The latest - but not last - from Big John Games

Earlier this month we saw the release of Thorium Wars on DSiWare. The game was a pleasant (and unexpected) surprise, and we recommend it highly. Needless to say, we were excited by the opportunity to have a few questions answered by the developers.

Read on for insight into the retail version that never was, the unfortunate catch-22 of touch-screen control, and the six(!) releases Big John Games has planned for the future.

Nintendo Life: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. Would you like to introduce yourselves personally, and explain your role in the development of Thorium Wars?

We are the Thorium Wars Core Team Members:

  • Ken Patterson, President of Big John Games.
  • Matt Heinzen, Lead Developer at Big John Games, created the concept for Thorium Wars and did much of the initial mission design, in addition to writing code.
  • Florian Jungwirth, Art Director for Big John Games, created all of the mission artwork.
  • Ajani Boganey, 3D Artist for Big John Games, created the player vehicles and enemies for the game.

NL: What’s the history of Big John Games? What brought you folks together?

Ken Patterson: In 1991, I founded Window Painters, Ltd., to create utilities for artists. Many of our customers were digital artists that worked at game companies, so it was a logical step to eventually expand and apply our graphics knowledge into developing game projects. Along the way we have created games for Disney, Activision, Infogrames, Sony Music, THQ, Vivendi, Destineer, and others.

Window Painters Ltd. evolved into Big John Games, which is named after my father, John Patterson.

A few years ago we were able to create a partnership called 3PM Games that would fund independent game development. This allowed us to fund independent development and co-publish games. A few of our titles, Spitfire Heroes and Plushees, were done this way. The 3PM partnership funded development for Thorium Wars and other projects we are in the process of releasing.

BJG has worked with Nintendo over the past year to gain access to both DSiWare and WiiWare digital download services.

Big John Games has been able to attract talented people that have a passion for creating video game entertainment.

NL: What made you look toward the DSiWare platform for Thorium Wars? What appealed to you about it? Did you find it to be limiting in any way?

Ken Patterson: Thorium Wars was originally conceived as a retail cartridge title. Because of the increased difficulty in getting original properties onto retail shelves, we saw DSiWare as an opportunity to make an impact by being one of the first premium titles on that service. By offering the game direct to the consumer we could provide the game at a price lower than retail. This freedom and direct access is exciting to us as game creators.

Matt Heinzen: Thorium Wars was intended to fit onto a 16 MB cartridge so we knew that the size limitations of DSiWare would not be a problem for us. Technically there is very little difference between developing a DSiWare title and a cartridge title, so switching targets mid-development was not an issue. Additionally, the faster DSi processor ensured that Thorium Wars never dips below 60 frames-per-second.

NL: What games did you draw inspiration from to create the look and feel of Thorium Wars?

Matt Heinzen: The gameplay drew some initial inspiration from Rogue Squadron, being a multi-vehicle shooter. However, I've always enjoyed action-adventure games such as the Metroid Prime series, and this provided more of the inspiration for the land-based and indoor missions.

Ajani Boganey: It was actually the B-scifi movies that inspired me the most in making the look and feel of the Thorium War vehicles and enemies. I also believe everybody contributed in some way to the overall look of the game. We tried to give the enemies and the vehicles their own characteristics and feel, to help make the game feel engaging, since there was no human elements in the game.

NL: Thorium Wars is definitely among the most visually polished DSiWare releases we’ve seen. Was this attention to the art style a deliberate focus of the team from the beginning, or were you just fortunate enough to attract great artists?

Florian Jungwirth: Creating sophisticated art was a target from the beginning, since this is an important criterion for a vehicle shooter. We tried to make the appearance of the environments and design of the vehicles as interesting as possible. For example, the look of environments should support the game play and different vehicle types; flying above clouds, driving through a lush river world, maneuvering through a destroyed city or navigating in outer space...the more exciting the art, the more fun it is exploring the worlds. The whole team was working closely together to achieve this, since it was quite challenging because of DSiWare and memory limitations.

NL: The relatively high cost of the game doesn’t seem to have hurt it too much, but certainly there are gamers out there who are reluctant to invest 1000 points in a title they aren't familiar with. What would you like to say to those who are on the fence about a purchase?

Ken Patterson: You are getting a high production value game that has many hours of game play. It’s a very fun, exciting and challenging game to play. Just because the game was delivered via DSiWare does not change the fact that our artists and developers pushed the limits of the DSi hardware and came up with a great game.

