Circle Entertainment: The Indie Nintendo Supporter You’ve Never Heard Of

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You’ve probably never heard of Circle Entertainment. They’re a small videogame developer based in Hong Kong, and their focus is on developing games for Nintendo DSiWare and the Nintendo eShop. So far, they’ve published over 20 games across the two services, with more on their way in the future. One of these is a Nintendo 3DS version of Ronimo Games’ Swords & Soldiers.


A developer with such a heavy focus on DSiWare isn’t something you see everyday, given the limitations of the Nintendo DSi’s online functionality. Out of curiosity, we caught up with Circle Entertainment CEO, Chris Chau, to find out how the company is run, what makes them tick, how successful they’ve been on DSiWare, and their future plans.


Circle Entertainment was founded in 2006. Since then, you’ve developed a lot of Nintendo DSiWare games. What do you think it takes to be successful on DSiWare?


Chris Chau, CEO: I don’t think we can define our DSiWare games as “successful”. There’s definitely room for improvement with the titles that we’ve already released on there. Maybe someday in the future, once we’re making the best games we can possibly make, I would call it a success.


Many developers prefer to develop games that you play in short bursts for portable download services, but Circle’s games aren’t necessarily like that. Bookstore Dream is a simulation game about running a bookstore; Castle Conquerer is a realtime strategy series; The Lost Town is an action-RPG series. Is there any particular reason you do genres that require more of a time investment, as opposed to games played in short spurts?


When we first started making downloadable games, we had a lot of discussions internally [among our staff]. We knew the DS was a portable gaming device, and not a smart phone, so I believe players who chose a DS would want new gameplay experiences [that they couldn’t get from mobile games].


We just want to try something new, regardless of the chances of it being successful or not. We don’t want to get stuck and limit ourselves [to follow what everyone else is doing], so we decided to do something different.


Circle Entertainment has 21 employees, and you’ve developed a lot of different games these past six years. How do you divide responsibility among your staff?


The Chinese games industry is almost 15 years behind the western and Japanese markets. Most Chinese developers made games based on their short-term visions, which ultimately caused them a lot of piracy problems.


Six years ago, we devoted our passion to setting up Circle in Hong Kong. We tried to break into the Chinese market but we were sad to find that there was just no room for game developers [due to piracy problems and lack of support from the authorities]. We got no technical support, no human resources, no funding, no government support that promotes game development or protects your intellectual properties. Nobody cared.


For the first four years, we failed miserably, until we got a chance to develop our first DSiWare title, Animal Puzzle Adventure, and released it on the Japanese DSiWare store. It showed us the potential advantages of releasing games via DSiWare.


By this, I don’t mean that we saw huge success in terms of sales on our first DSiWare title, but DSiWare has generally been a better platform to help us achieve our dreams as a publisher.


For the first two years, we only had two employees. I’m the one that’s still around. Over the last two years, we’ve created 30 titles, some of which are still a work-in-progress.


This is how we assign our staff on each project: 1 + 1/3 + 1/3. That is, one programmer who works full-time on a single project, along with one artist and one planner who both handle three projects simultaneously. Additionally, we outsource our work whenever necessary.


Last month, we’ve welcomed our twenty-first staff member. Our staff understands their responsibilities and schedules very well. We’ve taught them to work independently and focus on their work, so they’re always keeping themselves busy. In fact, some of the games we’re developing now are based on ideas that originated two years ago.


Where do the ideas come from?


With regard to game ideas, we like being able to have idea discussion meetings at any time. Usually, we’ll come up with three or four ideas with our production teams for our next title. If one doesn’t work, we simply jump to the next, so we don’t waste time during production, which is why these meetings are very effective.


Meetings usually consist of discussion topics like “a new genre we want to work on,” following which we’ll try brainstorm a theme for it. For example [in the case of Bookstore Dream], you can imagine one of our staff walking through a bookstore, and us having discussed a simulation game the very same day.


That said, there’s no idea that can match up with what players want 100%. With that in mind, we need to make sure that once we’ve committed to an idea, we go through with it to the end, try to deal with any problems that arise during development, and put out the best product we can, regardless.


Once the game is out, we have review meetings where our staff pores over player feedback that we’ve collected. These often serve as good teaching courses  for all of us.


Which of your games has been the most successful so far on DSiWare, and why do you think it was as successful as it was?


I’d see Bookstore Dream as a success, in the sense that it gave us the experience of making a simulation game. It’s a milestone for us. I think the fact that there are no other similar simulation games available on DSiWare or the Nintendo eShop gave us an advantage. It caught people’s attention.


I also think The Lost Town could qualify as a success. We tried to match up different ideas for this game such as zombies, tower defense, exploring a map, finding survivors and helpers, completing quests, Japanese game characters, and so on. We managed to compress all of that into 2-3 hours of gameplay, so it comes off as a “colourful” experience. The end result was that both Japanese and Western players were interested in the game.


