Nintendo's systems have played host to various unlikely game genres, and Picross can certainly be considered one example. The history of the puzzle genre goes right back to the Game Boy, and on the 3DS eShop we've also had numerous Picross e releases. Let's not forget, either, that My Nintendo Picross - The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is one of the standout rewards to be chased on My Nintendo, too.
It's not a style of game that's graced home consoles quite as prolifically, however, and PixlCross - out now in North America and coming soon to Europe - is looking to fill that gap on the Wii U eShop. With the GamePad, of course, the scope is there for a similar experience to those titles found on 3DS, and developer PixlBit Studios has also worked to include Miiverse, level creation and sharing tools to add to the game's value.
It's an ambitious effort on paper, so with the game hitting the eShop we caught up with Nick DiMola - a member of the puzzle loving development team - to learn more.
First off, can you introduce yourself and PixlBit Studios to our readers?
Hi everyone! I'm Nick DiMola – I did all of the programming for PixlCross. PixlBit Studios is the collaborative effort of me and my wife, Chessa DiMola. We're lifetime gamers who have been writing about and playing games together for years. We've always had a dream of making our own games and in late 2014 we decided to just start going for it!
Can you talk about the origins of the idea to develop PixlCross?
The idea to develop PixlCross was basically Chessa's. She's what you'd call a Picross addict… you'd be hard pressed to find a Picross/nonogram experience on consoles or the web that she hasn't made her way through.
As we started talking about making a game, we tossed around a bunch of ideas, but most of them seemed unachievable. Certain ideas were in genres that were totally saturated or would require a huge team to get done right. Since we really knew nothing about making games and it was just the two of us, a title like Picross seemed the most achievable. I threw together a quick proof-of-concept, which went very well, and the rest is history.
There have been plenty of Picross titles on 3DS, but it's a genre that's largely missed out on Wii U; why do you think that is?
I'm not totally sure why the Wii U has been an untapped market for Nintendo, to be honest. When you consider games like Pushmo that made a very successful leap to the Wii U, it seems like Picross would also do very well on the platform. That being said, Picross has always had a home on portable consoles and being a very personal experience it kind of works having that type of game in your pocket.
We think the touch controls are integral to the experience. When you think about it, this style of puzzle was really invented on the pen-and-paper medium.
At least on our end, we liked the large screen the GamePad provides and we think it works well for the larger puzzles we've incorporated into PixlCross. The Picross games usually don't have such large puzzles, so the extra real estate afforded by the Wii U GamePad likely isn't a big deal for that type of experience. We tried to create a more "console-like" experience by building in the extra creation and sharing features to really flesh things out.
How important is it to have a touch device like the GamePad for a project like this?
We think the touch controls are integral to the experience. When you think about it, this style of puzzle was really invented on the pen-and-paper medium. As such, it seems natural to work in stylus controls rather than using button inputs. To that end, we've put a lot of work into making that feel really natural.
For instance, when you're trying to fill in a row of blocks, your input is locked to that row. When we first started, the input wasn't locked, and as we play-tested we found that it was easy to accidentally slide off the row you were trying to fill, and the unfortunate side effect was filling in the wrong blocks.
Other nifty features include things like the pop-out hints to avoid moving the grid around a bunch to see the whole puzzle. Doing that kind of stuff with button controls would've presented a bit of a challenge, or at the very least, wouldn't have afforded the nuance we were able to achieve using touch input.
If you're sceptical of the touch controls due to past experiences, we think PixlCross will do a reasonable job of convincing you that they are the way to play this style of game.
Before we move onto the various online and creativity features, can you talk a little about the pre-set puzzles on offer in the game?
In total we have 150 puzzles on offer between the Easy, Medium, and Hard modes. The puzzles incrementally ramp up from the first to the last, so the denominations between modes will be fairly transparent to players. Each puzzle offers up to three possible achievements: no errors, no hints used, and quick time. These all count towards overall completion of the game - once you hit 50%, you'll unlock a set of Bonus puzzles that are pretty brutally hard. There's no doubt that the hard puzzles are hard, but the Bonus puzzles are really something else. We've been jokingly calling them the "Dark Souls" of Picross puzzles.
