[In this in-depth postmortem, longtime independent developer WayForward (Contra 4) discusses the creation of Wii remake A Boy And His Blob for Majesco, looking at what went right and wrong in updating the classic NES title for today's gamers.]
WayForward is an independent game developer based in Valencia, California. We turn 20 years old in March, and have shipped over 100 retail products for systems ranging from plug-and-play to Nintendo Wii. We're best known for games like Contra 4 (DS, 2007), the Game Boy Color Classic Shantae (2003) and the WiiWare horror puzzler LIT (2009).
We recently found a focus bringing retro gaming sensibilities kicking and screaming into modern times. Lunchtime conversations focus on things like Castlevania jump heights, for example. We are unified in our reverence for the games we grew up with and love. As a result, our games build on the classics using lush art, fluid animation, and innovative applications of new technologies. While we have developed great games in all genres, we have a special affinity for side-scrolling platform games.
We got the idea to pitch a new A Boy and His Blob game after spending some time playing the original NES game. I was getting frustrated with the mechanics of David Crane's quirky puzzle platformer, mostly because they were so brilliant! However, the implementation leaves a lot to be desired.
We began to brainstorm new transformations and mechanics, and a seed for a pretty cool Blob game was planted. This sort of thing happens all the time at WayForward -- but this time, we knew the owners of the IP.
Majesco acquired the rights to A Boy and His Blob when the original owners, Absolute, went out of business. WayForward and Majesco had been talking about working together for a while, so we simply put together an awesome pitch and sent it their way. We met to discuss in person at E3 2008, and the rest is history.
Originally pitched as a small WiiWare title, we instead turned the idea into a full-blown boxed Wii game. Pleased with our fortunes, we were quite excited as the realization struck... how were we going to pull this off?
A Boy and His Blob meant a lot of firsts for WayForward. It was our first boxed Wii title and a new foray into our ancient history of full-blown traditional animation.. Attempting something this unique created both excitement and confusion. Our verve for the project kept us going, but there were considerable hurdles along the way.
1. Small Team, Focused Vision
Blob had a very small team, all leads, consisting of only six members. These key players were involved in all aspects of the game, from art generation to level design to gameplay tweaks. With a small group, everyone wears a lot of hats and cross-pollination of ideas is built in.
Another benefit of this setup is that each team member is guaranteed to be strong; a lackluster developer would not survive in a team structure like this; everyone had to carry his own weight. Accountability was perfect; there were no layers of bureaucracy to obscure who was responsible for an issue. Lastly, communication was as easy as talking to a single point person; any slack in development could be identified early and picked up by another team member.
In addition to a small and agile team, Blob benefitted from a shared vision of the final product. We wanted to do something different than a normal platform game -- to make something cerebral, where the player would have to stop and think occasionally.
We wanted to integrate the tutorials and interface into the game; to remain text free and HUD-free. The Blob would be a lovable and realistic character that made you care not because of cutscenes, but because of the experience the player shared with him and the dependence of the characters on one another. Artistically, we would attempt to create a Disney (or Miyazaki) film in a game, but with total interactivity.
The treehouse acted as a title screen and menu
These choices were made early on and informed the design of the entire game, giving us the treehouse interface, the "sleeping boy" title screen, and laid the groundwork for the Blob's AI, and the types of puzzles the player encounters. Because we had such a good idea of what we were making, feature creep was not a problem. New or radical ideas were also easy to dismiss or integrate; when someone would say "I don't understand, maybe you need a tutorial", we could say "no, this game doesn't have tutorials. Maybe we should make it more intuitive."
2. Designing to Our Strengths
WayForward has a long history of making 2D platform games. We also have a long history of excellent art and animation. We are situated next to Cal Arts, a premiere animation college originally founded by Disney.
Much of our art talent comes from Cal Arts, so what better game for WayForward to make than a beautifully classically-drawn 2D platformer? This type of game matched very well with our sensibilities and gave us the freedom to concentrate on more important areas of game play.
Our development philosophy was also aligned to our strengths and weaknesses. We didn't have a lot of separate menu screens, because reusing the in-game engine for menus was more efficient, and this ultimately resulted in a really cool and immersive treehouse interface.
We didn't make a lot of cutscenes, because at the time we didn't have a timeline-based scripting tool to allow for such a thing, so we tried to compensate by making the gameplay itself convey emotion. Leveraging these challenges into strong points helped to create what we felt was a truly unique experience.