A Convoluted Conversation With Martin Hollis

Former Rare developer and N64 Goldeneye 007's director, Martin Hollis, has returned with the unique Bonsai Barber for WiiWare, a tree/haircutting title with some unique features - and talks to Gamasutra about his career and the new title.

UK-based game developer Martin Hollis' biggest claim to fame, up till now, is being the director of GoldenEye 007. That classic of the Nintendo 64 had amazing reach and popularity -- but Hollis has, inexplicably, hasn't made much of an impact since he exited the company (during the development of the original version of Perfect Dark.)

He set up his own Cambridge-headquartered development studio, Zoonami, in 2000 -- but between then and now has only released two games; one is a Sudoku hybrid game, Zendoku, and the other is Bonsai Barber, a WiiWare title that's a great deal more interesting than that.

A casual game aimed at the "new core", as Hollis puts it, it puts you in charge of sculpting the heads of trees to match haircuts, using only the Wii remote and a range of tools including scissors, clippers, and a spray tool to grow foliage.

Even more interestingly, you are only permitted to cut five trees per day, with the game's extra features being unlocked over time if you play for just a few minutes every day.

Over the course of this casual interview, which was conducted at Nintendo's San Francisco Bay Area HQ, Gamasutra received a demo of the game while chatting to Hollis about his history, his methodology, the opportunities and pitfalls of working on a WiiWare game with a distinctly different philosophy from most, and more.

Before the recorder was engaged, the conversation began with a brief discussion of his history in the industry. Now, let's join the conversation in progress...

Things were quite different in the GoldenEye days. Now we have huge teams...

Martin Hollis: I don't have huge teams. [laughs]

You don't, but for a game of that stature, these days, you would have a huge team, a well-defined stratification of roles and production process time. Of course, nothing is as well-defined as we want it to be, I think, even now.

MH: I like things to be undefined. We've got like five designer/programmers who've worked on this game. So, that's like a [Jonathan] Blow thing. The artist is like a designer/artist. That story just carries on. Richard [Brooksby], who's out here with us... a good friend of mine and a colleague -- he worked a lot on the game. He's a designer, programmer, and writer.

I'm sure you're probably not really familiar with the company. There's a Japanese company called CyberConnect 2. They make a lot of the Naruto fighting games, and they made a game called .hack.

MH: .hack I've seen screenshots for. It sounds like a kind of a Western-influenced sort of game.

Yeah, for sure. I was interviewing CC2's president Hiroshi Matsuyama yesterday. When that company was founded, they had 10 employees, and they were making PlayStation 1 games. He said that just didn't work.

And I said, "But now, there are small teams that can make download games." And he replied, "That's the crucial difference. People will take a look at a download game, and they will appreciate the fact that it's made by 10 people. If they go to a store to buy a $50 game, they don't say, 'Oh, that's a good game for a game made by 10 people.'" [laughs] Which I thought was pretty interesting.

MH: Right. It was tough, to be blunt, for Zoonami, in like our first three years. We were like a bicycle trying to go as fast as a car. We couldn't do it, really. We were working on a retail product that was intended for Gamecube, and it was real tough.

We did a lot of amazing stuff; we hadn't like settled down to a core idea or anything, but in the end, it was just like, "This isn't working." Go into a shop today, and it's like, "We can't find a place in this world." So, that's changed a lot. We did a DS game for Eidos, Zendoku. For DS and PSP. That was kind of okay for that kind of scale.

But digital is just perfect for us. It has made everything possible for us. And I don't entirely agree with what you said [before the interview started] about...

Triple-A type games.

MH: Yeah. So, to me, there's no reason you couldn't make a game with two people and it could be the biggest game of the year. There's no reason why that couldn't happen. It's going to be a rarity, like a big rarity, and the same thing for 10 people. The mass market are always looking for shining production quality and a bajillion polygons...

Zoonami's Bonsai Barber

It's certainly not the biggest game of the year in terms of, necessarily, revenue, but certainly in terms of buzz, one of the biggest games of the year was Braid, and that was made by a developer and an artist.

MH: Right. So that's like a fine example. The outlets aren't really there yet. You can't sell like 10 million copies on digital very easy. And you really need to sell like a hundred million to be in the similar ballpark of whatever game just did really well at retail at $50.

