When Viqua Games launched Tommy and the Magic Words a few years ago, two thoughts popped into my mind. One, how can I meet this Thai developer who came up with such an innovative word game? Two, how can I leverage the fact I own Gamezebo to get a free trip to meet the developer in Thailand, my favorite place in the world. Well, I have never achieved the latter goal, but I did talk to Chanon Sajjamanochai of Viqua Games. And since that time, Viqua launched numerous casual games, including Sandscript, Cindy’s Sundaes, Doggie Dash, and their latest hit game, First Class Flurry. We talked to Chanon about First Class Flurry, community-based social games, and how a good Thai boy grows up to become a successful casual games developer.

How did you come up with the name the Viqua Games? What is the meaning, if any?

Let’s keep this a mystery :)

What is your favorite game that you have created?

For me it would be First Class Flurry. The main reason is that since we were able to use all the experience and lessons learned from our previous games in making it, I think it is our best effort so far. We also learned a lot during its development too.

The second reason is that it has been our most positive release, both in terms of feedback and sales.

We are very proud of all of our games though.

You and Viqua Games are based in Thailand. How is the casual game development community in Thailand? How does a good young Thai boy like yourself grow up to become a casual game developer?

Well, there isn’t a “casual game development community” here. It’s just us!
There are other game developers in Thailand though, but they are mostly focused on outsourced console and mobile game development. There are also some companies doing massively multiplayer online games too.

As for me, well I’ve been interested in game development since high school. I was a big fan of PC games in the 1990s. After graduating and working at a few programming jobs, I decided to set up my own software company.

In the beginning we targeted mobile games, but later I learned about the PC casual market from Steve Pavlina’s old forums and so we decided to switch to doing casual games on the PC.

That was in 2004 I think, when we first started developing Tommy and the Magical Words. We’ve been developing casual games both independently and with publishers ever since and we’ve had the great opportunity to work with PlayFirst on 2 games (SandScript™ and Doggie Dash™) too.

You most recently released First Class Flurry to great fan-fare (well, we liked it anyway). Can you give us insights into the development of this game?

In late 2007 after releasing Cindy’s Sundaes we did a lot of brainstorming to come up with the next game to develop. One of the ideas that came up from one of our graphics artists was doing a time management game on an airplane with the main character as a flight attendant. Needless to say we all thought it would make a great game and so we went with it. There was the added plus that there weren’t any time management games with a flight attendant theme out yet, so we could be the first. We also thought that being a flight attendant is a pretty cool job and one that people would like to experience in a game.

However, the first few iterations of the game turned out to be not much fun at all. I even seriously considered dropping the game.

One of the key changes we made that really turned the game around was having passengers go to sleep. In the early iterations of the game every passenger would keep on requesting things until the end of the level – they wouldn’t sleep. Playing it felt like it was an endless job with no sense of accomplishment. We compared it to other time management games such as Diner Dash or Cake Mania and realized that in those games you have customers coming in and out of the shop and there is a sense of accomplishment when you finish serving a customer and see them leave satisfied.

In a plane however, passengers just sit there for the whole flight, they don’t (and can’t) come and leave during the flight (we actually thought about that but it would have been hilarious). So we came up with the idea of having passengers sleep. This immediately made the game more satisfying as you would start seeing some passengers going to sleep and you knew they wouldn’t request anything anymore. This way you feel that you’ve finished something. And towards the end of the level when you see more and more passengers going to sleep it makes you feel that you took good care of them. (If they don’t all have black broken hearts that is.)

So with this change and a few others such as adding the step to click “…” request balloons instead of immediately showing what passengers wanted, the game started to really click. I remember the day my girlfriend and I tried the first build that implemented these changes and we were pleasantly surprised that it was lots of fun even at that early stage. The previous build about a week or two earlier was no fun at all. So at that point we knew we had a very viable game that could do very well.

After that, it was just about finishing the graphics and adding stuff and refining stuff in the game. The turbulence part was a pretty fun idea that we had and it worked pretty well. Also the first time we put in the passenger voices it really made a difference.

The last few months of development was a lot of fun as we got to see the game keep getting better and better.

In the casual games space, it seems like every developer thinks of the same theme or storyline at the exact same time. One day, there are no fashion games; next day, 20. Same with cooking games, food service games, and now, strangely enough, airplane and travel games. What was the first thing you thought when you saw that Reflexive was launching Airport Mania a few weeks before your game? What do you think explains this phenomenon, aside from “great minds think alike”?

I was pretty anxious when my team members told me about a game named “Airport Mania”, but was relieved when they showed me the actual game. Since being an air traffic controller and being a flight attendant are very different in terms of the things you have to do, I felt the two games would not necessarily be competing against each other.

