For the past couple of months, an iOS game has become a daily part of my life.
It's a free-to-play puzzle game that doesn't feel like the sort of game that Nintendo's Satoru Iwata recently referred to as a "free-to-start" title; one where players are forced to spend money to proceed.
Somewhat unexpectedly for a free-to-play puzzler, it has no near-impossible levels, no annoying energy system that forces you to either wait or pay up to keep playing, and it's got gameplay that seems simple at first but eventually requires plenty of strategy as you reach its harder stages.
Even more surprisingly, it's part of that rare breed: a fun licensed tie-in.
Doctor Who: Legacy is the work of Californian indie studio Tiny Rebel Games, who co-developed the game with Taiwan-based Seed Studios.
Though Tiny Rebel may not be a well-known development outfit, there's still a wealth of experience from the company's husband and wife duo of creative director Lee Cummings and executive producer Susan Cummings.
In the past, Cardiff-born Lee worked at Rockstar Games, having led the redesign of Bully and lent his game design and production experience to the likes of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Grand Theft Auto IV.
Susan, meanwhile, was a co-founder of 2K Games and 2K Sports, and worked on projects such as Bioshock, Borderlands and Civilization 4.
The duo agreed to take some time out to explain to CVG the entire process of the game's production: its conception, its development process, their relationship with the BBC, the pressures of working on such a well-loved property and, now it's been released, what lies in the months ahead for fans of the game.
After deciding to go indie and form Tiny Rebel Games together, the couple initially found themselves struggling to get their first big project off the ground.
"Susan and I spent 2012 putting together a free-to-play PC game called World of Zombies, and sadly the funding fell through just before Christmas," Lee recalls.
"We spent the holidays deciding what to do next, and we really wanted to do something we had never done before. Life really isn't any fun unless you keep challenging yourself and jumping into different platforms, genres, and the like.
"We talked for a few weeks about a number of ways to go, and we finally decided that we wanted to design and produce our first mobile game.
"Susan and I were in a really unique position. We had massive success working on new IPs very early in our careers, so we didn't feel any pressure to chase the creation of our own worlds. We completely understand why other teams shy away from working with other people's IPs, but we see a very different and exciting opportunity there. We're very happy to dive into worlds which already exist and give them as much love and care as if we had created them ourselves.
"As long as we could get access to something we really loved, something we understood pretty thoroughly before we even started, we were sure we would not only have a blast working with it, but it would take some risk off the table."
Deciding to work with someone else's IP is one thing, but pitching the idea is an entirely different challenge.
"We talked and talked, and put out feelers to various companies to see who would even pick up the phone," says Lee.
"In around February 2013, BBC Worldwide said it was interested in talking to us. It asked what property we wanted to talk about and, because we were enthralled with Sherlock at the time, we suggested that. It told us that a Sherlock deal wouldn't be easy or quick, and asked us if there were any other BBC properties we loved."
Susan and Lee had previously discussed whether they should risk asking to work on Doctor Who. The pair were massive fans of the series and had watched all the reboot episodes together twice, while Lee had grown up on a diet of the older episodes.
"We were huge fans of [Doctor Who writer Steven] Moffat from our binge-watching days - plus I also grew up on Press Gang - but we came to the conclusion that if Sherlock wasn't on the table, there would be no way we could get Doctor Who," Lee says.
"Luckily, we were wrong."
The BBC liked the pitch, and decided to grant Tiny Rebel the license to make a Doctor Who game for mobile devices. But a project of this scale required extra help, so Lee and Susan enlisted the help of Seed Studio to co-develop the game with them.
Seed had previously provided programming assistance on the likes of Epic Mickey, UFC Trainer and the iOS remake of WWE Wrestlefest, and as such were used to working on licensed properties.
"After our first meeting with them it was really a no-brainer," Lee says. "It turns out it was a great decision: we have a wonderful working relationship with Seed and they've been an amazing partner every step of the way."
With the licence and a developing partner in the bag, the next step was deciding what type of game to actually make. The first major decision made was that, rather than focusing solely on the most recent Doctor Who episodes, Tiny Rebel's game would be a celebration of the series' 50 year history as a whole.
