The Nintendo Switch eShop has had a couple of busy weeks, with a pleasing range of quality titles arriving on the hardware. One to land in North America and Europe on 13th July is Death Squared by SMG Studio. A puzzle game previously well received on PC, it works nicely as either a co-op experience for players of all abilities or as a solo game for those happy to control two cute robots at the same time.
We were rather impressed in our Death Squared review, and have now spoken to SMG Studio founder Ashley Ringrose to learn more about the game's origins and its route to the Switch eShop. He outlines an idea born out of quickfire creativity, along with a goal to create a puzzle experience that is truly accessible to all players.
Some of our readers may not realise how experienced the SMG Studio team (based in Sydney, Australia) is. Can you tell us a little about your team and the catalogue of games you've developed?
Why thank you! This isn't our first rodeo but our first console game. We've made 8 other games as SMG Studio which are available on mobile and Steam. We're known mostly for One More Line and Thumb Drift, which have around 25 million downloads between them.
The founding team at SMG initially worked together making advergames for brands and entertainment IP for many years before that at Soap Creative. SMG is a skunkworks from Soap. In fact Pat and I just celebrated 9 years working together!
Going back to the beginning with Death Squared, how did the original concept come together?
Pat did a game jam, which is where you go to a location with other devs and make a game from Friday 6pm to Sunday 6pm. 48 hours and the theme for the jam is only revealed in the first hour! SMG has participated in all of these since 2010 but this was the first game we've taken further to proper release. The theme was "what happens next", and Pat wanted to make a game where every level surprised you. In fact some of the levels he made back in 2015 made it into the final game almost verbatim.
But we knew even after 48 hours this was a fun game and had potential. The cube design was a by-product of Pat working by himself over 48 hours, but we thought it worked well and it allowed us to focus on the game first then art.
How did the development concept and design process compare to some of your other projects? Was this a big departure for the team?
Having the game jam game as the proven prototype made things easier. Sometimes you'll go through a dozen prototypes until you find the right fit and then expand on it. Pat managed to do that in 48 hours by himself, so that sped up the process.
Pat also had a strong vision for the game. He wanted a game that didn't rely on reflexes/muscle memory and was a puzzle game. Co-op was a major part of that. This was to make the game as accessible as possible. Your grandma can play this with grandkids. There's nothing more than Up, Down, Left and Right needed plus puzzle solving skills. If we added timing, luck, dexterity and other elements it would have made the game less accessible. He also wanted the levels to be contained on the one screen and to be a quick snack size. This, along with instant respawn, meant that death in the game wasnt a major set back. We didnt want people spending 10 minutes on a level to die and then get frustrated.
Every time someone suggested ideas (and I can't help myself I always do) he'd be able to easily say whether that fitted the vision or not. It was clear and let the team focus. It also removed long drawn out arguments as to why or why not something should be added.
At what point did you become aware of the Switch, and were you immediately interested in bringing Death Squared to the system?
When we heard about the NX we thought wow, we'd love to be a launch title, and the timing seemed right. But as a new studio to console we didn't get in the launch. Luckily, through persistence, we'd see Nintendo reps at shows like PAX or RTX and hassle them there (nicely) too; we made it into the first few months of the Switches' life.
We feel Death Squared fits the Nintendo audience really well as it's gameplay first and a unique game. And the game fits the Switch perfectly.
Picking up on that, in what ways is the game a particularly good fit for the Switch, from the perspective of solo play and local multiplayer?
Well you can tackle a level in a few minutes, which is perfect for the commute where you might have a short period of downtime. You dont come back and think "mmmm, where was I?"
The Switch also encourages co-op play and being portable is really accessible. You can also swap between single and co-op seamlessly. So it's perfect for just grabbing a friend, handing them a Joy-Con and saying "help me solve this!" You dont need to read the instructions or understand anything other than moving and wanting to solve puzzles.
In fact we hope that the Switch is the platform people take to their grandparent's place and get them to play.
In our review we felt the concept for co-op, in particular, was ideal for the hardware. Did that come naturally, or were there design and development challenges you addressed to get the most out of Death Squared on Nintendo Switch?
As we said we kinda had the NX/Switch in mind from the start. So it was a natural fit. Our game also reads well small, so we didnt need to worry about text size and making the UI work to the varying screen sizes.
For those that aren't playing with a friend in local multiplayer, can you talk a little about the single player experience?
Single player is a traditional puzzle game with a funny story. You're basically playing the co-op game but using the left and right brain to play. It's fun but also tricky. You can sometimes be "in the zone" and then your brain just decides "nope" and you get confused. Like rubbing your tummy and patting your head. I look forward to seeing single player and co-op speed runs as it requires a lot of skill to do it fast.
Can you say whether there are any plans for future expansions / DLC?
We've got a LOT of level ideas still on paper. If we add any levels soon it'll be for free to the Vault.
If we do any DLC we'd expand the story and elements. I feel like we have only scratched the surface on puzzle mechanics so we still have a lot of ways to expand.
How would you describe the process of working with Nintendo, accessing devkits and so on?
It's one of the easier systems. I know Tom who did the port was able to get the game visible on the Devkit (we use Unity) in less than a day. He then had to tweak a bunch of stuff but it was a smooth process. And Nintendo (like all the platforms) are surprisingly helpful even for small studios like us.
What are your broad thoughts about the hardware, its concept and its technical capabilities?
I was a doubter at the initial announcement / NX leaks. But now I've gone hands on I love it. As a dad (looks around to make sure wife isn't reading) it's perfect for me as I can sneak away to the toilet to play. My wife thinks I'm constipated!
We're always going to be a gameplay first studio, too. So 4k and pure graphical performance is lower on our priorities.
All of SMG's games use the patented D.A.F.U.Z system.
If we nail all of those things we dont have to worry about being the best looking game out there.
Do you hope to work on the Switch more with future projects?
Yes, it's by far the easiest Nintendo platform to build for. We'd also like to explore the gyro and IR of the Joy-Cons as there's a lot of interesting ideas we can do with that for Death Squared and other games.
Is there a final pitch you'd like to give for Death Squared on the Switch eShop?
It's a puzzle game for people who normally don't play puzzle games. It's also the perfect gateway game to play co-op with your friend/partner who normally doesn't game. We challenge you to get the game and convert someone to become a gamer with this.
Oh, and we can't be held responsible for any broken / thrown Joy-Cons or relationships while playing!
Death Squared is out now on the Switch eShop in North American and Europe. We'd like to thank Ashley Ringrose for his time.