I recently reviewed the fantastic iOS puzzle/platformer title Nihilumbra. I was so overly impressed by the game that I reached out to the games designer, Kevin Cerdá by email, to see if he could answer a few questions not only about the game, but about the team at BeautiFun games.
As Kevin points out, starting an indie company isn’t easy but often we see some truly unique and wonderful games being developed by these smaller teams. Nihilumbra is all those, and more and the game is being received extremely well by critics and players. It’s unique colour based gameplay/touch mechanics really makes for an endearing and challenging gaming experience.
For what’s in store for BeautiFun Kevin can only say that some updates and bug fixes will be released for Nihilumbra, with possible ports to PC (and maybe Vita and/or 3DS (the latter I really, really hope happens!) and that the team are already looking ahead to their next game.
For our full interview, keep reading.
Firstly, are you able to share what it’s been like starting BeautiFun games? What are some of the challenges in founding an indie studio?
Starting an indie video game studio from zero is not a bed of roses. Maybe one of the biggest challenges is having to deal with a great amount of work without knowing for sure if the project is going to be launched at the end, if people are going to like it, or if we will ever be able to finish it properly.
Another great challenge is to gain notoriety, since we don’t have enough money to boost a marketing campaign. We are receiving great reviews of our game, but we don’t manage to raise in the ranks because we have to compete agains companies that are able to pay reviews, buy banners, or advertise their games everywhere.
How did the team come together? Have you all worked on projects together, or just a collective of friends who really like video games?
That’s an interesting question. BeautiFun games started with just four people. We were all students of a video game development master. During that course, we developed a video game, but we weren’t part of the same team. When we started looking for a job in the video game industry, here in Spain, we realized that it was really difficult to find one, and it was nearly impossible to stay away from Facebook social games.
At that moment we decided to start our own company, because we thought that it would be the only way to create original and interesting games. And that’s how we started with Nihilumbra. I had the idea and the design prepared since day one, and we started working to create something that we could be proud of.
The team was composed of me, Pol Urós (a programmer that worked with me on the master, in a game called “The Creature”), Lourdes Nicolich, (the artist that created the backgrounds) and Aniol Alcaraz (programmer but also the owner of the company).
After a few months, we realized that there was an excessive amount of work of art, and we decided to hire someone. We received tones of emails from people that wanted to collaborate on an indie project like this, and finally we hired Freya Horn, the only member of the team that is not from Spain. She made the awesome animations of the characters.
You mention it was difficult to find work in the gaming industry in Spain. I think this is an issue everywhere, especially in the place where I live, Australia. Do you think as more and more people enter the industry as developers and designers we’ll eventually see a shift where indie studios will ‘overtake’ the major studios in terms of popularity?
From my point of view, that’s probably not going to happen. Usually bigger studios don’t take risks, they tend to use franchises that already work, or they copy mechanics to create new franchises. Indie studios, on the other hand, are able to take more risks; create more original games… but not all indies do that. They tend to copy other games mechanics as well, and they don’t use to try to add something really new to it.
Right now, it’s true that the most interesting proposals come from indie studios. But usually the small studios that succeed… well, they stop being small. Nowadays, I don’t identify with the people from PlayDead or Majong. I think that they are something totally different from us. As different as Ubisoft.
In other words: you can create awesome game experiences being an indie, but if you become extremely successful, and popular, you’ll become bigger, and you won’t be able to risk as much with your games. There’s a balance between these two worlds, but that’s not bad at all! There are lots of kinds of gamers, and all of them need video games, after all.
Can you share some of your inspirations, or influences, behind your concept for Nihilumbra?
Of course! I love to talk about that. I seek inspiration from games that I love and respect, and I’ll never try to hide where my ideas come from.
Nihilumbra is inspired by lots of games, actually. Lots of people say that it reminds them of Limbo, Braid, The Journey or even World of Goo. All of these games are true masterpieces, and we are really proud to be compared with them.
But the truth is that I found inspiration in Braid (Braid is always an inspiration, and the reason why I make video games), in the Neverending Story (to create the concept of the Void), or Abe’s Oddysee (the main inspiration, actually!).
We wanted to show our love to these games in Nihilumbra as well, including monsters that scream like Scrabs, from Abe’s Oddysee, text like Braid, or even a tunnel that looks like the ones you find in Mega Man before a boss fight! You can find the tunnel on the second level of the last world; it’s something really subtle.
It’s funny, but Limbo was not really an inspiration, not even for the main character. Our character looks like covered with clothes because we didn’t want to show its shape (it has no shape, actually) and we used the spirits of the Princess Mononoke to create its face.
We weren’t inspired by “The Journey” either, because we didn’t know of it when we started developing the game; and we didn’t know the painting mechanics of Portal 2 either!
All these surprises weren’t the only ones… While we were developing Nihilumbra we started to discover other games with similar elements, besides from the ones I’ve just said; like the character Arakune, from BlazBlue… but we were not afraid, because all these games are really different to ours. Fortunately, we managed to launch a game which looks really original in all the aspects. Nihilumbra is unique by its aesthetics, its gameplay, its music and its story.
Would you believe I haven’t even played Portal 2?! The painting mechanic in Nihilumbra was a really unique gameplay element I felt, and certainly makes it stand apart from other iOS platformers. Can you share a little on how difficult it was to balance out all the different colours and their respective abilities?
