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Nnooo Developer Experience and Interview

by Nicholas Bray - August 16, 2011, 6:07 am EDT
Total comments: 3

Come have a look at what the guys at Nnooo do at work.

On arriving at the Nnooo offices, I was greeted by Nic Watt, and Bruce Thomson. Nic is Nnooo's creative director and Bruce is the business director.

After introductions were over Nic showed me around their small, but stylish, work area. One of the first things I noticed is that they have quite a lot of Nintendo figures and posters around the place. It definitely gave the impression that they have a lot of adoration for Nintendo and the things that they produce.

After walking past the lounge area, I entered the area where they do most of their work. Their workspace was furnished with a couple of long desks and a bunch of computers and other hardware.

The main work area.

One of the first things I asked Nic was how they start the development process. He turned my attention a wall where they had stuck a heap of Post-it notes.

Most of the wall was dedicated to their upcoming DSiWare game Spirit Hunters Inc. The notes featured character designs, item/ability ideas, and pretty much any other concept that could be related to the game design. They've found this arrangement helps prevent them from locking themselves into particular ideas. If they find certain items or other elements aren’t working they can simply take away the note or move it to another spot on the wall. This format also allows anyone that has an idea to add it quickly and easily.

The wall of post-it notes!

A smaller part of the wall was dedicated to escapeVektor, an arcade-styled action game for WiiWare. This area mainly showed off ideas for level layouts, and world contents.

I was able to try out both of their upcoming games. I thought both were well designed, Spirit Hunters Inc makes good use of a lot of the DSi’s functions such as using the camera for augmented reality gameplay. escapeVektor was really a lot of fun, the gameplay is inspired by old-school arcade action with the visual style to match. The game also appears to be quite challenging and introduces various obstacles and enemy types as you progress, that you must learn to deal with to complete levels. (Check out detailed impressions of escapeVektor: Chapter 1 and Spirit Hunters)

Nic said he read about how Nintendo likes to make the Pokémon silhouettes distinctive, and that is also the idea behind the Spirits.

After having a look around their office and playing their new games I was able to sit down with Nic Watt and ask him some questions about how Nnooo got started and some of their design decisions.

Nintendo World Report (NWR): If I could start by just getting everyone's name that is involved with the company at the moment?

Nicholas Watt (Nic): Well there’s myself Nicholas Watt, I’m the creative director. There's Bruce Thompson, who is the business and marketing director. And there is Steven Ogden who is our main programmer. So they are the main full-time employees we have at the moment.

NWR: What were your past experiences within the industry?

Nic: So before I started at Nnooo, I worked in the games industry for about ten years. I graduated from architecture at university, and my first job was at a very small games company based just outside of Birmingham in the UK. There were about six or eight of us, and we were working on PlayStation 1 games. I was employed as a designer/artist, so my role was to come up with ideas for levels that we were making for a remake of Pong.

So I would come up with a concept and then speak to the lead programmer, who was also the owner of the company, making sure he was happy with the level design and how it was was progressing. Then, it was [my job] to try and conceptualize it on paper, build the artwork, make the characters/animate them, make all of the textures.

So the great thing about that was that it was very hands on, and there wasn’t a very big splitting of roles, so the programmers were doing the programming, and the artist’s/designers were doing pretty much all of the non programming work. That was great, it gave me a lot of real hands on experience, and I definitely recommend anyone looking to start in the industry, if you start at a small company you’ll get a really big breadth of experience, which is really good.

Later I moved to Electronic Arts, and was a lead designer there on a title which has since shipped called Zubo, which was an RPG for the DS. It was originally designed for the PlayStation Portable, but then they moved it over to the Nintendo DS. So that was great, working at EA games was a really nice experience, and really the first time I had ever seen such a big company and so many big projects going on at the same time.

