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Interview: Toy Designer Smith On How Plush Meets Game In Ninjatown

We've seen plenty of game-inspired toys, but Shawnimals designer and former EGM staffer Shawn Smith is working on the DS game inspired by his plush toys, Ninjatown -- here, he talks to Gamasutra about working with developers Venan and why it's impo
The industry's seen a heap of odd, occasionally lovable plush toys inspired by games, but having a game inspired by quirky-cute plush toys is a somewhat rarer occurrence. But toy designer Shawn Smith, creator of the "Shawnimals" family of designer toys, is playing a role in precisely such an effort. He's overseeing the Ninjatown stuffed toy IP he created get licensed to publisher Southpeak Interactive for an upcoming, eponymous DS strategy title developed by Venan Entertainment. Smith also has a background in games, reviewing for Electronic Gaming Monthly from 1996 to 2000. "I really loved that," he says, "but I was always more visual, so I got back into designing characters and making artwork." Ninjatown's story and characters -- huggable ninjas each with odd traits, from the cell phone-wielding Business Ninja to the safety-cone orange Anti-Ninja -- came first, followed by the toys and then the game partnership. "Gaming is really the ultimate medium for stuff like this, because when we do something on paper, we're just doing character illustrations and doing story concepts and dialog," Smith explains. "That's all fine and good, but you need a medium to represent that in." So is the Ninjatown game an enhancement of the toy brand, or is the game the ultimate destination for Smith's toys? "With designer toys, as much as I love it, and we love it at Shawnimals, it's niche, and it's kind of supposed to be that way, right?" he says. "So, for us to get into an area like gaming that is so huge and has so much more reach, it's obviously an enhancement to what we do just from an exposure standpoint." Nonetheless, Smith says it's also an "apples and oranges" situation in many ways. "It would be a bit presumptuous at this stage to say that we're enhancing just gaming or South Peak or whatever, but I would like to think that what we're doing with this specifically hearkens back to some 8 and 16-bit-style gameplay experiences, with the story and characters," he says. Far from a scenario where the game is intended to sell toys, Smith feels Ninjatown provides additional development for the world he's created, and gives added dimensions to the ninjas' different roles -- "Ninja Consultant" actually has a real job to do, now. Smith says that initially it was "terrifying" to see the level of detail that needed to be filled into the world he created in order to build a great game. But once getting past "just being completely overwhelmed" by that stage, Smith says he enjoyed having a purpose behind the development of the world around the characters. And he had plenty of support from Venan in terms of universe creation. "I would love to think that I had the capacity to do everything myself, but unfortunately, no," Smith says. "It's really been collaborative. Venan's been awesome to work with because first of all, they get it. There's obviously a great deal of absurdity and humor in Ninjatown because they're ninjas -- but they're not really ninjas. They are what they are. That's a very important thing that Venan got from the get-go." For example, Smith says the developer understood completely what he calls "absolutes in the world of Ninjatown" -- certain lines he wanted to draw between irreverent humor and outright violence. "There's just certain things that we just let Venan know, and beyond that, they would think of something, and we would think of something, and we'd bounce it off each other," Smith says. Gameplay considerations for story were also something new to Smith, who wasn't yet accustomed to considering how character, world and story design decisions might or might not impact gameplay. But the collaborative process between Shawnimals and Venan was key, he maintains. "We wouldn't want to become a company who's just sitting there approving stuff that comes from someone who may not know anything about the brand or the world," Smith says. Ultimately, Smith says his objective when working with Venan was to work from, "'What did I like when I was playing games when I was younger in the 8 and 16-bit era?' It's like, 'Awesome gameplay, with a really great story and great characters on top of that,' because that was the ultimate experience." "That's really, at the end of the day, what I try to do when I'm working with them, is to make sure, 'Okay, the story and characters are represented. We got that. But what's the gameplay like?'" He adds, "It may be interesting, fun, and it may be addictive at some level. So far, I think that that's the case, but it's not really up to me at the end of the day. It's up to the players."

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