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Interview: The Philosophy Of Denki Games

Interview: The Philosophy Of Denki Games Exclusive

July 29, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

Scottish developer Denki Games has a fascinating genesis. Founded by ex-DMA Design employees, the studio did Game Boy Advance titles Denki Blocks and Go! Go! Beckham before investing for years in the digital interactive television space.

Now, though, Denki's making a return to the console space with Quarrel for Xbox Live Arcade, and in this interview, Gamasutra takes the opportunity to dig into the intriguing studio -- which since its 2000 launch, has been credited with over 180 games.

We talk to managing director Colin Anderson on the studio's history, its moves away from the DiTV space, the heritage of the Scottish development scene, and Denki's goals with Quarrel, which Anderson says features not "casual," but "player-focused" design.

Can you give me a brief history/background of the company and its founders?

Colin Anderson: Denki was set up in 2000 by some ex-DMA Design staff as a direct reaction against the technological arms-race prevalent in the games industry at the time. We wanted to get back to making snack-sized games focused on fun, instead of these pseudo-cinematic, 100 hour, interactive stories focused around technology. Back in 1999, that's all we could see looming on DMA's development horizon so it seemed like a good time to go.

It was founded by four people: Colin Anderson, who was in charge of DMA's Audio Department; Stewart Graham, who was head of DMA's Design Department; Aaron Puzey, who was one of the R&D programmers responsible for DMA's 3D games engine; and David Jones, who was the founder and Managing Director of DMA.

We were also joined soon after by Gary Penn, who had been DMA's Creative Manager and Gary Timmons, who created the iconic Lemmings animations from the first game.

The company made a couple of Game Boy Advance games but then moved to set-top boxes and mobile. Was it digital distribution (e.g. XBLA) that lured you back towards the console market? Why did you leave in the first place?

CA: We left in the first place because we realized how fundamentally broken the console games market was for any sort of game developer aspiring to create original games rather than pump out sequels or franchised product.

Interactive TV was the first platform in the world to offer game developers digital distribution with micro-payments. We could make our games available to six million people on a Friday evening, and by Monday morning when we came back in to the office we knew whether the game was a hit or not. That was in 2001. It took the console market almost another five years to get there.

We honestly expected interactive TV to be the future of gaming, and to some extent that's still the case. They had digital distribution and micro-payments; all they needed was better hardware to improve the quality of the user experience, which coming as we did from a gaming background, we expected would happen relatively quickly.

However, interactive TV had its own problems that prevented the hardware from evolving as fast as it needed to, and so those companies missed the opportunity.

Once the console manufacturers began to add networking capabilities to their new generation devices that piqued our interest, and by the time we'd actually experienced Xbox Live Arcade from a user's perspective we knew right away that it was exactly the sort of platform Denki had been waiting for. So we packed up our interactive TV projects and headed on back to console land!

Your XBLA game Quarrel is, for lack of a better word, casual-oriented. What do you think of the current potential of that audience to embrace an XBLA game like yours? Who do you see as the audience?

CA: We don't actually consider it casual-focused - we consider it player-focused. Our development process puts the player at the centre of the experience and prioritises their needs at all times. Which might sound trite because, after all, isn't that what every developer does when they're making games? Well, perhaps; but probably not in the same way we mean it.

So in terms of the "Casual" audience you describe embracing an XBLA game, we consider that a bit beside the point because we're only trying to make the best XBLA game we can, for XBLA users. Our aim is to make the best game we can for each and every platform we deliver Quarrel for, so once we start building Quarrel for platforms where users have different expectations and requirements then we'll re-interpret it accordingly.

That way we'll hopefully never get in to a situation where one audience is required to make do with the requirements of a different audience.

How many people are working at Denki right now, on how many projects? (If more than just Quarrel, what formats are you looking at for projects right now?)

CA: We have 20 people, working on two projects right now: Quarrel, and something for the Wii.

It seems to me that a faux 16-bit 2D platformer in the manner of Go! Go! Beckham could really work well on download services. Do you think that these kinds of games could appeal to the core audience?

CA: Again, we just don't think in those terms - core, casual, whatever. We make Denki Games -- that's it; and we'll leave it up to each player's own taste to decide whether it's core or casual enough, if that's important to them.

