super-ninja-therapy

How Super Ninja Therapy was made (part 1)

Right after I finished working on Tiny Fireman, my game for children, I knew the next game was going to be for grown ups. The reasons for this are few: First, there is a need to vary your work when working almost on your own. Second, promoting a game for kids is very different to promoting one for adults. You basically have no direct communication with your players.

A few years back, when I did mostly contract web work, I had a couple of weeks free, so I decided to take some time and create a game. The game was inspired by my animation short, Sketchbook Samurai, and it came up as a pretty solid Flash fighting game. On the first weekend after I uploaded it to my server, and submitted a link in a couple of online games websites, it attracted 695,000 hits. It was pretty phenomenal. Now, it can still be found years later pretty popular on free game websites. What I took from this experiment (remember that at the time, the App Store did not exist), was that there’s a huge demand for games, even made by one person.

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Sketchbook Samurai: The Game, 2003

In the following years I developed web applications, focusing on user experience and rich media applications. This later led me back to the games industry, when I started developing games for pretty big and well known clients such as Cartoon Network and AETV. When I worked on games for corporate clients, I enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with some very talented teams, creative individuals. Cross-atlantic Skype conversations about gameplay, design, features and potential pitfalls were exciting and I cherished the ability to share my expertise while learning from others.

However, I soon found out one pretty interesting truth: Apparently, when working on a project for a client, it doesn’t matter how many great ideas you have, because usually your clients will choose following the most banal and obvious path. Furthermore, the nature of such projects creates very high stress levels with eventually pretty average results. Yes, the games came out pretty nice, but playing through these often made me think, this could have gone much much further, with very little effort, if not much less effort.

Then one summer, as I was working on a pretty stressful project, based around a Solitaire game, my body started reacting pretty badly. While I was working on the game, and trying to fix a horrendous bug on which clicking on the card stacks sometimes produced awkward results breaking the game along the way, my fingers started protesting by bursting out some itchy and nasty looking blisters. The blisters didn’t disappear so quickly, and while I thought I was ‘taking it easy’ as I took some time off the bug fixing to watch a football game at the local Irish pub, my mind wasn’t really off the code, ever. Then one night I called the client and said I can’t finish the game.

Two weeks and 2 volumes of GRR Martin’s novels later, I managed to finish the game, with bandages on my fingers and some prescription drugs in my blood, and after finishing it and going live, I took a few weeks off work and ┬ákept reading the rest of ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series. Slowly I became ispired again, but also weary that I will not be able to finish a stressful project again.

Then I started prototyping what was earlier known as Tracksuit Ninja, also code named Ninja Raider Absolute. Yes, when choosing a name eventually you leave behind all these other great ideas, but you have to keep looking ahead.

Ahead I charged, and started adding enemies, attacks, platforms and backgrounds. The game slowly became playable, and even more slowly enjoyable. I put a lot of effort on the virtual controls, as these often are the make or break of mobile platformers. Inspired by games such as Super Crate Box, and classics like Karateka, I took a game design path the tried to focus on skill, quick decision making and rigorous trial and re-trial.

Super Ninja Therapy prototype
Super Ninja Therapy at early stages

From the very first days it was clear that Super Ninja Therapy is going to be a pretty hard game, and while my friends protested and said it is way too hard to be satisfying, I kept balancing the game, but not by making it much easier, but by making the playing experience satisfying regardless of failure or success.

After a few weeks of work, I started wondering when the itchy blisters will come back. At what point, I thought, will the stress involved with a personal venture into commercial work show itself? But months passed, and I felt great. Inspired and creative, at the same time productive. Friends helped keep the balance of studio work and meetings, and my family supported by being there for me and also accepting that I won’t always have the time to fix a gourmet 3 course meal every day for lunch. I even managed to write a children’s book and get it selected by a publisher (coming early 2013 I hope).

Prototyping and early development are very crucial phases, but later come months and months of production, as well as the opportunity to introduce additional talents to the project, such as Norwegian musicians.

But more about these on part 2, to follow up in the next couple of days.

from character sheet