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The Enchanted World transforms personal tragedy into a 'magical' Apple Arcade game

Exclusive: Made by developers who survived their war-torn childhood in Bosnia, this story-driven puzzle game charms and inspires.

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Screenshot by Jason Hiner/CNET

This story is part of CNET's coverage of Apple Arcade, including exclusive first looks we got at some of the service's high-profile new games.

Three years ago in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Amar Zubcevic and Ivan Ramadan started making a little video game together. They had no clue that the journey would end in 2019 with a puzzle game that's now one of the featured titles in Apple's new Arcade gaming service.

Apple Arcade was a fledgling idea on white boards in conference rooms in Cupertino, California, in 2016, when Zubcevic and Ramadan started toying with a side project to delve into the growing popularity of mobile games. That side hustle turned into The Enchanted World, a story-driven puzzler that features a fairy trying to solve problems that can put back together a crumbling world that's being torn apart by a dark force. The game, which its creators describe as "magical" is one of the 100 original titles Apple is bringing to Arcade, which launches Sept. 19 and will cost $4.99 (£4.99, AU$7.99) a month.

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"Apple came up with this [service] where they have a selection of games that are more handcrafted, more in-depth experiences. So for us, it sounded like a good fit," says Zubcevic during a Skype video call with him and Ramadan leading up to the launch of Apple Arcade.

At a time when so many people have such a dour outlook on the state of the world, entertainment can provide a much-needed diversion. But at its best, it can also offer inspiration. The Enchanted World, which I had the chance to play at the game's publisher Noodlecake Studios in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan earlier this month, gives us a little of both.

Inspiration from tragedy

Growing up in Sarajevo, Zubcevic and Ramadan were kids during the Bosnian War in the mid-1990s. They lived through the longest siege in modern history -- 46 months -- that left 380,000 people without food, electricity, heat or water. Over 300 shells a day bombarded the city and 100,000 people were killed during the war as the once-peaceful and diverse country descended into ethnic cleansing. Though they were just in grade school at the time, Zubcevic and Ramadan remember the war clearly.

"Because there was no running water, we needed to go to a well," says Zubcevic, a programmer in his late 20s with a beard, long black hair and a constant smile. 

His parents made "going to a well to get water in a canister like an adventure," he recalls. "We were going to complete this quest. They were trying to make everything like a little game for us, so we could cope with the horrific things that were happening around us."

Ramadan, an animator with long blond hair and a calming voice, remembers kids in his neighborhood collecting bits of shrapnel from exploded bombs. "We were competing to see who found the biggest one," he says.

After the war ended in 1995 and things slowly returned to normal, the pair grew up playing video games. Before digital downloads took off, none of the major games were available in Bosnia, so there was a raging market for pirated games. Both loved strategy games and role-playing games and eventually got really into Warcraft, the strategy precursor to World of Warcraft. Together they won a tournament to become the Warcraft champions of the country. First prize was $5. They each paid a $2 entry fee, so they split the $1 in winnings. 

"I think the [promoter] scammed us because we were kids," laughs Zubcevic. 

Besides playing lots of games, they also started making a few of their own -- with Zubcevic as the coder and Ramadan as the designer. Over the years, they released a few on the Google Play Store but mostly just made apps for fun with their moms and girlfriends as the audience for most of them.

The two went their separate ways when Zubcevic set off to study programming and Ramadan started work as an artist on animated movies. But, as they transitioned into adulthood and each filled their time juggling multiple freelance projects, Zubcevic went to Ramadan and pitched the idea of making a mobile game together. 

"No, that's not going to take off," Ramadan told him.

Zubcevic eventually convinced him to give it a go and the two started "a hobby side project with nothing really big in mind," he says. "But we put a lot of passion and work into it."

We make fun work

Nestled in the central Canadian town of Saskatoon, Noodlecake Studios is a game development team and publisher that proves one of the central tenets of the digital age -- you can be located anywhere, as long as you've got a decent internet connection and the right talent. When the team's handful of engineers and artists fly to the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and proudly wear their Noodlecake hats and shirts, they often get shout-outs on the street from developers and game enthusiasts. But when they walk down the sidewalks in Saskatoon sporting their swag, no one bats an eyelid.