Then in 2006 I had the opportunity to move to Australia, and that's when I decided to kind of go it alone, and see if I could set up a company to focus on digitally distributed titles. At the time Xbox Live Arcade had just come out, WiiWare wasn’t announced at that point but Nintendo were kind of talking about doing stuff in the digital space, so I thought it would be a really good time to start a company and start to explore that.

NWR: What were your major influences getting into game design?

Nic: I’ve always been a really big gamer. My dad used to actually travel to Japan for business, and he used to come back with the little Game and Watches that Nintendo made.

So since then I’ve always really enjoyed it and always found it really exciting. But I never thought that video games, at that point, could be a career. [I did not think] that it was actually something you could go into and apply for a job. It just seemed kind of mystical and magical whoever made these things at the time.

It wasn’t until I was graduating that games were transitioning to the PlayStation 1 and the N64, where they were moving into much more 3D spaces and environments. It was at that point I thought that maybe my skills in architecture and design might be applicable to that.

In terms of major inspiration, I’m a big Nintendo fan so the stuff that Nintendo produces has always been a big inspiration to me. But I like anything that is quite well designed, which Nintendo are very good at. Other games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, I really like the way that they have such a well thought out world and universe. Everything is internally consistent within the game. So that's kind of what I look for, and as long as its something that's interesting and exciting I enjoy most genres. But first person shooters for example, there are an awful lot of them that are very similar, so I don’t play a lot of them, because I’m kind of looking for something new and different, rather than just the same game with slightly different gray textures.

They seem to be fond of having Nintendo things around, such as the cool Club Nintendo reward Statue.

NWR: So Pop was your first game, after that you went into doing notebooks and diaries for the Nintendo DSi, reasons being?

Nic: So Pop was a launch title for WiiWare, which we were really really excited about. Then we experimented with Pop on the iPhone, and then our first title on DSiWare was a version of Pop as well.

A lot of the learning from starting the company was realizing that making games is really hard. Now I’ve always known that and appreciated it, but [you don't really appreciate it] until you actually start your own company and have to do everything. So you have to find programmers, you have to make the art, you’ve got to market the game, you’ve got to get it approved by Nintendo or Sony or whoever. You don’t realize that the little job you were doing before is just part of this really massive thing. And so a part of that learning was that we can’t necessarily straight off the bat do the biggest most complicated game in the world. And that it takes awhile for people to gel together and also to start to learn the rudimentaries of how to make a game.

So the focus of the myLifeCollected series with myNotebook, myPostcards and myDiary was for us to first of all really understand how to use the DSi properly, so that we could make Spirit Hunters. And also so that Steven and myself could start to progress through how we make our artwork for it, and just really learn all the in’s and out’s of the DSi.

So Notebook was our first experiment, cause we knew that in Spirit Hunters we wanted to use the touch screen for interactions. So Notebook was a lot about writing and drawing, making a lot of use of the touchscreen and working out how you get proper 1:1 accuracy in things. There is also a lot of stuff happening there with saving and saving in the background, saving when you power down, so that the user doesn’t lose any data. Again, that is going to come into play with Spirit Hunters cause in Spirit Hunters if you are out battling and your health goes down, lets just say that you’ve got 25% of your health left when you’ve finished the battle, it’ll start replenishing your health over time. So if you power off the device it saves where your health is, and then if you go away for three hours, when you turn it back on it will replenish your health based on how long you have been away. We wanted to do a lot of stuff like that, so Notebook allowed us to really understand and learn quite quickly how these things work.

Postcards was our experiment with the camera, we want to use the camera a lot in Spirit Hunters with the augmented reality [gameplay], along with how we save images from the camera. So [the camera] was what the focus of developing Postcards was.

NWR: Did those sell fairly successfully for you?

Nic: Yeah, the Notebooks have been phenomenally successful. They have sold in the hundreds of thousands of units, which for DSiWare is really good. They are also still selling on 3DS, despite the fact that there is a notebook application built into the 3DS.

NWR: With the challenge feature for Spirit Hunters, was there no opportunity to utilize the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection?

