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Gamereactor UK

Housemarque Interview

We sat down with Housemarque producer Sami Koistinen, initially to talk the developer's latest title Furmins, but widening our talk to the Finnish outfit's earlier works like Outland and Super Stardust, and the plans for the future.


So Furmins: bit of a departure from the company's past works?

At first glance it may seem like it, but we have actually worked on quite a variety of game genres during the past 15 years. It is true that we are best known for our action oriented games. However Furmins is by no means our first take on the more casual side of gaming. For example "Golf: Tee It Up!" was released for Xbox 360 in 2008, about a year after Super Stardust HD came out.

We have also made two snowboarding games. Supreme Snowboarding (aka Boarder Zone in the US market) was released on PC in 1999. It was our very first take on a more "mundane" game concept; there were no lasers, aliens from outer space nor any dangerous fantasy creatures coming at you. A weird but refreshing experience for the dev-team for sure!

Right after finishing the game we moved on to developing the sequel on Dreamcast. Unfortunately publishers didn't have much faith in that great little game console. Consequently not many games were released for it and the console just slowly withered away. Our publisher was no different: they switched the platform mid production to the upcoming Xbox. The game was already far in production and looked gorgeous. It's a bit of a shame that we didn't get it released on DC but we did finish the game on Xbox. The finished game was called Transworld Snowboarding and it was released in 2002.

Another obvious departure for us from the action/shooter genre would be our point and click adventure game called Alien Incident which was released in 1996. That very same year we also tried working on a very casual multiplayer online game where people could meet and chat with other people, play cards and other traditional games together and just have a good time. In retrospect it seems that we were a few years early with this idea for it to fly. The project eventually got canned since internet/on-line connection wasn't commonplace back then.

In the late 90s we were eyeing the mobile game business which was still in its infancy and we founded a spinoff mobile game company. The company was called Springtoys which had its good years, but unfortunately it's gone now.


How have you found developing for iOS, and touch screen technology?

In a word: great! iOS is a really nice platform since you don't need multimillion dollar budgets, bought launch slots nor publishers to develop and release your game. If the game concept is good and it's doable with a minimal budget, you can just move into production and get the game out there. iOS gamers don't expect to see games of the scale of GTA4 on iOS. What they do expect are games which are easy to pickup and which have short game sessions, since they're being played while sitting in a bus on your way to work etc. Of course iPad games are played more often at home than on the road which opens up the market for deeper game mechanics/content on iOS.

The touch screen is great for games. It has opened up lots of new possibilities which weren't possible (or at least fun) on traditional game controllers, mouse and keyboard. Even if you used the touch screen the same way you use a mouse the UI is still faster to use. For example, Furmins was a natural fit for a touch screen because of the level setup phase in the game. It's just so fast and intuitive to point and drag an object around the screen.

Expanding our own game engine to cover iOS devices was quite a quick thing to do. I do remember hearing some swearing from our tech programmer but that was mainly due to a couple of not-so-well-documented features on the device. In the end the process of covering iOS was fairly quick and painless. Furmins uses the very same game engine we used for all our latest games including SSHD, Dead Nation and Outland. You wouldn't believe it just by looking at Furmins which is basically 2D gameplay using 3D graphics. If we wanted to put some zombies and laser shooting spaceships into Furmins' levels, I assure it would be easy to do.

You'd briefly mentioned that the game came from a tech demo you'd been playing with: when did the "eureka!" moment come?

There wasn't really any single big "eureka!" moment during the development of Furmins but there were lots of smaller ones.

The prototyping started in 2008 when one of our designers, Aki Raula (the lead designer of Outland) thought of a concept in which the player needed to manipulate a system of ropes to get food to these furry creatures. After that one of our programmers came up with an algorithm which could simulate rope physics quite realistically. We started toying with an idea of creating a puzzle game which would revolve around realistic rope physics. It didn't take long before we had the first prototype up and running.

Due to Dead Nation and Outland being in production at the same time, our teams were very busy and we didn't have as many guys working on this project as we would have wanted. We still got quite far with the idea and did a 20 level advanced prototype that ran on Xbox 360 and PC in summer 2009. But after that the development was slowed down due to our other priorities. One of our programmers could occasionally spare an hour or two for the prototype but practically it wasn't being developed for a long time.

