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It’s not often that MSDN get to chat with games developers but we did manage to track down Dan and Henry from Mudvark Games Studio and they gave us this really interesting interview.
Could you tell us a little about your studio – its size, make-up and a brief history? There’s just the two of us in our little studio. Dan Da Rocha and myself attended University together, working separately on two games that went on to do relatively well. I was the lead on Mush, a BAFTA-winning game published by Microsoft, and Dan headed up the team Toxic Games, releasing the award-winning PC game Q.U.B.E.
We’re still at those respective companies, but we’re experimenting with this crazy new venture, trying to make great games faster, releasing often, improving and learning as we go. Games are super-iterative and you really miss out from the healthy dialog with players when you’re head-down engrossed in a multi-year project.
What attracted you to Windows 8 as a platform? For us Windows 8 was about testing the water. We knew that if we maintained a high-level of portability in our codebase, we could release on Windows 8 to get feedback and then iterate for a full release on larger platforms. We figured that the worse-case scenario is we’d get a few thousand downloads and a bunch of mean comments. Best-case scenario was that we’d get tens-of-thousands of downloads and a few nice comments. Windows 8 as a platform has completely blown us away however, with Mortar Melon nearing 150,000 downloads to date, and daily downloads keep on going up.
Storing data in the cloud can have all sorts of benefits, depending on the type of game. For us we wanted to start small - so storing high-score data that we associate with a user account (Microsoft, Facebook, Google etc.) had real benefit. We figured that as we expand into new platforms, we can take existing users and all their saved info with us!
Looking to the future we’re planning to implement a deeper integration with a cross-platform level editor, so that future players can pick up any device and share their own levels with anyone; Windows 8 users can create and share custom levels with those on iPad and vice versa! Of course there’s limitless possibilities with the sort of data you can sync, from user profiles, saved games, friends lists and achievements to behavioural data and metrics.
How were you supported by Microsoft – both in terms of tools and other support? We became part of the BizSpark program, which gave us access to free keys for nearly all Microsoft software. This has helped tremendously, as some of this software is priced targeting bigger companies, not small independents like ourselves. Our developer trial of Windows 8 expired midway into development, but with access to free keys, it was easy to get back up and running.
Also Microsoft are incredibly thorough and always on-hand to test our latest developments. Giving up their valuable time to play through our game, help catch bugs and offer feedback has been awesome. It’s always super encouraging to see an organisation as big as Microsoft getting excited and enthusiastic about a game as small as Mortar Melon.
What games development challenges did your work with Microsoft help you overcome? We were a stuck in a rut a little when it came to usability. There’s an expectation with Windows 8 games and applications, for a consistency when accomplishing certain tasks. The charms for example, allow all users to easily customise the games settings, whereas we had built our own custom UI. Working with Microsoft helped us understand the UX intentions of the platform and utilise them in a way that creates a streamlined experience for everyone.
It’s also still early days for ARM devices running Windows 8 and we were lucky to catch performance disparities between ARM and x86/x64 architectures early on. Microsoft have a great initiative called Windows Store App Lab that allows for developers like ourselves to pop along and test our games on actual hardware.
Did you have any preconceptions about Microsoft changed as a result of working on their platform? I’ve worked with Microsoft before when developing Mush for Windows Phone, so already knew them to be incredibly approachable and supportive. The UK team in particular really goes out of their way to accommodate developers of all abilities and skillsets. We’re hoping to get involved with them in the not-too-distant future running dev workshops for students, which says heaps about their open arms approach.
What advice would you give to other studios considering making a project for Windows 8? I’d say not to get too caught up in reinventing the wheel. Windows 8 supports HTML5 games natively and there’s lots of fantastic game engines that allow for very quick prototyping and building. We use Construct 2, but there’s also GameMaker, GameSalad or Stencyl, all of which have a very low barrier to entry and can produce just as excellent games as the lower-level solutions.
Also testing on a range of hardware as early as possible is important. Microsoft sponsor or attend a lot of events all over the world, so doing your research and making contact with their reps can really help with that. There’s a ton of support out there from Microsoft and their partners, but it’s only when you get properly involved that it all comes to light.
Finally, making the game stand out aesthetically was core to our success. This applies to nearly all platforms, but on Windows 8 in particular we always get comments saying it was the screenshots that sealed the deal. There’s a sea of hobbyist games, so adding the professional gloss really makes all the difference.
Did anything about working with Microsoft make and Microsoft tools Mortar Melon particularly distinct on Windows 8? If so, how? A lot of the design decisions for Mortar Melon derived from the need to cater for touchscreen devices alongside the traditional mouse and keyboard. This was an interesting challenge, but undoubtedly one that’s going to become increasingly relevant, not just with games but with user interfaces in general. As technology hybridises, we’ll need to anticipate various input methods, screen sizes, DPI and a whole load of factors relevant to multi-platform deployment.
For us that mainly involved catering to the lowest common denominator, which in terms of precision was the touch input. Increasing the radius of interaction for the clumsiest of fingers generally solved most of our issues. Also being aware when developing with a mouse, of what the hand will be covering on the screen and the problems that multi-touch presents. A good rule of thumb for us was to offset the speed and accuracy of the mouse with the ability to multi-touch on touch screens, allowing for a fairly even playing field across devices.
Was there anything else about your studio, Mortar Melon, or working with Microsoft you wanted to say? We’ve had a great time working with Microsoft and we’re looking forward to releasing more great games on Windows 8 and Windows Phone. In the meantime though, keep an eye out for Mortar Melon as we’ll be looking to expand onto even more platforms in the near future - including the web browser!
How have Microsoft's Azure Mobile Services impacted your game, and how did you find – as a small studio – embracing what could be considered an intimidating technology? We’re only just getting started with using Azure Mobile Services and didn’t know much about it when we got started. It soon became apparent that it’s an incredibly valuable resource for storing data in the cloud, syncing across devices and providing a seamless experience. We’d looked at rolling our own server system in the past, but I wouldn’t trust ourselves when it came to security or scalability. That’s the main thing with Azure Mobile Services - peace of mind. It’s incredibly easy to set up too, so a great time saver too.