Interview: BNC Design Studios on Gemology, the Wii U eShop and Utilising the System's Capabilities
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
"There is no other platform that could support our games"
Just this week we revealed that Gemology is on the way to the Wii U eShop, another title from a new developer. In this case that company is BNC Design Studios, and those of you with good memories may recall that we spoke to its founder Jake Taylor about his desire to explore licensing opportunities with Nintendo.
Now that the team's work on Gemology has progressed a little further, leading to that reveal, below is the second part of that original interview. In this section our focus is on Gemology, though Taylor also goes on to tackle subjects such as Nintendo's assistance and tools made available to download developers. While full of positivity as many are, the studio's lead also highlights areas where Nintendo could offer greater clarity and more efficient tools, all with the goal of allowing small companies to make the most of the Wii U's diverse capabilities.
We begin with the topic of BNC Design Studios applying for Wii U developer status following GDC (Game Developers Conference) in mid-2013.
Can you perhaps explain how and why you chose to push for Wii U development status last year, in broad terms first of all?
My favourite question actually, and one that I get asked a lot, especially with almost every other developer in 200 square miles of us opting for anything but Wii U. The simple answer, there is no other platform that could support our games. Without the GamePad, our games are literally unplayable. Or, the second screen, I should say, as the 3DS would work as well.
So can you outline what you've been working on since last Summer, and what Wii U owners can look forward to in the near future?
Happily, our first title which due as soon as possible is called Gemology, which is unintentionally similar to Dr. Mario / Bejeweled / Tetris in aesthetics but actually performs much more like BLOK DROP U. The game should be available sometime in Q2 and will offer Wii U owners what we believe to be a new take within the puzzle genre.
Upon download it offers two ways to play, one of which relies on calmer, more thought out puzzle solving while the other is a frantic reminder of what Tetris on level 20 was like. The key here however is that the game is in its entirety a gravity based puzzle game. So I hope it offers a new experience for gamers.
You mention BLOK DROP U, is Gemology also a Nintendo Web Framework project, Unity or another engine entirely?
It's a Unity based game. So expect a breathtaking 3D landscape for your eShop download list!
Is this a 2D (by which we mean with a flat camera facing) puzzle game, or something a bit different?
So you would call this a 2.5D game. The environments and play field are 3-dimensional but the game is played with a flat camera. (Although that's something I'd like to play with in the future!)
So it's sort of like those titles you mentioned before, but with a different camera perspective and an option for a relaxed or frantic mode, is that a fair summary?
Like I mentioned, in terms of aesthetics yes, but the gameplay does carry out very differently.
Gemology takes place in a mining setting, so the whole thing is underground and has that 'Glitter Gulch Mine' feel. The first game mode finds you in a shaft filled with various formations of previous gems; large sprawling shapes that make up individual levels. Periodically a cave-in will occur and rocks will fall from the top of the shaft. Break these rocks open with the stylus and small, individual gems appear. When these smaller gems fall in and fit to complete a row the player can then break up that larger gem formation piece by piece. This is where the Tetris comes in... the player ultimately wins by completing rows. The trick however, is that the player DOES NOT control the rocks or the gems that fall from above. They follow gravity and land wherever they land. The player instead manipulates the environment to get the rocks and gems where they need to be in order to clear the shaft of those large gem formations. Although it sounds simple, we've thrown in a few mechanics that make some levels that from Ducktales Remastered look like a cake walk.
The other, which we have, very humbly, called Game Mode 2, is far different. The player is put in a different shaft but this time filled with only the small gems, which might remind you of Bejeweled. The grid is approximately 10x10 so a total of 100+ gems are on screen at once and requires that the player tap, drag and combine gems of like colours to create larger, more valuable gems which when delivered into the players mine cart are tallied into their score. The catch is that this pit of gems is slowly falling into a pool of magma and the more gems a player allows into the magma, the higher the magma gets. Once the lava pool covers the playing field, game over. This we intentionally included as an easier more 'shoot the breeze' experience. We wanted players to find more ways to play including one that pits them against themselves (and maybe others!) to try and surpass that high score, very reminiscent of the arcade glory days.
It seems that it's about gem management, in terms of successfully manipulating large gems into smaller items for combinations. It'll be interesting to see in action. Quick touch controls seem important, so is the GamePad touch screen the only control option here?
It is. The game is very much to be played on the GamePad and although it would be possible to use, say, the Wii Remote or even a standard controller, it wouldn't have nearly the same effect or efficiency as being able to tap and manipulate with the stylus. Especially since both are very time sensitive, players are going to need a quick hand to find their way up the ranks in this one.
Do you expect the player to focus on the GamePad screen when playing then? Will the TV display the game for other observers in the room?
The TV we've opted to have some fun with. Instead of just repeating the same scene, which does work in some instances as an audience/observers tool as you mentioned, especially in Nintendo Land, we decided this isn't a game that people are going to be very entertained watching the player move around in. We decided instead to use it to further immerse the player. In both modes for example the total number/amount of gems you tally away is recorded and deposited on the other screen. As you progress through the game you'll have the privilege of watching your accumulated wealth as well. In addition, since the player relies so heavily on the GamePad to assess the field, we wanted as little as possible on the screen that wasn't absolutely essential to accomplish whichever task you might be currently working on. As such all of the typical HUD information such as score, time, level, etc. is all on the TV screen. Since the game has the mining theme, mine carts are an obvious staple which we had some fun with on both screens. In fact you might see a few familiar faces flying by if you happen to break away from the action on one screen to catch the other.
