It takes a lot of guts to leave a sure thing, especially in these times of economic uncertainty. That goes double when that ‘sure thing’ is one of the most respected videogame developers in the business and the destination one of the most financially-depressed states in the country. But it sure sounds like having guts runs in the family as that’s exactly what happened with Thomas Hoeg, founder and CEO of mobile-centric developer ByteSize Games.
After working on Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time for the PlayStation 3, Tom – along with brother Richard – left the relative development safety of Insomniac Games’ for their next big adventure – founding ByteSize Games in their home state of Michigan in 2010 with an emphasis on making “the kind of games that we want to make”, he says. After their debut with last year’s award-winning geometric color-blasting FlipShip, the company is readying their follow-up with a new spin on the eternal struggle of mouse vs. cheese with the puzzle-solving fun of Little Labyrinths. And wouldn’t you know it, Tom was more than willing to talk about his love of puzzle gaming, cheese, and going from crafting blockbusters to more bite-sized pleasures.
FlipShip, your studios’ first release, was an intriguing marriage of Ikaruga’s mechanics and the popular app Tilt to Live. Are you looking to take a previously established genre and turn it on its head with Little Labyrinths?
You could say that, but mostly because Little Labyrinths is more of a “back to basics” approach to the puzzle genre. The most obvious inspiration for Little Labyrinths is the old pen-and-paper mazes you might find in a puzzle book or on the back of a cereal box. We wanted to take that classic experience and see how we could build on it for the mobile space. At its core, Little Labyrinths is about solving mazes just like its inspiration, but we’ve added a lot of wrinkles in the game’s various modes along with a strong progression element to bring maze solving to a modern audience. We’ve leveraged modern technology and design concepts to create an experience that captures the classic fun of solving a pen-and-paper maze with a modern twist.
The easiest and most dependable way to hook players when it comes to mobile games is to add an element of pick up and play. It looks like you’re doing that and more. How did you come up with the idea of adding in-game incentives for players? Was it an idea you planned on from the start?
Progression was a core concept of Little Labyrinths right from the start. As gamers ourselves, we understand the attraction of constantly progressing toward something new, and we wanted to make sure that was part of Little Labyrinths. At the same time, since our games are competitive, we wanted to make sure our progression didn’t destabilize or unbalance the gameplay in any way. We decided the best way to do that was to focus on progression that was mostly cosmetic. It’s still very satisfying to unlock a new character, objective, or location, but players are on a level playing field right from the start.
Were you fans of creating and solving pen-and-paper mazes before creating Little Labyrinths? Do you think that since it’s a universally appreciated pastime that you’ll be able to attract more casual players?
Definitely. Pen-and-paper mazes are the first “puzzles” I can remember solving, and I think that’s true for a lot of people. As a father of two, I see a fair number of children’s magazines and kid’s menus at restaurants, and it looks like pen-and-paper mazes are as popular as ever. I think solving pen-and-paper mazes is a universally shared experience, and so I think it will naturally resonate with people.
You seem to have taken a more minimalistic approach with graphics and it works for the type of game you’ve created – do you think allowing players to fill in their own blanks is an integral part of bringing them back to the basics, so to speak?
Yes, I think so. For starters, the clean art style was necessary for the core gameplay. At one point during development, we had environments with a lot more details, but they ultimately obscured the maze too much. For a future update, we are working on a system to “decorate” the mazes with some smaller details that won’t interfere with gameplay. Keeping the characters and objectives simple was important so that we could make sure they were readable even at their small size on screen. With the clean style we created, we were able to squeeze a lot of character into a relatively small space on screen.
What was your vision when founding ByteSize Games? What did you set your hearts on creating? The departure from Insomniac must have been a jarring one, and a tough decision to make. Are you looking to take cues from your company title and create delectable, quick-hit games that can appeal to everyone?
The short answer is, like a lot of developers, we want to make the kind of games that we would like to play. If we aren’t passionate about a project as players as well as developers, we aren’t going to pursue it. Your last question pretty much hits the nail on the head, the company name captures the goals for our games. We want to create big games in small packages, taking larger experiences and adjusting them for the mobile space. The growth of the mobile market has brought a huge number of new gamers to the gaming industry, and we want to expose them to the many different experiences that we think make gaming great. And that’s for new and old alike. We want to make games that offer simple, accessible, repeatable fun for everyone.
