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IG@FG: James Kay on Piczle Colors, Discoverability on Switch & The Importance of Demos

We speak to James Kay about his upcoming picture logic game Piczle Colors, how the Switch is starting to get crowded for indie developers and how, despite it being hard work, it's worth releasing a demo.

James Kay, by his own admission, makes games that “are almost invisible to most players but are much loved by casual players or logic-puzzle fanatics”. I’ll admit, I’d not heard of James’ latest title, Piczle Colors which is landing on the Switch on the 31st of January, much as I’d not heard of his previous Club Piczle games. When I did try his earlier games though, I was hooked and pretty excited about what Colors could be bringing to a much ignored genre.

With Piczle Colors coming out soon, James kindly took some time out of his busy schedule to answer some of the questions I had about the game, his career so far and the industry in general. Here’s out Q&A in full;

FG: Could you talk me through your career into and through the world of games development?

James Kay: I think I’m now in my 20th or 25th year as a game developer so mine is a long, and perhaps tedious story. I’ve loved games since I got my hands on them as a kid, but I also enjoyed creating art on my dad’s work PCs. Initially using AutoCAD, eventually trading ANSI art to local BBSs in return for higher download ratios.

I studied audiovisual design just as the college was transitioning from traditional media to digital, so I learned both, which in retrospect was pretty great. Learning to animate both on Macs and 16mm film, for example. After college I could only really get excited about a career in games, so I pursued that pretty doggedly.

“Those were pretty wild days for a young professional. I’m surprised I still have a functioning liver.”

I got my first game artist job straight out of art college at a small studio in London called Intelligent Games. They are sadly now defunct, but made some pretty awesome games. Then I moved to Criterion in Guildford, years before they were bought out by EA. Those were pretty wild days for a young professional. I’m surprised I still have a functioning liver.

As a game fanatic though I always wanted to work in Japan so I made that jump in 2001. Back in those days, in stark contrast to now, foreigners were still pretty rare in the Japanese industry. It was quite a struggle. I could meet up with all the foreign developers I knew and we would barely fill a table at the back of the Irish pub in Shibuya.

I worked a little at Taito, then job at Genki and then moved on to Marvelous where I worked on the Harvest Moon series. I also wrote a blog at the time about working in Japan, which I eventually turned into a guide book.

Wanting to challenge myself more I started Score Studios in 2009. More out of necessity the company kind of turned into a work-for-hire company as overheads grew, working on such titles as The Last Guardian on PS4. A few years ago I was able buy out the other members and pivot to creating original games. This year will be the 10th anniversary of Score Studios!

FG: What inspired you to start creating picture puzzle/logic games?

JK: Simply that I myself just love logic puzzles and logic puzzle games. I don’t know what the first game was that hooked me, perhaps Mario Picross? I have been addicted ever since. I felt it wasn’t a part of the market that was very well served, so creating my own was a logical next step.

There is something relaxing about figuring out a puzzle and end up with an image. Maybe it’s because I’m not smart enough for crossword puzzles or sudoku, or because I’m more visually minded, but “oekaki logic” or “illust-logic” puzzles really engage me.

FG: You’re releasing Piczle Colors on the Switch on the 31st of January. How does it differ from other picture logic games out there?

JK: A lot of people know and love Picross, which is a simple black and white puzzle where you fill in grid squares based on numerical clues alongside the grid. Then there are colour variations of those puzzles. Piczle Colors initially looks like one of those, but it has the added challenge of the clues not being in any particular order. Where a colour picross game might say “paint first 2 red blocks and then 3 green blocks” in Piczle Colors you are merely told that a row or column has 2 red blocks and 3 green blocks in it, somewhere. The rest is up to you. It sounds more challenging than it is, though.

On top of that I’ve been trying to give the Piczle series a “gamey” gloss. There are a lot of excellent logic puzzle games out there already, so I wanted to stand out by making the Piczle games feel more like console games. There are trophies, secret extras, polished graphics and a fun little story. I hope to add to the fun of logic-puzzles with the fun of graphics, characters and extras.

FG: There’s a demo of Piczle Colors hitting the eShop on the 17th of January. Do you find releasing demos of your games to be a valuable experience?

JK: Absolutely, yes! It is always hard work to create a demo version, even if you plan it in from the beginning, as I did with Piczle Colors. But in the end, as a consumer, it is always great to try out a game before you buy it.

As logic-puzzles are not as widely known in the West as, say, Japan it also helps people to understand what they are (potentially) getting in to. Especially with things like Piczle Lines and Piczle Colors, it can be difficult to explain in words exactly how they work. But once you experience them for yourself you get a much clearer picture.

