Most game studios start small and gradually work their way up, but California-based Gamenauts isn’t one of them. After debuting with the critically-acclaimed Spacebound, the company scored a #1 hit with just their second title, Burger Rush. With only two games under their belts, the folks at Gamenauts have hit the ground running. We spoke with Gamenaut Stanley Adrianus, the company’s founder, to learn more about what makes these game-makers tick.
How did you come up with the name Gamenauts?
We really wanted a name that’s universally appealing, down to earth and not something so overly-cool and exclusive like Uber Pwn Studios (apologies to such a company, if it does exist).
I also wanted the name to be a true identify for us – of who we are and what we do. We like games and we make games. We live and breathe games. Hmmm… "Gamepeople?" Nope. "Gamefellas?" NO. Then on a whim, I came across Psychonauts, Tim Schafer’s game. "Gamenauts… hmm yeah, that works". It could work out great for whenever I need to introduce myself – "Hi! I’m a Gamenaut!" Or I might get laughed at, which is still better than calling myself an Uber Pwner.
And Mr. Schafer, if you’re reading this, this is my payback to the hours and hours that I lost playing Monkey Island. And for Stan, the Coffin Salesman.
Your website, company name and first game all have an outer space theme, and Burger Rush even has a level that takes place in outer space. What’s with the space obsession?
It all stems from the company’s name and me wanting to create a cohesive/unified brand around it. It’s not really so much because we’re the biggest science-fiction fans, and if we had ended up with a name like… Gamecleaners, we’d probably have some sort of janitorial theme around the games and the site as well.
With Spacebound, it was sort of intentional to have a first game that has the "launch" metaphor in it. Of course, if Spacebound had turned out to be a super smash hit, that would make actual sense…The positive thing about Spacebound, though, is that it gave us a really great mascot – the bumbling Captain Bloom.
As a side note, we put quite a few Easter eggs in Burger Rush, and for those with sharp eyes, they’ll notice that the astronaut customer is wearing a spacesuit that is a version of Captain Bloom’s suit, minus the tummy bulge.
Before founding Gamenauts, you were responsible for user interface design at Yahoo! Games. How does your background in UID impact your game designs? How did you make the transition from user interface to game design?
For me, the transition from user interface to game design is a natural thing. Both are fundamentally user-centric and the principles of a good user interface are the same as those of a good game. I actually still do a lot of hands-on work on the UI for all our games as I think a user interface can make or break a game.
I do think that game design is inherently more challenging as there’s so much of the player’s psychology that needs to be considered. You can chart and measure the usability of a program or a web site by raw data and numbers, but I think a good game designer is one that has to emphatically figure out how a player feels at specific points of the game. What if you’re creating a game for an audience unlike yourself? How do you figure out what’s "fun" for other people? Those are the most difficult things about being a game designer, in comparison to an interface designer.
Spacebound is obviously influenced by Nintendo in terms of look and feel. Are the Nintendo DS and Wii good platforms for casual games?
The DS and the Wii are definitely great platforms for casual games and we’re very much interested in creating games for both platforms. The success of both the DS and the Wii have been primarily due to Nintendo’s new Blue Ocean strategy of creating games for the casual players, and it has paid off in spades. The DS is the most interesting case to me; because it has successfully captured both casual players (Brain Age, Nintendogs) and the hardcore games looking for new and innovative games (Hotel Dusk, Elite Beat Agents).
However, it seems to me that the audience for PC casual games is quite different to the ones playing the DS and Wii. The casual games that we’re looking to create for the DS/Wii will have to be significantly different than the ones we’re creating for the PC audience.
Also if you think more about it, the DS and the Wii are successful primarily because they offered new and innovative interfaces (touch screens, motion sensitive controls), whereas one can argue that part of the success of casual games’ on the PC is because they rely on a familiar interface. So there are very interesting connections and contrast between these platforms.
What’s your creative process for coming up with new game ideas? For example, Burger Rush took two common game styles (match-3 and restaurant sim) and combined them into something that was creative and unique.
In the case of Burger Rush, there were a couple of starting points – the first is that being a fan of obscure Japanese cooking games, I had wanted to create a game about food and cooking for a long time.
