Since 2002, Daniel Bernstein and his team at Sandlot have been creating some of the most innovative and addictive casual games around, from the hit trading and adventure Tradewinds series (my personal favorite casual games of all time) to Cake Mania, among the most popular and sweet-tasting casual games of the year.
All the while, Sandlot has stayed true to its roots, bootstrapping its business to become of the most successful independent casual games companies around. We sat down with Daniel Bernstein, to learn more about his unique background, the secret to his success and most importantly, to get the exclusive scoop on what’s next for Tradewinds (read below for more).
How did you come up with the name Sandlot Games?
Well, Sandbox Games was taken (trademark issue), so we came up with the next best name, Sandlot Games. This is why our name is Sandlot Games but the kids are actually playing in a sandbox. Frankly I think Sandlot Games rolls off the tongue a bit better. We wanted to have a name that really connotes community and a fun, safe environment. Something not too kiddy but conveys green lawns, fun memories, and positive values.
What games have you developed that you’re especially fond of?
I love all of our games, but especially the Tradewinds series. I love shopping for and customizing your own bakery in Cake Mania. I am very pleased with the standards we set for visual quality with Glyph, and Slyder is a great mobile game. We are a somewhat unique game developer because we have a number of hit games in different genres on different platforms. Granny, of course, kicks some serious butt.
What about other developers’ games? Anything new and interesting that has caught your attention recently?
I’ve always loved the gameLab games – they are very original. Obviously, the production values of PopCap titles, including Chuzzle, are first rate. In fact, “chuzzling” is a word we use in the production of our titles that means that extra bit of personality and polish. Thanks, PopCap. Andy, our Director of Development, just finished Tropix, and loves lots of things about it.
Sandlot has grown from a small operation into one of the most successful independent casual game companies around. You truly are an example of the “American Dream” as it relates to casual games. How did you start Sandlot Games and what accounts for your success?
We bootstrapped the company from the beginning – we met in a Starbucks twice a week and paid ourselves very little. That was 3 people. Afterwards, when we got to 4 people, I ran the company out of our spare bedroom. When it became 5 guys in our spare bedroom, my wife finally kicked us out. We found a room sandwiched between a psychiatrist’s office and some music practice rooms. We had to be quiet while listening to off key Tuba scales. Even then we had artists working in Poland. We grew Sandlot Games with an ability to scale. By having development teams around the world we acted much more like a big developer even before we actually were one. Now we have 40 people working around the world to innovate on the best casual game content.
You are also unique in that you are a musician by training who started your own game company. In fact, you write all the music for Sandlot Games. What are the challenges of creating music for games with the production budgets and file sizes much smaller that of traditional video games?
I started writing music for online games at Kesmai, back in 1994 when broadband really did not exist, so I am no stranger to file compression. I remember building soundtracks that had to compress to 50 Kilobytes. I have seen music production values increase very quickly with the penetration of broadband. A few years ago no one would think about shipping a casual game that was larger than 6-7 Megabytes. Nowadays, successful casual games can weigh in at 20 Megabytes or more. That gives me the opportunity to really shine with a few tracks that are close to CD quality. Also I think all of the same questions that I faced when I was working on more traditional boxed game titles remain – how do we make music more interactive so that it truly reacts to the gameplay. Adaptive music soundtracks – music that reacts to what is happening on screen is something you are going to see a lot more of, especially from Sandlot. With an adaptive soundtrack you truly get a movie like experience, where the music supports the action on screen.
Your most popular game (and incidentally, one the most popular games released this year) is Cake Mania. Can you provide us insights into the design process around this game?
During the initial design phase many of our peers were making gem and candy games. We wanted to make something different and interesting but keep the yummy factor. We thought of a number of possible businesses with a multi-step creation process. Cakes can have many different shapes, frosting and toppings. Hence, a bakery.
Andrew, the producer and game designer for Cake Mania, made up the character and the story, with the help of Melissa, our writer. Somehow, Jill ended up looking like the artist who drew her, Risha. Early on we had these gnomes that Jill would swat with the menu, but focus testing revealed that that was one of the worst design decisions we had ever made, so we cut it.
Tradewinds Legends is my personal favorite casual game of all time. A big part of the reason is the witty (some would even suggest, a bit “racy”) story behind the game. The game actually makes me laugh out loud. How did you come up with the humorous story and dialogue? Do you think more casual games will incorporate deep story in game play?
I hope more games will make use of the entire breadth of possibilities of traditional game genres, including more interesting, involved adventure and role playing games.
The source of the humor in the game is of our Director of Development, Andy and our writers, Melissa and Dana. They had way too much fun writing the storylines for Tradewinds Legends and Tradewinds 2. Our fans have barely scratched the surface of all our inside jokes and obscure references. And here’s a Gamezebo exclusive tip for Tradewinds Legends: first turn of the game is when the prices are at their lowest!
Being an expert Tradewinds Legends player, I knew this tip, of course (mental note: must re-play the game with this valuable insight). Switching gears, Sandlot develops a lot of its projects overseas, including a large studio in St. Petersburg, Russia. What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with multiple studios overseas?
The real challenge was integrating each offshore team into our work methodology. The language is not so much a barrier because I speak Russian fluently and we do have English speakers over there. We have a very unique and iterative way of doing things. We also have larger teams on some of our projects, which requires quite a bit of communication. For example, Tradewinds Legends was created by 20 people contributing content from India, Canada and Seattle. At the end of the day, you need to be committed to making it work with an overseas team. It’s easy to abandon offshore development because it is perceived that the difficulties of communication outweigh the financial benefits. It took us a while to make it work, but really at the end of the day you are making an investment into people, not projects.
Ten years from now (god willing), I’m playing a Sandlot game. What will this game experience be like?
I believe casual gaming as a valid and fulfilling social activity will replace traditional TV as the dominant entertainment platform. We have some very memorable characters, and you can bet they will be back for some more fun for many years to come. Granny will be always swinging her purse around to knock those pesky gnomes out, but you may be able to pick out the handbag for her and purchase it online. Maybe you have a killer ship in Tradewinds you want to show off to your friends. Or chat with them online about the fact that it’s Half Off Cocoa Day in Curacao. We can guarantee that in ten years there will be ten times as many memorable Sandlot characters as there are today in a variety of different media.
Who do you think is the ideal player of Sandlot games? Do you believe this will change in the future?
Everyone says the casual games market is primarily made up of women over 30 years of age. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. What’s the demographic for TV? Everyone watches TV. Everyone will play casual games. Pretty soon the term “Casual Gamer” will be as silly as “TV watcher” because everyone will be one. Our audience engages with our content for hours at a time to get carried away into a different world, play a septuagenarian super heroine, or a fast-talking intergalactic snail. We pride ourselves on making deep games in a variety of different genres that attract a variety of different audiences. Granny surprised everyone here when a very hardcore keyboard-based game dynamic was readily accepted by an older, female demographic.
What are your plans (if any) to develop Sandlot multiplayer game in the future?
Tradewinds Online. Yes, folks, you heard it here first.
NICE! Can you give us any other hints of your upcoming games?
We have four games that should be coming out in the next few months. Two adventure/strategy games, one puzzle game, one word game. Slyder will come out to play soon as well. Of course, Tradewinds Online is on a longer development schedule.
Finally, any closing words for your fans out there?
I want to thank you for the loyalty and support you have given us. You are the reason why our jobs are so much fun. We can’t wait to have you try out our next batch of games and we look forward to your feedback. Sign up to focus test our latest games on our web site and hook up with other fans on www.sandlotgames.com!