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The Game of Romance: An Interview with Melissa Heidrich of PassionFruit Games

Melissa Heidrich is Studio Director of PassionFruit Games.

PassionFruit Games was founded by a fellowship of slightly insane individuals who decided it was a great idea to risk everything in a startup and make the game they wanted, rather than work for the (wo)man.

Our fellowship has created games together since 2006, the latest one receiving Yahoo’s prestigious “Game of the Year 2009” award for hidden object-style games. In late 2009 we said farewell to the security of working for a corporation to start our very own series of exciting, (passionate), (not fruity), aesthetically-and-aurally-gorgeous games.

Early Concept Art for Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box

Early Concept Art for Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box

JO: I’d like to know the credentials of the folks behind PassionFruit? Why should I or my readers want to play a game from a brand new game development company? Where did the name PassionFruit come from?

Melissa Heidrich: The name “PassionFruit” might be new to the game industry, but the company’s members sure aren’t. Between the 10 of us in the studio, we’ve released more than 50 titles over the last nine years, several of them award-winning.

The members of PassionFruit Games first came together as a team while we were employed at Her Interactive Inc., in their casual games division. The last game we put out together, Nancy Drew Dossier: Resorting to Danger, received Yahoo’s Hidden Object Game of the Year award for 2009.

As for the name – we wanted to pick something that somehow gave off the feeling of “romance” AND “casual games.” I actually looked up “romance” in the thesaurus, and saw the word “passion”… and my mind jumped immediately to the word “passionfruit.” A cute, appealing word to casual gamers, with a hint at romance!

JO: What is the storyline of Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box?

MH: Tiger Eye the game will follow the storyline of Tiger Eye the novel very closely. The book is about a young woman named Dela Reese, who has psychic abilities. While vacationing in China, she purchases a beautiful carved riddle box from an old woman at a dirt market. When Dela manages to open the box, she is shocked to encounter Hari – a strikingly handsome, 7-foot tall warrior who has been imprisoned within the box for 2000 years. As the romance between the two characters grows, so does the danger and suspense as they are attacked by assassins and encounter Hari’s nemesis, the Magi, who has managed to survive for two millennia.

JO: Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box is based on the novels of popular paranormal romance writer Marjorie M. Liu. How involved was Liu in the production?

MH: Marjorie has been instrumentally involved in the project since Day 1. First of all, she is our designated writer – she scripted out all of our cinematic cut scenes, and wrote every line of dialogue you’ll hear in the game. Secondly, she reviews and provides feedback for everything that goes into the game—from character concepts to background art to music sketches—to ensure it lines up with her original vision of Tiger Eye.

JO: Tiger Eye is called a “casual game”. Could you define this term for those less aware of gaming terminology?

MH: Sure! It’s generally agreed that casual games are easy to learn and can be played in short spurts rather than requiring a serious time commitment from the player (think: Wii Sports). Activities within a casual game generally take shorter amounts of time to complete, and games are automatically saved so that players can quit at any time without losing progress.

Also, casual games are designed to appeal to a much broader audience than the traditional “hard-core” games (shooters, etc.) that are targeted to the 18-34 male demographic. Casual gamers consist mostly of women between the ages of 25 and 65, who often cite they play casual games to decompress from the day.

A few of the most popular casual games of all time have included Bejeweled, Mystery Case Files, and Tetris.

JO: What makes a romance themed game different from say, Halo or Assassin’s Creed?

Well, our game will be different from “hard-core” games like Halo mainly because it’s a casual game, not because it has romantic elements. But its spicy romantic elements (that are targeted toward females rather than males) will definitely make our game one of the first of its kind. Although we won’t have explicit sex or nudity, our game will be steamier than any casual game we’ve encountered. And for once, there will be a hot, sexy male featured in the game, rather than the stereotypical scantily-clad, proportionally-skewed babe of “hard core” games.

The way the romance story is portrayed will also make our game stand out. A lot of casual games out there are centered around a story that’s simply played out as a “comic book” panel or journal that appears between levels. Our story will take place in the form of cinematic cut scenes that are fully voice-acted and have custom music (in fact, we’ll have more than 50 minutes of music in our game – unheard of in the casual world!).