Resident Evil 5.

MH: Yeah. So, you need to sell like five, 10 times as many to be as significant in the world. But still, I think we're going to get there in a few years. Digital games by small teams, occasionally, they're going to be headline news.

I think another thing that's good about digital games is that even people who are going to go for Resident Evil, or whatever -- and I'm not slighting Resident Evil, but Resident Evil is a highly conventional game. People are willing to give something less conventional a shot on digital distribution, aren't they?

MH: Which segues very neatly. Let's take a look at Bonsai Barber. Why don't you have a go? It's a unique game. People are saying very unique, but I don't say that. It's not grammatical.

I'm at Nintendo offices, so I'm making sure to put the Wii remote's strap on.

Andrew Kelly: There you go. Very good.

MH: Very good. And that little clip. He knows the routine. I forgot that yesterday when I did the Nintendo interview. Details are important. Yeah, they were very polite but very insistent -- for the Nintendo Channel.

So, it's hopefully the world's first hairdressing game. It's hopefully the world's first bonsai game. The world's first topiary game. And it's kind of a sculpting game, too.

Should I stand up or sit down?

MH: Whatever you're comfortable with, really. I think it's more of a sitting down game, actually.

[Christian begins to play.]

This is like a game focused around the living room. It's supposed to encourage people to talk to each other. It's supposed to be entertainment for people on the sofa, but someone can play it, too. It's, kind of like you were saying, Andrew, a '50s U.S. barbershop. People actually come into the room and chat and have conversation. It's a kind of friendly scenario.

How do you engender that from a design perspective?

MH: That's a really interesting question. Because it's in the core idea of a barber shop, that it can be like that.

I see. Right. Through the theming of the game, is what you're saying.

MH: So, as long as we're true to that, we're pretty much good, really. And there are lots of details that flow out of that core. So, one of the things that flow out of that is, don't have a time limit, don't have any strictness in the goals.

So, you're not under any pressure. You can kind of lean back in your seat. You can put down the controller at any time. Nothing is going to explode, you're not going to die. It's not a failure game like 99 percent of games, they're failure games. There's no failure here.

[Reading game dialogue] "Space buns". [laughs]

MH: Yeah, it's a bit of British humor in it. That always seemed slightly euphemistic to me, that one, but we got that one through. [laughs]

Space buns, I can hang with space buns. I think it's funny.

MH: Good, good. Well, there's quite a few jokes in there.

That's something that I think is still a bit rare in games -- humor.

MH: I think it's a disaster. There should be a whole genre like it is for movies. And this is trying to be a comedy game. Really -- we've put a huge amount of work into that. I mean, that could be our genre. It's supposed to be like a TV show -- Friends! This is one of our models for this game. This is supposed to be like Friends.

So, that's like another answer to your question, "how do you engender that in a design sense for the living room?" A bunch of people can sit in the living room and enjoy Friends, and maybe half of them are only half paying attention.

And you can have a conversation, dip in and out, get a few jokes here and there. If people are laughing, they're laughing together, and that brings the room together into a group. A comedy like that is perfect for a living room social... It's entertainment.

The question that I have, something I've been wondering a lot about... The Wii has a very general audience...

MH: It's just like everyone, except the guy that wants to play Resident Evil... [laughs]

The one thing that I wonder is, obviously everyone goes online today, but how savvy do you think a lot of the audience is? Are they aware of the services that the Wii has like the Shop Channel and stuff like that?

MH: Oh, you know, I guess, just like a significant fraction only of Wii owners that know about it today. But in a couple of years, it's really going to pull through. It takes a little time to build awareness of that.

And it's interesting you say a couple years because...

MH: From now, you know.

It's interesting because you've made a game for WiiWare, and obviously, you expect it to be on WiiWare and be available in perpetuity, right?

MH: It will be on Monday. Yeah, from Monday to perpetuity.

Whereas, with packaged games, they have such a short window of availability at their original price point, and at their original availability. I mean Nintendo games, not so much. You guys can sell a game -- fucking Mario Kart DS is still in the top ten.

AK: [laughs]

MH: Wow, yes!

But for most people, most publishers, it's more like 6, 8, 12 weeks, and then [thud].

