Those who read our impressions of Pop Island at the Nintendo Media Summit will know that the game is something of a buzzword here at Nintendo Life. The vibrant colours, frantic gameplay and multiplayer mayhem seem to be an ideal combination for Nintendo's portable dynamo the DSi. With the game recently going gold in the US and a PAL territory release imminent, we sat down with the game's creator, Olivier Denis, to chat about his journey in creating this colourful gem.
Nintendo Life: First of all, please tell us a little about your company.
Olivier Denis: Odenis Studio was created five years ago. We have released three games now: Glory Days 1 and 2, and finally Pop Island. It's a small indie studio and I do not want to change that; I want to have the freedom to do what I want to do. We see DSiWare not as a platform of mini-games but as the future of the DSi system. We hope that Pop Island will be a part of this evolution.
NL: We played on a build of Pop Island a while ago at Nintendo’s Media Summit in London; has anything changed since our initial hands-on?
OD: Well, we now have the age rating for the ESRB, PEGI and USK, and Pop Island’s also now been approved by Nintendo of America's QA department, so the final date for the US should be in December. We are in the same process with the QA at Nintendo of Europe, and things are moving really quickly. More importantly, we have some press coverage on Pop Island. Believe me, it's more easy to speak about Pop Island when people know that you have been selected by Nintendo for their last event! So, what’s really changed is that we’re getting closer to the release!
NL: When we look at Glory Days 2 and compare it to Pop Island, it’s obvious that there’s a big difference between the two. What made you decide to branch out into a new type of game?
OD: With Glory Days 2, we received a lot of nominations - IGN for the Best Action Game on DS 2007, Best Use of Sound, Best Local Multiplayer and Best Music. On 1UP, Glory Days was nominated for Best Strategic Game in 2007. Next time we hope we can transform these nominations into awards!
When we started to work on Pop Island, I knew that we had to invest a good two years of our lives. This is no small deal: I deeply believe that we have only one life to do what we have to do, so we have to do our best. Pop Island was inside me and wanted to have its own life. When I see it, now, I'm not sure that we've created it; we've just opened the DS and discovered this living world.
NL: How has Pop Island changed since the initial idea? Was there anything left out that you'd have liked to include?
OD: The main idea was to create a joyful game - a fresh universe where you could play with your family and friends. To create a game for this sort of audience is simple to say, but truly, it's far from easy to accomplish. There is a high chance that you’ll create something disliked by both adults and children, so a lot of care was taken when creating the game.
To succeed, we knew Pop Island had to be easy to handle and have that pure addictive intensity when mastered. We also wanted to put on the table something really fresh, something that the audience had never played with before. Because we had two years for this one, we thought we could include all the features we wanted to. If anything, we went the opposite way: we made a lot of test ideas and trashed a lot of things. Sometimes we’d test something because it could be a "cool" feature, and at the end of the day, the gameplay didn’t turn out that well, so we had to withdraw it.
Pop Island allows anybody who buys the game to share it via the DS Download Play function on the Nintendo DSi and DS systems. This is a great feature of the DSi, and was a massive part of the ideas behind Pop Island. We worked a lot on the game to avoid the loading times too. Usually when you share a game, you'll have to wait a long time to play, and then there are delays when changing levels. With Pop Island, this isn’t the case: you can share it with your friend in less than 45 seconds. After this, there is no loading time - you just have fun with you friends, and there’s no restriction with the multiplayer mode; everything is accessible to everyone. And because you have the best friend in the world, they deserve to play Pop Island in solo mode, so we’ve included that too. There is one restriction here, however: those you share with can only play on the earth map (although with this, you should stay the best player!)
NL: How difficult would you say the whole development process was? There's obviously a lot going on with Pop Island and, with the multiplayer element, it must have been hard to integrate everything seamlessly.
OD: We had to take our time to test a lot of things: tune the physics, create the characters, create an appropriate 3D engine, include the multiplayer part. There was no development schedule; we wanted to create each thing properly, in the time that was needed to do so. As a result, each aspect of Pop Island should be well polished.
The universe of Pop Island is unique. First there is this colourful art direction we took: we've been inspired by the toy urban art, and wanted to insert this modern art in a living place. Everything is moving - the vegetation, the sea and, obviously, the living papercrafts.
We have three different particle engines: the 2D particles, the weather particles and the 3D particle effect. We use the different hardware chips of the DSi at their maximum to get great results. As such, characters have their own animations that are linked with the physics. When you see the number of polygons used, for example, by the lion on the quad, you’ll see it is far from just a cube! Put in the mix the quad and its wheels, then add the hairs, which are individually moved by the air, and you have more than 100 animated polys for this character alone! We also worked just as hard on the landscape to have different levels of detail on it.
We are using all the polygons available on the DSi, but what’s most important is the framerate: at 30 frames per second you just play with the eagle; at 60 frames per second, you will feel it. The good news: Pop Island runs at 60 frames per second! And with this framerate, it's really a new experience of gameplay on the DSi!
I would say we had our most difficult time on the camera: the DSi screen is not very large, so we had to find the best way to use it, which we did in the end!
