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How Hundreds' minimalist design paid off

In this postmortem extract from the May 2013 issue of GD Mag Hundreds co-developer Adam Saltsman discusses the pros and cons of the game's aesthetic minimalism.

May 3, 2013

4 Min Read

The minimalist puzzle game Hundreds, which shipped on the iTunes App Store in January 2013, was a critical and commercial success and went on to be praised as the new "haute couture" of games. In this postmortem for the May 2013 issue of Game Developer magazine, Adam Saltsman, co-developer for Hundreds, discusses the game's aesthetic minimalism, appealing to players across age groups and backgrounds. Here are some choice extracts from the postmortem:

What went right: Minimalist design

The thing that stands out the most about Hundreds is the way it looks. Greg Wohlwend's striking minimalist graphic design permeates the entire game, with nearly everything important communicated by subtly different shades of gray, punctuated by bold, red user-interface elements. The minimalist design of Hundreds had two big benefits. The first (and maybe most important) benefit is what I (somewhat hyperbolically) refer to as the "#Sworcery Doctrine." In this age of app stores and the proliferation of indie studios and indie games, it's not enough to just make a pretty good game and release it. You could probably argue that was never enough! Right now it feels like creating something that stands out is an integral part of making indie games commercially. There aren't very many games out there that look like Hundreds, and that made a very big difference for us. There are many different ways to make something that stands out, of course. We knew from the start of this project that one of the things we wanted to build was a game that wasn't embarrassing to play on your iPad in public. (That sounds snobby, and please keep in mind that I love cartoony games, and I enjoy violent games, and this is not a low-culture/high-culture thing.) There is a stigma about games being "for kids," and I do think a lot of that has to do with their presentation, whether these games are aping Dreamworks cartoons, comic books, or R-rated action movies (which we all know are really marketed to kids). How hard is it to convince people that How to Train Your Dragon is totally amazing? We really wanted to make a game that didn't unnecessarily exclude anyone, and that definitely includes people who are turned off by stuff that is obviously "for kids." Games researcher Ian Bogost went so far as describing the Hundreds aesthetic as "haute couture" in an article for The Atlantic. The great thing is that kids still love Hundreds; it turns out they don't really need cartoon birds in order to enjoy something. The more pragmatic benefit we got from pursuing a minimalist design is that we didn't have to spend months or even years drawing thousands of frames of animation, modeling backgrounds, or whatever. Nearly everything in Hundreds is procedurally generated, from the circles to the icons, and even the texture atlases for the fonts. We didn't even have an art pipeline; no retina-resolution assets required.

What went wrong: minimalist design

Minimalist game design is a passion of mine, but it can put enormous pressure on weird or unexpected parts of the design when you are trying to produce work that is competitive with less minimalist offerings. A lot of the game-buying audience has a sensitivity to polish. It's not a requirement, by any means, but it is part of a promise that we make as game designers, to our audience. To me, polish says, "Look at this game; look how much effort we put into it. Look how much we believed in it! It's worth taking a second look at this game." It doesn't mean the game is good, of course, but it is one way of conveying a creator's confidence in the work. As an indie game studio with no marketing budget, there aren't a lot of ways for us to tell people this. So, we're pro-polish, as it were. When your game is just circles, though, part of making the work really shine means drawing really, really good circles. I don't have room to go into detail here about how we did it, but I can tell you that drawing perfectly anti-aliased circles of any imaginable size, under a full-screen vignette effect, at 60 frames per second, on an iPad 1 or iPhone 4, is... difficult. The tech behind Hundreds was rebuilt from scratch at least three times during development.

More in the May issue

The May issue of Game Developer magazine is now available via subscription and digital purchase. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.

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