MH: Yeah. Well, you see it on a lot of digital avenues, games will have a spike at the beginning and then go down, but it's not down to zero, right? So, that might look low, but it's like every day, every week, every month, it carries on and on. Often you can sell more in like a second year than you do in your first.

It's a shame I think, that you can go into a record store -- well for the next couple of years, you'll be able to go into a record store --

MH: I hear you can still do this. [laughs]

You can buy any album, right? For the most part. You buy a 30-year-old album on CD, and it doesn't have to be that popular of an album. You can expect it. But you can't buy a year-old, two-year-old game, for the most part, unless it was such a hit that it was reprinted in a form like Sony's Greatest Hits. And it's just ridiculous, I think.

MH: It's all because everyone is focusing on technology and making that the most important think. It's publishers' fault, it's developers' fault, it's the consumers' fault, and everything... All this focus on technology.

You can just walk away from that and say, "Look, actually, technology is not the most important thing." Other things are more important than that. And then you have games actually having longevity.

If you think about books, the technology is just not that important. You know, it works, and there's an incredible expressive space for authors on that really simple technology. It's the same for the CD. Really, it's the same space as LP was.

Well, it's funny because it's not only that I can read books from before I was born, but I want to read books from before I was born because they have something to say. It's very hard for me to play a game from before I was born since I came out the same year as the Atari 2600. So, it's possible, but not easy.

MH: Maybe they'll get there with Virtual Console.

But at the same time, it is technology-driven to an extent that I'm not so sure that I do want to play a game from the '70s.

MH: Yeah, maybe it does really suck.

I do want to play NES games, which the Virtual Console offers.

MH: Yeah, me too.

AK: Yeah, I mean, it's growing pains, I think. If you look at early movies, when movies first came out, I don't know if you'd really enjoy watching those movies.

MH: So, I'm prepared to watched Nosferatu, but it is kind of work. It's like labor. And then you can say you've seen it.

So, maybe that's like 2600, and maybe NES. For some people, maybe SNES. But then like N64 maybe, that's like color, and they've got the conventions sorted out, and it's pretty much comprehensible. I don't know, but I think that's how it's going to work out. Maybe pixels will be like our black and white, silent.

[Christian completes the first day's worth of challenges.]

MH: How long did that take him? Like 10 minutes?

AK: Yeah.

MH: That was supposed to take ordinary people like 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes.

Well, you know.

MH: I know how it is.

I'm the person who played Animal Crossing like it's a game. I played it every day for like three hours and killed it in a month.

MH: You can't do that with this game.

But it's just funny. This is a theme that's been emerging out of GDC for me, the distinction between hardcore and casual.

MH: This is not hardcore.

Right, but it's sort of an artificial distinction, right? It's forced, and it's not that informative, honestly. It's overly simplified.

MH: Hideously. So, we got a bit more terminology. We think this is like a "new core" game, which means, like, kids who don't call themselves "gamers", although they play a heck of a lot of games.

These terms are somewhat valueless, but you still do, as a developer, absolutely need to identify and describe an audience.

MH: You need to try to, but in the end, you do fail. You try to not please everyone, but you're still, it's like, most people. So, I do hope this game, although we've got a target --  we've got a middle target, we've got an outer target, and we've got an optimistic, nearly everyone target.


Are all of these characters... They're not procedural in any way, are they?

MH: Well, the hair is procedural, because it's like a tree. It's like a procedural tree.

But like the haircuts are obviously designed.

MH: They are obviously designed.

The characters' faces and stuff...

MH: That's all designed, yeah. So, you know, the important part for us is the gameplay of the actual cutting, right? This is a game that has procedural trees. You know, a lot of games have procedural trees, from like SpeedTree or whatever.

It's just scenery, and it's irrelevant really. But this game, you actually touch the procedural trees. Where they are makes a difference. So, you have to pay attention.

Yeah, it all falls apart if you hit the wrong branch, right?

MH: Yeah, if you cut, like, down at the bottom there, you can wreak havoc. So, what people do is they'll cut a perfect cut, and then they'll get around to the bottom, and it's like, snip, "Oh no!" It's hilarious when it happens to someone else.

Yeah, in the context of playing it socially -- it's interesting because as far back as when I was a kid, what dissatisfied parents is that the kids would go hide and play video games.

MH: They'd like go into this little world.

And there was no interaction there. I tried to get my dad interested in games, but he couldn't relate to them.

