Interview: Curve Studios' Jonathan "Bidds" Biddle
Posted by Martin Watts
We speak to the developer who’s making quite a splash
One development studio that has made a valiant contribution to Nintendo’s digital download services is undoubtedly Curve Studios. Having first released Hydroventure for WiiWare to much critical acclaim back in 2010, the development team has recently returned to its original idea and expanded upon it for Hydroventure: Spin Cycle, a new instalment in the series that has been built from the ground up for the Nintendo 3DS.
Releasing last December to positive reviews, Spin Cycle has washed away the critics with its engaging gameplay and novel, yet devilishly addictive puzzles. We were especially impressed by it, as you can see in our in-depth review for the title.
Recently, we were invited along to Curve Studios’ headquarters in London, UK to take a tour of the studio, meet some of the team and speak with the creative genius behind it all: Jonathan “Bidds” Biddle.
During our interview with the iconic game designer, we learnt a great deal about the development of the game, the challenges of releasing it in Nintendo’s homeland of Japan and what Bidds thinks about Nintendo’s digital rebirth.
Nintendo Life: What made you decide that you wanted to create a new entry in the Hydroventure series?
Jonathan Biddle: Well I think really we wanted to try to do something new with the franchise. We wanted to take what we had done originally with the Wii, which was to focus on the Wii Remote and to do something similar with the 3DS and try to push the hardware. Nintendo approached us and said that they really wanted to do a new version. We didn't think we would be able to because of the 3D limitations; we thought that the 3D wouldn't work and that all games on 3DS had to be 3D. Nintendo were actually after something that showcased a different part of the hardware’s capabilities, so we were ecstatic to be able to help.
NL: What was it like developing for the 3DS instead of the Wii? Did you have any concerns about making the game for a portable system?
JB: Absolutely. When you’re working on handheld, it kind of informs everything you do. If you know people are going to be sitting in front of a TV or a monitor, then you know what their play experience is going to be. However, when you’re designing for a portable audience you’ve really got to take into account where they might be, what they might be able to do and how they might interact with something. A portable device can be played on the train, it can be played at home, etc. and that definitely requires a slightly different experience, but it also frees you up in some ways because you’re holding the device in your hands.
For example, the tilt aspect and the way you control the water is much more natural, because in the WiiWare version we had to rotate the screen to fake the tilt so that it matched up, whereas with this it’s obvious; we just keep it still and the tilt is inherent in the device so people understand it straight away. People understand it without being told. They just go “Yeah, I see my water goes this way” and that’s great.
I guess, we have obviously made things harder for ourselves by including the full rotation feature because there are some difficulties to get over there that a lot of handheld titles don’t need do, because the 3DS is built to be held and played a certain way and we just kind of threw that out the window. We said, “Let’s just try something different”. It’s good to break rules and to try different things, and we definitely came up against some interesting problems along the way.
NL: During the game’s development, did you consider that players might be playing in environments other than their homes? For example, were there any thoughts or concerns about what it would be like to play this sort of game on a train or do you think people don’t tend to do that so much?
JB: I think people do do that and I guess we thought about but we didn't expect it to really be a problem. I've played the game on a bus and a train and people haven’t really looked at me as if I’m strange. So I guess it’s not too bad, I’m just like spinning a console and compared to some of the things you see in London, I suppose it’s not that crazy.
I think any issues that might come when people use it in a public space, and it being a physical game, are far outweighed by the fact that it feels much more natural and people can understand it much more.
NL: At what point were tilt controls decided upon for the 3DS title?
JB: It’s a tilt game. It’s a tilt series. It was built into the very original concept and we always wanted to twin the Wii Remote and the water to make the interface between the player and the water as minimal as possible, so you felt naturally that you were the water. As that was such a core part of the original game, there was never really a question that this was or wasn't going to be a tilt game. In fact, we never stopped to think that maybe we should use the analogue stick, because it’s a tilt game and it has to tilt. In various stages of the development, we had the opportunity to stick the control on the analogue just for test purposes for various debug things and it feels awful. It just doesn't feel good at all to tilt left and right in this way.
I know some people may have issues with motion controls, but we it tried without them and it was terrible, so I don’t feel too bad. This game is built for and around motion controls and it has to work that way. It is one of the core tenets of the series.
NL: Were there any discussions about the relevance of disabling the 3D effect in order to accommodate gyro controls?
JB: We always came from the position that 3D just wouldn't work. I know that when I’m playing my 3DS, I have to keep it right in front of me, and if I move it too much then I lose that 3D experience. In Hydroventure: Spin Cycle, you move the 3DS a lot, and we just knew it would never work. So we didn't really think about trying 3D.
NL: What was it like launching the game in Japan? What challenges, if any, did you have to overcome?