In late 2010 we had some free team members who could start actively working on the new prototype that would expand the original idea of just using a system of ropes to set up the level. After a couple of iterations the prototype had evolved into something we felt had potential for a full game. By this time the rope physics weren't the central part of the gameplay anymore. Bumpers, trampolines and rotating platforms had taken the center stage in game mechanics. The game finally went into full production in January 2011.

The game was originally planned to be released on PSN and LiveArcade, but then the iPad happened. We looked at the game and realized it would be a perfect fit for iPad and other iOS devices. The casual market was definitely there and the touch screen was perfect for games like Furmins. After realizing all that the decision to move on to iOS with this game happened really fast.

What feedback and testing did you do - given the genre's enjoyed by hardcore and casual, does it mean you need to cast the net wide for gamers and non-gamers alike?

With Furmins we've tried not to make the game too casual, but not too hardcore either. The game starts quite easy but stays just outside the hardcore puzzle fan area. Hopefully this proves to be a good balance for the game's difficulty.

As usual in our game development process, we use beer, candies and donuts to bribe people to visit our office, play the game and give feedback on it. With Furmins we've had quite a few feedback/testing sessions with lots of people. These kind of feedback rounds are essential for game development, after all the game is only as good as its levels are.


What plans have you in place for post-launch content?

Our plan is to update Furmins regularly so the players can enjoy the game for a long time. The dev-team has a huge list of things they'd like to see in the updates. Apart from the obvious new game levels and level features I won't be revealing too much just yet.

Why the decision to offer in-game purchases via real-world money? Is this a necessary addition as the game market widens, and players become less patient?

The in-game purchases have been implemented to give players the possibility to get new game content and - if they're stuck with too many game levels to progress into other game worlds - an easy way to open up the other worlds without playing through the previous ones. So in addition to getting new stuff you can use in-game purchases to make sure you don't get stuck in the game because of few hard game levels.

In practice you play through game levels and each of these levels gives you in-game credits which you can use to open up new game content including upcoming level packs. If you run out of in-game credits you can always purchase more of them using real-world money.

You talked as well about a two-tier pricing structure for iPad and iPhone versions: firstly, what was the decision behind this? And second: how did the different screen sizes effect development?

The $2.99 version of Furmins has been optimized for all iOS device screens. It's a Universal Build which runs on iPad, iPhone and iPod. We also wanted to give gamers the option to buy a cheaper version of the game if they don't own an iPad. This $0.99 version has been optimized only for the smaller screens and runs on iPhone and iPod.

It is mandatory to optimize the UI for different screen sizes. For example GUI elements need to be scaled differently for different screen sizes to make sure they're as usable as possible. On smaller screens some players might like to have the two finger zoom available when they're positioning the level objects in the setup phase of the game. Also the visuals need to be really clear in all resolutions. What looks great on iPad's large screen might look very unclear and fuzzy on iPhone's small screen. The usual suspects for this are too little contrast between background and level graphics as well as too small details in the level elements which should communicate what the items functions are.

You have to be really careful with these kinds of things throughout the whole game development process to make sure it all works great in the end. It all starts with the concept graphics and ends in QA. If the concept graphics of characters don't look great in small resolution then you need to change them. If the near final game doesn't look equally good and clear on both large and small screens, then something needs to be done to it. Sometimes the only way to make the visuals work well on all resolutions is to remake some of the graphics specifically for the smaller screens.


Do you have to be conscious of multiple iOS and iPhone generation types when developing, or do you work from the latest iOS only?

As we want to support some of the older generation iOS devices, it has been important for us to decide which generations/devices the game must run on and then keep testing the game regularly on them throughout the project. It is way too easy to just ignore the older handsets and assume the game will run perfectly on them. For example iPhone 3GS is quite slow when compared to the iPhone 4S or even 4. If the game is graphics or CPU heavy, you need to compromise on some things to get the game running perfectly on all those handsets.

For example we had to use slightly different rendering algorithms for some of the game elements on the older iOS devices. As the complexity of the game levels and physics needed to be identical on all the supported devices, in these areas we had to go with the lowest performing device specifications, which is the iPhone 3GS.

Are you actively looking to continue into mobile development, and do you see it as the next logical step in digital development, or a separate speciality to compliment digital and console creations?

We believe the mobile platform is here to stay. We see it as one viable platform amongst the others. At least iOS and Android should be taken into consideration when deciding on which platforms the upcoming games should support. This doesn't mean that every game we release will support mobile platforms. It just means that if the game is a natural fit for mobile, we might release for it also.