One thing that we are regrettably unable to put in the copy releasing Q2 is an online multiplayer which would then utilize the TV screen to showcase your opponent's work. That won't be available at launch but we will patch that in as a free update for everyone who owns the game when we do have the opportunity to finish it.
Will that online play be real-time, or asynchronous with data exchanges? Does the absence of double GamePad support also rule out local multiplayer?
Actually... we're working with the possibility of two GamePads as that was something promised at the time of the Wii U's release, so if you have a buddy and you like the game enough, maybe you'll be able to bring your pad over because Gemology's multiplayer is about vengeance and punishment!
But in the meantime it will be real-time. Players will be competing to step on each other and drive the other into oblivion while simultaneously shooting for the higher score come end game. Something different to the genre as Tetris or Puyo (or both!) are really more about survival for the average player. I rarely get a successful combo that means anything in the end, when playing Dr. Mario with my wife it's more a question of 'who sucks less' as no one ever actually beats the level, opting instead to just live longer than your opponent. Kind of like, I don't have to outrun a bear, I just have to outrun you. Instead, even though you may 'lose' because the magma catches up, if your score is there, you may still win. So it'll be an interesting shake to the formula.
Do you have any thoughts on pricing yet, and will there be additional DLC beyond the planned online multiplayer update?
There will and we have. The game is going to be released at $4.99. Euro and Pound prices pending as we're still a ways from getting it on the European market (sorry guys!). Similar to Spin the Bottle the additional content will reward early adopters with the full game for the initial $4.99 offering. Otherwise the price of the added content will go into the game as well.
Other content to be on the look out are added levels, which I feel is a puzzle studio's duty to supply regularly and for free, as well as level builders and new mechanics for the single player modes.
Will the level building have online sharing?
Of course! SpotPass, Miiverse and all of the works will be present.
So in future DLC we'll be able to create a stage and share it online, and likewise access and play other people's stages?
Yes, I think Miiverse and Spotpass are grossly underutilized. For example, if Nintendo Life decides to make a stage with a giant 'NL' fans can follow you from within the game and your updated levels can be sent to them directly through SpotPass if they opt for those, as well as the usual browsing settings we're used to.
While we'll have all of the options, I'd like to take an item sharing formula from Sonic Lost World and combine it with a dream suite approach from Animal Crossing so players can open up a cavern and have a randomized level pop in. Of course you can name and upload as well so friends can search for yours.
That all sounds very promising. Perhaps we can finish off on your experiences with Nintendo to date. Was the initial registration to be a developer positive, and has Nintendo been helpful to you since?
So, that's something I've been curious to address. To preface my thoughts on this one, it's interesting to observe what's been said already. Most people in the community have the mentality that 'Nintendo's hardware/dev kits/etc suck' but the company is friendly to developers. We've seen complaints about developing a Wii U game and we've seen incredible accolades for how supportive Nintendo is. My experience has largely been the opposite. Developing a game for Wii U is like using an easy bake oven but instead of crappy muffins coming out, Julia Child's Tiramisu does instead. It's INCREDIBLY easy and efficient for us to make games for the Wii U. In contrast, initially working with Nintendo was about as easy as getting Coca Cola to Priority Ship it's secret formula to us. When applying I was almost at the point of sending hate mail just to get a reply. Now there are two different types of communication I want to add: How to Develop is one and How to do Everything Else is the other. The 'How to Develop' staff are great, but what we needed wasn't development advice, what we needed was licensing information, status approval, Miiverse support, et al. All of which took a long time. As much as I'd love to say working with Nintendo is all rainbows and butterflies, it's actually been very stressful.
That was the case for a good while, but from February onwards we've been talking with them on an almost daily basis. So that has fortunately changed... I do have to say I've had a change of heart in that regard. Nintendo throughout the month of February has been unbelievably supportive in processing ALL of my requests. (Hallelujah)
Overall it isn't to say we are dissatisfied because at the core is the development experience, and a few hiccups aren't going to prevent us from working with Nintendo. Even more important however is how dedicated they are to see the eShop perform and their indie developers succeed and that goes a very long way.
I hope the Wii U performs, because frankly, there is so much potential that nay-sayers just refuse to see.
So the commitment to Indies and support with development tools is in place, but you feel more business and platform integration advice is needed promptly. Issues with practical questions, rather than nitty-gritty coding and porting?
Exactly. Very well stated. It's the intricacies such as Nintendo specific material, i.e. how to use SpotPass, how to integrate Miis, how to best utilize Miiverse. Those are the questions that we really care about though, as we want to make the most of what the hardware has to offer.
I can't say for certain but I would guess that's part of the reason they're so underutilized.
It's just such an unknown for everyone and it's frankly rather hard to get answers to specific questions. Of course that's in part because all of the programming savvy comes from Japan and I'm sure translation delays are in there somewhere, but regardless, I think that's a formal recommendation to Nintendo: indies can really make your hardware shine if you show them how to use it.
Thanks for that perspective. To wrap up on the upcoming release, are you confident that your game will perform well for you on the Wii U eShop, financially, and are you hopeful for the Wii U's long term future in the market?
The Wii U is the most fun with gaming I've had since I first played Balloon Fight back in '89. I hope the Wii U performs, because frankly, there is so much potential that nay-sayers just refuse to see. There are gameplay elements that just can't be experienced on a standard controller and for that reason I hope the Wii U survives. As for our game, I think that with our introductory price point and the experience we have on hand, we're going to do ok. We will certainly have a demo, I hope many of your readers pick it up and take it for a spin, and ultimately, if they like it, I hope they'll support the indie scene on Wii U! That's pretty much all we can ask for.
We'd like to thank Jake Taylor for his time.