The second is that at Gamenauts, we’re particularly fond of merging 2 different genres together. In fact Spacebound itself is also a melding of 2 different games, although not as obvious as Burger Rush. So we looked at the existing casual game genres and picked out 2 of the most popular ones. Although Burger Rush is not officially the first game to combine a match-3 and a customer serving game, I personally felt that the previous games had too much emphasis on the matching part and not enough on managing your customers or your restaurant.
Though Spacebound was a unique puzzle game that got good reviews, it did not sell well. Burger Rush, on the other hand, did. Were there any lessons learned or adaptations made from Spacebound to Burger Rush that allowed the second game to have greater success?
For our first title, I think we suffered that same problem that plagued many new game developers: Notunderstandingourtargetaudience-itis.
The players who liked Spacebound the most are typically fans of console and handheld puzzle games, and not the mainstream casual games audience. This was a valuable lesson for us and we shifted our focus and attention squarely on the "casual moms" as the target audience for our next game.
For Burger Rush, we were fortunate to have the support of our publisher, Real Arcade. They helped us tremendously in not only guiding us to better understand the audience, but also in providing early and multiple frequent focus testing. Those focus testing is what made Burger Rush the game it is today and I’m definitely a firm believer of them.
Since release, Burger Rush has done very well on multiple sites, and we’re truly gratified to see that so many players appreciate our work and also our brand of humor. And while I have my 5 minutes here, I also want to give a quick shout out to my team, particularly Chris and Satya, for their great talents and support.
Spacebound is available on a CD through big box retailers. Do you see this distribution model increasing in popularity for casual games? Why did you choose to go that route as well as offer the game for download?
Our goal in creating any game is to have it be played and enjoyed by as many people as possible. The online, downloadable segment is only one part of the market and so when the opportunity to bring our first game to retail came along, we immediately jumped on it. We also think that Spacebound has a greater appeal to the younger audience who might not have access to downloading and paying for the games online.
I’m not really sure whether the retail route would increase in popularity among casual developers, but for me personally, it was a great milestone to walk into a store and see our very first game in an actual, retail box.
Your website says that the Gamenauts crew is "100% independent." What does that mean exactly, and how does it set you apart as a company?
It just means that Gamenauts has been 100% self-funded from the very beginning – no VCs, no angel investors and no government grants.
This enables us to chart the course for the company the way we want it to be. Of course, no man or company is an island and we’re very fortunate to have worked with great partners that have helped us to get where we are today.
Where do you see the future of casual gaming in 5 years?
We’re a new and fledgling studio so I can only give my borderline semi-non-expert opinion regarding the future.
For the players and consumers, things will only get better and better. The production values of the games will keep increasing and casual games will look and sound better than before. The next 5 years will truly be spectacular for fans of casual games.
For the developers, I think things will be both better and harder at the same time. Better because as the industry grows exponentially, there will be so much stiff competitions among the publishers that the really good developers will be highly valued and sought after. It will be harder because the rising consumer expectations and production costs will force the developers to rely more and more on publishers for funding. As such, I think there will be a lot of consolidations among developers and publishers in 5 years time.
Within 5 years time, there’ll be a new, genre-defining gameplay equivalent to the magnitude of Diner Dash and Mystery Case Files, or perhaps even bigger. The cloning scene will never cease in 5 years or even 10 years because I think that’s the inevitable nature of any segment of the game industry. Innovation is always highly appreciated and valued but the industry will always need to deliver what the audience wants.
Can you give us any hints about your upcoming games?
I’m a big fan of great story and compelling characters in games. Our next game will have a strong narrative emphasis, a little bit more serious/mature in tone and will have a character that I’ve personally been working on for the last few months. We have big plans for her (yes, it’s a female character) and I can’t wait to show her to the world.
Also, as I mentioned before, we’re a big fan of cooking games and we’re tinkering around with a new idea for a cooking game. And no, it won’t be about burgers.
Other than that, please look forward to more games from us and please visit http://www.gamenauts.com for new Gamenauts stuff. Thanks!