JO: What will the gameplay in Tiger Eye be like? Is it a first person shooter style game, more like Final Fantasy, or something completely different?

MH: Tiger Eye won’t be anything like a first-person shooter or RPG. It will have a “hidden-object” mechanic similar to the Mystery Case Files series, interspersed with light brain teasers, word games, jigsaw-type puzzles, and other mini-games.

JO: Tiger Eye does not include explicit sex scenes. Was deciding to forgo the inclusion a difficult decision to make and what factors played into your decision to avoid depicting sex (though not sensuality) in a romance-themed game?

MH: Well, there’s a big difference between reading about sex scenes and watching them acted out before your eyes. In light of the fact that porn industry doesn’t make a huge profit from women, we’ve decided not to go too graphic. It really wasn’t that hard of a decision – we simply didn’t want to gross women out 😉

However, as you said, there will be sensual scenes, and scenes that depict intimate moments in an artful, tasteful way.

JO: As a male, I sometimes find it hard to understand the appeal of a romance novel. What is it that appeals to women in these books, and how did you translate that same feeling into Tiger Eye?

MH: Well, I think for readers of any type of fiction, it’s fun putting yourself in the shoes of the main character and getting to experience a world through that character’s eyes. And the type of world that many women would want to experience, if they could conjure anything they wanted, is one where the main character is wooed by an extremely attractive, capable man. How can you say no to that?

With Marjorie’s books, there’s also the added attraction of mystery, adventure, and action. Tiger Eye contains assassination attempts, knife fights, kidnapping, and a cast of superhero-like characters with supernatural powers. Honestly, the male friends of mine who have read the book have thoroughly enjoyed it – I recommend you check it out, John!

JO: Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box is the first of two games planned. This first one is set in China, with the second to be set in the United States. What kind of research went into your depictions and imagery concerning China?

MH: Marjorie actually just returned from a trip to China, and while she was there, she and her camera revisited many of the locations from Tiger Eye – so we now have a ton of reference material! And besides that, we’ve been using our regular trusted source for artist inspiration: Google Image search.

In addition, Marjorie brought a recording device on her trip, and many of the sounds she taped will go straight into our game as background ambient sounds!

JO: How much will Tiger Eye retail for? How many hours of gameplay should a reader expect at that price?

MH: Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box will sell for just $6.99 as a standalone game, and will provide the player with approximately 5 hours of gameplay. (A pretty good deal, considering that a movie ticket costs more, you get less movie, and you don’t get to keep the movie after you’re done watching it!) We’ll also have a “premium” package available for $9.99, which will include exclusive wallpaper art, early character concepts, an mp3 of the “Tiger Eye Suite” from our soundtrack, and the official strategy guide.

JO: What is it like being a woman in the traditionally male-dominated gaming community?

MH: It’s a great advantage being one of the few women in the casual games industry – I must admit, it puts us more in demand, as we are at least perceived to be more “in touch” with our target audience. It’s surprising how few women currently work as casual game developers, but I think the trend is changing as more females get involved in gaming, and more opportunities arise as casual games become more wide-spread.

I must say it is nice to be able to claim that Tiger Eye is a game “designed by and created for women.”

JO: Tiger Eye is being targeted at a mostly ignored (and/or vilified) group in the gaming and reading community. How do you plan to capture the attention of these potential buyers who used to be marketed to as if they were men?

MH: So far, we’ve been marketing mainly within the Romance community, and we’ve received extremely positive reception. Romance readers, especially fans of Marjorie Liu, are excited that there will soon be a game for them, and some are expressing surprise that romance games haven’t really existed until recently. When more than 50% of all paperback fiction sold in the US falls under the Romance category, there are a lot of potential fans out there!

It’s interesting that you mention that romance readers are often a “vilified” group. If they are, we hope our game helps change that perspective. Tiger Eye: Curse of the Riddle Box will have a great storyline, challenging and interesting puzzles, and beautiful artwork and music that will easily be appreciated by anyone, romance fan or not.

JO: Thanks for answering my questions.

MH: My pleasure!