Explaining why, Lee tells me: "Our love of the Doctor comes not just from the fact that he can go anywhere in time and space but from the fact that he already has.
"We've had 50 years of adventures. So many amazing actors who have played the Doctor. Dozens of amazing supporting characters that Whovians all over the planet care about just as much as the Doctor himself.
"Everyone has their favourite Doctor. Everyone has their favourite episode. Everyone has their specific moment which defines Doctor Who for them. The depth of canon, the layers, the nuance, is staggering."
The fact that there was such a large body of work to play with, however, meant serious thought would have to go into the game's structure in order to ensure it could grow over time to potentially encapsulate the entire Doctor Who timeline.
"This had to be a game which could appeal to fans of all ages, no matter which Doctor was 'theirs'," Lee says.
"We had to start with a design vision which couldn't exist at launch, but we would work towards. We had to build something which could grow and evolve as we supported it over time, as it grew backwards into the Doctor's past, and grew forward as his adventures continued."
With potentially many hundreds of characters and enemies likely to feature over time, it was decided that a 2D art style with minimum animation would be more practical than a 3D one. The discussion then turned to which genre was best suited to this style.
"We talked about dungeon crawlers, as we're both huge RPG fanatics," Lee says.
"We were thinking, maybe something roguelike. But we decided very quickly that we couldn't approach combat in the usual way, it wouldn't feel right for the Doctor to 'fight' enemies. That said, we didn't want to head to the other end of the spectrum as well, where it was an adventure where you wandered around an area to find the right key for the door."
It was then that the duo considered the puzzle genre. As well as being hardcore RPG types, they were also big puzzle game fans ("not in the arcadey 'beat my last score' sense like Bejweled," Lee tells me, "but in the more RPG sense, like Puzzle Quest and Dungeon Raid").
The pair had already designed and produced a puzzle game together called Puzzle Kingdoms many years before, and both felt it was worth taking another swing at the genre. They also decided it would be a perfect way to solve the issue of including battles without the Doctor actually engaging in combat.
"We loved the fact that we could abstract any sort of confrontation into a gem puzzle mechanic if we left it vague, which felt much more appropriate to the Doctor than creating a mechanic which felt more focused on straight physical violence," Lee says.
Although it was a puzzler at heart, it was decided that Legacy should still have something of an RPG feel to it, to make it seem like the player wasn't just matching coloured circles but actually battling opponents.
"We wanted it to feel reactive, not mindless," Lee says. "I get poisoned, so should I cure, or heal, or burn the enemy down? We wanted to make you think every turn, embrace these RPG style gameplay dynamics which we could change and add to over time.
"We couldn't think of anything quite like it with the core puzzle mechanic which we wanted to use, so over the first few months, while the programming team built out a highly data driven back-end and an amazing editor, we wrote, and discussed, and argued, and wrote more.
"We finally got to a point where our original pitch to the BBC was on paper in an early but solid form, and it was time to start talking content and get the art team firing on all cylinders."
While work on the gameplay was underway at Tiny Rebel, the game's art style was taking shape at Seed Studios in Taiwan.
"I don't think any of us thought that developing for a Western property was going to be a problem," says Jack Yee, producer at Seed. "Our biggest problem was not being too familiar with Doctor Who!
"Most of the development team that grew up in Taiwan didn't have a clue what the show was about, so we quickly purchased the DVDs and started watching all the episodes.
"We also purchased all the books we could find, visited the fan sites and took lots of notes. It also really helped to have Lee and Susan from Tiny Rebel be such hardcore fans of the show. We all eventually ended up being fans too."
"When we were getting closer to launch and screenshots started to leak, the first comments were, well, pretty hateful"
The game's art style is an interesting one, combining realistic hand-drawn backgrounds with stylised, almost manga-like characters.
SLIDESHOW: Doctor Who: Legacy
"From the beginning, the BBC wanted to blend East and West styles together," Jack tells me. "The BBC gave us the freedom to explore this style that had not been used in previous Doctor Who games.
