BOXBOY! is a quirky game from HAL Laboratory, the Nintendo studio perhaps best known as the makers of the Kirby series. Their latest Nintendo 3DS game also has a charming and monochrome character, Qbby who has the power to create boxes. BOXBOY! starts with players stacking boxes, but soon Qbby has to traverse through spike filled mazes and hop past staircases guarded by lasers.
In this interview, HAL Laboratory director Yasuhiro Mukae talks about creating Qbby, how to design a puzzle game, and reveals one concept for BOXBOY! had a character from planet Pop Star in it too.
While HAL Laboratory created Kirby, the studio has also crafted unique games from Face Raiders to Kabuki Quantum Fighter to BOXBOY!. Can you tell us about the brainstorming and planning process at HAL when the studio is creating a new IP?
Yasuhiro Mukae, Director: First off, let me thank you for mentioning some of HAL Laboratory’s past titles. Regarding BOXBOY!’s design process, that got its start when the company began to field new ideas for games and I submitted the BOXBOY! design proposal I had come up with earlier.
After that, a few staffers that saw the potential in the design created a prototype game we could play within the company.
It was officially established and launched as a project once we submitted the project’s design document and proposal as a set. That marked the beginning of BOXBOY!’s development.
How did the idea for BOXBOY! evolve into a full game?
There’s a neat story about BOXBOY!’s visual look. To be honest, BOXBOY!’s look hasn’t changed much at all between the early stages, when I was wrapping up the design document, and the final product. However, actually getting to that final visual look was a long trial-and-error process.
Should we add some kind of color to Qbby? Do we need to draw backgrounds for the stages? Should we make the visuals more flamboyant?
I fumbled around at the start of development, exploring the possibilities for assorted forms of visual expression.The reason I did that was because the Qbby I drew in the design proposal, as well as the visual feel of the stages and other game-world aspects, were meant to be placeholders for getting BOXBOY!’s game-play aspects across.
But as we went on with BOXBOY! development, I looked back at the visuals I drew in the design document and realized that they really had an impact, a uniqueness that differentiated it from other games. So the placeholder visuals wound up becoming the final visuals.
By the way, one concept we had as I was messing around with visual expressions was the idea of you pairing up with Kirby.
BOXBOY! has an interesting visual style with a minimalist graphic style kind of reminiscent of the Game Boy. What was neat is the Qbby has a lot of personality even though he is a 2D square. There are little touches like a shocked face when he hits a sprite and an expression that looks like he is focusing when creating blocks. Can you tell us about some of the secrets HAL uses when animating a 2D square so it feels like a character?
The character design process for BOXBOY! is really simple. Qbby’s design was meant to be functional. His body is a square so that he’d be able to create boxes, he has some feet so he’s able to move around and jump, and then we added some eyes so you can see which direction he’s pointed. Even if you’ve never seen Qbby before in your life, I bet you could probably draw him after reading that. That’s how simple and functional a character he is.
Also, the secret to how vibrant Qbby looks lies in all the variations to his movements. He’s got a simple design, so we added a lot of variation to his animation to complement that. Having all these animations, like the way he expresses joy after finishing a stage or the things he does when the player isn’t controlling him, makes the character fun just to look at and helps him seem cute to people.
Something else that reminded me of more classic games is there isn’t a lot of time spent with tutorials. Instead a new mechanic is introduced along with a new world and players have to figure out how to master a new skill. Can you tell us how HAL Laboratory designs and plans levels so players get better at mastering a skill without new stages being too frustrating? It’s tough to get a difficulty curve that works.
BOXBOY!’s stages were designed to make it easier for gamers to figure out how to solve puzzles.
For example, the first stage may offer a simple puzzle to teach gamers how to solve it. The next one offers a variation on the first stage’s solving method to help people gradually get used to the puzzle and then the last one asks you to apply these solving methods to match with the puzzle presented. Our aim was to keep things from feeling unfair and letting users figure out how to solve puzzles by themselves.
Also, BOXBOY! features a single consistent theme—the idea of using the boxes you create to get through each stage. Even if you come across a new stage element as you go through the game, that one theme remains constant. As a result, when players come across something new, they can test out assorted ways of using their boxes and figure out how to overcome the obstacle on their own.
What are some of your favorite levels in BOXBOY! and can you tell us how these were created?
I like all of the stages, but one I like in particular is the one in World 14 where Spiky debuts. The fact that Spiky is the only enemy that appears in BOXBOY! is one reason for this.
There’s actually a hidden story behind Spiky’s birth. During the initial stages of development, there was a period when we weren’t sure whether the game’s direction should focus on action or puzzle elements. We figured that we’d need some kind of enemy character to boost the action aspect of the game, and that’s how Spiky got created.
After that, though, we decided that the puzzle aspects should take more of a central role than the action, which put the very existence of the action-oriented Spiky into question. Just then, one of the design staff gave me a proposal outlining how Spiky could function with our new puzzle-oriented direction, allowing him to remain in the game.
Given that background behind him, I have a special place in my heart for the stages where Spiky shows up. It allows for some unique game play, using your boxes to guide Spiky around, so I really feel like we stumbled upon a neat piece of stage design.