[Following the groundbreaking success of Rolando and its sequel on iPhone, London-based HandCircus is turning its back on mobile dev for its next release, Okabu. Gamasutra's Simon Parkin asks founder Simon Oliver what inspired the move.
While many indie and mainstream developers continue to join in the mobile gaming gold rush, HandCircus, the London-based developer responsible for the Rolando
iOS games is running into the arms of more traditional console development for its next project.
, a downloadable title for PSN slated for release this summer, is a breezy 3D puzzle game in which you control a pair of anthropomorphic clouds, Kumulo and Nimbe, as they seek to free the cute Yorubo tribe from the threat of industrialization.
Sharing an aesthetic with the Rolando
titles thanks to the art direction of Finnish illustrator Mikko Walamies, Okabu
certainly exudes Wind Waker
-ish charm. But why take the concept to a new platform when the studio has enjoyed so much global success on iPhone? Gamasutra's editor-at-large, Simon Parkin spoke to HandCircus founder Simon Oliver to unpick his thinking.
What made you decide to switch from iOS development to a console platform from your next game?
After wrapping up our second iOS title, Rolando 2
, we started to take stock after what had been a whirlwind 18 months, to think about the future of the studio and where we'd like to be. A lot of opportunities were opening up, firstly in terms of emerging platforms such as Android and tablet devices, and secondly in terms of opportunities that were now available to us as a studio as a result of the success of the Rolando
series. People were returning our calls now!
After Rolando 2
launched, I'd had a few weeks off, part of which included a trip to Japan. I had a chance to visit the wonderful Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, and it really struck me how much Ghibli cherish their characters and their worlds -- they are so fleshed out with detail and treasured by the studio for many, many years.
Coming back to the UK, one of the objectives that I had for the future of HandCircus was for us to create a new world to act as a solid foundation for us to build upon over the coming years. I loved the idea of us creating a world that we could grow over time and populate with various creatures, characters, and environments, building up and adding to over multiple titles and multiple genres.
has been a big inspiration here -- the way that they were able to create this well defined world and canon, rich with history, creatures and continents, and create these wonderful titles that fit together so perfectly (Oddworld Stranger's Wrath
is one of my all-time favorite games). Maybe we can do this at the indie-studio level.
For our first Okabu
game, we really wanted to launch with a larger-scale adventure title within this universe, and console felt like the perfect place for this.
What have the biggest challenges been in moving from one to the other?
Everything has scaled up! The first Rolando
took nine months from first prototype to launch in the App Store, while Okabu
will have taken around 22 months of development when it launches this year. A lot of groundwork had to be laid out first, and researching and building the engine took a fair amount of time -- we've created a brand-new engine and toolset for Okabu
(built upon some excellent open source and proprietary libraries).
Moving to a fully 3D environment, and creating a game for PSN, has led to a significant increase in the amount of content that we need to create: the scale of the levels, the amount of detail required and the number of assets have all increased hugely.
Managing that while still remaining a small team has presented its own challenges, but by being selective about the content that we focus on (no hour-long FMVs) and developing processes that allow us to work as efficiently as possible, we've managed to get into a really good rhythm on the project and make great progress. Our editor, OkabuEdit, allows a really fast create-test iteration loop which has been critical in prototyping new features and creating levels for the game.
As we are self-publishing this time, we've also had to take on a whole new set of responsibilities that were previously handled by [Rolando
publisher] ngmoco. They were great partners for the Rolando
series, handling QA, marketing, translation, licensing and much more. Taking on these additional aspects of the development process has stretched us a little -- I've learned a lot over the past 18 months.
What lessons learned on the Rolando titles have you been able to carry across to Okabu?
One of the most important things that we learned during the development of Rolando
was how vital it is to make a game accessible to a broad range of players. Launching on a brand new platform with an unorthodox input scheme, and trying to explain new game mechanics to a wide range of players was a real learning experience.
Through regular prototyping, refinement of the controls, progression curve, and messaging, we got Rolando
to a really good place where most players could pick it up and get into it pretty quickly. While the audience of PSN is obviously going to be made up of more experienced players, and the control scheme is much more established, this process is something that we've been applying to Okabu
We're big advocates of prototyping and user testing and this has really helped us test out various features and mechanics and iron out problems before they become too significant. It has also helped us to refine and simplify the controls as much as possible.
, the physics was powered by Erin Catto's excellent Box2D engine [used in Rovio's Angry Birds
], and open-source software has played a big part in the development of Okabu
. We're extremely grateful for the contributions of projects such as Ogre, Lua and Bullet Physics, that have allowed us to integrate great technology into our engine and focus our resources on the game itself.
And what have you had to learn from scratch?
While this is my first console title, Matt, Luke and Shane all come from console backgrounds, so its been great to have their battle-scars and considerable experience on the team. I've definitely had to learn a great deal though -- I'm pretty much done with learning! Hopefully our next project will be for an abacus.
Does this title mark the end of your mobile development plans? Or are you planning on heading back there after this release?
The mobile space is such an exciting place to be, and we have no intention of leaving it. We are a small studio though, and at the moment we really only have the resources to focus on one project at a time. Its difficult when you have such alluring distractions as iPad, 3DS, and NGP.
