Hey, Who Took The Cheese?
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.
For even more cheese-snatching fun check out ByteSize Games' Little
for iOS devices right
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
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
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 :)