Interview: Cut the Rope Gets a Not-Sequel With Experiments

Gamasutra speaks to ZeptoLab co-founder Semyon Voinov about the new Cut the Rope game, the studio's plans for expansion, and how its design has evolved over four content updates to the massive smartphone game.
Tonight, ZeptoLab releases its latest game, Cut The Rope: Experiments on the Apple App store for iPhone and iPad. With 75 new levels, new graphics and a new Professor character, it's a major release for the company, which had already sold over 6 million copies of the original Cut the Rope as of this February -- prior to launching the game on Android. Gamasutra spoke to Semyon Voinov, co-founder of ZeptoLab, about the game's release. He said that he "wouldn't call it a sequel." The game arose as a natural evolution of Cut the Rope while the team worked on the four free updates for the original. New ideas that wouldn't work in the original bubbled forth, and the result is Experiments. Who's ZeptoLab? ZeptoLab, the Moscow-based developer of the Cut the Rope series, was founded by brothers Efim and Semyon Voinov. The two shared a passion for game development stretching back to their childhoods, when they would code on the Spectrum computer as a hobby. Both have professional game development backgrounds; Semyon worked at Digital Chocolate for three years, as well as on traditional mobile titles developed using Java and BREW. Despite its big success, ZeptoLab is currently still a small studio, with only 12 full-time staffers. Voinov told Gamasutra this is because the company is expanding slowly -- the founders want to ensure they recruit the best talent. When ZeptoLab does expand, Voinov told Gamasutra that the company hopes to move to platforms beyond Android and iOS -- though it has nothing to announce just yet. Like Angry Birds developer Rovio, and number two Facebook game developer Wooga, a traditional mobile background has paved the way for success. Voinov is not surprised: "We understand the casual player," he said. In his view, though many developers jumped on the iOS bandwagon, they only made one game and hoped for success -- but much of the competition doesn't have the right blend of background and outlook. He sees many other developers either being "people who love making games but have no experience, or people who have experience but no longer love making games." Cut the Rope: Experiments is Not a Sequel As for the new title, "It's not Cut the Rope 2," he reiterated. "We have more different and more global ideas for this title -- but it's, I believe, a nice additional kind of experience for people who already played the Cut the Rope, and also for those people who didn't play it yet." The goal for the game -- and the reason it's not a sequel -- is to expand the creative palette of the Cut the Rope series. The new game "allows us to do even more creative things," Voinov told Gamasutra. And that includes the new Professor character. "We were doing some experiments gameplay-wise, and also we kind of started off with the idea of some kooky professor, or scientist, who has traveled and tried to study the creature" -- called Om Nom, the star of the series -- he said. "When we started at the end of [last] summer, we already had the prototypes of the gameplay elements we wanted to have there, and then it was a matter of finding the right visual style. We wanted it to be similar to the original Cut the Rope, but also we wanted it to look different, and to feel different, so finding the right look took some time. Also, we really wanted to put effort into the level design, because that's the core of the game. So we develop and build, iterate a level, and we test them well." The team blended play metrics derived from the original game, new ideas that evolved naturally, user feedback, and prototypes to come up with Experiments. Taking all of that into account, said Voinov, meant that "the process of developing this new game was quite the step forward, overall." A Design Evolution The original has a huge audience -- some members of which are so hardcore they go for all three stars on every level, and some of whom get frustrated with the challenges. ZeptoLab has to consider appealing to both camps: "We believe that there's a way of having a fun game without people having to play each level like a hundred times." This has lead to some major evolutions of the company's design thinking. It would be better, said Voinov, "to go for a bigger amount of content than for harder levels." This is something you can see in the latest update to the original game. "We released a Toy Box... it's easier than the previous levels, but then again those levels are really fun. There are some people that have said that this other level is a bit easy, but no one complains that a level is bad -- so we think this is a good direction for us to go." The team learned that in the last game, "people get really stuck" and never progress in the game. "Then, we try to look at the level, and understand what might be the things that make it maybe tricky, and then we tweak it. We're tweaking some of the levels from the original Cut the Rope just to make sure that the difficulty, currently, is just right." The challenge emphasis is, thus, put on trickier solutions to gathering the optional stars in each level -- and hopefully both camps can be kept happy. Why Update Your App? While Voinov believes free updates to the title are crucial to keeping the audience interested and talking about the game with friends, the company doesn't see any significant bumps in performance on the App Store when it releases one. But there is a benefit, he said. "There's definitely a long-term effect in doing that, so when people know that a game receives regular updates, and each of those updates is good stuff, they keep the game on their phones. They keep remembering about it." He said this is "definitely one of the reasons why Cut the Rope has been quite high on the charts for quite a while already." This is "very important", he said. Despite the fact that the franchise is starting to take off in its own right, Voinov still believes chart placement is crucial to popularity for the games. The Appeal of Om Nom Voinov told Gamasutra that two elements are key to the original's success: the feel of the gameplay and the appeal of the game's star, the strange green creature Om Nom. The new game gives "clues on what the story about Om Nom, so that's the thing we wanted to give the players," said Voinov, who suggested that players have so much interest in Om Nom that he's beginning to stand alone from the franchise. The team "took a lot of time" getting the character just right. Sixty percent of the graphics in the original game, he estimated, are animations for the character. The team wanted Om Nom to look like a "two or three year old baby", which would force the player into "a parental role" and offer broad appeal for all ages and genders. The character design, however carefully considered, also naturally flowed from the theme of the gameplay, Voinov said. Voinov said that ZeptoLab took a lot of time with Experiments' new Professor character as well. While the idea of a scientist who wants to experiment on the lovable Om Nom could be scary to kids, the team took a "child-friendly approach with this, and the prospect of the new character introduced into the game, she will be more like a lovable type," he said. The company recently announced a partnership to boot up Cut the Rope comic books, and is approaching brand expansions where it makes sense and opportunities arise. ZeptoLab wants to continue that -- he said that the franchise has reached a point where Om Nom is popular enough that it can stand outside the game, and people are starting to want to know about the story. Freemium Moves? Another opportunity for expansion is, of course, in-app purchases, which are starting to dominate the App Store landscape. "We're looking with interest; we're curious about what's happening," said Voinov. "We're definitely thinking in this direction." However, at launch, Cut the Rope Experiments is a 99 cent single-purchase game. "We did a bit of an experiment with a little bit of Cut the Rope... where you can actually, if you don't want to click the stars to unlock some boxes, then you can actually assign a star key, and it would unlock all boxes in the game right away," he said. That said, he feels that the "original Cut the Rope is not definitely the kind of title that would be transformed to a freemium title. But for our future titles, we might actually experiment with the trendy approach of freemium games."

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