Melbourne studio Kumobius has just released its first game: Bean's Quest, an old-school side-scrolling platform game starring a Mexican jumping bean. Come behind the scenes as we talk to developers Ivan Neeson, Tom Greenaway and James Greenaway about their creation.
Can you tell us a bit about the background of Kumobius? Who are you, and how did Kumobius come to be? What led you to mobile gaming?
We are a three-man indie game-development studio in Melbourne. Our three members are:
James: I've worked as an illustrator and artist for about 10 years. I love video games, and they've always been a big inspiration in my work. People have told me my art is very detailed, like intricate worlds full of things; a bit like the layout of a level in a video game.
Tom: I've experimented with game development my whole life. When I was young, I would build tiny games with simple tools. It made me appreciate how important programming can be as a skill, and I pursued it since then.
At Kumobius I do a lot of the administration of the company, considering the feasibility of the work, and always questioning the usability or accessibility of any game design. I also build and maintain the tools we use to work on the levels, which also means I have helped James with the actual level designs for Bean's Quest.
Ivan: I've worked in the game industry for quite a few years, working on some AAA titles such as Need for Speed: Shift for iPhone and iPad. I also worked on the greatest game ever made: Pony Friends 2.
We met each other through a mutual friend in 2010; from then, we worked on the game casually after work and on weekends.
It looks like Bean's Quest is your first game. Can you explain a little bit about it and how you arrived at this particular game?
When we first started, we knew that we wanted to create a game that had simple controls. We all pretty much agreed that most on-screen controls for touch-based devices aren't accessible, and didn't really match the paradigm of the device.
We started thinking about those classic "always running" infinite side-scrolling games, and trying to add something different. After prototyping and playing around with a few ideas, however, we decided to try flipping the mechanic so that the character is always jumping.
It turned out to work really well, and we decided to use the touchscreen rather than the gyroscope, as well — this allowed for very precise platforming. From that point on, it was simply a matter of refining the controls and the players' movement, so that it feels natural.
There's massive competition in the mobile-gaming market. What do you think Bean's Quest offers that other games do not?
There's a lot of depth in the gameplay, but at the same time the controls are so simple that people can pick it up instantly. So it has that "easy to learn, hard to master" aspect. A lot of games end up going for only one of those ideas, and miss the other.
Rather than games with randomly generated stages and supposedly "infinite gameplay", we have 50 very carefully structured stages. We have created three layers of achievements for players to collect, which provides more depth and replay value.
One of the achievements is called "Jump Par", and it's designed specifically for old-school gamers. People who played Super Mario or Sonic in their childhood will be right at home with this achievement.
Every stage can be achieved in a minimum number of jumps, so it's a bit like a golf par. It requires a lot of skill and understanding of the stage to achieve. People who can do it tell us it's very satisfying.
What was the biggest challenge in creating Bean's Quest? How did you overcome it?
From a technical point of view, we have built a very robust engine and set of tools alongside Bean's Quest. In theory, we can now expand and build new games even faster. This was a decision we made early on, and, while it created more work for us to begin with, it should pay off as we expand.
In terms of game design, we think our biggest challenge was coming up with level designs for our first world. We re-made "World 1" about four times before we were finally happy with the way the game progressed and taught the player. You really need to make the initial experience pleasurable, but still challenging; it's a fine line.
What do you think is the essential ingredient in a truly awesome mobile game?
Accessibility; it should be easy to learn to start with. Simple experiences that teach the player what's going on and what the rules are, quickly. You also need to be aware of your audience; mobile games are played while in transit, waiting for trains or connecting transport. So your game's format should suit that to a degree.
An example is when we started Bean's Quest — our first prototype had much larger stages than the final product, but we found this didn't work so well. The levels were too long for the mobile audience, and also conflicted with the Jump Par achievement we touched on earlier. We refined those level designs down to smaller stages that are much tighter and keep your attention. Now, with the final update, there are 50 of these stages to explore and conquer.
What have you found different about mobile-gaming development, as opposed to console and PC development? Is it better or worse?
Ivan: Well, it all depends on what your goals are, but in general I think that mobile is currently the best platform for indie game developers just starting out.
The PC is a fantastic platform for getting started learning how to create games. There are tons of great game engines out there, and the turnaround time for debugging and fixing problems is very fast. As a bonus, everyone probably already has a PC, so the set-up cost is very low.
Getting your PC game out there on the market, however, is an entirely different story. There is currently no easy way to distribute and sell indie games for the PC. I think this makes it a bad choice for indie developers, especially those who are just starting out with their first commercial title.
Consoles are pretty much out of the question for young indie studios. The cost for all the required equipment is usually very high, and that's assuming you can even form a relationship with console makers. Newer consoles and handhelds with downloadable games are making this process a little easier, but it's still nowhere near as seamless as mobile platforms.
I think mobile is currently the best place to create (and, more importantly, sell) games as an indie developer. Not only are the APIs for these platforms really good, but the infrastructure for getting your game out there and into customers' hands is as simple as it could be.
What advice would you offer aspiring devs looking to set up their own mobile-game studio?
Tom: I'll start from a cash-flow perspective: if you're eligible for any government grants, then look into them. The Australian Government has been pretty helpful for small businesses and games in the past. Ideally, you want to build something quickly that will generate income to test the waters.
So then, picking your first project is tough; don't try to make the game you "always wanted to make", because you will fail in some way and you'll get hung up on those problems. You're better off starting with small scope, an idea or genre you feel you understand well, and keep moving forward in development.
Lastly, a team is always good. People can be successful solo, but you can feel isolated — camaraderie is really important when facing all the challenges of starting a studio.
Ivan: If you're a solo programmer, the number-one thing you need to get is a great artist. Of course, great gameplay is important, but — most of the time — better-looking games will sell more.
James: Don't be afraid to be yourselves and make the games you really want to make. Games are like art or movies; if you develop a game you're passionate about, it will show in the end product.
What's next for Kumobius?
We have lots of ideas. We're going to look at prototyping more before we jump into our next game.
Recently, though, we participated in the 2012 Global Game Jam — we won the best game prize for our entry in the local competition here in Melbourne, Australia. That was quite humbling, as there were lots of great games built in those 48 hours. The game is currently available for free on PC and Mac here on our website.
We definitely learned a lot from Bean's Quest. Both how the platform works, the dynamics of the App Store, game-design principles in general, learning even more about the audience. We'll apply as much as we can to our next project.
Having said that, there's a lot more to learn — so we'll be constantly adapting, we're sure.