CIRCLE Entertainment has published a good variety of games on DSiWare, covering almost any genre that can feasibly work on the ageing service. Its own take on the sim style began with Bookstore Dream, which while owing much to similar smartphone games was a solid effort. Unlike that book publishing title, Publisher Dream has a more distinctive approach than high profile contemporaries on iOS and Android, but struggles to progress from grand idea to finished code.
The concept is simple — you run your own game studio, starting from just two employees, and publish titles to the 'cShop'. That name should tip you off right away that CIRCLE's attempting to provide an accessible look into the world of producing games for Nintendo's download stores; no systems are specified, but you're given nine years to live the life — we guess this is to date back to the launch of the DS in 2004, rather than DSiWare's launch. We shouldn't take the parallel too literally, as the "points" pricing actually equates all the way up to retail rates. It's like developing in a world where Nintendo led the way with download games when launching the DS.
To move onto the actual experience, it can initially be a tad confusing. The in-game manual and advice is rather slim, leaving you to feel your way around the interface, which itself is functional but not as clear as we'd like; icons appear next to game projects to reflect critic scores and player impressions — at least we believe they do — and you find your way around menus on the touch screen. Your initial tasks are to start off early development projects, improve your office with furniture and facilities — which essentially serve as buffs for your staff — and manage your finances.
Keeping the debtors at bay can be tricky, initially, as expenditure is taken monthly while income — from sales of your gaming masterpieces — arrives quarterly. Planning ahead to ensure that you can cover three months of the indicated expenditure is vital, as an early bail-out is a one off, while failing to pay your way three months in a row leads to Game Over.
In that respect this title finds a nice balance in forcing you to work within your means, anxiously awaiting that windfall every three months before budgeting fresh projects. While that mechanic is solidly implemented, other areas are sloppy in comparison. When kitting out the office or recruiting new staff, for example, it's easy to spend money but not to recoup it or backtrack on mistakes. We saw expenditure creep up to unsustainable levels late in the game, yet our plan to drop the wage bill — which had sky-rocketed as leveled up staffer's salaries increased — was a no-go. Once you buy items or recruit staff they're there permanently, when in reality it would make sense to be able to expand or shrink as your plans saw fit. Instead we had a workforce that, at one point affordable and perfect for expansion, was now overly expensive and awkward when focusing on a different development plan.
In terms of that most vital activity, making games, there are pros and cons to the approach in Publisher Dream. As expected you start with limited genres such as puzzle and card games, with each category split into small, medium and large size projects, also unlocked with progress. You assign staff to key areas, matching up relevant strengths, and as the size of development grows so does the size of the team and cost. Each staffer also has a stress level to worry about, so ensuring that your office is kitted out, and dev teams well rotated, is an important part of the task at hand.
There are some restrictions that hold this back from being addictive, compulsive sim gaming. For one thing the game genres are all in three letter abbreviations, so we had a job figuring them all out, and once the project is underway your input is minimal. You set the price at the end, but you have no control over the theme of an RPG, or what style to mix with what genre — these are ideas from smartphone title Game Dev Story that would have been welcome here. You can't give any creative flair or identity to your work, as a result, making your role that of a custodian, overseeing money and resources while your staff make the (invisible) fun decisions.
As budgets spiral and development times increase, you spend more and more time simply waiting for time to pass and games to be released. And boy does that time pass slowly. Every week is represented for the year, so your nine year period will take you around six hours to complete. That doesn't sound much, but quirks of the presentation can get under your skin in that time; annoying music, pixelated employees insisting on walking the long way to their desk before immediately getting up to leave at the end of the day, and pop up text messages in poorly written English. Those niggles can amplify if you're in the wrong mood.
We feel the balancing could have been better, too. We've seen players find it hard to get to grips with the structure of the finances and fail on multiple occasions, while in our case we stayed in business but got caught in a frustrating loop near the end — we would only make a modest profit due to spiraling wages, so could only invest in one major project and cheap 3-in-1 games, which only allowed modest profit, and so on. Momentum we'd enjoyed before was lost and, as mentioned before, we really needed to streamline our team and restructure, like an actual business would in the real world.
These omissions are strange, as the title happily states that it aims to give insight into the life of developing games. That nine year period we mentioned also serves as the end of the game, with a message that basically tells you to work hard and pursue your dreams. Unlike Bookstore Dream there's no option to continue endlessly for your own amusement, with your save file simply disappearing. The concept makes sense, but as a player we were surprised that the game simply ended, without us achieving a notable end goal of any kind.
Publisher Dream is a title with some good ideas and can be an interesting, enjoyable experience. Basic ideas of running your own game development studio are there and work well, but some strange, restrictive design choices combine with some rough edges to take away its sheen. Decent value at its budget price, this is more C+ than Triple-A.