Noodlecake is best known for Super Stickman Golf, the popular golf-slash-racing game that built the studio. But in recent years, it's also become a games publisher, using what it's learned about launching and marketing games to help other indie developers from all over the world bring their games to market. The most successful of these has been Chameleon Run, which won a 2016 Apple Design Award

Game developers from across the planet now send pitches to the Noodlecake team every day, including lots of emails, videos and Test Flight links for trying out early versions of games. 

"When our team gets the build for a game ... we sit down and play the game and say, 'Is this fun?' says Ryan Holowaty, COO of Noodlecake. "That's always the very first thing we look at when we're playing. It doesn't matter how good it looks ... Sometimes we get games that have incredible art [but] are just missing that spark, that fun."

Ryan Holowaty, Noodlecake Studios

Ryan Holowaty at his desk at Noodlecake Studios in Saskatoon.

Jason Hiner/CNET

A great example of the team's process is when they first got a look at Chameleon Run. 

"We were actually all out for lunch and the Test Flight came in," says Holowaty. "Everyone's phone lit up with the Test Flight alert. So we loaded it and started playing it. And one of our engineers actually went to the restroom and sat in there and played the entire game. We all left and came back to the office. He [finally] came back and said, 'We've got to sign this one.'" 

As an endless runner -- a term for games where the characters are constantly running, kind of like the original Super Mario Bros. -- it was a concept that had been done so many times before. But Chameleon Run's gameplay was so well done it hooked everyone on the team.

"We know that we can make fun work," says Holowaty.

The game that puts the world back together

In 2017, Zubcevic sent a cold email to the Noodlecake team and pitched the side project that he and Ramadan had been working on. At that point it was a puzzle game where a wizard navigates a troubled world and the player helps the hero traverse the five stages of grief to overcome obstacles.

The pair had already gotten a lot of positive feedback when they showed it off at games conferences in Europe. Plus, they had won one of 15 slots -- out of hundreds of applicants -- to Stugan 2017, a nonprofit accelerator program for game developers where they got to spend two months working on the game in the woods near Stockholm, along with developers from more than a dozen countries, including South Africa, Mexico, New Zealand, Germany, Turkey, Spain and Singapore. 

Amar Zubcevic and Ivan Ramadan

Zubcevic (left) and Ramadan at Stugan 2017.

Stugan

The experience at Stugan was transformational.

"That's actually when we realized the full potential of the game," says Ramadan, "and that we had something that was precious."

They also made a lot of progress in those two months.

"We wanted to make a peaceful, beautiful, relaxing game," says Zubcevic.

Ramadan says, "That was one of the main premises: No killings."

He adds, "We really wanted to use a lot of the historical heritage that we have here in Bosnia... This is probably the first time it's used in games."

When they reached out to Noodlecake, the game quickly struck a chord. 

"We instantly fell in love with what it was, and the idea of it," says Holowaty. "When Apple Arcade came and was starting to look for titles, it just seemed like this was the perfect home for it and Apple agreed with us wholeheartedly." 

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During the partnership with Noodlecake to finalize the game, it evolved to where the main character became a fairy -- to represent youth and innocence -- and the character's quest focused on solving challenges that slide like wooden puzzle pieces. Many of the puzzles are path pieces you have to slide around to put in the right formation to enable the fairy to move forward. The controls for the sliding motions are easy and intuitive to use.

The player has to guide the fairy through the game and interact with the scenery to activate the puzzles. The world itself is mostly a natural environment with hints of magic, but as you interact with it, you also see the world crumbling because of the unknown dark force. Solving the puzzles is what puts this magical world back together again, piece by piece. 

"You encounter many creatures and things that will either help or hinder you along the way," says Holowaty. "And eventually, you'll get to the force itself and have an altercation with it. It's the whole quest to try and bring the world back to what it used to be."

Zubcevic says, "We wanted ... to make it as tactile is possible to be fun to play around with. Even when you don't know the solution to the puzzle, we wanted it to still be a rewarding experience, like interacting with a toy. But on top of that, of course, we also have these brain teasers that get quite challenging. But we hope they're also rewarding and fun."


Along with this exclusive inside story of The Enchanted World, CNET also has exclusive inside looks at Where Cards Fall and Shinsekai Into the Depths.