A Closer Look at the Origins of Zynga’s Hidden Chronicles

Zynga raised some eyebrows earlier this week by announcing a hidden object game that, at a cursory glance, has an awful lot in common with both Playdom’s Gardens of Time and Game Insight’s Mystery Manor from visual style and setting to puzzle types. A closer look at origins of the game, however, reveals a deeper level of investment in the hidden object genre.

Several months ago, Zynga hired on game designer Cara Ely on as creative director. At that time, two significant things were happening in the video games industry — downloadable games-focused companies were scrambling to get into social and mobile distribution and Gardens of Time was killing it on Facebook. It’s not hard to imagine that Zynga wanted to get in on the hidden object game now that other companies had proven it to be a viable genre for a social network. The question was, would they simply copy the mechanics that worked in competing games or try to build a hidden object game from scratch.

This is where Ely’s history is important. She came to Zynga from I-play Games, one of the leading downloadable games portals oriented toward women with — you guessed it — a massive catalog of hidden object games. Ely spent five years at I-play developing franchises of hidden object games, most significantly the wedding-themed “Dream Day” series. Her design decisions in Hidden Chronicles are based on her learning rather than on the need to do what Playdom and Game Insight did in order to capture the same audience.

Here’s an example of a design decision Ely made for Hidden Chronicles: Do objects remain in the same place each time players attempt the same puzzle? In Gardens of Time, objects remain in the same locations each time the player attempts the puzzle. The only thing that changes consistently is the order in which the player is asked to find the items, and sometimes there are different items added to or subtracted from the list. In contrast, Mystery Manor changes the locations of objects between puzzles and uses word scrambles or silhouette recognition instead of traditional object lists to add challenge.

Based on her experience, Ely tells us it’s best to leave objects in the same place each time — as Gardens of Time does. Difficulty scales with each playthrough of that level by changing the list of items the player needs to find. She says it’s “too easy” if the same objects simply change locations with each playthrough because the player will go into the puzzle automatically looking for what’s visually different from the last time they player tried it.

Here’s another example: monetizing the hints system. Both Gardens of Time and Mystery Manor monetize a series of hints or gameplay advantage items like time-extension with premium currency or through friend gifts. Ely declined to get into specifics for Hidden Chronicles’ monetization, but did confirm that progression through the game’s 50 levels could be accelerated with premium currency and that hints could be gifted. She also confirmed that the game would feature leaderboards to track which of your friends finished puzzles with the highest score, and possible a “racing mode” where friends compete one-on-one to finish a puzzle in the least amount of time.

Zynga declined to provide any launch date details for any of the titles announced earlier this week at its Unleashed event in San Francisco. Hidden Chronicles was not playable at the event, but you can view the trailer shown to journalists here.