Nic: We could of done that, we decided [not to] because the game has proved to be so complicated, with making the augmented reality and all these other systems. Adding on Nintendo Wi-Fi support, and adding on DSi to DSi communications for the challenge feature, was going to push out the game. And because we are at the end of the lifetime of the DSi, we are weary that we don’t want to spend too much longer making the game, when we want to get onto 3DS stuff. Plus, because we can generate this code, we kind of thought, "well, its an awful lot of work to put in all the online functionality just so we could beam a code from one side of the world to the other. When people can already write it down and Facebook it to each other."

Spirit design.

NWR: Could you tell me a bit about escapeVektor, how did the design begin? Where was the idea coming from? It seems a bit Tron inspired maybe?

Nic: Yeah its got a lot of influences from things like Tron. I’m a big fan of vector graphics, just in general. I’m also a big fan of games like Every Extend Extra, and Geometry Wars and the way that they use their colour palette, with the vibrant neon colours. [I'm also a fan of] a lot of the retro era games from the 80’s, where everything was pinks, blues and really bright neons. So, there is a lot of that kind of inspiration going on.

Then there is a game we have been wanting to make for awhile, that we have kind of started, and then put on hold called Blast. It's morphed over time into being this quite vector-based game that I’ve got a whole bunch of mock ups for. I was speaking to the programmer that worked on escapeVektor, we were chatting about maybe doing something together, and I was like well, I really want to do this game Blast. We decided between us that, making that game would be quite ambitious to do as the first thing that we did together. So would it be possible to do something that's maybe simpler that we could turn around and then go from there onto Blast.

So that’s where the idea of escapeVektor kind of grew from, it's now grown into this franchise, where Vektor is this character who has become trapped inside your Wii, or the CPU at some point. Although escapeVektor is actually made up of four chapters, the story across all four chapters is kind of at the end of this series of games that we want to make. So this is following what happened to him and how he escapes in the end. Then Blast which we will possibly, hopefully, be working on in the next couple of years is going to be renamed Blast Vektor and that will start more at the beginning of the story.

So that was the big sort of inspiration. I wanted something that was relatively simple to pick up and play, but we could add a lot of strategy and depth to with the enemy types that we introduce, and the different ways of locking and unlocking the cells and hiding them from the player. There is quite a lot of strategy and depth that you can put into it.

Level layouts for escapeVektor.

NWR: With the following chapters, is the gameplay going to change significantly, are there any twists?

Nic: The core gameplay won’t change dramatically, in terms you will always be bordering cells to unlock and to fill it in to unlock the level. But what we are trying to do is have more themes to each of the chapters. So the first chapter is him escaping from his cell, and starting to feel confident that he can now escape throughout the rest of the computer and eventually escape. But he starts to realize that he’s missing some memories, and that he maybe wants to work out what they are and to find out why he’s where he is, and whats happened to him.

The second chapter is going to focus on a lot more of those memories, and him recovering them, so the levels are going to feature much more hidden elements. You’ll start off on what we are calling an island of gameplay. What you do will unlock other islands within that level, and so that you’ve kind of got this experience of things appearing in the level as you progress. So that’s quite different. We are also going to introduce a couple of new enemy types, or objects, I think one new enemy type and one new object in chapter two. Then in chapter three we are trying to make it a little more chase like, where your running through levels and things are pushing you through and chasing you.

So we are trying to make each one feel quite different, but the world as a whole will have very similar foundations in the gameplay and core mechanics.

NWR: So how have you found working with Nintendo to be?

Nic: They are really good. We work primarily with them at the moment. We may be investigating other platforms in the future, but Nintendo have given us great support. One of the things that I really like about them is that they are fairly open to what sort of games you can make. They aren’t standing in your way, and saying you can’t make this, you can’t make that, or doing any sort of green lighting. Some companies, like Sony or Microsoft, have got quite a big green light process. So you propose an idea and then they say yes, then you have to do your demo, and then they may say no at that point. Whereas Nintendo are much more open and are like, its your game, you’ve got to have faith in it, and you are the one that has to make money out of it.