Was the publishing process for your first game as challenging and confusing as it seems to be?
A little bit? The actual publishing process with Apple is straightforward, though it is a bit of a black box. You ship your game off to Apple, hopeful that it will pass through review without issue. I’ve heard a lot of app approval horror stories with games being held back for months at a time, but we’ve been very successful at navigating the review process without much issue.
The development process, on the other hand, was incredibly challenging and confusing for our first game, FlipShip. The development cycle was a case in point that you “don’t know what you don’t know.” I had worked on games in school and at big studios like Insomniac and Gearbox, but I had never been in touch with as many parts of the process as I was with FlipShip. There were a number of times we had to stop and figure out how were were going to do something, and that took a lot of time and patience.
By comparison, Little Labyrinths’ development cycle was incredibly straightforward. The core of the game changed very little from initial concept to final product, and there were very few times we had to stop in order to figure out what to do with a certain problem. Ultimately, our experience from FlipShip gave us a much tighter loop between having an idea and executing on it, and I think that made development of Little Labyrinths much easier and more enjoyable.
Are there any games currently available on the App Store that have acted as influences on your work, and why?
Little Labyrinths wasn’t really directly inspired by anything. In fact, it was inspired more by a lack of anything significantly like it. It seemed like such a simple idea, just solving mazes with your finger, but there weren’t many apps that seemed to offer that experience, and certainly not at the level of quality we thought the idea deserved.
As for indirect inspiration, I think there are probably a number of apps we could name, but I don’t think any of them contributed anything unique to the project. This was our first project with a progression element and in-app purchases, so we spent some time looking at a number of different apps to establish common ways of handling these two systems, and tried to integrate the “best practices” into our design.
What steps are you taking to ensure the games you create stand out in ways that others do not? For instance, there are plenty of maze apps to be found and similar titles to that of which you’ve already made. They’ve each got their own charm, so what methods do you rely on to keep ahead of the curb?
Well, honestly, the App Store doesn’t seem to have a lot of apps that cater to this exact style of gameplay: the simplicity of the pen-and-paper maze. There are apps that involve mazes, but most seem to involve tilt or other features which serve to separate them from that classic design. Against the handful of the games that do something similar to Little Labyrinths, I think we stand out with the high level of polish, quality, and character that we’ve given the game.
With the App Store being as large as it is and getting larger every day, standing out is always a question at the forefront of our minds. To start, the most important thing we focus on is art style and visual quality. We know that the decision to buy an app can come down to a few screenshots, and so we focus on making our games as visually compelling as we can. To that end, we are focused on bold colors and unique styles rather than on photorealism.
Once someone has purchased the game, our job is to make them love it, and we do that through quality and polish. Our philosophy is to take something simple and do it really, really well, rather than creating a big idea that performs maybe only adequately. There are a number of things that contribute to quality and polish, but I think the biggest among those are the controls and user interface. We want games that are easy to interact with and enjoy. As soon as the controls become a barrier to entry for some players, there’s a problem. We spend a lot of time exploring controls to find the best solution.
Do you think you’d ever like to take on projects with narratives that have a broader scope, injecting them with your own brand of pick-up-and-play motifs? A role-playing game? An action-adventure epic?
Frankly, we would love that. My brother, Rick (co-founder of the company), and I have a love of strong narrative and great storytelling. We stand by the fact the gameplay is the most important thing, but narrative and character are a very close second. Right now, our team is very small, so we are focused on delivering high quality, “bitesize” games, but as the team grows we’ve got a lot of larger ideas we’d love to explore. Even with these bigger concepts though, we would be sticking to our founding principle of simple, repeatable fun just as part of a much larger package.
What’s your next big project going to be, or what would you like to accomplish in the industry over the next few years?
Well, I can’t say exactly what our next project will be, but we’ve got a number of ideas we’ve been considering during the development of Little Labyrinths. We’ll also be spending a lot of time supporting Little Labyrinths with monthly content updates including new characters, objectives, environments, and game modes. I think the big thing we want to accomplish in the long term is to carve out a space for our philosophy of big experiences in small packages. While the App Store is huge, it only offers a small portion of everything that games as a whole have to offer, and we want to start correcting that.