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Interview: Robinson Talks Quirky Adventure Title Puzzle Bots

Gamasutra spoke with Puzzle Bots developer Erin Robinson about the game's development and design, the aesthetic evolution of casual games, and her life as an indie developer.
Indie developer Erin Robinson's Puzzle Bots launched earlier this year, and uses many elements from classic point and click adventure games, wrapping them in a quirky and silly aesthetic design. The game centers around a group of minuscule robots that who try to escape a factory in a comedic, lighthearted adventure. Robinson's other indie projects include Spooks and Nanobots, and she worked with Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games to launch Puzzle Bots as her first commercial release. The game has been featured in several indie showcases, including the E3 IndieCade and the Penny Arcade Expo's PAX 10. Gamasutra spoke with Robinson as part of a new interview series speaking to PAX 10 selections -- discussing Puzzle Bots' development and design, the aesthetic evolution of casual games, and her life as an indie developer. Can you please describe the game a bit? Erin Robinson: Puzzle Bots is a game about five little robots that like to escape from the factory when nobody’s looking, and they generally cause havoc for their human inventors who don’t know they’re missing. And it’s in the adventure game mold. ER: It is, yeah. It’s a point and click adventure game. The way I have it set up is that each robot has a special ability. I really liked old adventure games because they let you interact with the game world in a very rich, meaningful way. But I didn’t think today’s players would have much patience for a character who had a bunch of verbs, like pick up, look at, talk to, so I just made those verbs different characters, and it seems to work out really well. At least, no one has complained about it. You did a similar mechanic in a game called Nanobots. ER: I did, yeah. Is there something special to you about tiny robots? ER: No, not so much. My publisher, Dave Gilbert, liked Nanobots, so he asked me to make another game like that, but a little bit nicer, and I kind of went overboard and made a 17 level casual game. Now, you mentioned casual game, and this game is much more in the casual game mold. ER: It’s supposed to be accessible. It’s supposed to be fun no matter who you are. There’s a cute little story, and there are some jokes in there. The game starts out with one robot, and you get a new one every few levels, there are tutorials, there is a hint button if you get stuck. It's interesting, kids have no problem hitting the hint button, but adults are too proud, even though that’s what it’s there for. Dave Gilbert has a publishing deal with PlayFirst and has been doing a lot of business with casual portals. How much did that impact the design of the game? ER: I don’t think it changed any of the story or the content, but I did want to make the gameplay a little bit easier. It ramps up, and the end of the game is pretty tricky, as you know. Once you have five robots, if you see one thing in the level you say, “Okay, can I blow this up, can I set it on fire, can I pick it up?” it really makes it more interesting. What are some of the benefits that you’ve found working indie? ER: Definitely creative freedom. I love having that. I love being able to say, "This level should look like this," or, "There should be an abandoned factory here with big gears that everybody can see," and it’s not explained what the big machine in the room is right away, and being able to write quirky little offbeat stories, and not have somebody say “Uh, the audience isn’t going to get that.” A lot of casual games are really condescending about their audience. People talk about their audiences like they’re not very bright. If you don’t respect your player, they’re eventually not going to want to play your games. How about some drawbacks to being indie? ER: Money! (laughs) You know, the game is doing really well critically and getting a lot of good reviews, but we'd like to do better sales-wise. I’m hoping to get the game onto Steam, so hopefully that’ll help. In previous games with Dave, you did the art. In this game, you did the art for the humans? ER: Yeah, I did the human art and animation. Did you feel a need, going through casual game portals, to stay away from the pixel-based retro look? ER: Yeah, definitely. It’s a hard sell now. A couple years ago, it didn’t matter, since casual games were kind of new, but now people kind of have an expectation for what they want. And even the cartoony style is kind of going out of fashion. A lot of people have these CG, fully-realistic games that are gritty and dark, and before it used to be kind of cute and cartoony. But, I mean, I like cute and cartoony! Have you done any ridiculous part-time jobs to fund yourself while you’re doing this? ER: Yeah, I’ve been doing some part-time work for a social game company in Montreal. The game is kind of like Foursquare, but a little more upbeat. It’s like, "Write something cool on a piece of paper for someone else to find, and then GPS tag it." Has being in the PAX 10 impacted anything? ER: Well, Valve just came to talk to me, so I think that’ll be the big one. That was pretty exciting. This is the first retail game that you’ve been the lead on. What are some major deviations from what you expected? ER: Finishing the game was a really hard slog and you know, the designing part is fun, and the animating part is kind of fun, but the rest is just work; I had to project manage the whole thing, and it was such work. I was surprised at the end, thinking, “Oh, all this good stuff is happening, I forgot that’s why we were doing this.” One day, I had a shelf fall out of my fridge, and because I'd been bug testing for days, my first thought was, “Oh no, what do I put in the bug report?”

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