Founded in 2007 by two Hitman programmers, The Game Equation is the latest example of hardcore game-makers jumping ship to develop casual games. The company’s first official release is the underwater puzzler Deep Blue Sea. Gamezebo spoke to co-founder Brian Meidell Andersen about what it was like going from Hitman to match-three.
Please tell us a little bit about you and your company.
I’m come from a background of electrical engineering, but I’ve always worked with software. I’ve worked on big budget games, such as Hitman: Blood Money, but I personally like working for smaller companies.
Bo also has a background in electrical engineering. and before going into the games industry at IO Interactive, he worked with cutting edge virtual reality at Aalborg University in Denmark.
We formed The Game Equation because we wanted to be able to make smaller games with focus on gameplay and fun.
How did you come up with the name The Game Equation?
In the early days of talking about forming the company, we were messing around with words that sounded good and one of them was "equation". Around that time I’d been reading Raph Koster’s "A theory of fun", and a great book called "On Intelligence" by Jeff Hawkins, and both were circling around the subject of how "fun" was something that is slightly unexpected and pushing gently at the borders of your abilities and routines.
Finding that sweet spot where things are fun but not too hard was a problem I had been thinking a lot about, and it suddenly hit me that this problem could be called "The Game Equation". We all felt that was a good name for our company.
There’s been a buzz around your company as being "those guys from Hitman" who defected from mainstream game-making to found a casual games company. What about casual games was appealing to you?
That it’s possible to make good casual games in a relatively small company setting, while still having the potential to be a viable business.
In what ways did you have to adjust your game design philosophies to this new market?
At first we thought we had to adjust them a lot, because the popular casual games we tried felt like they weren’t for gamers like ourselves. Later, we figured out that we were actually doing ourselves a great disservice by thinking like this, and started noting how many similarities there actually are about what’s fun about big budget games, and what’s fun about casual games.
An example is the shop in Deep Blue Sea – when we added this element, the game became a lot more fun, and I think that on some abstract level, it’s for the exact same reason that people are getting addicted to World of Warcraft. It’s the appeal of gathering resources and building something up. In WoW this is of course your character, and it is extremely elaborate and well done, while in Deep Blue Sea it’s very simple and quickly completed. But on some abstract level they’re related. It’s the feeling of accumulating something by way of your personal effort that is a gratifying experience. It makes sense from a evolutionary standpoint why people would find this appealing.
One thing that I think is very different from mainstream games and casual games is the difficulty curve. Regular games have a tendency to base the progression ramp on making the game harder and harder. This is a bad idea in casual games – the difficulty curve should not make the later parts of the game radically harder than the earlier parts. The casual game audience seem to prefer other methods of progression.
How did you apply skills you learned working on Hitman to casual games?
We built our own multi-platform game engine from scratch in a short amount of time, and made Deep Blue Sea in four and a half months. The fact that we could get our entire technology platform right in the first go is definitely due to previous experience, a lot of which was on Hitman games.
You chose to make your first game, Deep Blue Sea, a match-three, which is a very classic (some would say over-saturated) genre. Why did you choose this genre and what steps did you take to make your game stand out?
When I tried my hand at making a casual game (Constellations) before we launched the company, I tried to make something new. That failed to sell well, so we decided to make our first game based on proven success, in a genre that we thought was fun to play.
Since we had no dedicated graphics artist, we chose match-3. It fits well with a team that has more capacity for programming than graphics. Certainly compared to genres such as "Hidden Object" games. I think we managed to bring a bit of freshness to the genre, even if it wasn’t a groundbreaking achievement in innovation.
What comparisons and contrasts can you make between the hardcore/mainstream and "casual" industries?
I think the arrival of the new consoles and the level of the current graphics capabilities on PCs have pushed the mainstream industry to a point where their entire modus of "bleeding edge in every area" has brought many companies near the breaking point. The PCs and new consoles are so amazingly capable, that games are now expected to have any and every fancy feature that each were unique selling points few years ago. Hardly any companies have the capacity to keep up in every area, so developers have been insanely overworked, titles have cost fortunes to make and it has been hard to make a game that breaks even, much less makes a lot of money.
Meanwhile, the casual business has been making crazy amounts of money on games which are comparatively cheap to produce.
I think this has forced the mainstream industry to diversify a bit from their bleeding edge ambitions, and some companies seem to have come to the conclusion that they want to try their hand at making smaller games, which are ambitious in fewer areas and primarily focuses on fun gameplay. I am certainly getting a vibe of "getting back to the roots" from parts of the business. This is unsurprising since computer technology is so relatively recent that pretty much everyone old enough to work with games are from a time where the games were much simpler than they are today.
An interesting sidenote is that many of the things that the mainstream game business went through to get where it is today, is now happening in the casual games industry. The bar is being raised constantly; the games are becoming more fancy and expensive to produce. Many of the successful casual games today are not entirely unlike hit games from the mainstream industry. For example, a game like Chocolatier reminds me of games like Pirates and Frontier. Virtual Villagers is in many ways a simplified Real Time Strategy game like Age of Empires, but without conflict. Many other games aren’t as easily mapped to older games, but still employ certain gameplay elements that have been refined in the mainstream industry a long time ago.
I think this cross-pollination of industries is interesting, and I believe it will bring about more games in the middle ground between casual games and big budget games.
The Game Equation is based in Copenhagen, Denmark. What’s the game development scene like there?
I think it’s quite healthy. There is of course IO Interactive as the flagship big budget game studio (that may be a biased assessment), but there are also many other studios that make everything from big budget console games, to titles for handhelds like the Nintendo DS and mobile phones. Compared to how small a country we are, I think we have quite the thriving game development scene. There are also initiatives like Nordic Game Jam that are intended to cultivate interest and growth in this scene.
What games are you playing right now? What has impressed you elsewhere in the industry?
I am playing Assassins Creed on the PlayStation 3, which does a lot of things right. In the casual genre, I recently played Plant Tycoon, which I think was quite cleverly designed and surprisingly fun.
What’s coming up next for The Games Equation?
We’d prefer to keep that under wraps until there’s a public announcement.
Any parting words for your fans?
Yes. Thank you! We’ve received a lot of positive comments and good reviews, and we’re absolutely thrilled.