"Pest, our lead artist who drew the characters, was influenced by Satoshi Kon [Perfect Blue, Paranoia Agent]. He used very clean lines and colours that kept things realistic but still maintained that Japanese animation style that we were looking for. This was important because we wanted to maintain the spirit of the characters."
Because one team was based in California, another was in Taiwan and the BBC was in the UK, there were naturally some teething problems. "The biggest issue was obviously geography itself and all the time zones we covered," Jack laughs. "In the beginning we had difficulty working out what '3pm' meant to everyone!
"One advantage, though, was knowing that we could give each other tasks that could be worked on while the other slept. We always felt like we were getting work done around the clock and that felt really great. Since we use a lot of collaborative tools to communicate with each other, we knew that our own tools needed to be designed in the same way. It may have been slower to start because of this increased complexity but it has paid off."
As anyone who's played Japanese mobile title Puzzle & Dragons can understand, the eventual decision was to create a game that was similar in style. Although it was the main inspiration though, there were still elements of the game that Lee and Susan felt needed to be changed.
"We had played Puzzle & Dragons after it launched on Android in the US and while we thought the core mechanic was great, there was a lot we thought could be improved, or completely removed," Lee recalls.
"We hated the energy system. It's one of those horrible places where design and monetisation meet in a really nasty way. One side should be screaming: 'But surely we should be encouraging users to play the game we've put so much time and love into building, not putting barriers in their way', while the other side sees it, rightly, as a way to monetise easily, in a way which users will be able to understand very easily. So we ripped it out."
"We didn't want any horrible 'hey Facebook friends I get free gems if I coerce you into playing this game' stuff in there"
The decision to remove a time-based energy system was one that Lee and Susan made with a degree of trepidation. Other games don't just use the system to make extra money, they're also used to stop people from playing through the whole game in a matter of days.
"We knew we had to launch with a substantial amount of content (we ended up with around 30 hours of content for the average gamer on launch day), and would have to keep content rolling out to keep the harder core gamers happy. But at the end of the day these are easily variable through hard work and long hours, and we thought we were up to it."
Also removed were the social elements that plague many free-to-play games. "We didn't want any horrible 'hey Facebook friends I get free gems if I coerce you into playing this game' stuff in there", Lee says.
"We also ripped out the 'pay gems to expand the boxes you keep monsters in' idea because we wanted people to collect allies, to mix and match, and having to pay for storage just flew in the face of that."
There were other challenges. Working on a series with such a dedicated fanbase was throwing up its own problems. In particular, there was the added pressure from a wide number of Whovians who were hoping Legacy wouldn't be yet another disaster like the numerous Doctor Who games that had preceded it.
"One of our rules of design and production is that as soon as we start work on a game we try really, really hard to keep away from other games which are similar to the one we're working on," said Lee.
"The day we started the game design document we stopped playing all puzzle games. We had very little prior experience with Doctor Who games, and after we started production we only looked at Doctor Who games the BBC asked us to look at, to see how something was handled in a similar case."
Most of the pressure, however, came from fans who were, perhaps understandably, concerned that their beloved series was being handled by a developer they'd never heard of.
"When we were getting closer to launch and screenshots started to leak, the first comments were, well, pretty hateful," Lee recalls. "We got the likes of 'it's just another puzzle game', 'WTF, why didn't they give the game to Telltale' and plenty of other comments with lots and lots of swearing.
"We had very serious concerns that we had made a serious misstep. The game sounded amazing when we had initially pitched it, we were absolutely certain we were making a game we wanted to play: during crunch in October and November we were pulling 18-hour days, seven days a week, and to relax at 3am we would lay in bed and play the latest build for fun, which we found terrifying, as we were sure we were losing it completely.
"But the reaction from fans suggested there was a possible future where the only people who wanted a game like this were those working on the game, and it scared the hell out of us."
The pressure caused Lee and Susan to doubt themselves at times. "We were acutely aware, every second of every day, that we were working not just on a property we loved dearly, but that this was likely going to be our one and only chance to make a game about the Doctor," says Lee.
