairway Solitaire got put on the back burner, and Big Fish went on to build its reputation on casual gaming.
Last year, as the company was trying to gain ground on iOS, Fairway Solitaire showed up in development again, and I actually saw a very early version of it at GDC 2011. But while the game was technically complete last October, Wylie and company decided to go back to the drawing board and spent five months "tuning a game that was already done, just trying to get the experience as exactly right as possible."
All that work apparently paid off; Fairway Solitaire has huge conversion rates for Big Fish, and its players are among the most engaged players on the whole App Store. Wylie says he would have liked to see this success sooner, but he doesn't really regret all of the work done on the game before release. "I'm glad we actually did wait," he told me.
Big Fish is very excited about the success of Fairway Solitaire, and just like its earlier hidden object games, Big Fish plans to take full advantage of that popularity. Up first on the iOS game, there's a spring update coming with a brand new pack of maps for players to play through. Big Fish has another Fairway Solitaire-based title planned, and we can expect a summer pack as well, with lots more content and features to come. "We're going to service this forever," says Wylie, or at least as long as the game's players are willing to play. "I don't know where it's going to stop," he says of Fairway's rising sales.
Big Fish's next game will be called Lifequest, a freemium RPG title designed around performing real-life tasks like getting a job, working, or even eating out or buying a pet. Lifequest has been Big Fish's "best performing non-hidden object adventure game" on the PC and Mac according to Wylie, so he has big hopes for how it will do on Apple's touchscreen platforms.
Another big title due soon is Plunder, a pirate-based puzzle game in which you guide a set of pirate ships through dangerous watery grids by propelling them forward in the right order and at the right time. Plunder's been under development on iOS for awhile, and it's not quite as complicated as Fairway Solitaire, which itself isn't all that hard.
Big Fish isn't giving up on hidden object games; the company is also releasing the latest version of the popular Mystery Case Files series, called the 13th Skull. It's jam-packed with full motion video, letting players interact with live action characters as they explore a haunted house and have to find all sorts of items and solve simple adventure-style puzzles. These games tend to appeal to a very specific audience more than anyone else, but Big Fish hopes the production values make it stand out in an already very packed market.
Big Fish is very excited about Fairway Solitaire, and we can expect to see much more of that game coming in the future. I've always been a proponent of more complicated games, even for casual players. While many developers on the App Store are racing for a lowest-common denominator style of super casual freemium gameplay, Fairway Solitaire shows that with a quality, compelling gaming experience, you can attract engaged gamers from all over.