I'm particularly interested in the tablet space, and it feels like there is an enormous opportunity there that's not really being explored -- the majority of tablet titles are up-scaled versions of iPhone games (understandable given the relative size of the audience) but the potential to develop new experiences designed to take advantage of that bigger play area seems very significant to me.
Can you explain the premise of the game a little?
is a co-op action-puzzle adventure, and the tale of two cloud-whales, Kumulo and Nimbe. Huge clouds of pollution have started to spread through the atmosphere, and have stricken many of their friends and family with a terrible illness. They are sent down to the investigate the source of the pollution and discover that the land has been ravaged by the Doza, a tribe of creatures obsessed with machinery and industrialization. Forests have been scorched, lakes polluted, creatures caged and buildings razed, but a few of the local people, the Yorubo, remain.
The Yorubo seek an existence in harmony with nature, and offer to join Kumulo and Nimbe on their adventure. Four cloud-flying heroes step up to join the frontline of the battle -- each with their own unique ability. The fisherman, Captain Monkfish, has a plunger harpoon that can be used to harpoon all manner of objects in the environment (from pulling down drawbridges to operating cannons and catching fish).
Picolo is our Pied Piper that can charm animals into performing all manner of actions, Roki is an expert in machinery (controlling vehicles, robots and cranes) and Kat is a warrior princess. You have to master all of their skills, and use them together to solve the many puzzles throughout the co-op campaign, and defeat the many hazards and traps set by the Doza. We really want to create a toybox-like world that begs to be explored, packed with things to play with.
Why do you think this sort of game is better suited to a console than a mobile device?
With a console title, you can really take advantage of the fact that you have the player's attention! Engagement on a mobile device varies, from a distracted couple of minutes on a bus journey to playing at home on a sofa for hours, but you have to really plan for all audiences.
With a console game, you can be pretty sure that they're sitting down in front of a TV and are willing to invest a bit more time and focus on the experience, so you can really create a title that plays to that deeper engagement. That's definitely something that we're aiming for with Okabu
-- more emphasis on story and adventure, the puzzles are more involved and we can really draw people in more than we'd be able to on a mobile device.
How has it been to work with Sony on a downloadable title?
Sony have been amazing to work with. They've been very supportive of Okabu
from the start and are really into the concept. We prototyped the game on PC initially, and when we settled on PS3 as our target platform, the porting work seemed a little daunting at first. Sony have some great tech that has really made that process a lot easier though (such as PhyreEngine that we're using for Okabu
), and that has really helped us take advantage of the power of PS3.
Why did you decide to go with Sony exclusively instead of making Okabu a multi-platform title?
We started speaking to potential partners last year, and one of the most important factors in that process was choosing someone that was really into the game and the direction we wanted to take it. Our discussions with Sony went very well -- they were really into Okabu
, and felt like the perfect choice.
What tools have you used for development?
Our primary tool is our custom editor, OkabuEdit, which wraps around the game engine and allows us to quickly toggle between play and editing. This has really helped make creation of the levels a lot more efficient and really encourages experimentation as there is no delay in testing.
It's a bit wonky -- and you have to be pretty gentle with it to it to stop it crashing, but its super fun to play with -- you can pull, sculpt, paint the terrain, create puzzles, paint paths, trees foliage, and set up puzzles and action sequences really quickly. You can even paint flowers while you're flying around.
On the commercial side, we use Flash, 3DS Max, Visual Studio, XCode, and FMOD for audio. As I mentioned before, we've also been really grateful to open source projects Ogre, Bullet and Lua, as well as Sony's own PhyreEngine. These have been invaluable to us, providing a really solid technology platform to build upon and really allowing us to focus all our resources on development of the game.
How many are on the team?
There are five of us on the team -- as well as myself we have Mikko (concept art and illustration), Matt (3D art and animation), Shane (Level design) and Luke (engineering). We really work well together -- that's the pleasure of working on such a small team, communication is really fluid and we can get such a lot done in a short amount of time.
How have you managed multiple team members working remotely?
While four of us are in London, Mikko is working remotely in Finland, surrounded by Reindeer and Saunas, but we've got a really good working relationship that goes all the way back to the character illustrations that he created for the very first Rolando prototype.
He's been awesome to work with, whenever we're discussing a new character, creature, vehicle or element for the environment he just seems to come back with the perfect design first time. Mikko also came over for a week last year, and it was great to have him in the studio and the team all together.
When do you anticipate the game being finished?
We're aiming for this summer.
What have you learned through playtesting the game?
A lot. We've been playtesting the game with a pretty broad cross-section of players. The controls and camera have been the biggest obstacles and have seen the most refinement -- some of the early control schemes were weird -- multiple thumbsticks and eight buttons, but over the past 18 months we've really boiled it down to a strong, simple control scheme.
At the other end of the scale, communicating how the game builds up and provides a deeper experience provides its own challenges. By focusing on making the game very accessible, there is a risk with players assuming that it is quite a simple game, so refining to convey the game's depth during the early stages of the game is equally important.
Where next after Okabu?
It's obviously hard to look too far ahead, but we'd definitely like to continue to grow the world of Okabu
and create more titles within that world. It's been such a fun project to work with, and we've got a huge pile of ideas just waiting to be explored in future Okabu