Before I start writing and updating, I thought a quick introduction might be in order. I'm Colin Anderson. I'm in charge of Denki – a game development studio based in Dundee, Scotland.
You may not have heard of Denki before. No need to feel embarrassed. I doubt I would have either if I hadn't been involved in setting the company up back in 2000.
The reason you probably haven’t heard of us during the last nine years is that, although we've released just over 180 games, the vast majority were for digital interactive television. SKY TV in the UK and more recently, DIRECTV in North and South America.
Digital interactive TV is not a technology people tend to associate with games. It's an incredibly limited platform from a games perspective and aimed at an extremely casual audience. As a result, almost no one within the Games Industry is familiar with it.
Which isn’t how we started. Initially, Denki was going to focus on the (then) new Game Boy Advance market, which we imagined pushing games in all sorts of interesting new ways. Instead of massive four year console projects, we could concentrate on smaller, more focused projects and – more importantly– on original new ideas.
However, the market in 2001, especially the Game Boy market, was dominated by brands and licenses. The mainstream games industry was simply not a place for some quirky little developer with original ideas – award winning (and we did pick up a few trophies) or otherwise.
Our first couple of games hit all the right buttons. The press loved them, players enjoyed them and they won critical acclaim. They even reviewed well. Yet, when it came to sales, we were ground into the carpet by the big brands. Despite the accolades nobody was buying.
So when the opportunity came along to build a version of our first game, Denki Blocks! (purely as a marketing tool) for this new television-based technology, we jumped at it.
The game generated more than a million paid plays in six months. People would pay for our games it seemed, but we’d been trying to sell them the “traditional” way, which simply didn’t suit them. Lesson learned then – time for a change.
Whenever we say, “Denki's spent the last seven of its nine year history focused on building games for digital interactive TV services” people tend to lose interest rapidly. Again - don't feel embarrassed. We know our games can look simplistic. But they’re not.
The incredibly tight constraints and limited performance of interactive TV systems mean our titles become ‘kernels’ of gaming – pure, concentrated games without all the “pizzazz” we take for granted these days. No polygons, no texture mapping, no dynamic lighting – nothing to distract our audience from asking that most dangerous of gaming questions: “is this fun?”
If the audience likes one of our games then it’s because of the fun they're having, not because of any complex plot, clever “AI” or elaborate cut scenes.
The reason we threw ourselves so passionately into interactive TV development all those years ago, wasn't just because we’re tech masochists, or because we couldn't make "real" games. Seriously, people have asked if we only made interactive TV games because we couldn’t find work making “real” games.
Trust me: Denki making Interactive Television games was no accident. We chose to focus on interactive television because we could see it was the future – the proper future (the one with jet packs and people in silver jump-suits).
Back in 2001 interactive television was the only platform in the world where we could finish development at 5pm on a Friday, have the game live in front of six million people by 8pm, and know by 9am on Monday morning whether or not it was a hit. Very similar to the iPhone market everyone’s so excited about at the moment, but almost a decade ago.
Then there's the audience. Denki aspires to make games that cross traditional boundaries. Definitions such as ‘hardcore’ or ‘casual’ are totally pointless. We make ‘Denki’ games – that’s it. The vast majority of digital TV gamers are females over 35 and kids under 12.
They're using TV remotes to play, and they are the most demanding audience you can imagine. Long before the ‘Casual’ (bleuch!) market existed, Denki was building games for the most casual audience you could imagine. It taught us a lot. An awful lot.
Think console gamers are unforgiving? They invest money and time in games. They'll fight through bugs and obscure instructions to find the fun buried underneath. Try designing a game for an audience that never read instructions, won't sit though tutorials, and have many other priorities demanding their attention. Oh - and they’ll only pay once they've tried it for free.
That’s a demanding audience. We've had to learn a huge number of lessons from this. As a result, we stopped believing the assumptions and received wisdom of the mainstream industry a long time ago.
We've had to examine every single thing a developer does: the way we work; the roles of people within the team; the way games are presented to an audience; the way games are played; our audience’s expectations; the way games are understood; what's valued and what isn't – everything! Just so our audience will pay attention long enough to give us a chance to entertain them.
While we've been away working on the fringes, it seems as though the mainstream industry has finally reached the point we naively thought it had already reached with the launch of Game Boy Advance back in 2001. We're now hard at work on an Xbox Live Arcade game and a Wii game that will see us applying all the lessons we've learned in the interim from digital interactive TV, and we'd like to share these insights (both the good and the bad...) with our peers.
Which is where this blog comes in. I’ll be covering all of this - and a lot more besides in my future posts. So, in true TV style – stay tuned...