MH: One of our goals with this game is it's supposed to relate to everyone, even the people who completely insist that they don't like games and that they don't want to go there.

It's more inviting and neutral, is the way to put it -- thematically neutral.

MH: It's not about killing people as fast as you can possibly can.

But it's also not about... a lot of the casual games I think pander to a specific audience. It's not about giant pink wedding cakes either. It's not about killing zombies; it's not about giant pink wedding cakes.

MH: We very much wanted... Like hardcore people who are open minded, they can enjoy this game. We believe that. So, the other thing is we hope it's like a Nintendo-core game, so people who played Zelda II, we really hope they can enjoy this too, on their own or with their friends or with their family.

So, how many people did you have working on this project?

MH: People who were full-time in production phase? Nine.

And about how long did it take you to make it?

MH: Well, it's kind of complicated because it's kind of up and down. Including prototypes, and all of the on and off, like 18 months, I guess. But a lot of our time working on this game was just in the back of our heads.

How is the prototype process for you? Is it a process?

MH: It's like a process... of chaos. We spend a long time playing around with Wii, trying to come up with core mechanics that were novel and worked well on the Wii. And this is like our first game to come out of that whole process. We hope there will be more. A lot of those are still in flight. We hope to have more games come out of that.

AK: Oh wow, this one's hard.

Yeah, wow, this one's serious.

MH: Well, you're on day two here, now, Andrew. That's scary, that hole in the middle, isn't it? That's like a transformation. Like, "Oh no!"

So, there are twelve characters; there are twelve kinds of branch structures. So, they've got different shapes of hair, which makes a different. Some of them have got one root, two roots, three roots.

The way the branches branch out, it's got different kinds of trees -- oak, maple, sycamore, willow. So, every character is different. Later characters are harder, especially Charles B. Foster, who is like a weeping willow.

Tendrils going down.

MH: Yeah, it's kind of droopy. He's like super hard. However hard you want the game to be, he's that. He's good for that. Only two testers out of sixty people could do all the styles with Charles B. Foster.

Do you worry about that, given your audience?

MH: No, because it's for the Nintendo-core as well as... If a six year old kid doesn't want to play Charles because they had a bad experience the first time with him, nothing bad happens.

Do you have to complete all the plants in one day to enjoy tomorrow? I'm assuming not, right?

MH: You can have no stars, and skip with the gong -- for one thing. It just means you made Charles unhappy, right? But you can live with that. If you choose to hate him, then you just hate him.

But we're not used to that, as gamers. We're used to going through task lists, right?

MH: A six-year-old will be fine with it, because they're completely unconcerned.

And they're unaware of the face that we're trained. Clint Hocking put it like this: gamers are like lions trained to jump through fiery hoops. And if you take away the hoops, then they don't know what to do.

MH: This game has hoops, but actually, if you notice that if you don't jump through the hoops, great things happen.

AK: [Playing game] This one's crazy.

bonsai3.jpg Your tactic of shaving off the leaves and then attacking the branches is pretty clever.

AK: This is a Martin tip. It's a ProTip.


AK: I don't know how much you can do down there.

That's what I wonder about. You can probably leave her with one branch, though.

AK: Maybe.

Until someone knocks those off. [Observes Andrew's tactic in action.] Yeah, see.

Here, the conversation's happening, right? It's funny. I asked you how you design for it. I don't know how you do it, but you've done it, I guess. [laughs]

MH: You try lots of things and learn about the possibility space, and you start to get a feel for how things work, and you hone on it, and you have lots of trial of error, and you have it as cheaply and painlessly as possible.

It's painful, but prototypes get thrown away, you start again, do a new one, start again, do a new one, and your team starts to get down, as people, and you start to ask for things you want, and they push and pull.

[Observing the game being played] This is the problem with showing your game after you've made it. I remember we tried like 20 things. I can't remember, which one, in the end, worked the very best. In the test, when you actually sit down with people who've never seen it. 

You're really small. You can't afford to hire a bunch of people to do focus testing or whatever, can you?

MH: Yeah, we can. It's just the organization of them. And is that necessary? Actually digesting information. I can't watch 50 people playing this game in a week. I can't do that. I can't digest the information.

