Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We at Joystiq believe no one deserves to starve, and many indie developers are entitled to a fridge full of tasty, fulfilling media coverage, right here. This week, Casey Holtz of Mechanical Butterfly Studios discusses how making a game that sucks is actually a good thing with his iOS title Droopy Blocks.
What's your game called and what's it about?
The game is called Droopy Blocks. It is a puzzle game designed to test your dexterity, timing and spatial abilities while having as much fun as possible getting your fingers into twisted positions.
The goal of the game is to get these living blocks of goo, called Droopy Blocks, back into their original shapes since they have melted in an accident at a secret underground lab. The game takes place on a 5x5 grid, with creatures called Suckers on each side of the grid. To get the blocks back into their shapes you need to use these Sucker creatures to pull them around the game area while holding the parts of the blocks that you do not want to move in place with your fingers.
There are 80 puzzles set in 4 locations and also a championship mode for people to set high scores in and compete.
What's the coolest aspect of Droopy Blocks?
The coolest part of the game is that it is the only game like it. It is the first game to use this type of multi-touch puzzle mechanic. I personally seek out new and different games because I am tired of playing the same types of games constantly, so it was a core design pillar for me to make it different.
I also think the Droopy blocks turned out pretty cool. I wanted the blocks to have some charm and character, so they will make little noises and animate when you poke them. My favorite thing is that they will look at where you are pressing your finger on the screen.
How did you come up with the "Sucker" gameplay style in Droopy Blocks?
The core mechanic of the game I wanted to explore was dripping. I realized that if I followed reality and only had one direction of gravity that it would limit the complexity and fun of the puzzles, so I decided to come up with a way to pull the blocks in different directions. Making the sucking mechanic into characters sounded more fun that putting in fans or some sort of sucking machine.
What inspired you to make Droopy Blocks?
I wanted to make a game for touch devices that could only actually be played on a touch device. There are a lot of games on touch devices that could be played with a game controller and would be even better. My goal was to make a game where touching was the core mechanic and make it as fun as possible.
The idea of touching drippy gooey things seemed like a good hook.
AAA game development is fun and the tech you get to use and the people you work with are all amazing. It is also great to see your game get good press and fans. It is overall a much different experience though, in that you are doing a small but integral part of often a big complex game. I really believe that every single detail matters in a game and it is important to make that vision carry through.
Most companies lack an auteur or someone that knows for certain what the game will be and how to get it there. With my company I get to carry that torch and maintain and mold the vision throughout the development, but most importantly I never start a project I cannot already play or understand intimately in my head.
The barrier of entry is lowest for mobile games currently. You can have a smaller team and a smaller budget and you do not run the risk of having a gate keeper that can deny your game's release. If you start with XBLA or PSN, which are both awesome platforms, you run the risk of not getting your game approved for sale on the system. In the case of XBLA your game may end up on the indie channel instead, which seems like an extremely hard market to make any money on. Your average XBLA or PSN game costs probably around 100k-2 million dollars to be competitive if not more.
The only issue I see with mobile now is that the prices for games are so low. People in the mobile space want to play for free which is great but I think some of them forget that someone is working really hard to make the games they are enjoying and they need to make a living if they want to keep on doing it.
You had an opportunity to work on a big-budget shooter in Europe -- do you regret not taking it?
I definitely questioned what the hell I was doing a few times. I would have dreams I was in Europe crunching on the game. I was concerned that if I took the job, I would work for two more years and my current ideas would be made by someone else, and then I would also be two years older and more worried about taking the risk with my career and finances. That game came out and got awesome reviews and would have probably been great for my life experience, design skills and resume. However, looking at it today I have no regrets.
The initial game I was going to launch my company with was a reboot of a really huge franchise from the 80s, which seems odd for someone wanting to make original games. I just got this gameplay idea and crazy inspiration one day to bring back a game that was pure magic to me as a kid. I had a team of about 10 developers, all with a lot of experience, ready to go. We were working on a demo and pitch package and it was looking great. We were really going to modernize it and do some innovative gameplay, but the licenses holder wanted something like 650k to even get the ball rolling, so it all it fell through.
I then went back to the drawing board and started designing ideas for mobile games. I wanted to pursue a smaller scope project I could get done with a small team and smaller initial investment.
This is my first commercial indie game after working at bigger console game companies. At a larger company things are much less flexible and you basically have to make a game that pleases the team leads and the publishers, which can oftentimes result in an unfocused or diluted game. I think being agile and able to pursue the fun when it starts to show itself in the game is a key thing that indie developers get to enjoy a bit more.
Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?
I would like to be. I am probably not on the radar in the indie scene for most people now but there are so many indie devs out there I really respect and would love to know and talk with. A lot of my close friends who I used to work with at Activision and Crystal Dynamics have started indie studios in the Bay Area, so we all talk often, play test each others games and give advice, specifically Bradley Johnson from Be-Rad Entertainment, John Hsia from Endboss Games and Patrick Connor and William Ghar from Robot Panda.
Sell Droopy Blocks in one sentence:
There is no other game that will simultaneously challenge your dexterity, quick thinking and spatial reasoning and delight you with its drippy cool gameplay.
I am going to get out at least one update of puzzles for Droopy Blocks for the fans of the game. If there is enough demand I will do my best to keep that going and the players happy. I am planning to port the game to Kindle Fire.
Another thing I am working on is a really ambitious Action/RPG style game that will be on the PC that mixes some types of gameplay people have not really seen yet. I have some ideas for new puzzle mechanics I really want to try out as well.
Droopy Blocks is free on the App Store now. Go play with some goo!
If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email jess [at] joystiq [dawt] com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.