Game developer and toy maker, Scott Balaban of Gameblend Studios is the
Geppetto of casual games. And, he and his team of game developers and
Israeli scientists have just released Hidato, a web-based game updated daily that we think could become the next Sudoku. Bold words, but it’s quite an addictive game.

We talked with Scott about the unique story behind Hidato, insights
into game development over a wide variety of platforms, and the merging
of the toy and games industries.

How did you come up with the name the Gameblend Studios? What’s your favorite blended drink?

Back in 1999, Gameblend was originally created for a concept where players would be able to blend their favorite play mechanics together to craft new game patterns. Ironically, we never finished the concept, but did end up keeping the name for the studio…thus creating our game empire.

As for blended beverages, I am partial to milkshakes. It’s drinkable ice cream…what’s better than that?

The reason we are writing you now is that you just officially launched the online puzzle Hidato which we predict will become the next Sudoku based on the amount of time we’re playing it around the virtual office that is Gamezebo. How do you play Hidato and how does is it similar and/or different than Sudoku?

We appreciate your prediction! We also hope to take on the mantle of the “Next Sudoku”.

Each Hidato puzzle starts with a grid partially filled with numbers. The goal is to fill the grid with consecutive numbers that connect horizontally, vertically or diagonally. To complete the puzzle, place all the numbers to form a single path within the grid. There is only one possible solution and it can be solved perfectly through logic.

Each completed puzzle brings you closer to intellectual perfection.

The story behind Hidato is very interesting. Can you share with our audience the background of the inventors and how you connected with them?

Hidato was invented by Dr. Gyora Benedek, a prominent computer scientist from Israel. Gyora invents and develops games and logical puzzles, including the worldwide hits Lights Out, NimX and iTop.

I have known Gyora for a few years, and worked with him on some toy projects in the past. I was excited after seeing the original Hidato concepts, which was originally called “Brain-Tour”. Gameblend then partnered with Gyora and his partner Shai Seger, to develop and build the Hidato brand.

You launched Hidato first as an online Web game instead of a download game. This is the opposite of how most game developers have traditionally launched their casual games, which is downloads first, every other platforms later. Does this mean you are a follower of the popular idea among casual game companies that downloads are dead and the future of casual games is Web-based and free?

Our goal was to approach the market from a different angle by building the brand in other ways before launching a download version. Hidato has strength in print style puzzles, so our first move was to work on the book and syndicated print versions. We were quickly able to get a small book printed as well as get the puzzle in the #1 puzzle magazine in Japan. This then led to a bigger book deal, which will bring Hidato to bookstores everywhere this June.

We then teamed up with uclick, an online distributor of web games, to develop a daily version. To help Hidato compete in the crowded online game space, we added a rich interface and theme to help build the excitement of playing the puzzle; Things we couldn’t do in the print version.

Our plans now are to continue our platform expansion into download, mobile, handheld and more. We expect that you will see Hidato in a variety of places this year.

As for the death of the Download game, I think that in the last few years, the download market has changed significantly, but is far from dead. It’s a much riskier environment now. Development costs have been rising and project scope has been inflating. Additionally, a lot of the bigger game companies and brands have entered the space, making it a lot more competitive.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly raises the financial risk of investing in a game. I suspect that this is deterring some of the smaller game development companies that once thrived in the download market.

Before Hidato, your most popular game to date has been WordJong, a clever mix of Mahjong and word games. What was the inspiration to put those completely different game genres together?

WordJong was originally created by my colleague and Gameblend co-founder Erik Stein back in 2004. His goal was to mix two successful gameplay patterns, wordplay and mahjong solitaire. We were working on a variety of casual puzzle games at the time, and felt this particular concept had lasting appeal. Once we had the core gameplay defined, we began a plan to design and develop it for a variety of platforms.

You developed WordJong as a download, mobile and most recently, a Nintendo DS game. What are the big differences in development and game play when creating the same casual game over vastly different game platforms?

It’s mostly an interface issue. The core mechanics of the game are established, so the main goal is to best translate that experience on whatever platform you are targeting. We feel that it is important to design the game to match the device. For example, the mobile version, with its button only interface and single screen was much different than the Nintendo DS version, which had 2 screens and a touch interface. The platform usually dictates the design constraints. Overall, it’s a very fun design challenge.

Being able to bring WordJong to a variety of platforms was one of the original reasons we moved ahead on the concept. From the beginning, we planned to bring the game to as many platforms as possible. After almost 5 years, we are still working on new places where you will see WordJong pop up.

Your background is interesting. You originally worked in the toy industry (at Hasbro) before you entered the casual game space. What are the differences and similarities between developing toys and casual games?

Both fields are about creating fun experiences for the user. Whether it is a physical toy or a casual game, both need to provide quality entertainment value for the customer. Each requires skilled teams that work well together.

Clear differences include the development process. While both are a fun, each has their own challenges.

To make a toy, a lot of consideration is in the manufacturing. You need to constantly think about part costs, safety issues, mechanical and electronic engineering. Once in manufacturing, which is typically done remotely in China, a new world of potential difficulties can occur. Management of the project, time zone and communication issues, quality control, etc.

In game development, there is the challenge of balancing the roles of producers, programmers, artists, designers and more. To have a clear vision for the game, and then execute and create a game that fulfils that vision is a very hard task.

Interestingly, the worlds of toys and casual games have increasingly been merging since 2007. In fact, I believe its one of the most fascinating yet under-reported stories happening (that is, until now!). The fact is that the most popular toys and causal multiplayer online games over the past year have been toy-casual game virtual worlds: Webkidz, USB Funkeys, etc. As someone who has worked in both industries, what do you think accounts for the success of products that combine toys with casual games?

Actually, physical toys and computer games have been joining forces for some time. Back at Hasbro in the late 90’s, I was able to work on a line of games that had PC toy peripherals. Even after 10 years, I think the formula of mixing toys and games can produce a unique experience when done right.

There is a certain magic to having a physical toy successfully combined with a computer or console game experience. I think that the Guitar Hero Series and Rock Band proved that formula.

What is your favorite game that you have been involved with?

WordJong has been the most fun. It has allowed us to work with a lot of friends in a variety of companies.

What are your favorite games from other developers that you are playing right now?

Most recently, “Boom Blox” on the Wii has been surprisingly fun to play, and “Professor Layton” on the Nintendo DS was the last game in a long while I took the time to complete.

You most recently moved from San Francisco, a hotbed of wine and gaming, to North Carolina, the land of BBQ pork and college basketball. Can you give us insight into the state of casual games in the state of North Carolina and the South?

I like to think that Gameblend is the seed that will create a huge game development explosion here in the southeast. I’ve heard rumors that all major game publishers are racing to get here now that Gameblend has set up camp…

Where do you see the future of casual gaming in 5 years?

I think that the audience will continue to grow. New players will be found through innovative experiences like the Nintendo Wii and other emergent devices. I think we also will see a lot more social gaming, with communities forming around casual game play, embracing chat, multiplayer games, leaderboards and more. I think Pogo.com is currently the best example of that direction.

Can you give us any hints about your upcoming casual games or projects that you that we have not yet talked about?

In addition to our online games, we are continuing to work with our development partner Magellan Interactive on the Nintendo platforms. I would expect to see more Hidato and WordJong style games to be appearing soon…

We also will continue to make games with our friends over at Funkitron, and work together on titles like we did for Slingo Quest Hawaii and Poker Superstars III.

Do you have any final words?

Thank you for the interview! We hope to see you up on the Hidato daily leaderboards!

Also, congratulations on launching the new site! It looks great!