Say like a designer/programmer, he can't do it either, so we've really not got much reason to look at [that volume of information]. Unless we're doing it statistically and there's some kind of metrics that are like semi-automated, and we get back a chart, or spreadsheet, or whatever, but this game doesn't really work like that.

For us, we do another attempt at making it better, and then we test it with a couple of people. One, and then a second, and we make some conclusions on that. And then a couple months later, we do it again.

Maybe there's not a big sample size, but one is better than zero, and two is better than one! [laughs] It's pretty reliable, really, because human beings are mostly all the same -- unless you count hardcore gamers. [laughs]


MH: You get new people in, and they have the same problems as each other. You get two people, and they both have the same problems.


MH: Maybe one of them is a perfectionist, and the other is more free-wheeling. And you see that one of them spends 60 minutes...

AK: [Still playing.] These are the ones that Christian did. They're all grown out now.

That's cool. That's funny. It's another way to incentivize the player to continue on. And it's a relatively simple one, especially with procedural trees, right?

MH: Yup, exactly. So, we're trying to use the possibilities there, having this procedural stuff in there.

Making the most of what you got.

MH: It just makes for a more reactive game because the software is more reactive -- because it can be, because the software has control over the heart of the game, and it can make the game do stuff that depends on you.

Oh, so there are surprises in store? That's something you have to think about, right? Particularly, that's a challenge for when you're making a game that people are going to be playing day after day...

MH: There's no way we can test that. That's like a moon shot, right? We don't know if that works until the game goes out.

It's a different way of thinking about it, right? Most people aren't designing for an experience that's going to be played repeatedly, shortly, and consistently. They're playing experiences that are supposed to be played for 40 hours in a row, and then...

MH: This is not the game. This is like bite-sized nuggets. For just minutes a day. That's the whole idea.

In the end, that's how your game is going to succeed if it's conversational and gives people a way to interact. That's what's going to succeed. Because ultimately, it's a fun interaction cutting these plants -- but in and of itself, no one's going to be like, "I'm a plant cutting fan. That's my most favorite activity."

MH: So, we had like 20 guys come in NOA. They're like hardcore articulate... Some of them were journalists, I think? I'm assuming they're all guys. And they played this game.

One of them was like, "I fell madly in love with the game. I love Edward Scissorhands, and I love Bonsai. I've just fallen in love with this game." Maybe we'll get one in 20 there from the Nintendo-core who really are like, "I've always wanted to play a Bonsai game." [laughs]

It's funny, and this is totally unrelated, but I came down here in a car that Nintendo hired.

MH: Yeah, me too! [laughs]

And I ended up talking to the driver, and he's like, "What are you doing?" You know, blah blah blah, just small talk. And I said, "I'm going to meet this guy, Martin Hollis, he worked on GoldenEye." I said GoldenEye because everyone knows GoldenEye, right? At least if they played games.

MH: Yeah, like eight million people bought it, and I figured another 60 million people must have played it on their brother's, sister's, mum's, dad's... Or second-hand.

Well, it turns out that the limo company has an N64 in their back room, now, and they play GoldenEye now. [laughs]

AK: Wow.

MH: So, I guess that I kind of... It's not Nosferatu.

[laughs] I just thought that was hilarious.

MH: That's fabulous, isn't it?

These things can endure, right? We always think, as the industry, we always have that mentality of pushing ever forward, never looking back, never looking even a week back.

MH: I absolutely agree. This is a real art form that's starting to have a real history. We have to remember that, embrace it, and just be more mature about the whole thing.

This is just me ranting a little bit, but what got really frustrating to me as a journalist -- before Gamasutra, I wrote for like enthusiast press, and I was really frustrated that once a game comes out, it stops dead in terms of your coverage. The review is up, and maybe there's a strategy guide, but ultimately, there's nothing to do with the game afterwards. The audience doesn't expect it, no one thinks about it. And you know what? I'm still learning things about games. We still talk about games.

MH: Me too. That's why I come to [GDC]. I come to learn new words, new names for things that maybe I had an idea of before, but now I've got a name, and I can take that back, and we can liketalk about it.

So we did like three prototypes for this. And then, like go to the Flower talk, and they're show all their old prototypes. I was so relieved that we're not the only people that have to go through this!

It's like frankly a traumatic experience, like, "Let's try this for a while. Oh, this doesn't seem to be working!"

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