Empty Clip Studios Interview - Groovin' Blocks

After the surprise announcement of an intriguing new action/puzzle game with the funky name of Groovin’ Blocks we really wanted to know a bit more. Could this fusion of Rock Band and Lumines be one to look out for when it hits the WiiWare service tomorrow in the USA?

Thankfully Francois Bertrand, the co-founder of Empty Clip Studios managed to take time out of his busy schedule to give WiiWare World readers the inside scoop on their upcoming game so you know what it’s all about....

WiiWare World: Can you tell our readers a bit about how Empty Clip Studios got formed?

Francois Bertrand: Empty Clip Studios was founded in 2007 by Matt Shores and myself. I would describe both of us as old-school, hardcore gamers. We have been playing games for as long as we can remember; Matt has finished almost every conceivable iteration of Mega Man since the very beginning and I have fond memories of playing Jumpman and Lode Runner on my dad's Commodore 64.

After working in the gaming industry for over seven years as part of larger teams on big names like Lord of the Rings, NBA and Star Wars, we finally took the plunge and left our "regular" jobs in 2005. After a roller-coaster journey in independent game development that included a lot of demos, sleepless nights, pitching and contract work, we founded Empty Clip Studios.

Speaking of demos, it's actually how Groovin' Blocks ended up as being our debut title. It started as a small experiment in gameplay we thought we may eventually flush out to pitch to publishers. Home for Christmas, Matt showed his sister the game before running a few errands. When he came back, his sister was still playing and told him: "This is fun! You guys have to do this game!". We are very thankful that the new downloadable platforms on consoles, like WiiWare, have enabled a small developer like us to take this idea from concept to a full game.

WW: The puzzler genre is already a bit crowded on WiiWare, how will Groovin’ Blocks stand out from the crowd?

FB: Music is what drives gameplay in Groovin' Blocks. You get your own feel for the rhythm and integrate that feeling with the game yourself, as you play. This freedom adds a lot of depth, and is a very satisfying and addictive experience.

I would describe it as mixing the addictive, tight beat-matching of Rock Band with the freedom of playing with the music at your own pace of Lumines.

In addition, the gameplay itself is very dynamic. For example, a unique aspect is that block destruction is a "contagious" chain reaction: it spreads to adjacent blocks of the same color, you can even add additional pieces once a chain reaction started. All blocks explode, move and fall independently and in real-time.

One of the things we are happiest about Groovin' Blocks is how much depth the different elements ended up adding to the game. The free-form beat-matching is fun from the start, but leaves a lot of room to grow for experienced players. A multiplier system, power-ups and what we call "Superbeats" mix things up and add on-the-fly strategy to the game. We also provide both head-to-head and cooperative multiplayer modes. We are very happy that all this, in addition to three difficulty levels and a star-collection system to unlock songs and power ups, really add a lot of replay value to the game.

WW: Do you feel Groovin’ Blocks is more aimed at the casual or hardcore gamer?

FB: I would say that our game is aimed at people who like music-based games like Lumines and Rock Band.

We put a lot of thought into making Groovin' Blocks an enjoyable, long-lasting experience for everyone. For us, that meant making sure beginners and people who don't play too many games would be able to have fun immediately, and feel like they are progressing through the game. Also, being hardcore gamers ourselves, we wanted to make sure we presented an interesting challenge and progression to the most dedicated, diehard players.

The question between hardcore and casual is sometimes controversial in the industry. In the case of this game, we think the genre does appeal to everyone and we went to great lengths to make sure there is a lot of fun to be had whether for a pick-up-and-play "casual" player or a "hardcore" player who wants to truly test his/her skills and unlock everything.

WW: Can you tell us more about the power-ups? Which is your favourite?

FB: Power-ups help players in many ways, like by exploding bunches of blocks, changing the colors of blocks, etc. Each power-up has multiple levels of potency to unlock. They are unlocked by collecting stars of different types as you progress through the game. On the playfield, you must activate power-ups by playing with the rhythm of the music. Once you get familiar with them, you can start using strategies like where to place the power ups and when to activate them.

As for my favorite, I have to say it is the "destruction" power-up. There is something very satisfying about seeing a whole chunk of the playfield explode all at once.

An interesting twist is that in head-to-head mode, all power ups have the opposite effect on your adversary. For example, the "slowdown" power-up will speed up blocks on your opponent's playfield and the "destruction" power up actually will create blocks obstructing his/her playfield.

WW: Aside from the standard VS mode, you have a co-op mode, can you tell us how this will work?

FB: Co-op is entertaining as it allows two players to play simultaneously, on the same board! Each player controls a piece and plays the game as usual, sharing multiplier, power ups and score. Pieces do collide with one another, so the players must work together and coordinate their movements to get the best score or get out of tricky spots.

WW: What controller schemes are supported? Is there any use of the Wii Remote’s motion sensing?

FB: We are supporting both the Wii Remote and the Classic Controller. Although we are excited about motion sensing in games, we wanted to make sure gameplay dictated the control scheme, not the other way around. So after experimenting with a couple of ideas for pointer control and motion sensing, we concluded the game felt much more focused and tight using standard buttons and the Control Pad.

WW: Does Groovin’ Blocks support online play? If not why did you decide against implementing this?

FB: We are providing multiplayer locally for both head-to-head and co-op, but because the concept is new and online play introduces complexity and overhead (lag issues, development time, extra testing, etc.), we decided to focus on local gameplay. We do like online features though, and would consider integrating that in future versions.

WW: What is it like not only developing a game, but also publishing it?

FB: After spending many years only on the developer's side, I have to say it was a great experience to go through an entire development cycle having to handle both development and publishing. It was a lot of work for sure, but it was a very enriching process to have a hand in every single, nitty-gritty aspect of getting a game from concept to the store.

There are many things that as a developer you don't have to worry about or take for granted that all of a sudden were our responsibility. I'm talking about things like the ESRB certification (registering the company, paying the fee, creating demo videos, following up, etc.), translation services, play-testing, beta-testing, Nintendo quality control, web site, screenshots, video production, etc. All these things add up on top of development and must be scheduled with the development of the game so that even with a lot of interdependencies, everything can come out on time.

WW: Are you already planning a second WiiWare game? If so, what type of game will it be?

FB: Definitely! We are exploring a few concepts, but it's too early to tell which one(s) will emerge. We will keep you posted!

WW: What is your favourite WiiWare game to date (other than Groovin’ Blocks!) and what WiiWare game are you looking forward to most?

FB: I grew up on the old Lucas adventure games on the Commodore; Maniac Mansion, Zak McKracken, etc. and I hadn't played one in forever, so I when I saw that Strong Bad was coming out on the WiiWare, I decided to give it a shot as I love the character. I really liked the game and I can't wait for part two!

Matt: I also like Strong Bad, but I can’t wait to get Mega Man 9, of course!

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