Generally speaking, Chessa has put a ton of effort into ensuring the puzzles actually look like the thing they purport to be. One of our general gripes about some other games in this puzzle subgenre is that they rarely look like anything. It's not until some other effects are applied that you can actually tell when the puzzle is. Our other complaint with games we've played in the past is that at some point in solving the puzzle, you need to guess. With PixlCross, we've ensured that every puzzle can be solved without guessing.
Moving on to the puzzle editor, can you walk us through the development of this feature and some of the challenges you faced?
The puzzle editor developed very organically as we developed the game. The first implementation was extremely basic. You could drop blocks on the grid and that was about it. After Chessa built an absolute ton of puzzles, we ran into the next issue – solvability. That drove me to sit down and figure out the algorithm that can solve all nonogram puzzles.
Believe it or not, translating techniques you use to solve puzzles as a human into something a computer understands is extremely complex. I came to find out that solving nonograms is a problem computer scientists have spent considerable effort on. I eventually stumbled across a web site from a college professor that shared some of his research on solving techniques and implemented the appropriate one. Getting that working perfectly was one of the most brutal months of development.
Once I solved that problem, it was a matter of giving Chessa the tools she needed to get all of the puzzles into a shippable state. That spawned stuff like the invert, trim, and movement functions. We later fixed up the UI and made it as user friendly as possible. Ultimately, the puzzle editor you use will be the one we built the game with, just spiffier.
How important has it been to optimise the UI so it's easy to use the tool; was simplicity of use a priority?
Well, I guess I kind of touched on this in the last question, but simplicity was a pretty important thing for us in the final few months of development. We iterated on all the UIs in the game countless times. We think the big selling point for PixlCross is the ability to interface with the community.
Believe it or not, translating techniques you use to solve puzzles as a human into something a computer understands is extremely complex.
As I mentioned earlier, Chessa kind of has an addiction and she always dreamed of having some sort of unlimited supply of puzzles to play. We're hoping that the online portion of PixlCross becomes the place for that. The only way to drive that engagement is to have an intuitive UI and a toolset that makes it easy to produce cool puzzles.
You've set up various means to share creations, can you talk about those?
After you finish creating a puzzle, the first step is uploading it to Nintendo's servers. Once that's done, you've effectively shared it to the PixlCross community. If someone goes into the search tool, your puzzle will start showing up in the results. Once the puzzle is uploaded you'll land on the puzzle detail UI, which allows you to post the ID of the puzzle to Miiverse. In that regard it's kind of like Super Mario Maker. Since you have an ID, you can go ahead and share that anywhere, whether that's Twitter or Facebook or whatever. If you are looking to consume a puzzle via ID, there's an option on the search tool to just plug that in and download the puzzle.
If you've downloaded and played another player's puzzle, you should consider giving them a thumbs up if you liked it. This will help make the download portal a bit more interesting as it will sort results with the best puzzles at the top.
It's possible to browse and download other gamer's puzzles, was that a particularly challenging feature to implement?
When we first started looking at implementing those features, I'll be honest, it seemed very simple. But once we got down into the details there was a ton of hidden "gotchas." Nintendo is very strict about the way interactions must occur with their provided services. Under each and every circumstance the game must behave according to their guidelines or your game won't pass certification.
Some of you might remember our initial announcement for PixlCross was back in September 2015 – that's when we first went into Lotcheck. It's taken another six months to iron out all of the issues we encountered. It was a great learning experience though and we were able to use the in between time to make the game better.
How important are platforms such as Miiverse for a game like PixlCross, and is fostering a sense of community around the game a big priority for you?
One of the things we used the in between time mentioned in the last question for is really bolstering our Miiverse support. Miiverse is where the Nintendo community is. As we sat down and talked about it, we decided that if we want to drive community engagement, our participation in Miiverse needed to increase. In the past it's been a place where I go to celebrate something I achieved in a game or to post about something I created.
As such, we built in the ability to post in Miiverse with the push of a button after you complete a puzzle, share a puzzle, or complete a significant portion of the game. We hope that this helps keep the community active and engaged in the game.
Finally, do you have a particular message you'd like to sign off with?
Thanks so much for having us and giving us the opportunity to talk about PixlCross. Building and releasing our first game has been an incredibly challenging but fulfilling process. We're extremely excited to share it with the world and to see what the community creates!
We'd like to thank Nick DiMola for his time - PixlCross is out now on the Wii U eShop in North America, priced $5.99 in the US.