I am confident that people who know and love logic-puzzles would be interested in checking out Piczle Colors, but a free demo is also a great way to introduce them to people who otherwise might not have played them at all. When we released the demo for Piczle Lines DX, which was after the game was already out, we saw a noticeable uptick in sales.

FG: One aspect of Piczle Colors that certain stands out, particularly for the genre it’s entering, is the fact that it has a story line and a cast of colourful characters to go with it. Could you go into the process of developing these for the Club Piczle games?

JK: It was important for me to wrap the logic-puzzle experience in a fun environment, characters and story. It can really add to the overall enjoyment, I feel, and can give players a sense of purpose. I had created the professor character and, what was to become Gig myself early on. I worked with some excellent artists, one of whom came up with Score-chan and Dbug (the cat) and this quartet of characters just felt ‘right’.

The story is always simple. Professor invents something, things go wrong (usually instigated by Score-chan), the team has to go fix it. I try to build on the persona, heart and humour of the characters more than any grandiose plot. Mostly this is so not to distract too much from the actual gameplay, the logic-puzzles.

The characters are developing over each game. Score-chan is becoming more irresponsible, the professor a little more parental and Gig is experiencing a little more suffering. In the end how they are as characters mostly dictates how the story goes.

“The Switch market is intensely crowded right now. I think it is a very important platform for indies, but discoverability is a growing problem.”

FG: You’ve currently got a few of your games available on the Nintendo Switch (Piczle Lines DX and Piczle Lines DX 500 More Puzzles) with Piczle Colors still to come. Are you finding success there and how important do you think the Nintendo Switch has become for small studios and indie developers?

The Switch market is intensely crowded right now. I think it is a very important platform for indies, but discoverability is a growing problem. Especially with more casual games like mine it is easy to get drowned out and increasingly hard to reach your true audience. Like with mobile games marketing outside of the platform is very important.

I was certainly lucky to have been able to release Piczle Lines DX early in the Switch’s life cycle. Piczle Colors enters the market in a very different climate.

Nintendo have been pretty great in making their tools available to indie developers, so it does offer a great and never before seen path to publishing on a console! Just know that releasing your game is only the first step.

FG: Is there a chance we might see the Piczle Club games arrive on other consoles? Or is the Nintendo Switch the natural home for these games?

JK: There are some plans for other platforms. Nothing I can really talk about yet, I’m afraid. I’m currently using Switch as a main SKU from which I can potentially release to other platforms. Piczle Lines DX was initially created for mobile devices and the port to Switch was problematic (although I think it ended up pretty good).

I’m creating the Piczle titles with Epic’s Unreal Engine 4, partly because it is a multi-platform engine. In the end it’s a balance between working on new titles, which is always more exciting for a game developer, and supporting current titles for new platforms, which takes a lot of time and effort as well.

There is something that feels right about having the Piczle series on the Switch, though. I think it’s a great console with a wide appeal, and there is a lot to enjoy for the casual gamer.

FG: You’ve also got a number of games available for Smart Phones. How do you feel about the current mobile phone game market?

JK: Like the Switch market, discoverability is a major issue. There is a solid fanbase for the mobile version of Piczle Lines DX but the cost of marketing and growing that user base is quite a challenge for an indie developer. I’ve been playing with the idea of finding a publisher to take over support for that game on mobile in particular.

I deliberately developed Piczle Colors with gamepad and touch screen controls, with an eye on utilising the Switch hardware to its fullest, but also to potentially create a mobile version in the future. I’ve not made that decision one way or another yet, though.

FG: Finally, do you think we’ll see more of Score-chan and Prof. Matrix after Piczle Colors?

Absolutely! The next Piczle game is currently in development and will feature the gang! It will rely heavily on them, in fact, with a new, simple but fun storyline forming a much bigger part of the experience.

It’s difficult to talk about right now without giving too much away, but I think people will like it. I’m enjoying working on it tremendously and I can’t wait to show people it when the time comes!

In the meantime, please check out the Piczle Colors demo! The full game will be released January 31st. I hope people will enjoy it!

Piczle Lines DX and Piczle Lines DX 500 More Puzzles are available now on Nintendo Switch. There’s a demo available now for Piczle Colors and the full game will release on Nintendo Switch on the 31st of January.

IG@FG (or ‘Indie Games @ Finger Guns’) is a new irregular feature exploring the world of indie games. To keep up to date, please follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

Sean Davies

Ungrateful little yuppie larvae. 30-something father to 5. Once ate 32 slices of pizza at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

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