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Q&A: oeFun's Ian Dunlop On Indie DS/Wii Development

In this exclusive Q&A, oeFun studio head Ian Dunlop (Konductra) tells Gamasutra what it's like doing independent development for the DS and Wii, including finding the right publisher, working with an original IP, and losing the "d-pad/button baggag
In this exclusive Q&A, oeFun studio head and former Turok and Thief programmer Ian Dunlop (Konductra) tells Gamasutra what it's like doing independent development for the DS and Wii, including finding the right publisher, working with an original IP, and losing the "d-pad/button baggage" in favor of the Wii's motion-based controls. How did you come to form an indie console developer? What's your background in the industry? It was all timing. There were a number of indicators in my life, back in January ‘05, that were all basically pointing this direction. So I came up with a plan for making a game; something I figured I could get done in a reasonable amount of time and money. I’ve been playing and making games since ‘81 (professionally since ‘87). I was one of those self-taught coders during the Sinclair home computing revolution in the UK. Started with a ZX-81 and ZX-Spectrum, moved from there to the Commodore Amiga and then the consoles. I’ve had the good fortune to work on some interesting properties over the years. Most notably, Turok for the Nintendo 64 and Thief:Deadly Shadows on Xbox and PC. During the years I’ve held many positions in both the programming and design disciplines. Now at oeFun, I manage things and also do design and programming duties. Our first title, Konductra for the Nintendo DS, was published October last year by O3 Entertainment. What was it like trying to sign a DS puzzle game? Do you have tips for other indies on how to pitch to publishers? Right from day one, my mission was to finish the game and not worry about the publisher question, then when it was done, to basically say to the publisher - “OK, here is a finished game. You don’t have to spend any money on the development.” I figured that the DS would be a good fit for puzzle games. Of course, I failed to realize everyone else was thinking the same thing, and by the time I was finished, there were a lot of puzzle games. That made things difficult. Establishing a relationship with publishers is a good start. Finding out what they are looking for is what you need to know, but it’s often difficult to get them to express it. Most publishers have their own niche carved out and that even carries over to game style within a specific genre. What I mean by that is there may be several publishers who are interested in publishing a DS puzzle game, but one publisher will want a character driven anime one, another will want the modern/electronic version and another must have a license attached. It’s hard enough getting one style of the game completed, but several? Ultimately you need to make some tough calls, which inevitably shuts the doors to some publishers. Managing that well is crucially important. Why did you choose to start with an original IP? For me it’s both the experience of playing something of my own creation and the challenge of building it. It doesn’t have to be a complete departure (i.e. it can be classified by the known genres), but I guess as a designer I need to bring something new to the table. How was team and contractor size handled for the DS game? Did you learn anything practical you can pass on? Given the design choices up front, team size was kept small. It was just me for all the main design and programming, an artist and one sound guy. There were other people who worked on Konductra, but those were smaller more manageable pieces - like the web site and the MySQL back end for the leaderboards. What's been the single biggest challenge and biggest win so far for your company? Looking back on it all, it was easily the craziest/most hectic one and half years of my life. So, when it was said and done, seeing it on the shelf was a great reward! I think the biggest win has been making new friends and colleagues. So going forwards with the Nintendo Wii title, I’m going to take all the of the good and build a bigger and better game this time. Why are you looking at Wii now? The Wii represents, to me at least, a direction in gaming that I’ve been wanting things to go now for a long time. I’ve been playing video games for a while now, so it’s definitely time for something different. Also, from a development perspective, the Wii gives me the audience that I’m looking for. Now all we need are 3D headsets and full head motion tracking. Before you laugh, that is where we are headed - unless, of course, someone figures out a way to beam it directly into your brain first. Does Nintendo make it easy for indies to get onto Wii? Yes. They have some great tools which allow you to get games up and running pretty quickly. That tools and tech foundation is the basis for our Nintendo Wii game prototype. In the beginning, the hardest part was the controller. It’s easy to program it. The difficult part was translating my game design ideas into something workable. With all that player freedom, it’s non-trivial to elicit a response from the player and then decode it appropriately. It’s mostly a design issue, but in that sense it’s the hardest one to overcome - especially if you have 10 years of d-pad/button baggage cluttering your thoughts. What excites you for the future of small companies doing console games? I’m a big believer in inspiration due to limitations. Having something to rein you in, whether that be the size of your company, or the intended console platform can be a good thing. I think in small companies there is greater impetus, and consequently innovation and excellence can be found in abundance. I’m constantly looking for new ideas and new ways to express those ideas, and the Nintendo Wii is the perfect platform to showcase those ideas on. Are there any other independent developers you respect? I have great respect for anyone who works hard on what they love. Best luck to all of them. Cheers!

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