BOXBOY! did not hit the 3DS with the fanfare it deserved this spring. It's a brand-new game, with brand-new characters and it's published by Nintendo. Which is precisely the sort of thing the company's greatest detractors claim it's missing. Then again, even though the funny, little puzzle game is ingenious and addictive, it's also as quiet and unassuming as the studio that made it: HAL Laboratory.
Much like BOXBOY!, HAL does not have the reputation it should. For 35 years, the first-party Nintendo studio's pumped out games that are deeply traditional while remaining deeply experimental. The Kirby franchise, HAL's signature work, has been both a major sales success with more than 30 million games sold and a hotbed for creativity (as in Kirby and the Rainbow Curse) and old-school style (a la Kirby: Triple Deluxe.) That little pink puff Kirby tends to dominate HAL's output, which is what makes an original like BOXBOY! so exciting. So to get some deeper insight into the creation of this new Nintendo IP, I interviewed Yasuhiro Mukae, the director of HAL's first original in five years, via a translator through email. We discussed HAL's creative process, the secret to making expressive characters and what it's like making games at one of gaming's most consistent, if underappreciated, studios.
Cleverly manipulating boxes is the key to navigating BOXBOY!'s deceptively challenging traps.
What is HAL's usual creative process? When trying out new ideas for the Kirby series for example, do you come up with the gameplay first and say, "This is good for Kirby!" or do you take Kirby and try to come up with something unusual for him to do?
Using BOXBOY! as an example, we often come up with ideas that go with the gameplay.
This goes for the Qbby character design, which is a match for the gameplay, as well as the assorted new tricks we came up with to make it more fun to advance through stages. We devote a lot of effort to expanding the range of gameplay.
The game idea came first. We started with the ability to create boxes, and we did the character design from there. The result is Qbby, with that really simple design. He looks simple, but he can create boxes, dance around and more. I think we created a really vibrant and charming character here.
How long did it take to develop BOXBOY!?
Between the initial experimentation we did and the official project launch, it was about a year and a half. We devoted half a year to experimentation, and once we kicked off the official project, it took us a year to wrap up the game.
Why did you make BOXBOY! so visually sparse? HAL has a penchant for bold, colorful games.
Those simple visuals were something we aimed for in order to differentiate ourselves from other games.
In the modern scene, with tons of games with colorful visuals all over the place, having a simple monochrome game like BOXBOY! is something we thought would draw gamers' attention and make them take an interest in the game.
The game idea came first. We started with the ability to create boxes, and we did the character design from there. The result is Qbby.
It's interesting playing BOXBOY! so soon after Kirby and the Rainbow Curse since it feels very traditional by comparison in terms of control. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse is purely about using the touchscreen while BOXBOY! is still about buttons and a d-pad. What is different about making a game for old-style controls and for games controlled only with a touchscreen?
Intuitive, easy-to-grasp controls were something we treated very importantly during BOXBOY! development. On that point, I'm sure that there was no difference in the direction taken by both BOXBOY! and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse. Also, the action of creating boxes forms the core of BOXBOY!'s gameplay, so we focused a great deal on making that box-creating action easy, comfortable and fun, without requiring complex controls.
BOXBOY! takes the Pac-man approach to charming design and, apparently, gendered fashion.
How did BOXBOY! change from when it was first conceived to when it came out?
Ever since the idea phase, BOXBOY! was centered around the idea of creating boxes in order to make your way through puzzle landscapes. We were able to proceed with development without this core gameplay concept changing much at all, from the very beginning.
One major change that did occur was how the game is structured overall. At first, we created rather large stages that you could really sit down and spend a great deal of time playing. We later reconsidered this, restricting the amount of content per stage and changing the structure so you could complete each stage more quickly. We also added story elements in a move to encourage players to enjoy the game all the way through to the end.
Were there any ideas you tried to implement in the game that just didn't work out?
There are a lot of ideas that we couldn't make happen within the game. These run the gamut from ideas that didn't even make it into the project plan to things that wound up lacking in fun after we implemented them. As for exactly what ideas we had, I hope you'll allow me to keep them a secret.
HAL is very adept at visual storytelling. Both Qbby and Kirby are very clearly defined characters with a lot of personality that comes through even though they're silent. How do you convey character and story to players without using words?
The secret lies in how we devote time to the characters' expressions and motions. Qbby is a simple character –- composed of nothing but a square body, some eyes and some feet -- but we paid particular attention to his animation to make sure that gamers would find him engaging.
We also included a lot of variation in the animation, from the stage-complete dances to the little motions when there's no player input. I think he's become a pretty cute character as a result, one that's fun even if you're just looking at him.