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Interview: Zoonami's Hollis On Bonsai Barber's WiiWare Sprouting

GoldenEye game director Martin Hollis' developer Zoonami has emerged from stealth mode with Bonsai Barber for WiiWare, and Gamasutra discusses the game and development process with him.
Yesterday, Nintendo published Bonsai Barber for WiiWare, the first game in some time from Zoonami, GoldenEye game director Martin Hollis' company, and Gamasutra had a chance to sit down with Hollis at GDC, check out the game, and discuss the company's intention for the title and the process of its creation. Bonsai Barber has a unique scenario -- the game puts you in charge of cutting the leafy green hair of tree-people who come to your shop with very specific requests. A second player can help or hinder you -- their choice -- using simple-to-understand tools. Former Rare developer Hollis and his colleagues designed Bonsai Barber to eliminate frustration and engender collaboration and conversation. The game is also meant to be a little at a time for a long time -- you can only cut five heads of leaves a day and must return the next day to play again. Hollis describes the title as "a new-core game... which means... kids who don't call themselves gamers, although they play a heck of a lot of games." Hollis spoke openly about his reliance on prototypes with Gamasutra, saying he felt relieved when he saw thatgamecompany's Flower presentation at GDC, realizing that his studio wasn't the only one reliant on this design process. Hollis may have the right to feel a bit nervous -- the company's last game never came to fruition. After several years of prototyping, what was intended to be a Gamecube retail product never settled to a core design and was shelved. Says Hollis, "It was tough, to be blunt, for Zoonami for our first three years -- we were a bicycle trying to go as fast as a car, and we couldn't do it. We were working on a retail product that was intended for the Gamecube, and it was tough. If you go into a shop today, it's like 'We can't have a place in this world!' Digital is just perfect for us. It's made everything possible." This process extends to the company having a very democratic design process, with everyone contributing, says Hollis: "I like things to be undefined -- we have five designer/programmers on this game. The artist is like a designer/artist. That story just carries on." Though Hollis believes in this model -- "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," he says -- he does admit that "The outlets aren't really there yet -- you can't sell 10 million copies on digital easily. But we're going to get there in a few years." He does admit, specifically, that WiiWare may not have the requisite penetration for mass success yet, but believes that "in a couple of years, it's really going to pull through. It takes time to build awareness of [a service like] that." In trying to create an amusing, lighthearted game for a general audience, Hollis looked to unusual sources for game designers, he says. "This is supposed to be a comedy game -- we've put a huge amount of work into that. That could be our genre. "It's supposed to be like a TV show -- Friends is like one of our models for this game. A bunch of people can sit in a living room and enjoy Friends. If people are laughing, they're laughing together, and that brings people together into a group." The full Q&A with Hollis, which goes deeper into his inspirations and thoughts on the emerging mainstream digital console download market, will be presented on Gamasutra in the near future.

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