Later it even occurred to me that Airport Mania being released a few weeks before First Class Flurry might even help First Class Flurry as after watching those planes from the outside for so long, people might want to experience what working inside them would be like. So you could say that Airport Mania is/was kind of like getting people into the “airplane” mood for us.

We were worried all through development though that someone else would come out with the same idea, but luckily we were first.

We also had an idea for a fashion time management game (and this was before any fashion time management game came out), but we were (extremely) lucky that we did First Class Flurry instead. We were very astonished though during that period where fashion games kept coming out every week. At first we thought there would be about 3-4 of them but they kept coming out!

As for the phenomenon and why it happens, I think it is just natural where people are all trying to come up with a new theme that the target market will like and they look at the (obvious) options and they all come to the same conclusion.

It is pretty sad though since no one will want to make another fashion themed game right now. So instead of having games in a variety of themes coming out, you have a deluge of titles in a single theme coming out at the same time and then no more with that theme. Being a casual developer you sometimes have to just hope no one has the same idea as you.

Though not a commercial success, your first game, Tommy and the Magical Words, was a critical success, becoming an Independent Game Festival (IGF) 2006 finalist. Why do you think this game did not sell as well as you hoped for? What lessons did you learn that you applied to your current title, First Class Flurry?

Even though we hoped it would do better commercially, we don’t consider it a commercial failure since we made back our investment in it and a bit more. Looking back it was pretty good for our first game considering that we didn’t know much about the market at all.

The biggest lesson from that game was that the target market for casual games isn’t kids! We decided to make a word game and came up with a main character as a little wizard boy. Turned out that this was a big mistake because it made the game look like a kids game.

We are still very proud though of how the game turned out. Lots of adults enjoyed playing the game – which is why we were able to make our investment back. We were also lucky that Tycho over at penny-arcade.com had a post mentioning our game which led to tons of sales.

So all this taught us to be more aware of the target market we were aiming for and to be more aware of how the graphics and the main characters in our games would talk to the target market.

So for First Class Flurry, we had this in mind when designing the main character – Claire and also the passenger and plane graphics.

There has been a lot of talk (in the US, at least) as social gaming and virtual worlds as being the next big thing in casual games. Do you think that social games (e.g., games on Facebook) is more hype or the real deal?

I think they are the real deal. I’m even going to do one myself!

I feel there is a lot of talk about the end of this kind of game or that kind of game or whether a new kind of game is just a fad. In my view, there is space for every kind of game – they can all co-exist. Social games is one of them as are casual downloads, mmos, console games, web games and others.

So even though we want to do social games we don’t see it as ‘the’ thing to do or the only thing developers should be doing. We are still doing casual downloads too.

Being a Thai company, you are close to the fast growing the Chinese and Korean markets. How do you think casual games in Asia are different from those in the United States and the West? Do you develop or plan to create games for the Asian markets?

It is harder to monetize single player games in Asia because of the high levels of piracy. So most casual games for the Asian market have an online component either using a subscription based or a virtual items based business model. There are casual downloadable games for sale too and I hear sales for them are growing in Asia. But mostly if you want to make money in casual games in Asia, you have to make an online game. While in the US and Europe, you can make a lot of money from casual downloadable games.

Another difference might be in the taste. Asians like cute graphics while westerners like more realistic graphics. Even in 2d games with 2d characters you can see that the successful games for Asian markets emphasize cuteness a lot more while in western games the characters tend to be more realistic looking. I think it is just what people are comfortable with. Western gamers grew up with western cartoons which have a certain style, while Asian gamers grew up with Asian cartoons which have a different style.

So it is hard to make a casual game that pleases both markets. You need a graphic style that is not too western looking and not too Asian looking … but if you’re not careful both markets may not like it. On the other hand, casual games with abstract themes that don’t have any characters such as Bejeweled don’t have too much of a problem. And for a hardcore game it is not that much of a problem too since hardcore usually means realistic.

As for us, right now we are still focused on western markets, but in the future as we have the capacity to develop games with online components, we may begin developing for Asian markets.

What type of casual games do Thai gamers play?

Thai gamers play a lot of casual massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) and also a lot of casual downloadable games. So we kind of play everything from both east and west. There are many companies in Thailand that have bought licenses to run Korean-developed casual MMOs in Thailand and it has become a big business here.

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

It will become the “mainstream” of gaming because there will be more people playing them than hardcore games. Community will become a bigger part but single player games will still be played a lot. The term “Casual games” will become so broad it won’t be a good word to use to define a certain subset of games anymore because the large majority of games will be casual. And there will be different niches of casual games with their own communities.

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

We are working on more casual downloadable games and also a new flash community oriented web based game that should be ready soon.

Do you have any final words?

Check out our games at http://www.viquagames.com!