It’s a shame that terms such as “charming” and “nostalgic” have been expunged from the language of games writing.
When used carefully and appropriately, they’re very useful descriptors, but as indie development booms, some games writers appear to be scrambling to align themselves with its creators, presumably to bask in some reflected credibility. In a blinkered quest to ingratiate themselves into that community, they’ve attributed “cute” and “delightful” to almost anything that doesn’t feature butch space marines, sometimes irrespective of whether it’s warranted or not.
That’s a problem. What happens when we come across something that we want to describe in such a way, but we can’t for fear of being ridiculed for using what have become saccharine clichés?
This is what happens. We’re forced to spend three paragraphs apologetically dancing around the words, bringing them up, but not applying them to the game in question – it’s called Toybox, by the way – and assuming the reader will connect the dots.
Sam Baird and Matt Frost are Barrel of Donkeys. Now based in Melbourne, the two friends originally come from Christchurch, New Zealand. Toybox is a mash-up (wince) of a space shooter and match-3 puzzling with a retro toy aesthetic and heavily integrated online features.
Gameplanet recently spoke with Sam and Matt on the development of Toybox.
Gameplanet: Where did the idea for Toybox come from?
Julian Frost: Who knows. Somewhere in Sam’s brain. It’s a strange place. But as soon as I played his prototype I could see the shooter/match-3 hybrid was a great fit for a 2-thumb control scheme. I couldn't wait to finish the job I was doing and start drawing spaceships.
Gameplanet: It seems to be two classic hardcore arcade games Galaga and Tetris in one, yet the graphics go back to childhood toys. Where did the decision to go with that particular art style come from?
Frost: Since it’s a touchscreen game I tried to make it warm and lifelike enough that you’d want to touch it. So there’s lots of subtle textures that bring to mind childhood play - tin toys, worn wood blocks, bedroom wallpaper and old board game boxes.
Games are too young a medium to only look inward or backward for art inspiration. Sometime I visit motionographer.com and immediately think “I wish that was a game, oh and that too, and what about that one!”
Gameplanet: Did you do much focus testing on the dual user interface mechanic?
Sam Baird: We played with a prototype, and had testers along the way, but nothing as serious as focus testing.
Frost: The crucial “Julian’s girlfriend and also Dad” demographic was consulted extensively.
Gameplanet: Were the ideas you had that you couldn’t implement due to time or design restrictions?
Baird: We tried to keep the scope small throughout development so we could do everything to a really high standard. We felt that the idea had a sort of sweet spot, just the right amount of complexity added to keep it deep but still instantly approachable.
Frost: I still wish we had the Golden Spaceship! I wanted the spaceship of the world’s top scorer each week to change into a golden spaceship the following week. Like the yellow jersey in the Tour De France. It wouldn’t exactly be seen by many people, but it’d be glorious for that one person right?
Gameplanet: A key feature of the game is a new level and leaderboard provided each week. Are these levels dynamically generated or custom built?
Baird: The levels are procedurally generated, but in a way where everyone sees the same patterns each week. Behind the scenes there's a set of recipes that get recombined to make a new variation. Its not super complex, but its a nice feature, and it frames your attempt to get a high score each week.
Gameplanet: Both of you have backgrounds working with large corporate clients and brands, how have you found it working in the independent gaming space?
Frost: I’m prouder of Toybox than any other work I’ve done. Not only because it’s ours, but because it’s original and polished to degree that client work can’t afford to be.
Baird: Control freakery basically.
Frost: Yes. Of course pride and money are two different things, so I’m glad to keep a foot in the contracting world.
Gameplanet: Sam is based in Melbourne, but Julian has been over in London during the development process. What challenges did the distance between you present?
Frost: It’s great that we were even able to work like that - there was no such thing as remote collaboration in our grandparents day. No wonder their iPhone apps sucked. But to be honest it was a bit lonely being all the way over there. I missed Sam, and the energy that comes of brainstorming together.
Baird: Sometimes it worked well, handing off updates and work to each other overnight, but other times it slowed down communication. Things that could have been talked about and tried easily in the same room took much longer.
Gameplanet: What has the response to the game been since launching on August 23rd?
Baird: We've had lots of good reviews and lots of players getting great scores.
Frost: Yeah, I’m only 76th in the world this week darn it. The concept really caught people’s eye, so we’re happy with the decision to make something experimental. And the toy-like art and music has been universally well-received which is cool. We’re no great salesmen, so seeing others pick up Toybox and champion it has been really humbling.
As Sam said, we took the stripped down route with the gameplay, rather than adding lots of features, modes and power ups. One or two reviewers docked us a star for that. Ah well.
Gameplanet: How important has the marketing of Toybox been leading up to launch?
Baird: We partnered with Surprise Attack to help market the game, as it’s an area we didn't know anything about. They've been a huge help to get word out there.
Gameplanet: How do you find the game development scene in Australia (compared to London and New Zealand, if you’ve much experience in the scene over there)?
Frost: Um, pass. The scene was pretty happening in my bedroom in London, but I didn’t really know any other game devs sorry, I’m a little bit shy.
Gameplanet: What’s next for Barrel of Donkeys?
Baird: We've had to stay focused to make sure we got Toybox finished and released and out there but the brainstorming has already begun. Businessman tai chi, giraffe painting, Noodle Hubris.... there's something there, something.
Gameplanet: Do you envision working other classic genre literal combinations? Frogger meets Missile Command perhaps?
Baird: Anything we make will start with finding something interesting and original to spark things off. Could be a new genre mash-up or it could just be an interesting visual idea or story or control scheme. Frogger Missile Command does sound pretty good, but what if we got some Street Fighter in there? Am I right? Who's with me?
Gameplanet: What advice to you have for other independent game developers?
Baird: We're not really in a position to hand out advice but if you're in Melbourne there is a great community of indie developers and you should go to the IGDA meetings, they are well run and an amazing service to indies (big thanks to Giselle and Tom and whoever else is making these happen).
There are lots of very friendly and passionate people out there making games, writing about them and marketing them in all sorts of different configurations. Its been great to meet more of them and I hope we all get to keep doing cool stuff.
Frost: From what I can tell so far, cartoon men milking cows seems to be the key to games trailers.