There are criterion that we can’t do, like we couldn’t make a game involving really graphical violent sex or anything like that. There are certain restrictions, but they are fairly understandable. But other than that, our arena is fairly wide, which is really good.

So on the whole they are really helpful, they are a very big company, they have a lot of their own products going on. As digital developers we are very small. In comparison they are working with EA and Ubisoft and Capcom, so I’m sure they give them an awful lot more support than they can afford to give us. We have never had any problems, and they have a really good team of people who when we have technical issues. We can email and we usually get responses within 24 to 48 hours.

I think the hard part for them is, because they take this quite stand off approach in saying, no its your game, you develop it, you market it, you bring it out on the platform. What that means is that there is not enough coherent marketing around the brand of say DSiWare in itself.

NWR: There was an article that came out recently from a developer. They were speaking about how Nintendo has certain sales thresholds in place, where the developer won’t get paid unless they sell so many units.

Nic: That’s something that doesn’t happen on DSiWare, and I’m not aware of it on the 3DS. I’m not sure if they have finalised all their plans for actual 3DS software yet though. That was something that they used to do, they don’t do it on DSi and I’m assuming they won’t be doing it in the future.

NWR: So that was more of a WiiWare thing?

Nic: Yeah. Because what happens is, they obviously have to put the software up on their servers, they have got to support their servers. They have also got a process called lock checks. So whenever we finish a game we give it to them, and they put it through this lock check process, which runs it through a barrage of tests, which we have all the information for. So theoretically we should be able to give it to them and not fail any of those tests. However, it never seems to quite happen that way unfortunately. So that obviously costs them money; they have got a team of people who are doing that. And they do that to all games, every game that gets published, regardless if its WiiWare or disk title.

So they have got to cover the costs for that somehow. Now if you release a game that didn’t sell anything, then they are not going to recoup any costs. Now you could argue that they are taking a percentage already, and I think that's obviously the stance that they have taken now.  I think Nintendo realized that going forward that they can’t do [sales thresholds].

NWR: What are your general thoughts on the 3DS?

Nic: I think its a great little machine. It would be really great if they could push out updates to the Mii adventure game, because that was awesome, and that hooked us for a long time. But I’ve completed it now.

(Note : Nintendo has announced they're going to release expansions to the Mii Plaza by year's end.)

NWR: With regards to the 3D effect itself,  do you have any gameplay concepts that you have been thinking about that would benefit from 3D?

Nic: In terms of the 3D effect, I think escapeVektor will work really well in 3D, because the game’s designed with depth to it. So the grid that pulses to the music sits really far in the background, and the playing area that you sit on, the actual lanes or routes that you move along are actually 3D and have sides and depth, there not just 2D. They’ll stick out a little bit, and your ship has a little bit of three dimensionality to it, and then some of the objects like the electric fences and the gates, they actually stick further out. So I think that will look really nice. We also have this dynamic camera, which kind of moves in and out of the action, when an enemy gets close the camera zooms out a bit, it also does a little bit of panning, I think all of that will work really well in 3D.

Then in terms of making more unusual uses, I think Spirit Hunters would be really nice with the augmented reality, which you have already seen on Face Raiders, with things moving in and out of the screen in the real world. I think that would work really well, and a lot of the effects we have got going off, like big explosions and particles coming towards you and stuff will hopefully look really exciting.

NWR: Thank you for letting me come down today, its been great.

Nic: No worries, thanks for coming in.




CericAugust 16, 2011

Thank you for the interview Nnooo.

Its sort of interesting that Nintendo is a little bit freer on its system but, has less items and look very restrictive from the outside.

KDR_11kAugust 16, 2011

You should have given them a slap in the face for every version of myNotebook they released.

You can hate on myNotebook, but Nnooo likely still exists because of the sales of the Notebooks.

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