The making of a striking mobile game.
Earlier this month, Zynga published a new type of game on the App Store titled Clay Jam. Constructed entirely from colorful stop-animation clay models, Clay Jam has enjoyed a high position in the App Store charts since release.
By good fortune it turns out that developer Fat Pebble's offices are located just a stone's throw away from Modojo's UK home in Brighton, England. We decided to pay the team a visit to talk about their experience of creating and releasing Clay Jam, working with Zynga, and the future plans of developers Iain Gilfeather, Mike Movel and Chis Roe.
Given Clay Jam's unique look and feel, conversation naturally begins with a question about the inspiration for the game, and how the team decided to work on a stop-animation title of all things.
"We all wanted to do something a bit different, you know, we don't want to do the same thing as other people," explains Mike. "That's just because it's more fun that way, and that's why we left other companies. Chris is the driver behind the claymation because it's all to do with him and he loves claymation."
"My granddad got me into it when I was around six, and I was just doing it to make little animations at the weekend and stuff," explains Chris. "I hadn't done it for years but I thought it would be quite nice to make a whole game about that. Rather than being sat in front of a computer the whole time, I could get more hands-on, and it was great fun and I really enjoyed it!"
It all began with a video that the team had put together, exploring the key concepts behind the technology and the gameplay. That video was subsequently picked up by the likes of Kotaku, and eventually prompted a call from the most unlikely of indie publishing partners, Zynga.
"Because we knew we weren't going to get everything right first time, we put this video out and Zynga saw it," explains Mike. "They gave us a ring and said 'Look, we're really interested in the game, keep us up to date with what you're doing'. A bit later on we sent an e-mail out to lots of people, because we needed some money basically. We were e-mailing to see if anyone had any contract work, and Zynga came back and said they didn't have contract work but were interested in launching the game. That's where it came from."
"When we first got into negotiations we were obviously worried about keeping our IP [intellectual property], and keeping creative control. That's why we left our jobs, to make our own games, make our own decisions, and have that feeling of independence. We didn't want to lose that. We were kind of prepared to go in and say 'We're not accepting this, we're not accepting that!' but Zynga were like 'Do whatever you want!' It was really good."
That freedom to create a unique and original art and style presents its own technical challenges though, and so I ask programmer Iain how difficult it was transferring this crafted artwork into the game.
"The tech we're using is Unity 3D, so we're already got a game engine," he explains. "It's not set up out-of-the-box to render stop-motion sprite animations, but it's a really flexible thing so it wasn't too difficult to add it.... There were a few little tricks that aren't particularly complicated, but it's having to think outside the box a bit to get things working.
"If they were all 3D models then we'd be running out of memory on the device, because of the amount of triangles being rendered, but because they're stop-motion sprites there's not really many triangles but there's lots and lots of textures. So it's a different technical challenge."
It was this particular technical challenge that led to the team feeling the first major benefit of working with an experienced publisher like Zynga.
"Our challenge was to get under 50 MB, " Mike explains. "It would be easy for a 3D game of that size, but having so many textures meant we only just made it under. If you go under 50 MB, you can download it over your phone's connection, otherwise you have to have wi-fi. It makes a big different about who can download it."
Iain continues: "The first bit of advice from Zynga is when they asked 'Are you going to get it under 50 MB?' We always knew it would be nice to be under 50 megs, but didn't think it would be that important. That's an example of them having the experience to know that that's absolutely crucial for the amount of people who are going to play your game."
While a relationship with Zynga was beneficial for getting the game through Apple's approval process too, no-one can help a team of individuals handle the experience of submission, and having a game taken out of their hands to be presented to a crowded market. How did the team find the experience of releasing the game?
"Nerve-wracking!" says Mike. "I mean, we're probably not the best people to answer because it really got approved straight away, so it was kind of a good process and also Zynga helped. As far as we know it's really easy and you just put it in!
"We've got friends who've done it. If it comes back they give you a reason why it's not passed, and you just fix it and resubmit it. Google Play's easier, because when you submit it it takes about half an hour. They do it in a different way. They don't look at it, they put it out there, and if anyone complains then they take it off the store and tell you to fix it."
In the wake of Black Rock Studio's demise, Brighton has seen a surge of developers striking out on their own, and the Fat Pebble team are no different. This conversation about the relative ease of releasing games on the mobile app stores helps to explain just why so many developers from traditional big-budget console backgrounds have gravitated towards the platform.
"That easy submission for both Apple and Google Play is one of the main reasons why there are so many small companies getting into mobile phone game development, as opposed to making games for, say, Xbox Live Arcade," explains Iain. "The approval process is very transparent, very smooth, you don't need to establish a relationship with Microsoft, or convince Sony or whatever."
What's next for Fat Pebble? Will the team continue working with their established claymation technology, or move onto something entirely different?
"I don't think we want to particularly make Fat Pebble about claymation," says Mike. "We want to make lots of hand-made games. You know, something a bit different. It's going to depend on what sort of game idea we come up with and what will suit the game.
"I think we'll want to concentrate on making Clay Jam a bit better with some updates, but maybe a few spin-off things like an interactive books, little things like that. I don't think the next game will be claymation, but it might be if we sit down and think the idea suits it."