When did the idea of Bonsai Barber come around?
MH: Yeah, that's a really tough question to answer categorically, because there are so many stages in the fermentation of an idea. So, one of the things, like a little spark of ignition was, I was looking at procedural brush in a shareware paint package. You could drag them out in a line, and it made this kind of tree. It was a fairly wacky painting brush. It felt really nice to stroke it down and grow a tree in two seconds. Turning a corner, having a tree felt really nice.
Because I was excited, I showed it to our artist, Graham Galvin and he said, "Ah, that's interesting. But you couldn't really make a game like that." I said, "No, I think you could. Programming it, it's quite doable. It's quite doable."
And a few months later he came out with a picture of a character, a human being, quite Japanese style, coming out of a barbershop fantasy world, big scissors over the door. And that kind had a shrub on his hat. We all thought that was hilarious. We developed the game design out of that scene. But really, this story is just like the first 20 percent.
How long did development take on that title?
MH: Well, we were on-again, off-again. We worked through three prototypes really. The first was created by pretty much two guys over a period of three months, and we were off again for a while, then on again, another prototype, then off again, then another prototype, and that merged into a full production. From start to finish the project lasted a little over two and a quarter years.
So, at the point of the third prototype, were you showing this to Nintendo?
MH: No, we talked to them a lot more than that. I guess about once a quarter we'd show them Bonsai to find out their opinion.
Have they been hands-on with the creative direction of the game then?
MH: I don't really know how to answer that because... I see them trying to help me. I've worked very hard to listen to what they tell me about Wii, Nintendo, and how they see this game fitting into that. I'll take their points from them, but they'll always say, "We suggest this", or "We suggest that." I know they know that it's really my game.
What's their primary concern when giving advice: the underpinning systems underneath or the art direction?
MH: That's an interesting question. Nintendo said very little about the aesthetics and look of the game, but I always was happy with that. I never felt like we were lacking there. Maybe I had more confidence in the aesthetics; maybe I had less confidence in the writing.
Their most valuable input came at the end with hammering down all the little nails that stand out. Menus. They have an incredible wealth of knowledge about how to make sure that 100 percent of your players can navigate your game and comprehend each step through the menu systems and rewards.
One of the things we were kind of disappointed they didn't give much direction with the text. It was mostly all in English, so that's understandable. In addition to that, Nintendo itself, NCL, does not traditionally consider the writing to be a paramount consideration, I think. That's my impression, at least.
That's interesting. You look at titles like Paper Mario and the quality of the writing is very high...
MH: Yes. That's totally an exception. So, through the window of the game, I see that Paper Mario has a team who has a totally different view on how to go about making a game. And it's really nice, I think, that a large company can respect that and allow that to come into fruition. But by and large, in general, that's my impression with Nintendo: that text and story is of secondary concern.
Do you perceive a difference between say Nintendo and Sony, in terms of the input the offer as your publisher?
MH: I'm sure that how you are treated, especially with Japanese companies, depends totally on the nature of your relationship; how they see you, how you see them. So, if you're talking to Sony Liverpool, you're going to get a different thing than Sony London or Sony in Tokyo. And then there are sub-groups within that as well. So, it's a big organization. It's made up of a lot of people, and really, you're interacting with individuals.
So, what sort of games do you enjoy playing at the moment in your downtime? Do you play games to unwind, or do you want to do other things when you get home?
MH: Do I play games to unwind? Yes, I definitely do. Not a great amount of time. Searching for new things drives most of my game playing these days. And I tend not to spend a lot of time in each game when I'm doing that. Increasingly, I feel that you can sense what's in the game early on most of the time.
Do you ever wish that you could play games just purely as a consumer without knowing the things that you know? Do you find that lens spoils the experience?
MH: Well, the person that you are completely, is driven strongly by what you do. I would not choose to be a consumer of games as opposed to a creator of games. There's no way I could choose to do that. That's just set in me, and I'm very happy to live in this time when I can make games. I'm very happy I wasn't born a hundred years ago because I think it's wired into me to want to make games, and given that I'm going to do that, it's hard to see them as non-game-makers see them.
But yeah, very often, you can see the artifice more rapidly, and you'll think, "Oh, they made that decision for this reason, to make people feel this or make people feel that." It's inevitable because you're really a professional player... that's what your brain's wired up to do.