Matt Heinzen: The main drawback of the price seems to come from people familiar with the lower priced DSiWare offerings and assuming that 1000 points does not reflect the actual amount of game content. From our perspective, Thorium Wars was originally intended to be a $30 retail title, so even with slightly scaled back content it's a really good value. From discussion I've seen online it seems that a lot of people were put off by the price initially, but decided to buy Thorium Wars once they read positive reviews and comments justifying the price.

NL: How do you feel about the overall critical response that the game has received? How about the popular response?

Matt Heinzen: Overall both the reviews and popular response for Thorium Wars are quite good; I just wish there were more of each! This seems to be a problem with downloadable games in general; they don't seem to get reviewed as seriously as retail games.

Ajani Boganey: In reviews and responses a lot of good points have been made. Our goal is to continually enhance and improve the products we produce. The input and responses we get are important to this success.

NL: Are there any irritating misconceptions about the game that you've noticed in reviews and would care to dispel?

Matt Heinzen: Nothing too serious. Reviews have complained about the alternative controls using the stylus, which is fair since I prefer the direction pad controls myself. However on a previous game some reviews criticized us for not having a stylus control option, so it was a bit of a lose-lose proposition.

NL: Was there anything you would have liked to have included in Thorium Wars that you were unable to, either for reasons of time or space constraints? How satisfied are you with the final product?

Ken Patterson: We would have also liked to include multiplayer but we just did not have the time to test an online multiplayer element. We are extremely satisfied with the final product. We think it is a great game and it really highlights the value of the DSiWare service and the power our team of developers can get out of the DSi.

Matt Heinzen: We originally wanted 20-25 missions but had to scale this back due to development time. More missions would have allowed us to use a branching mission structure instead of a linear mission ordering, and would have allowed us to place more tech upgrades to acquire within missions.

NL: For better or worse, what did you learn in the process of making Thorium Wars that you might not have learned otherwise?

Matt Heinzen: It's really hard to judge the difficulty of your own games. We spent a year and a half developing Thorium Wars, and in that time I probably played it over 100 hours, mostly in 5-10 minute chunks. All that playtime combined with full knowledge of mission structure and enemy weaknesses really distorted the difficulty curve for me. In the future we'll work harder on bringing in fresh testers throughout development who can approach the game as a new player would.

NL: While many gamers certainly do appreciate the high level of difficulty in Thorium Wars, others seem to get stuck for extreme lengths of time on certain missions, only passing them, finally, by virtue of a lucky break. Are there any helpful tips or strategies (or possibly cheats...ahem...) you’d care to share to help everybody along?

Matt Heinzen: There are no cheats, but here are a few tips:

  • Read the briefings. I know some people skip the briefings, but most contain a few hints on how to deal with specific enemies or situations that can save time in the long run.
  • Don't get distracted by drones when there are other objectives. Keep moving towards primary targets and take on stronger enemies first, leaving drones for last. They can't cause much damage if you keep moving and anticipate their fire.
  • Mounted gun fire is hard to evade, but the guns themselves can be taken out quickly. Most guns cannot turn a full circle so approach at high speed and swing around behind to take them out whenever possible.
  • In the air and space escort missions stay close to your big ships. You can use them for cover if an enemy gets you in its sights, and their gunfire added to your own can make the difference in destroying attacking fighters.

NL: What are your feelings on the DSiWare and WiiWare services so far?

Matt Heinzen: DSiWare and WiiWare are great concepts, but they could be better. DSiWare mainly needs more good games and for developers and publishers to take it more seriously, which I think they will as the DSi user base grows. I am a bit worried that a flood of 200 point games may crowd out more interesting higher priced titles. I would also like to see higher size limits on WiiWare, since the current size limits are actually a lot more constraining on the Wii with its need for higher quality textures and sounds than the smaller limits on the DSi.

Ken Patterson: Overall, as both services are going to continue to grow and evolve we are very honored to be a part of the growth. Innovative games are being released on both platforms using this service.

NL: Any idea when our friends in the UK might get a chance to play the game?

Ken Patterson: We are prepping Thorium Wars for Euro release. We think Quarter 1, 2010 is a likely timeframe.

NL: What is Big John Games planning next?

Ken Patterson: Over the past two years we have been developing a group of games that are now ready to be released. Thorium Wars was the first of these games. We will be releasing three WiiWare titles and three DSiWare titles over the next 6 months. We will be getting info out on these games as they become ready for release.

NL: Thank you very much for your time; it’s been a pleasure! Is there anything you'd like to say before we conclude?

Ken Patterson: Thank you, Nintendo Life has become a favorite site for Big John Games. We are on the site daily and love reading what your community has to say not only about our games, but the entire DSiWare platform.

Matt Heinzen: Thanks for the great coverage not only of Thorium Wars, but the entire DSiWare platform. Downloadable games deserve reviews too!