JB: It’s the first Japanese game I've ever made so I’m really thrilled to be able to release a game in Japan, especially for Nintendo. It’s like a childhood dream of mine. In fact a friend of mine is the Director of Rhythm Hunter: HarmoKnight. We started in the industry around the the same time; he moved to Japan and started working at Game Freak, eventually creating and directing HarmoKnight, We both got our games out at the same time and were both on the front page of the eShop in Japan. At this point, he emailed me saying “Look at this! Look what we've done!”. It’s amazing, so we’re both really happy about that.
When it came to developing the game for the market, the main problem was that Japanese is a complicated language with all the Kana and Kanji, and having never done it before, we didn't know what to expect. So that was the biggest problem really. Also, it was a matter of displaying the Kanji and making sure that the line breaks were respectful to the way it would be read. We made sure we had someone in-house who could speak Japanese to make sure that things made sense and that we didn't make any strange errors. There were no cultural errors really, because the game is reasonably safe and universal. All of the themes that we have—the dinosaurs and the fairy tales—span across all cultures.
NL: Did you have a lot of help from Nintendo with regards to localising the game for Japan? What sort of assistance did they provide?
JB: Well, they did the translation and they gave us the tools that allowed us to do that in a much more efficient way. They’ve obviously done this many times before and they know exactly what they’re doing, so they were really helpful in guiding us through the process. It made it quite painless really; I was expecting it to be harder than it was.
We obviously had a team of testers in NCL (Nintendo Co. Ltd), who are some really hardcore testers. They really try to rip your game apart, which is also really useful.
NL: What would you say the working relationship with Nintendo is like? Did they work closely with you throughout the game’s development?
JB: They were very involved. They expected us to be autonomous and they expected us to understand how they work. But they were always there for feedback and always offering their own ideas. We collaborated really well — we used our expertise and when it comes to communicating with them, we were always passing ideas back and forth and the game just got stronger as a result. The fact that they have all this heritage and that they’re Nintendo, I would say that they know games better than anyone. They make the best video games in my eyes in the way that they approach things. We obviously have our way but we’d be silly to just dismiss their advice, so we definitely take them very seriously and they've been great support in making this game be as good as it can be.
We obviously have milestones where feedback is much more formal and goes through Nintendo Japan. We get feedback from the producers there and then that’s fed through our producers and we discuss what we want to change based on their feedback. Our producers in Nintendo of America — who are actually NCL producers — were in constant contact. When it came to the levels, we had a database which was a list of issues for every level, meaning that they played through the entire game and wrote down any issues that they found. We discussed all of those issues to see what was the best response. So we were constantly iterating the levels and sending them to them and they’d say “Yeah it’s better now, but what do you think?” and we’d say “Yeah, I know what you mean it’s not quite right”, which was usually followed up with a “Well, how about this?”.
They were a good sounding board when it came to puzzle design. We’re much better at puzzle design now having done the first game and we’re doing some interesting things — some of the strongest puzzle design in the industry — but to have them there to help push it on is great as well.
NL: More generally, what do you think of the current 3DS eShop library?
JB: I think it’s getting stronger all the time. It's had some really strong releases recently. I’m really looking forward to HarmoKnight, not just because my friend created it [laughs] but I think every week I check in and see what’s coming out. I haven’t got Fallblox yet, but I’m looking forward to it and all the Level 5 that’s made its way on to the eShop is also brilliant. I’m really looking forward to seeing what developers come out with, because with Nintendo they have to stretch their wings a bit and do things that are slightly different.
NL: How would you gauge the long-term prospects of Nintendo’s download platforms on 3DS and Wii U?
JB: I think they were perhaps a bit behind with WiiWare and DSiWare and I think they’d probably be the first to admit that. I’ve even spoken to people in Nintendo who do feel that way. And that’s one of the things that they really wanted to fix with Wii U and eShop. I was in some of the early meetings before the eShop was announced and we were discussing various things, and I was asking how things have improved and had my own concerns to raise based on WiiWare, but they've addressed all of them and I do think they’re taking it much more seriously now. I think they stand a good chance of creating a good service.
There’s some great stuff on Wii U. I know that Japan is very much retail-based and I think the West is much more ahead in terms of digital content; people are more comfortable with parting with their credit card details over here. Nintendo is a Japanese company and I think they still feel that retail is really where their heart is, but they are starting to see more and more that the digital side is going to start making up a large part of their business.
I think there have been some amazing leaps in this area and it has surprised Nintendo. I was reading an interview with Iwata recently, where he was talking about how the download numbers have shocked him, especially with Animal Crossing and the female demographic, who are responsible for a lot of those downloads. It’s quite surprising. I think they’re clued into this. You should never bet against Nintendo and I think they’re going to create an interesting service. I know a lot of people who are indie developers, who are doing stuff for the Wii U and eShop, so there should be some interesting stuff coming down the pipeline.
NL: Speaking of the pipeline, would you be able to give us any indication of what forthcoming Nintendo projects you have lined up?
JB: No, I can’t, sorry! [laughs]
NL: Oh well, it was worth a go! Okay then, well thank you very much for speaking with us, Bidds, and we wish you all the best moving forward!