"What if we screwed it up? What if the things we loved about the Doctor were vastly different from everyone else? The amount of pressure was huge, arguably worse than any other game we had ever worked on. What if we looked back one day and this was our one shot and we completely screwed it up?"
"When you're sitting in the kitchen with a bottle of whisky at 2 am for the eleventh night in a row trying desperately to keep dozens of balls up in the air, juggled over three very different time zones, second guessing every design decision you made months before as they suddenly appear on the screen in front of you, it's very easy to start building up all sort of mental pressures, either real and at some level justifiable, or completely imaginary and ridiculous.
"But at the end of the day you have to believe that your love for the franchise is real. You have to believe that good design will always get recognition it deserves. You have to believe that if you genuinely strive every hour of every day to make a game for the fans, with no silly gimmicks, they will appreciate that and show you some love in return."
Working with the BBC
It's said the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. It's clear that Lee and Susan were passionate about the project, but given the importance of the Doctor Who licence there was always the risk that the development process would be smothered by BBC approval processes and idea rejections from a company protective of its IP.
Lee says this wasn't the case, telling me: "The BBC has been, at every turn, at every decision, amazing to work with.
"We decided on day one to have a fully transparent relationship with it. The day I received a new build from the team, so did the BBC. When the first art samples came from the art team, the BBC received them as well. It just wasn't going to work any other way.
"Now, that could have been a disaster. We've worked with licencors in the past where their first priority is profit, which is also unsurprisingly exactly the same as their second and third priorities. Then their forth priority is making it look to their bosses like they're doing something, and quite frankly getting in the way, with 'care and love for the universe they should be protecting' coming it down at number 12 or 13.
"But the people at the BBC are different. They're actually gamers. I stood in front of a whiteboard for two hours and sketched out pretty much what we shipped, and they got it immediately. Their feedback was focused, specific, and was always sent with one goal: to make the gameplay experience better. They also really love Doctor Who. So no, the BBC has been amazing from the first moment to the last email we received earlier today.
"So many times you run into middle management who have one goal: to show to their bosses that they're actually doing something, changing things to justify their salaries. There is no love there, just political manoeuvring, making sure they cover their backs so if something goes wrong they have somewhere to hide.
"On other properties we've received emails which started with 'I know I've only played a few video games in my life' and then went on to list changes which entirely ripped out or overhauled 6-12 months of work. The BBC was the opposite. It loves the property. It understands the property.
"Our contacts at the BBC aren't just gamers, but video game professionals with years of experience in the industry. The types of people we can show work to very early on without the fear that they'll freak out because of how it looks, because they know that early on it's supposed to look like that."
Does this mean Tiny Rebel has complete freedom to come up with whatever ideas they like, we ask? "No, we don't have carte blanche," Lee replies, laughing: "It's probably a really good thing to be honest, god knows where we would end up without someone making sure we stay sensible!
"We have to work in canon, and things have to make sense. Amy Pond can have different outfits, but 'the girl who waited' isn't an outfit, it's a very distinct differentiated character in the universe. Allies who join the Doctor's team need an in-universe reason to be there.
"Approval is quick and painless, and very frequently makes things better because while I'm 'the head Whovian' on the project, the guys at the BBC know much more than I do about the Doctor, his history, his motivations."
Despite this, perhaps there are some issues beyond the BBC's control. Given Christopher Ecclestone's refusal to do any more Doctor Who related work, for example, I ask if this means there'll be problems with likeness rights, meaning there may not be a situation where all twelve doctors are available in the future.
"There are no issues which we are aware of," Susan replies. "Our ultimate expectation is that all of the Doctors (including the latest, eventually) will be a part of Doctor Who: Legacy. Having said that, we'd like to give each Doctor release the space, love and honour it deserves and not throw them all out there too quickly."
Despite their objections to other games' free-to-play systems, would Lee and Susan ever be tempted to monetise the game in a method similar to Candy Crush Saga, given the enormous financial success King's game is currently enjoying.
"There are certain types of free to play games which, quite frankly, make my skin crawl," Lee replies.
