Little Labyrinths Interview With ByteSize Games' Thomas Hoeg
With the launch of the Generation: Sketch update, we talk to the developer about the origins of the studio, design inspiration, and the next game from ByteSize.
To mark the release of the new Generation: Sketch update for Little Labyrinths, developer ByteSize Games has made both of its App Store titles free for a limited time. The new update brings a child-friendly mode to the celebrated maze-game which changes the size of the game's characters and environments to make gameplay easier for smaller hands.
We spoke with Thomas Hoeg, CEO of ByteSize Games, about the history of the studio, the future of Little Labyrinths, and the challenges of bringing mobile games to Android devices. Hoeg also revealed details of the studio's next title.
Can you give us a bit of background on ByteSize Games, how it came into being and your development history?
ByteSize Games has been the brainchild of my brother Rick and I for a long time. Even before I was professionally involved in the game industry we had been talking about starting a company together, and we are both pretty dedicated gamers, so we always ended taking about creating a game studio.
About six years ago, I graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and no real desire to be a mechanical engineer so I took a job as an analyst at a credit card company. Nine months later, I enrolled at The Guildhall at SMU in the level design track, and that marks the start of my professional game career. After graduating, I got a job as a scripter at Insomniac Games and worked on Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time and pre-production for their upcoming project, Overstrike.
After working at Insomniac for about a year and a half, Rick and I started talking again about starting a company together, but with much more concrete detail and planning than ever before. Things just sort of fell into place and in August 2010, ByteSize Games was born. Since our founding, our philosophy has been to create "bite-sized" experiences that bring the depth of console and PC gaming to the mobile audience in smaller, more accessible packages.
FlipShip and Little Labyrinths are two very different games. What was the origin of each, and were you ever tempted to "brand" yourselves within a particular genre?
For all our projects so far, our creative process at the outset has been very similar. I come up with a handful of ideas (about ten in total) and Rick and I sit down and discuss them and rate the ideas based on a few categories like how passionate we are about it. During those discussions, our favorite ideas usually bubble to the top and we pick an idea from there and start developing it.
FlipShip's origin was exactly as described above. There was a simple idea, initially titled 'Phase Shift,' that was a tilt-based arcade game that involved a player character that could change colors and needed to avoid one color while pursuing the other. Even the idea of the risk-based scoring mechanic was roughly defined in that initial pitch, so you can see a lot of FlipShip came right from there. During the development we gave the whole thing a space shooter theme and developed more advanced features as the game evolved, but the "hook" of the game was really there right from the start.
Little Labyrinths, on the other hand, was born from a piece of technology we had developed rather than a specific mechanic. As a child, I loved paper mazes on cereal boxes, placemats, and the like, and at the time we were working on developing a twin-stick dungeon crawler with randomly generated dungeons. While developing the algorithm for the dungeon maker, I saw these basic outlines the game was creating and the idea for the game just hit me. It was the exact kind of simple, bite-sized experience we wanted to create. A few days of discussion with the team, and it became our next project.
We've talked about the benefits of branding ourselves within a particular genre, specifically the ability to focus and improve our work-flow and build on our past games, but it hasn't been a direction any of us has been very passionate about. The whole team at ByteSize is composed of "renaissance gamers" who enjoy everything from pen-and-paper role-playing games to the latest first-person shooter. We pick our ideas based on how much we believe in a particular idea, and not how well it fits into an established genre. That being said, we aren't opposed to revisiting previous titles and building on them for future projects.
The new update for Little Labyrinths introduces more child-friendly game mechanics. Is this a result of feedback from players?
The short answer is yes, though those players were primarily our own children. Rick and I both have young daughters (age two and four respectively) and they loved the look and feel of the game, but typically got frustrated while actually playing it because the mazes were just too hard for them. The new 'Kids mode' creates simpler mazes with larger pathways which make the game much more playable for our younger fans.
Will there be any further updates for Little Labyrinths or does this represent the end of the project?
Oh we've got lots more planned for Little Labyrinths! We have a list of ideas that we are currently debating, and we are constantly trying to think of new and different ways to alter the gameplay, especially things that take unique advantage of the device. Our next update is focused on improving the game's visual design. While we are happy with the game's general style, we've wanted to get more details in the environments and animations so for this next update we are excited to be doing just that. We are committed to making sure our players have lots of content to enjoy, so this is definitely not the end for Little Labyrinths!
Both Little Labyrinths and FlipShip are free on the App Store at the moment. How have you found the experience of iOS development from a monetization and business point of view?
Confusing? Though that may be more a matter of personal experience than something unique about the App Store. Going into this I had the assumption that good games would sell well, and I have found that to be a dangerous assumption from a business point of view. I think the quality is a very important factor in making and selling games, but there are a lot of other things to consider if you are trying to run a business.
The truth is the App Store is a big place with a lot of apps and a lot of big fish (no pun intended) throwing their weight around, so getting noticed is often difficult for small indie developers. I have been very happy with the games we have produced, and the critical and player feedback has been very positive for both FlipShip and Little Labyrinths, but sales haven't quite matched up. At the same time we see games that have lower scores from both critics and users flying up the charts, which can certainly be frustrating.
Have the sales of FlipShip and Little Labyrinths met your expectations on the App Store?
The sales for both games thus far have not been nearly as high as we would hope. We aren't looking to make a lot of money (though that would be great!), we are just looking to make enough to cover our costs and stay in business so we can keep doing what we love, and we haven't quite achieved that yet.
Do you have any plans to develop or port games for the Android market? What do you see as the barriers to successfully releasing a game on Google Play?
It's a possibility, but not one we are exploring at this time. The engine we use, Unity, is actually built for cross-platform deployment, so just deploying to Android isn't a large barrier (except for the cost of licensing the Android part of the engine), but there are other factors to consider, namely two that are holding us off at this point.
The first is the sheer number of platforms that support Android and the potential testing nightmare that could be. The number of iOS devices available is comparatively limited, so testing on almost every device is possible even given our small size. On the other hand, there are huge number of hardware configurations that support Android and trying to ensure a consistent experience across all those platforms is daunting.
The second and more practical point is it may just not make business sense right now. The numbers seem to indicate that an app will sell about 30% on Android of the business it does on iOS. There are obviously exceptions in both directions, but that is the general number, and it is largely backed up by the statistics as well as anecdotal evidence. If that were the case for us, an Android port likely wouldn't make back the cost to create it, and because of the testing issue, it could also have some negative repercussions if there were bugs we didn't see during production.
Android ports are not off the table completely, but they just don't make the most sense for us right now. As a small team, our bandwidth is extremely limited, and so we are constantly making trade-offs about what we decide to work on.
What's next for ByteSize games? Can you share any details of what you're working on at the studio?
We are currently working on a new title that we hope to release later this year. It is a tower defense game that features a number of role-playing and customization mechanics to really define your strategy and play-style. It's kind of a passion project for me personally, as I simple adore tower defense games even with the market as saturated as it is. We are still in the early phases of production, but we've got a lot planned to help it stand out against the crowd and bring something new and exciting to the tower defense genre. We can't wait to reveal more as we get closer to the game's release!