NL: From all we’ve seen, and from the (thoroughly enjoyable) hands-on we got a while ago, it seems that the ethos of Pop Island is fast, frantic and most importantly accessible multiplayer fun. Would you say this is an accurate reflection of your intentions?
OD: Yes! We would like to create a game that you can share with people, explain the rules in five seconds and have fun immediately. Nothing more than that, but it wasn't so easy!
NL: We've noticed the worlds are named after the planets of the solar system: were these your inspiration for the different themed worlds, and are there terrain differences?
OD: Neptune has a lot of water and Mercury is red and near the sun, so a molten landscape! We worked a lot on the colour, and to have all these colourful worlds work well took a lot of care and effort.
Each map has its own number of flags (in the first game mode) and configuration. The first map, Earth, is really simple and easy to play with people who do not how to play with Pop Island. Saturn, on the other hand, is definitely one of the best maps to play with a well-experienced friend. It's very tactical and there are a lot of strategies to play around with here.
NL: How hard was it to create a balance between all the creatures in the game, and can you briefly describe the different types people will be able to play as?
OD: Each of the characters has been finely tuned. Gameplay, gameplay, gameplay is our motto, and there’s nothing more important than getting this balance right.
Starting with the basics: to get the victory, you (and your team) have to get the maximum number of flags. There are two game modes (multiple flags on the map or "capture the flags" mode). You'll have to choose a living papercraft to get these flags.
Your choice will be easy and intuitive: fly with the winged characters, swim with fish, run with lions and so on. If the map is more on the sea, the easy choice is to take the shark or the fish or the surfing penguin, but you could find some road to use the speed of the lion or the black cat, so it does also depend on how you like to play.
NL: You've themed the game light and dark: does this mean some of the creatures are bad, or was it simply a matter of style?
OD: As I said before, gameplay was the word which led my work. When you play you choose your team: the "colourful rainbow" or the "almost black". This is there to make it really easy to know who is who.
The same goes for the vertical light on the flags, which means you can see them from long distances. If the light (and the flag) is blue, it's someone of your side; if it's red, you can shoot some firecrackers and nab it off the other side; if it's a green flag, it’s a mad dash to be the first one there! In the multiplayer mode your side is changing all the time, so just needing to know these three colour codes makes thing easy to follow.
NL: Out of all the creatures in the game, which one do you prefer to play as and why?
OD: To be truly honest, I really like all the characters. We have created twelve characters, each one by one; tuned them one by one. But because it is the first one to have been designed, I have a little preference for the penguin with his surfboard! [My favourite too – Tom] Before we settled on the final music, we played with this one to the song "Staying Alive"
NL: What can you tell us about your experiences with dealing with Nintendo with this game's development? You've mentioned to us before that Nintendo have been very supportive of Pop Island.
OD: At the beginning, Nintendo of Europe wrote to me about correcting an email which was wrong on their files. I corrected it and said "Hi there, have you seen this video of Pop Island?". Later, I received an email from them, asking for a copy of the game to make an evaluation of it. I replied that I didn’t need an evaluation because I knew the game was great! They replied, saying: "we are planning on doing a media event in September, but this might be too late for your title." Then, after I sent them a copy of the game: "we tested Pop Island and will decide on the final line-up hopefully by the end of today. I will let you know once we have decided."
Finally Tim replied: "Your game has been selected to be shown at the event. Congratulations! I decided to include it due to its unique look and interesting gameplay." When I received this email, I jumped! A joyful time! Obviously, when Nintendo of Europe selected Pop Island and invited us to show our game at the London WiiWare and DSiWare event, we saw this invitation as an awesome reward for all that hard work!
At this event, we met a lot of journalists - a lot who after one minute of playing are so into that they simply did not listen to me [Olivier told me off because I was too engrossed in the game! – Tom], then at the end of the show, some came back and played together just for fun. This moment was simply great! Pop Island is a celebration of playing together and having fun, which is exactly what happened.
So, in short, to have the help of Nintendo on this game was priceless.
NL: How do you imagine people's reception of Pop Island? Who do you think would be the ideal sort of person to play this game?
OD: We've worked a lot on this project in secret. Only six months ago, I decided to show Pop Island to some of my closest friends, and for all of these people the reaction was always – “ouch, this is the bomb!” One of my friends did not like the artistic direction, but after playing with Pop Island, their final reaction was also – “ouch, this is the bomb!”
I really hope DSi owners will have the same reaction and want to play this with their friends. We have invested a lot in this game.
NL: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to say; anything you want our readers to know about Pop Island?
OD: We have to talk about the music and sound! There is a real choice in the sound universe. The music was created to increase the intensity of the game. It starts nicely and finishes with a frantic track of Spanish fiestas! Use headphones and you will discover a 3D sound environment. I really think that the sound is 50% of the game’s fun! You couldn't have a great game without great music and sound, and behind the music track there is Raphael Gesqua. This guy is a great musician.
If that hasn't whetted your appetite, we have the launch trailer for Pop Island for you right below these very words, so make sure you check it out!
Our thanks to Olivier for taking the time to answer our questions. We’ll be looking forward to the release of Pop Island when it comes out in December at 500 points, so stay with us for more Pop Island news!