"Here's how you make a free-to-play game and make cash: have an addictive core mechanic, increase the difficulty while giving the user tools to overcome the difficulty, then make levels mathematically nearly impossible without the use of those tools which, of course, you now have to pay for. We never wanted to make any game which looked anything like that.
"There are certain types of free to play games which, quite frankly, make my skin crawl."
"But hey, maybe they're all right and we're wrong, and the only way mobile gaming in the free-to-play space will survive is through models like that. It certainly seems, from some of the numbers the space is seeing, that people love to be tricked into spending money on upgrades which last 20 seconds, rather than additions to gameplay which are more like tools to use over hours and hours, additive to the gameplay experience."
Money has to be made somehow though, which is why Legacy features the Fan Area. By purchasing six time crystals (a cost of £2.99), players can unlock an extra area with bonus stages and characters that will be added to over time.
It's a one-off cost, with no other obligation to pay for anything else, and while players can buy more time crystals to unlock characters and outfits, they can also unlock everything the game has to offer without spending a single penny, with certain levels having a chance of dropping specific characters when completed (they can of course be replayed until the player gets the drop).
"We certainly hope we're right [with this model], time will tell," Susan says. "That said, we came at this from a very different place, I think, than many mobile game creators.
"We started with a beloved property and the potential to be a platform that evolves and continues to engage fans for years if we're successful. That means we're not trying to get in, make some quick heavy cash, and move on to the next game when fans get bored.
"Don't get me wrong, we want to make money. But if the majority of our players are happy and spend as modestly as just unlocking the fan area, we're in a very good place.
"We don't need to make hundreds of dollars from our users. We're happy for them to stick around, tell their friends, ideally unlock the fan area and take some random shots at the Tardis character roll. There are no hidden tricks, no gates to progression. And because of that, we're inspiring loyalty from our fans - and emails from people who tell us they've spend some money on time crystals 'as a tip' because they love the game. That's a good feeling as a game publisher."
We ask if their early sales figures suggest this plan has paid off. "While it's premature to say, we're very happy with our initial download numbers and retention," Susan replies.
"Monetisation levels seem solid so far as well. We didn't design it to be a game that pushes you to spend in the early game, so only time will tell if people continue to stick around, unlock the fan area, and pay occasionally for their favourite companions."
Doctor Who: Legacy launched on November 27 last year. Initially offering stages based on episodes from series 7 and 6 of the TV show, the game's intended aim, as was originally the case during development, is to eventually travel backwards in time throughout Doctor Who's 50-year history.
With only two seasons released to date though and as many as 33 remaining (plus a movie), I asked Lee if he had a secret schedule detailing exactly when each new season would be released.
"There's no secret schedule," Lee states. "When we started, the first thing I did was try and break down the entire canon into chunks of gameplay. Which episodes or types of episodes would make good gameplay? Does that leave us with one season at launch or ten?
"As we started to dig in deeper it became clear that it looked more like one or two seasons. Fifteen or so episodes from the show, wrapped around our own storyline and more playful 'side-missions' we would come up with ourselves.
Until the end of October, the plan was to release the game and then have the development team get started right away on Season 5. However, Susan came up with an idea that would make the most of the game's flexible content addition system while also getting the early adopters involved from the start.
"[Susan decided that since] we had designed the game around the idea that we could add content potentially daily (through our patching system and our amazing level design tools), why not do that?", Lee explained.
"Why not have an 'Advent Calendar', where we would release a new piece of content every single day of December through to Christmas?"
The Advent Calendar launched on December 1 and introduced near-daily free content. By the end of the month, players had access to the likes of the Sixth and Seventh Doctors, an Ood, the robotic dog K9 and a bunch of Christmas themed stages, with the team regularly asking fans what else they wanted to see in the game.
"It was a major pivot, and a lot of work, but a pivot I am really glad we made because our users understood immediately what we were offering, and wanted to be part of the discussion of how to shape a game which was literally being built in real time around them," Lee says.
"Right when we started rolling out the daily content we started getting emails, posts, tweets from fans with suggestions. Susan and I run all of our social network sites ourselves, and we found ourselves in this strange situation where something awesome would come in, we would discuss it, and we could make it happen. Suddenly all sorts of plans were moved around or thrown out. There was no wall between us and the player base. No bureaucracy.
