[In the first in a series of interviews with 2010 Independent Games Festival Mobile finalists, Gamasutra sister site FingerGaming speaks to Powerhead Games CEO Jason Schreiber, whose DSiWare game Glow Artisan is a finalist in the Best Mobile Game category after having won the award for Best Mobile Game Design.]
Described as another "secretly rad" DSiWare game by GameSetWatch’s Eric Caoili, Glow Artisan
could have remained just that, a footnote on Nintendo’s weekly "downloadables" PR sheet, seeing only a single, admittedly fantastic review in its first week of release.
However, a few months on and developer Powerhead Games’ debut original title has won the IGF’s Best Mobile Game Design award, being the only game on a traditional gaming handheld up for the grand prize in the catergory of Best Mobile Game.
FingerGaming had the chance talk with Powerhead Games boss Jason Schreiber about his company’s first non-licensed game, the development of such a unique and feature-rich puzzle game and the indie scene in general.
What is Powerhead Games’ background in game development?
We recently celebrated Powerhead Games’ tenth anniversary as an independent game developer. Our first game was for the original Nintendo Game Boy. We’ve pretty much been a Nintendo handheld developer ever since, working on many different types of "for hire" (other company’s IP) games. Glow Artisan
is Powerhead’s first original IP and our first self-published game.
Can you tell us what development tools your team used to create Glow Artisan?
We use 3D Studio, Photoshop MediaWiki, SVN, Lua, Bugzilla and Notepad. We also use a bunch of internal tools and technology which we take great pride in. For example, our Font Text Writer tool is not just a means to get text into the Nintendo DS, but it’s also an indication of our love of silly acronyms. The most important tool though, is the Glow Puzzle Maker, which is included in the game!
How long was the game in development?
The first prototype of Glow Artisan
was built about two years ago. Several of the core features in the finished game were in place at week one: using one screen as a blueprint and the other as a canvas, drawing from the edges ("emitters"), and erasing/cutting lines.
That first prototype showed potential, but it was a far cry from where we wound up. Glow Artisan
became a labor of love at Powerhead — nearly everyone here had a hand, at least some part, to move development forward. When the Nintendo DSi was announced, everything fell into place. We knew two of the DSi’s features, the camera and the shop, would be perfect for Glow Artisan.
How did the initial concept come about?
Two designers, Matt [LoPresti] and Ramiro [Corbetta], were discussing ideas as designers are wont to do. In a classic case of the game "Telephone", one misinterpreted the other’s design and came up with the idea of “emitters” (drawing from the edges). They enlisted Randy (programmer) and Mike (artist) to work on a prototype. (It was up and running in about a week.)
Like any good idea, it was inspirational. Soon additional people got involved, and the design shifted to a more "cabal" approach.
How did your "for hire" work on primarily licensed games prepare you for the development of Glow Artisan?
Working on games for young audiences enforces the basic tenet that players should always know what they can do. It sounds simple, but this kind of detail can be overlooked as developers struggle to hit a deadline, or debate level of polish vs. additional features.
During the development of Glow
, we repeatedly noticed the mechanic wasn’t obvious to new players. We heard: "Why can’t I just draw anywhere with the stylus?" a lot. We knew if the game was not presented properly then first-time players would likely get frustrated.
Building a thorough tutorial solved a lot of problems: it made a good first impression, helped set the pace of the game, and made sure players knew how to play our game.
What would you say are the advantages and disadvantages of putting your game on DSiWare, versus "proven" services such as the App Store and Xbox Live Indies?
The simplest answer is: where else could we sell our downloadable Nintendo DSi game? Another advantage for DSiWare is the other services, especially the App Store, are just flooded with games. This makes it very hard to get attention for new IP.
We like to think Glow Artisan
's quality would have demanded attention no matter what system it was initially released on, but releasing Glow Artisan
as a DSiWare game helped it stand out just because there are only a few games released every week.
Of course, the flip side, is the App Store and Xbox shop experiences are much more mature — it’s so easy to go from a link on the web to a purchase for any App. To find Glow Artisan
in the DSi Shop, you need to specifically search for it. Hopefully, that will change as the DSiWare shop evolves and adapts.
Glow Artisan has a strong sense of identity. Do you think an interesting, coherent aesthetic is a necessity on a service alongside the likes of the ArtStyle and Electroplankton series?
For us, anything that helps our game stand out is helpful. Marketers like to talk about a good "elevator pitch" or "five word" description for a game. ("You only have 30 seconds with an executive to sell your game… Go!")
doesn’t have a great elevator pitch. Or at least we haven’t found it yet. We still have problems explaining the gameplay. ("So, here’s how to play. You need to redraw this puzzle, but you can only draw from the left and top sides of the screen. No, not that screen. And it’s got a lot of features and modes. And it uses the camera…")
That said, we learned even showing the game isn’t enough. We posted a carefully constructed trailer online, but the first comment said the it sucks because it doesn’t show off the game concept. (We took it as a compliment that the random YouTube user liked our game enough to support it by criticizing its only trailer.)
If you could reset and start fresh on development of Glow Artisan, what would you do differently?
Once we had the mechanic down, we spent a lot of time trying out different looks and modes. We also explored various story ideas, such as the totally original idea of adding color to a colorless corporate world (shakes fist at de Blob
!). If we had known from the start we were self-publishing on DSiWare, we could saved time by only focusing on the essentials of game play, cool features, and presentation.
For the game itself, I’m going to paraphrase Matt and say we learned a lot in making tons of small (5×5) and large (10×12) puzzles. In retrospect we could have eased players into the larger levels a little better. Perhaps by adding a medium sized grid.
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene, particularly in relation to the mobile space?
Matt says that "some of the indie games I’ve played on DSiWare and Xbox Live Indie are some of the best experiences he’s had in recent years. Especially Solar
on Xbox Live." And Ramiro says 2009 "had a lot of interesting games, like Closure, Star Guard, Every Day The Same Dream, Today I Die
, and a bunch of other games that I’m probably forgetting.”
I don’t think I’m the first to make this observation, but look at where id, Epic and 3DRealms started. They were all “indie” shareware companies, working on self-published games in the 90’s. They all were responsible directly to their consumers and, as a result, produced high quality games and great franchises. The indie game developers of today could very well be the gaming powerhouses of the next decade.
Have you played and enjoyed any of the other IGF Mobile finalists?
We’re looking forward to more hands on time with all the games at GDC, but we’re all fans of Hook Champ
. (And we’re not just saying that because Drop7
was made in New York City.)