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GDC: Sega, Other Ocean Discuss  Super Monkey Ball  iPhone Lessons

GDC: Sega, Other Ocean Discuss Super Monkey Ball iPhone Lessons Exclusive

March 23, 2009 | By Chris Remo




During a Game Developers Conference Mobile session, Chris Sharpley of developer Other Ocean and Sega producer Ethan Einhorn discussed the development of the hugely successful iPhone collaboration Super Monkey Ball.

The project began when Other Ocean met with Sega to discuss a Super Monkey Ball game for iPhone -- and the meeting went so well that Sega asked the team to begin coding a demo straight away.

"We were able to get, in just three days, an actual engine up and running," Einhorn said. "We were able to get all of that work done with just two developers."

Coding in four full stages ended up taking only two more weeks, although at the time it was using a much more naturalistic, non-stylized visual approach.

"Instead, we decided we'd attempt to recreate the [visuals of the] Wii version of Super Monkey Ball," Einhorn noted.

After a total of twelve weeks, an entire alpha build had been prepared for Apple, and that early initiat. "That generated an enormous amount of internal excitement for Sega,"

"From Other Ocean's perspective, from one minute, nobody was talking about the iPhone as a gaming platform, and suddenly we were right in the middle of things," Sharpley recalled. "It was too good an opportunity to miss."

Level Design

Other Ocean created about 200 "level design sheets," simple one-page renderings of 3D geometry.

"Having what was effectively a high-level game design document was very helpful," Einhorn said -- both in terms of communicating the game to executives, as well as to crossing the language barrier with the Japanese developers who controlled the Super Monkey Ball IP.

The final game contained 110 levels -- Sharpley said that the studio "deliberately overproduced" in creating hundreds of design sheets, allowing for the ability to easily toss out inferior concepts or merge different designs without suffering a deficit of material.

Production

"Most people would be forgiven for assuming we just reused assets from the Wii version," Sharpley noted, "but although we intended to recreate the look of the Wii version, we didn't have access to any of the Wii assets."

The company did get access to sprites from the DS game and some audio from the Wii version however, which did allow for some streamlining.

Five unique level texture sets were created, with the signature Monkey Ball checkerboard style tiles persisting across all of them.

Sharpley demonstrated in-production versions of skyboxes, created in Maya, as well as wireframes of levels, and explained that, compared to home console Monkey Ball levels, Other Ocean had to scale back the amount of artwork in order to maintain framerate and decrease the number of potential collision detection issues.

The game was originally set to have a tutorial segment at launch, but ended up having it patched in later. "We just ran out of time, unfortunately," Einhorn admitted -- but having the ability to easily add the feature via the App Store's update functionality made the task manageable.

10 Lessons Learned -- Sega

1. Listening to feedback. "Getting that user feedback is tremendous," Sharpley said.

2. Don't play price wars. "We resisted the temptation to drop the price prematurely," the producer recalled. Eventually, during the holiday season, since the company had not yet dropped its price, when it finally did exercise that option, it made much more of a splash than it did for the companies that dropped down to $1 soon after launch.

3. Consider the pros and cons of "lite" versions. If you have a new unusual IP, or a gameplay mechanic that cannot be easily explained via the app store, it may be worth developing a trial version of your game, Sharpley said, but if the game can be communicated easily, you risk cannibalizing your own sales with a lite version.

4. Many users will be new to the property. Though Monkey Ball is an established console series, that matters little on a new platform, Sharpley said -- it helps to have a brand, but it still must be completely approachable to new players.

5. User reviews are king on iPhone. Gameranking and Metacritic are nearly meaningless on iPhone games, Sharpley warned -- user reviews are the bottom line, and users will closely watch whether the publisher pays attention to complaints in the user reviews.

6. Don't make it too hard. "For many, it was still too hard," Sharpley said, even though the team intended to make a casual game. "Getting to the end of a game should be foolproof."

7. Build to the device. "The reason we were able to get Apple so interested in this brand is because it played so well to this device" with its accelerometers, Sharpley explained.

8. Make suer consumers "get it" in 10 seconds. In console games, "you have five or ten minutes" to hook the player -- but "with the iPhone audience, you want to make sure your app grabs them right away." After all, they can always move onto a free game whenever they choose.

9. Keep things simple. On the Wii, Monkey Ball became more complex than previous iterations -- but on the iPhone, the decision to go in the opposite direction paid off.

10. Consider the play environment. "We made a critical mistake at launch by requiring players to complete 10 levels before they saved," Einhorn remembered -- the iPhone play environment was ill-suited to that mechanism, which was later altered.

10 Lessons Learned -- Other Ocean

1. Use an internal studio if possible. "We found ourselves in a situation where we started to build a level at 9 in the morning, and it might be finished by 10 or 10:30, and we had two testers full-time ready to give us feedback by lunchtime," Sharpley explained -- the three-month dev cycle would have been impossible without all in-house developers.

2. Stretch a new device to its limits. "Just because it's aimed at the casual market, doesn't mean they're not deserving of the production values that everyone else is accustomed to," the developer said.

3. Don't underestimate the challenge of bringing a hardcore game to casual. Paradoxically, sometimes new content must be added to make a game suitable for casual players -- many developers do not expect this.

4. Communicate efficiently between publisher and developer. Other Ocean, Sega of America, and Sega of Japan were spread across three time zones -- and so tight communication was necessary to keep the project from going off the rails.

5. Start simple and add refinement. When it comes to level design, Other Ocean's approach of simple design sheets paid off by keeping the hundreds of total designs manageable.

6. Aggressive deadlines focus development. "In some ways, the tight deadline allowed us to focus on what somebody wants when they buy a game like this," Sharpley said. "We only focused on the important features."

7. New opportunities can be risky. "It's hard to imagine, but a year ago there was no App Store...and it was quite a risky venture for Other Ocean to take this on -- but by taking that risk, we've now opened ourselves to all sorts of other opportunities."

8. A small experienced team can be more agile. Other Ocean actually had the opportunity to expand its team, but elected to stay small and agile. "In hindsight, if we'd added more people to the project, we probably would have slowed down production," Sharpley reflected.

9. Be open to licensed IP. Some developers disdain licensed IP, Sharpley said, but working with less risky licenses raises a studio's profile and allows it, over time, the security to develop original games.

10. Use a team that understands the brand. Other Ocean's employees were already fans of Apple and Super Monkey Ball -- which made all the difference when communicating with the people in charge of the platform and property. "We were all on the same page," said Sharpley.


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