"Ideas kept coming and we kept adapting. We started to realise how agile we were on the production side, and how powerful that was. Fans started begging for the Tenth Doctor in a dressing gown. So we released it.
"In early December someone sent us a great message suggesting we launch a Christmas level which featured all the cool Christmas enemies from the last few years: Roboform Santas, Killer Christmas Trees, Angel Hosts and the like.
"We sent the idea to the BBC, who also loved it. They started work on getting the legal side sorted out, while the art team worked on the characters and I started sketching ideas for levels. On Christmas Day the level launched. It was an amazing moment.
"The BBC also gave us a sneak peek at one of the Christmas episode enemies (the Wooden Cyberman), which let us launch a fan-only level on Boxing Day which included them, only hours after they had appeared on TV for the first time."
So, what's next for Legacy? At the moment Tiny Rebel and Seed are putting the finishing touches to Season 5, which will contain another large batch of levels, characters and enemies to play through, unlock and level up. After that will (eventually) be Seasons 4, 3, 2 and 1 before, presumably, the team will start digging into the Doctor's older adventures.
In theory this will give the teams plenty of future content for years to come, but as has already been shown with the Advent Calendar promotion this doesn't necessarily mean it's going to follow the timeline to the letter. After all, if someone's a fan of the older episodes, they could potentially have years to wait until the game naturally reaches, say, the Tom Baker episodes.
"At a high level we're following the Doctor's timeline backwards, but very quickly we realised that was insane in some respects," Lee says.
"The original design called for new Doctors to enter the game when they were reached in the timeline, but after we laid out Season 7 we ran some numbers and it looked like it would take something absurd like 50 hours to get to David Tennant alone.
"We had to condense the 'collection' of all the Doctors dramatically. We also had to start introducing 'fan favourite' episodes because the classic episodes of Doctor Who have lots of fans who should see some of that earlier content in the game without waiting for (potentially) years.
"Luckily we designed the general storyline of the game to support all of this - time is collapsing around the Doctor, paradoxes are ripping time apart all around him and we can introduce pretty much anything from the Doctor's timeline without it feeling out of place, forced."
"One of the challenging yet awesome things about Doctor Who as a brand is that the show means something very different to everyone," Susan adds. "Many grew up watching Doctor Who as a child, others only discovered it over the past seven years in its reboot. People have 'their' Doctor, 'their' companions, 'their' favourite enemies.
"That means we don't want fans of Classic Who to have to wait as we slowly work our way back in time through episodes. Also, part of the charm I think in what we've created, is giving fans the ability to create their fantasy teams. If you want to bring Paul McGann and Sarah Jane into a fight with Mark Gatiss's Peg Dolls, bringing along Martha Jones, Ace, Clara and Bitey the Cybermat, you should be able to do that.
"If we went strictly by chronological order, we could never give players that sort of experience. So our decisions are partly nepotistic, after all, we have our favourites too; partly based on fan feedback, partly based on talent clearance timing, and partly based on the timeline."
The decision-making process continues to this day, with Tiny Rebel and Seed working together as they travel backwards through the Doctor's history while regularly jumping out of the timeline to cater to fan requests. And it begins, interestingly, with even more Christmas content.
"We ended up releasing a lot more Christmas themed levels than we had planned, and people were very upset that they were going to be removed one day," Lee says. "So we're re-building the start of Season 5 to include a series of Christmas levels.
"These will be re-built and re-balanced and based around a new narrative beat where, as time continues to collapse, the Doctor and his allies find themselves trapped in a time vortex centred around December 25, as a long lost friend fights to get through to them. This friend comes from lots of emails asking for him to be added.
"Right now we're also putting together a list of other 'fan favourite' characters we want to add, and while the first set (such as K9 and Sarah Jane) came from Susan and myself, now we entirely go on ideas from the community, polls on our sub-Reddit and Facebook, emails which come to our support email address and so on.
"We're not making the game for us, so why wouldn't we listen to the people we're making the game for at every turn?"