We wouldn't presume to try and prescribe what others will or won't find fun - that seems somewhat arrogant. However, having grown up loving all sorts of computer and video games our whole lives we know in great detail what we find fun ourselves, and therefore what we want in our games. We expect many of the same things we like will resonate with others, but we certainly don't presume that.

But yes, we're sure a Go! Go! Beckham! style platformer could be made in to a really fun downloadable game, regardless of platform or audience.

What kind of tools and tech do you use currently in the development of Quarrel? How important is tech to this kind of development in your view?

CA: Tech's important only in so far as it mustn't diminish the player's experience. As far as Denki is concerned technology is only an enabler, it's not an end result in and of itself. Fun is the end result - that's what's important and everything else must serve that, whether it's art, audio, technology or anything else.

We've built all the tech we're using in-house, not because we think we can do it better than the existing game engines on the market, but simply because they're usually far too complicated for what we require.

What's the plan for the company overall -- i.e. what markets and platforms do you want to stick with? Do you have thoughts on the "right size" for your shop?

CA: We'd like to get Denki to a point where it's functioning as a factory for original games -- not in any negative connotation of the word; more in the way Pixar are heading with their factory approach to original movies. The right size will be determined by the requirements of the process we establish.

As for platforms, our attitude hasn't changed since we set Denki up -- we don't care about the platform, we only care about the quality of the experience we can deliver to the user. If someone shows us an ATM or a fridge that can deliver a compelling experience for players, we'll be there!

What about your prototyping and design process? How did you arrive at the unusual combination of gameplay in Quarrel? Simple observation or experimentation?

CA: Iteration, iteration, iteration. There's no shortcuts to finding fun that we're aware of.

Did you test with a paper version of the game or move straight to development from a document?

CA: It was fully prototyped with a paper version to make sure it would be fun before anyone went anywhere near a computer, whether it was to type a document or start coding the game.

Scotland is obviously a very prominent location for game development between studios like Rockstar North and Realtime Worlds. Is there an emerging scene in Scotland...?

CA: Scotland's been the crucible of several of the UK's biggest franchises since as far back as the early 90's. Lemmings; Grand Theft Auto; Crackdown - these all have their genesis in Scotland, and Dundee in particular.

What we're beginning to see now is a second and third generation of developers emerging in Scotland, who have been through the learning process in other games companies and then established their own with the intention of doing things better. That, coupled with the visionary support from local government and academia has combined to produce something very special here. Expect to be hearing a lot more from Scottish game companies over the coming years.

In fact, the DNA of these studios all came from from DMA Design. Can you talk about that evolution?

CA: For 10 years from 1989 to 1999, DMA acted as a giant talent-magnet, pulling people from all over the world to Dundee. Once the light started to fade at DMA it was inevitable that the people who had worked there and who had become extremely skilled as a result would want to establish their own studios in the local area. The same thing has happened in many other areas of the world where large developers were based -- Sheffield, Liverpool, Guilford, etc., etc.

That's certainly what happened with Denki -- we'd learned as much as we could working at DMA, and we weren't excited by working on yet more versions of GTA, so we decided to do our own thing.

Each time a huge hit is created, there seems to be at least one team formed off the back of it. Lemmings spawned Visual Science; GTA spawned Rockstar North, Realtime Worlds and Denki; and Crackdown has already spawned Ruffian. If a new developer is the true sign of a hit game, then we'd hope to see at least one new team formed off the back of Quarrel too!

Looking at this list of games developed by Denki on Wikipedia is simply staggering - can you actually explain what constitutes a "game" in the set-top box context?

CA: The same thing that constitutes a game on any other platform -- a discrete, self-contained, purchasable product that can be played from start to finish by a user -- hopefully for the purpose entertainment!

They're designed to be entertaining for short periods, rather than to sustain long-term play, and they're probably closer to early mobile phones in terms of the type of user experience that can be delivered. But the screen resolution is considerably higher than phones, so it's possible to make something that looks really good.

The Wikipedia page suggests you're getting into Wii development. Can you comment?

CA: We're not quite ready to start talking about that yet. However, all will be revealed...

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