UK-based game developer Martin Hollis' biggest claim to fame, up till now, is being the director of GoldenEye 007. That classic of the Nintendo 64 had amazing reach and popularity -- but Hollis has, inexplicably, hasn't made much of an impact since he exited the company (during the development of the original version of Perfect Dark.)
He set up his own Cambridge-headquartered development studio, Zoonami, in 2000 -- but between then and now has only released two games; one is a Sudoku hybrid game, Zendoku, and the other is Bonsai Barber, a WiiWare title that's a great deal more interesting than that.
A casual game aimed at the "new core", as Hollis puts it, it puts you in charge of sculpting the heads of trees to match haircuts, using only the Wii remote and a range of tools including scissors, clippers, and a spray tool to grow foliage.
Even more interestingly, you are only permitted to cut five trees per day, with the game's extra features being unlocked over time if you play for just a few minutes every day.
Over the course of this casual interview, which was conducted at Nintendo's San Francisco Bay Area HQ, Gamasutra received a demo of the game while chatting to Hollis about his history, his methodology, the opportunities and pitfalls of working on a WiiWare game with a distinctly different philosophy from most, and more.
Before the recorder was engaged, the conversation began with a brief discussion of his history in the industry. Now, let's join the conversation in progress...
Things were quite different in the GoldenEye days. Now we have huge teams...
Martin Hollis: I don't have huge teams. [laughs]
You don't, but for a game of that stature, these days, you would have a huge team, a well-defined stratification of roles and production process time. Of course, nothing is as well-defined as we want it to be, I think, even now.
MH: I like things to be undefined. We've got like five designer/programmers who've worked on this game. So, that's like a [Jonathan] Blow thing. The artist is like a designer/artist. That story just carries on. Richard [Brooksby], who's out here with us... a good friend of mine and a colleague -- he worked a lot on the game. He's a designer, programmer, and writer.
I'm sure you're probably not really familiar with the company. There's a Japanese company called CyberConnect 2. They make a lot of the Naruto fighting games, and they made a game called .hack.
MH: .hack I've seen screenshots for. It sounds like a kind of a Western-influenced sort of game.
Yeah, for sure. I was interviewing CC2's president Hiroshi Matsuyama yesterday. When that company was founded, they had 10 employees, and they were making PlayStation 1 games. He said that just didn't work.
And I said, "But now, there are small teams that can make download games." And he replied, "That's the crucial difference. People will take a look at a download game, and they will appreciate the fact that it's made by 10 people. If they go to a store to buy a $50 game, they don't say, 'Oh, that's a good game for a game made by 10 people.'" [laughs] Which I thought was pretty interesting.
MH: Right. It was tough, to be blunt, for Zoonami, in like our first three years. We were like a bicycle trying to go as fast as a car. We couldn't do it, really. We were working on a retail product that was intended for Gamecube, and it was real tough.
We did a lot of amazing stuff; we hadn't like settled down to a core idea or anything, but in the end, it was just like, "This isn't working." Go into a shop today, and it's like, "We can't find a place in this world." So, that's changed a lot. We did a DS game for Eidos, Zendoku. For DS and PSP. That was kind of okay for that kind of scale.
But digital is just perfect for us. It has made everything possible for us. And I don't entirely agree with what you said [before the interview started] about...
Triple-A type games.
MH: Yeah. So, to me, there's no reason you couldn't make a game with two people and it could be the biggest game of the year. There's no reason why that couldn't happen. It's going to be a rarity, like a big rarity, and the same thing for 10 people. The mass market are always looking for shining production quality and a bajillion polygons...
Zoonami's Bonsai Barber
It's certainly not the biggest game of the year in terms of, necessarily, revenue, but certainly in terms of buzz, one of the biggest games of the year was Braid, and that was made by a developer and an artist.
MH: Right. So that's like a fine example. The outlets aren't really there yet. You can't sell like 10 million copies on digital very easy. And you really need to sell like a hundred million to be in the similar ballpark of whatever game just did really well at retail at $50.
Resident Evil 5.
MH: Yeah. So, you need to sell like five, 10 times as many to be as significant in the world. But still, I think we're going to get there in a few years. Digital games by small teams, occasionally, they're going to be headline news.
I think another thing that's good about digital games is that even people who are going to go for Resident Evil, or whatever -- and I'm not slighting Resident Evil, but Resident Evil is a highly conventional game. People are willing to give something less conventional a shot on digital distribution, aren't they?
MH: Which segues very neatly. Let's take a look at Bonsai Barber. Why don't you have a go? It's a unique game. People are saying very unique, but I don't say that. It's not grammatical.