I don't see us releasing games exclusively for mobile. Unless we're talking about retail sales (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) there is no single platform out there which does well enough to justify single platform release. Even in the retail environment it's hard to do platform exclusives and do good numbers, so multiplatform releases have been an industry norm for a reason.

We also believe that it won't be long before all games are distributed via digital download. It's just so convenient for the gamers and developers alike. It takes very little time and effort to release the game and there aren't any middle men in between pumping up the prices.

The most interesting progression in the digital downloadable markets is the iPad. It has a big screen, quite a lot of CPU and GFX power and you can get HDMI feed to your TV. One could argue that it might be the future of game consoles. The only missing link is the game controller. If Apple came up with an official game controller for iPad the traditional game consoles might be in trouble. It's left to be seen if Apple will take this route or not.


Many of the staff from Outland have moved to this project, and there's a distinct contrast between the art styles of the two: what research did you do to settle on the art direction for the title?

Here's what Mikko Eerola - the concept artist on Outland and Furmins - has to say about this:

"Because Outland was so bright and so full of contrast everywhere I think that influenced the look of Furmins a lot. I'm the type of artist who gets bored really easily and that's why I wanted to go in a completely opposite direction with Furmins. Outland is a high action game with some scenes requiring a lot from the visuals to signal everything in as much contrast as possible. Furmins is a more relaxing meditative experience. That's why the look draws inspiration from ancient Greece and backgrounds of 18th century portraits. I wanted the setting to be a distinct contrast to the less serious characters you're controlling. It's like looking at art history in a blender so it's probably a pretty accurate description of how the rolling Furmins see the world.  The game is about helping the Furmins through their epic journey so naturally my wish is to take the player somewhere else with them."

Staying with Outland for a moment - the game was a fantastic mix of genres - bullet-dodging from shoot'em ups, Prince of Persia style platforming, and a story and art direction that made the title distinct. Can you discuss the inspirations behind the project, and the goals the studio set out to achieve?

I'll let Harry Krueger - our gameplay programmer on Outland - answer this question:

"Outland was a mixture of many different influences. Different members of the team had fond memories of different platformers: some fondly remembered the animations of Prince of Persia, others the cinematic feel of Flashback, others the "otherworldly" isolation of Another World, and (personally) I cherished the exploration, sense of discovery and atmosphere of Super Metroid the most.

I guess the final game ended up being a mashup of all these different platforming influences, along with some "bullet hell" elements thrown in for good measure
(that was a direct result of me playing too many shooters at the time, so the influence and enthusiasm for those games kind of seeped through).

Of course, after shoot-em-ups came into our consideration as an indirect "influence", we were inspired by the elegant simplicity of the "polarity" switching mechanic of Ikaruga, and decided to integrate that mechanic into Outland as well.

Overall: some of the core members were "old school" gamers, while others had slightly more casual and modern sensitivities. I think that in the end we managed to create a successful mixture of the two, and came up with a game that combined the best of both worlds."

Mikko Eerola - our concept artist on Outland - has this to say about the project:

"Outland was inspired not only by Mayan culture but a lot of games the developers grew up with. The art direction for Outland was inspired by the theme of discovery. I wanted the player to fill in the blanks by themselves and make their interpretation of Outland's culture as personal as possible. This is also why I wanted to include a lot of symbolism not only from Mayan culture but from cultures all over the world. I think this sort of personal experience also captures the feeling of old adventure games when there was no voice acting or cut-scenes to explain the story of the game."


Outland 2: is it happening?

We'd definitely love to make Outland 2 become reality. Alas, it's not up to us to make that decision, since the IP is owned by Ubisoft who published the game.

This is the reason our current strategy is to self publish more and more of our own games: so we can keep the IP rights to ourself and decide what we want to do with the games we have created.

Outside the digital domain you've got Super Stardust Delta in development for the PS Vita. Did that seem a natural fit for the Vita's hardware capabilities, and where do you see the franchise going from here?

We first have to finish SSDelta before we can start planning for the next Super Stardust game.

Super Stardust Delta is quite a natural fit for PS Vita. The hardware is quite powerful and the controls feel great. The screen is also really large and bright, making it a serious gaming platform.

Where next for the studio?

As mentioned already, we want to self publish more of our own games. Most probably we won't be sticking to one specific genre of game. We'll always be experimenting with new ideas and trying out new platforms. That's just in our company spirit. So expect the unexpected from us!

You can read our preview of the studio's iOS title Furmins here, and read our reviews of Outland and Dead Nation by clicking the links.