I never intended it to be so, but the story of Explodemon!, one of the games we're working on at Curve, and how it developed from a just-for-laughs lunchtime project into a self-published IP on PlayStation 3, is a story worth telling. Amazingly, at the time of writing, it spans four years. It's been a long journey, but through a combination of determination and sheer bloody mindedness, it looks like we may make it after all. So here it is, the first of a number of posts on the Explodemon Saga.
2005 had been a mad year. It started with a life-changing family tragedy, followed swiftly with the closure of the company I worked for, the founding of my own, the best holiday I’ve ever had and my first taste of working on 2D sprite games. 2005 was also a mad year for the UK games industry. The end of the console generation was causing publishers to tighten their belts, sticking to the tried and tested, and placing bets on the next generation (the 360 released in November of that year).
I had experienced this first hand with the most signable project I’d ever worked on, Deadlight, going unsigned due to a number of unfortunate cancelations in Blue52’s history counting against them. In a difficult climate, any excuse is excuse enough. Around 20 companies bit the dust in 2005, the company where I was employed as a lead designer, Blue52, among them.
As a result of this, the opportunities for UK games professionals in 2005 were pretty dire. After Blue closed in March, we formed Curve pretty much straight away. This was partly because there weren’t any jobs around, but also because we’d been lucky enough to find a small project to work on for a few months, and it was simply better than being unemployed.
I went from working on console action titles with big budgets and long dev cycles – I was on Stolen on and off for nearly five years – to what we came to call “joystick games”. You may have seen these in toyshops; curiously shaped plastic joysticks with built-in games, each stick holding around five games, always based on licensed properties.
At first it felt like a fall from grace, but after finishing a long, complex, demoralising project with many problems and failings, working on getting five 2D games out of the door within three months was refreshing and liberating. The constraints of the system, combined with my love of classic arcade, SNES and GBA games made for an interesting period. It was like going back in time to gain experience on the types of titles I’d never got to work on, fattening up the foundations of my design skills.
After shipping one of these packs, we found it enjoyable enough to want to continue and were offered another two to do. With one successful project behind us, we had the beginnings of a company, and started to look around again for console work, with PSP being our focus. It was early days for the PSP, and everyone was betting that it would be a big success like the PS2.
Our previous console experience matched the abilities of the PSP, and our small size matched the dev budgets, so we were hopeful of climbing back up the development ladder. By October we had managed to get some of our staff onto small PSP titles, mainly helping our friends at Sumo Digital in an outsourcing capacity. Meanwhile the limitations of licensed joystick games were beginning to get to me and I was itching to get creative again. Alex (May, Eufloria) had put me onto Game Maker in April of that year, since he knew I had been interested in learning how to make games myself.
As a non-coder, Torque had proved too complex for me, but Game Maker was just about my level – I wouldn’t have to program my own sprite routines, or worry about how to calculate collisions, etc. I could just get on with mucking about with gameplay. So I did. I quickly made a simple top-down shooter, and a block puzzle game where blocks exploded and created chains. I had fun, but it wasn’t anything spectacular.
One of the joystick games we were working on at the time was a Spider-Man platform game, and I’d had to spend a good deal of time explaining to the game’s coder the basics of platform game control. Because he wasn’t a platform game player, the coder questioned every part of these basics, including inertia in control (why would you want that?) and the fact that holding down a jump button for longer would make you jump higher (that doesn’t make sense!).
After explaining these things in detail, I realised that talking through the mechanics wasn’t enough for me, and I had a sudden ache to make my own platform game to really explore my understandings of these basics. I realised, through my limited bumblings with Game Maker, that I now had the abilities to try some ideas out, which was pretty exciting. The more I thought about it, the more my neurons flickered with my multiple past replays of Yoshi’s Island, Super Mario World, and Treasure’s Astro Boy and Gunstar Heroes.
These kinds of games, and especially for me Yoshi’s Island, possess a certain quality to them; something about the pixel art, the depth of gameplay deriving from simple rules, the accessibility, the collecting, the level designs, the perfect controls. I didn’t know what it was, but it tickled my nostalgia node in a special way, and I felt a burning desire to create my own game that explored these mechanics.
I didn’t want to create something ambitious, or poignant, or something that pushed the edge of game theory, but rather an uncomplicated platform game, albeit one of the quality of a Nintendo or Treasure title. I was interested in finding out just what it is that makes those titles as good as they are. And so I started at the beginning.