[Continuing his series of interviews with notable independent game developers, Mike Rose catches up with the Brits behind popular retro-style Flash game site Nitrome, discussing their approach to free browser gaming and their inspirations.]
Nitrome is an independent game development team based in London, England. Originally founded in 2005 by two graphic designers, Matthew Annal and Heather Stancliffe, the company now houses more than a dozen employees.
Every Nitrome game is Flash-based and sponsorship/advertising supported, and features striking pixel art graphics and chiptune or techno soundtracks. Some of their biggest releases have included the like of Cave Chaos, Twin Shot and the more recent Fault Line. At the moment, Nitrome is trying to release a new game every month, and also has its first iPhone game in the works.
We talked to co-founder Matthew Annal about Nitrome's pixel art style, coming up with fresh new ideas, and whether setting a timeframe for projects cripples creativity.
Who is Nitrome and what do you do?
Nitrome is ultimately a bunch of games enthusiasts that have somehow managed to land ourselves in the privileged position of developing our own games ideas without too much of an outside influence. Or on a more basic level we make free browser games that we host on our own website.
The company was originally formed in 2005, and has since then developed over 70 games. Have any games in particular been turning points for your team?
There are a few... Skywire was our first really very popular game and that really helped us decided to focus on making games with original concepts and helped us settle on the retro pixeled style for the company. Dangle was a pretty big turning point for us as that was when we doubled the size of the team and with these extra members came other changes.
We were originally aiming for quite a cute style but we found ourselves wanting to explore some darker and edgier themes. So originally, Toxic and probably more so Dirk Valentine and Final Ninja were quite a bold change in art direction for us. I would put a lot of that down to new staff that came aboard broadening our outlook on what we should and could be doing.
I’d also say possibly Twang, as it was the first time we seemed to be able to make any idea work rather than rejecting it for seeming too ambitious to program. Again, I would put this down to the strength of building a larger team that encompasses more skills.
When you were first starting up, were there any developers who you took inspiration from?
I don’t think we were particularly inspired by other Flash developers at the time, as I don’t think there was the same quality of Flash games in general then as there is now (though there was some…no disrespect!).
We were much more inspired by the games we grew up with in the 8 and 16-bit era, particularly Japanese developers -- because of their abstract qualities which fit well with the concepts we were aiming for at the time. We also took influence from older English games - and for characters, also from more modern vector illustration work.
Nitrome's games are easily recognizable by the lovely pixel art visuals and chiptune music. What was it about this particular approach that appealed to you?
When I first got into Flash, all the client work I got was vector based. So when we decided to make some original content, I thought it would be a good opportunity to explore a retro pixel style that I had very fond memories of - but that I had never got to explore commercially. It was something we seemed to get noticed for, so we kept doing it.
I guess we let fan reaction mold us, rather than it being a conscious decision to head in that direction from the beginning. If you look at the early games, you can see that decision occur as the style gets more focused after the first few games.
Has it been tough to keep that style fresh over the years?
Originally there were just two of us that made up Nitrome, and now there are 10. I think each new artist or even programmer that starts brings something new to the table that inspires the rest of us in some way. It is actually very easy to find inspiration and stay fresh when you are in a group of like minded people!
Your latest games, Ribbit and especially Fault Line - in which you take control of a robot who can fire his hands at nodes, then fold the nodes over each other, taking entire sections of the level with them -- have rather ingenious concepts behind them. How do you come up with your ideas?
I do still come up with a lot of the ideas myself, and I think some people have a natural flair to draw ideas from things they see around them as I do. But I think that the reason we manage to get so many good ideas is more down to us opening it up, so that everyone in the team gets chance to pitch in their thoughts and be able to bounce ideas off each other.
We have a monthly meeting where we sit round and discuss what we have came up with, and we each keep little books so we can write them down when we think of them…you really never know when that will happen! I think people are influenced by other people a lot -- so if you are in an environment with great ideas bouncing around you are more likely to come up with some of your own.
Fault Line was not my idea, and I think it is one of our most original to date, so I think this is a testament to that open approach (Well done Chris, who came up with the concept and managed to make it work!).
You're currently aiming to release a game every month. How easy is it to stick to a timeframe like this? Does it not put an unnecessary limit on your creativity?
It is increasingly difficult to stick to this timeframe….the aim is actually to have a game come out every two weeks, but we're happy as long as we manage at least one a month! As we make more games, the ideas and engines and visuals get more ambitious. So despite taking more people on to join the team and build more games at the same time, any actual increase in frequency of our output is muted by this.
You have quite a community following, and even have a Nitrome Wiki run by your followers. How important is gathering a community base for a games site like yours?
I think we are very fortunate to have built up such a large and loyal fan base. It is because of them that we continue to exist and grow! We used to be solely reliant on sponsorships and licensing to fund what we do, but the loyalty of our return visitors and that word of mouth has since shifted that focus. So we now make the majority of our money from the advertising on our own site, which gives us a lot more stability!
We actually don’t do that much to encourage our community - we have no forum and no way to comment, other than to email us directly. So it is even more surprising that our fans are so loyal and dedicated... perhaps there are some areas there that we need to address.
What can we expect from Nitrome in the future?
We fully intend to keep developing Flash projects and continue to explore new ideas and avenues there, but we also have plans to expand into other formats. Our first non-browser game is going to be on the iPhone, and is called Super Feed Me - you can check out a trailer at the official website: http://www.superfeedme.com!