Haven’t you?? You totally should! Both Portal games are true masterpieces!
Balancing the colors was, indeed, a little bit difficult. The problem was that every time we added a new color, the player actions became more and more unpredictable. On the later levels the players are able to use the colors to reach anywhere or kill any enemy!
To balance all this, we used some obstacles, like the void ground (which cannot be painted), an enemy that absorbs one color or ray beams that kill you in one touch. There are lots of puzzles that can be solved in many different ways, but that’s not a bad feature at all; I think that it’s one of the things that people likes about the game.
Also, we had to modify the effects of the brown color. At the beginning it wasn’t to sticky… it was untouchable. When you painted the ground with brown it turned into a hole and you were able to walk through it. We had lots of puzzles with that and the mechanics were really awesome, but it spoiled the rest of the game. It’s impossible to build puzzles if you can simply drill your way through the terrain and reach safety. The only solution was to use void ground everywhere or replace the effect of the color.
The second effect for brown was something like a black hole. If you painted brown somewhere, everything got attracted to that point. We tested it, and it worked, but it was extremely chaotic. You could use it to send enemies to random places, blocking your way forever, and we realized that it was impossible to control. But it wasn’t a waste of time at all! We decided to keep this black hole mechanic, and we created a magnet that does exactly the same effect.
I certainly couldn’t imagine the drilling mechanic in the final game. I grew too attached to the the final ability for the brown I think. Nihilumbra seems to be doing well on the App Store, and it’s common for most iOS games to get extra features and modes in future updates. Is that something you’re looking at in the future?
We are always hearing people’s feedback. We read every email we receive, every comment in our forum and every tweet that mention us, but most people are totally satisfied with the amount of content inside Nihilumbra. Some of them say that it’s a lot of content for the price.
We’ve also heard lots of complaints about some errors with the english version of the text. This is something that we are going to solve with the next update, along with some minor bug fixes.
About expanding the content of the game… it’s really hard to do it because Nihilumbra is a complete story with complex puzzles. Introducing a new element can ruin the whole experience. But we are thinking about it, we are trying to create interesting content that could be added without interfering with the original game.
The game is so fully realized already, it would be hard to imagine what you could add. Apart from what you’ve mentioned, what could we see coming from BeautiFun Games next? Anything in the pipeline?
Of course! While our programmers work on Nihilumbra’s future updates, I’m working on the design of the next game, and the artist are starting to create concepts and mockups.
Actually, our idea for the next game was to create something radically different from Nihilumbra. We had in mind to create a game about brainless fun; we were designing a really innovative gameplay, but the game wasn’t even going to have a complex story behind it.
But now, we’ve seen that people who liked Nihilumbra really wants interesting stories, atmospheric ambients, and mental challenges, so… we are changing our plans. We are starting to work on something that will be different from Nihilumbra, but we will keep the things that make Nihilumbra so special.
I think games that push rich and engaging stories, like Nihilumbra, are what platforms like the App Store need. It’s really a console worthy title, in my opinion. This may be a little left field, though are you looking at porting the title to consoles? I could see the touchscreen gameplay fitting well on say, the Nintendo Wii U
We think the same. We decided to create Nihilumbra because we thought that the App Store really needed something like that. But sadly, it seems that is not the best market to release this kind of games.
We don’t know why, but… despite the awesome feedback and the great reviews, the sales are really low. It’s going to be extremely difficult, maybe impossible, to recover the investment.
We have to see how the game works in other platforms. Right now we are aiming to PC, but we think that Nihilumbra could be awesome on a 3DS or a PSVita.
I think at the end of the day, visibility is a difficult obstacle to overcome with the App Store. Nihilumbra would be amazing to see on the 3DS. To end, what would you say, as a developer, is your favourite gaming platform to develop for. Or what would you like to work on if given the chance. And as a gamer, what would be your favourite video game?
As a developer, I have worked on three different gaming platforms: PC, iOS, and one console (I can’t tell which one because the project was cancelled).
I’m a game designer, which means that I can’t talk about technical details, but there are other things that concern me when I have to design for one platform or another. The input, for example. Is not the same to play with keyboard and mouse, a controller, a touching device, or an idiot device like Kinect. Also, the mood changes if you play in the sofa, on an office chair, or in a train. I like to keep all this in mind while designing a game, but I don’t have a favourite platform yet.
Special mention to Wii U. I’ve tested it, and I can tell that it offers a lot of possibilities. I don’t know if its games are gonna be good or crap, but… in terms of gameplay, that device is the most revolutionary hardware invention since the addition of joysticks to the controller.
My favourite game… That’s a really tough question, because it’s nearly impossible to compare an RPG with a Puzzle game with a shooter or a graphic adventure. Is like trying to answer: “Which is your favourite animal, color, movie, lunch or book?”
Let’s see… Braid is one of my favourite games ever. But also Streets of Rage, Bayonetta, Left 4 Dead or Baldur’s Gate 2. Also Yakuza 3, or Batman Arkham Asylum, or City. I love Company of Heroes, Sonic or Final Fantasy VII. I have 272 games on steam, for god’s sake!!!
Thank you for your time Kevin, and best of luck in the future for you and the team!
Nihilumbra is out now for iPhone, iPod and iPad. You can buy the game here for $2.99