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The Joystiq Indie Pitch: Forbidden Island


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, Sean Wilson of international indie studio Button Mash Games explains how his iPad title, Forbidden Island, is contributing to the tabletop game's renaissance.

What's your game called and what's it about?

Forbidden Island is an iPad board game where one to four adventurers cooperate to capture the four ancient treasures hidden on a sinking island. As the game progresses, parts of the island sink into the ocean, making it more difficult to collect the treasures. The game is based on the award-winning board game designed by Matt Leacock and published by Gamewright.

How were you able to create a licensed game as a brand new indie company?

This was really a combination of confidence and luck. We reached out to Matt Leacock, the original game designer, and expressed our interest in making the game. We created a small gameplay demo and explained our passion for the project and Matt put us in touch with Gamewright. They believed in our enthusiasm and plans for the game so they agreed to work with us. They gave us the freedom to take the game design in the directions we believed were best, but pushed us to reach further than we would have if we didn't have any outside feedback. The game has tons of improvements directly because of their ideas.

What inspired you to make Forbidden Island?

When the iPad was released we were excited because it was the first time board games and video games could really come together. When we thought about the features that would make a great iPad board game, we made a list including things like: fun for kids and adults, cooperative, no hidden information, great visuals, etc. When we compared our list to all of the board games that we frequently played, Forbidden Island topped it!

What's the coolest aspect of Forbidden Island?

As a gamer? The sinking-island gameplay mechanic. The original version of Forbidden Island implemented this fantastic idea to have the board disappear bit by bit and become more dangerous as you play the game. It generates real tension and motivation for players!

As a developer? The undo button. Our architecture actually supports undoing an entire game; every flood, move, card draw, and shuffle can unwind perfectly. Of course, that level of power is corrupting, so we only allow players to undo the actions in the current turn.

Anything you'd do differently?

On the technical side, there are a few pieces of our architecture that we'd like time to improve. Some of us have a lot of software architecture experience, but our inexperience with iOS before making this game meant that we were learning a lot as we went.

Speaking of the user interface, how did you come up with the visual design used in the game?

We iterated our graphic design many times over the course of development. Our final design aesthetic combines very tangible elements like a compass, notepad and bookshelf, with distinctly modern UI chrome. The buttons have a very clean and simple look that makes them stand out against the warmer and well-worn background elements. Our graphic designer really knows his stuff and was able to combine these two different styles to make something that really works well as a whole.

Board games tend to have a lot of rules for players to learn. How do you make Forbidden Island accessible to new players?

We've designed the game to provide lots of help for players who want it. We have a detailed rule book, interactive gameplay tutorial and in-game help to tell players which actions they can perform. We also created a small message area for each player that reminds them what to do next as the game progresses. These are incredibly valuable for guiding players as they learn the game. As they get more experienced, players can ignore these messages because they don't interrupt the gameplay at all.

Do you see Forbidden Island as an attempt to bring back the tabletop game?

Tabletop games are enjoying a renaissance right now. Our iPad implementation of Forbidden Island is really a reflection of that, rather than an instigator of it. As gamers, we're really enjoying the awesome stuff being produced and we wanted to contribute something special to that world. We really love playing games with friends and family. So really, Forbidden Island is an attempt to share something that we love with others, and I think you can see it in the finished game.

Sell Forbidden Island in one sentence:

Surprisingly deep strategy that anyone can play -- and play together.

Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?

Indie software development is also in the middle of a renaissance period right now. The barrier to entry has never been lower for creating software and that really made our efforts possible. It's wonderful to find so many developers discussing difficult development problems openly online.

Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?

The complete control of having our own independent company is wonderful. Not only can we decide what games we want to make, we can decide how to make them. It takes working in a large company for a few years to realize how valuable it is to define your own working style and processes.

How do you get together to work on Button Mash Games projects?

All four of us live in different cities at the moment, with one actually living in another country for now. Because of the distance, we get together in person very rarely. We communicate regularly through email and voice chat, but the large time differences means that we can usually only talk in real-time on weekends. We also use online task tracking software so that our project leader can organize and prioritize everyone's work. That's really helped us track our progress and focus on what needs to be done next.

What's next?

Our immediate plans are to add new features to Forbidden Island. We will be adding support for different island shapes by rearranging the tile placements. The different shapes will really alter the difficulty and strategy needed to succeed. We're also investigating online multiplayer and leader boards for future updates. We really want to give Forbidden Island continued development attention and build up a great audience for it.

Forbidden Island is available now for iPad in the App Store. Join the tabletop revolution, right from your iPad (yes, it counts)!

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.

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