Again, I should clarify that by “success,” I don’t mean we saw a lot of profit from those titles. Creating a new series is a painstaking process. Some developers have it easier in that they already own a famous brand and port it over from iOS to DSiWare, which is actually a very typical practice. We don’t care to do that. We just want to try out different things and try to get 5-star ratings out of our players.


21 employees is quite a bit, but the company seems to be doing well for itself. Are you finding DSiWare to be profitable?


Actually, we only have 11 staff members working on digital download games, and one retail game on multiple platforms. The rest work on iOS software for other industries and also do local translation work.


As far as I know, the revenue of games [from DSiWare] has shrunk of late, but the Nintendo eShop platform is very encouraging, so we want to invest more effort in that.


I’m also thankful to Nintendo. They’ve helped us many times in different ways. It’s not easy to start up Nintendo DS development with no support in China.


One of the challenges of developing download-only games is getting exposure and making sure that people know your games exist. How did you go about doing this with your DSiWare titles?


The good news is, Nintendo platforms are very well-established, which means they have promotional value due to the media being interested in them. We also send press releases to gaming sites and upload videos for public viewing before launch. But what really works for promotion is the votes you get from players. When people get on the eShop, if your game is inexpensive enough, they might give it a shot based on the player ratings.


You’re still developing DSiWare game, even though the Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo eShop are now available. I spotted Publisher Dream and Ah! Heaven on your website, both of which have interesting titles. Could you tell us a little bit about those? I know Publisher Dream is about running a videogame company.


Ah! Heaven is a simple jumping game. As you know, people go to heaven after they die, but there’s no free lunch in this world, not even after you die. You have to find a way to reach heaven before it closes, and avoid devils who’ll try to send you to hell along the way. We’re using Ink Wash Painting, a Chinese art style, for the game’s artwork design. We currently in the process of tweaking it before the QA process.


Regarding Publisher Dream, that’s a simulation game about running a downloadable games studio. The story is based on Circle Entertainment. Your goal is to work your way up to becoming a great game developer and publisher. We had a lot of fun testing the game ourselves, but we still need another month to finalize it.


I noticed you’re working on a version of Swords & Soldiers for the Nintendo eShop, titled Swords & Soldiers 3D. How did that happen? Did you approach Ronimo or did they come to you?


We reached out to Ronimo a few months ago. They’re very nice and they’re happy to do a 3DS version of Swords & Soldiers. Circle always wants to take on new projects in different genres, so Swords & Soldiers 3D can be a first step [to making more 3DS titles]. We’re still discussing with Ronimo the possibility of offering free DLC and a demo to players. I believe people will be able to see this title in a few months—perhaps next Spring.


Sweet Memories Blackjack was your first Nintendo eShop game. It was interesting that it’s a card game but also has slight dating-sim elements to it, like getting to know the girl you play with. Are dating-sims a genre you’re interested in investigating further?


Sweet Memories Blackjack is a port of a Japanese iOS title. The gameplay works well for the Japanese market and the original designer is Japanese. Some Americans like Japanese culture and manga, though, so this combination of Japanese characters and Blackjack was well accepted. It was a pleasant surprise. Of course, there’s always room for improvement, so we’ve discussed the idea of more content for the sequel, Poker Night, with the original designer.


What are your thoughts on the Nintendo eShop and the 3DS? Based on what you’ve seen of them so far, do you think they’re different from DSiWare and the DSi in any way that will change how you develop games for them?


I think every new platform such as 3DS, Wii U, and PlayStation Vita has its perks, but the time we have to work on each one is limited. Now that there are more downloadable games for 3DS available on eShop, we need to react to the trend, and invest our time and money on exploring different options.


The other good reason for us to support 3DS is because it allows players to download games to their SD cards. I know a lot of DSi owners want to download more games off DSiWare, but can’t, because their system memory is full. In the future, I believe the eShop can be a strong platform that offers incredible value to users, but for that to happen, it must provide good games, and not shovelware.


Do you have plans for expansion in the near future?


In the future, we want to focus on the strategy genre—that includes simulation, strategy RPGs, real-time strategy games and so on. Maybe you could call simulation a genre for “hardcore” gamers, but we believe we can come up with new ideas that make it fun for everyone. Aside from that, we’d also like to keep trying our hand at other genres like action games or platformers.


This year, we released a few more DSiWare titles, and we’re now getting a smaller partnership company in Tokyo. It’s very small, but they’ll be focusing on Japanese marketing and translation work. This will give us a chance to bring games from our western partners to Japan.


We also want to help more indie developers, and to provide basic funding to them to start up their own Nintendo DS or 3DS titles, since they remind us where we came from. They could use the help and we’re honoured to be their friends.


Lastly, I’d like to be able to release 15 to 20 games in 2013.


Anything else you’d like to say to your followers?


Ishaan, I’ve got to say, Circle is ambitious. It’s a new experience for us to try different genres. We want to explore more opportunities to create new titles and the possibility to develop sequels if we make a good game. In the future, we’ll keep working on games for portable devices, especially digital games. I’d like to invite every player, including you, to comment on our games, and even challenge us. We’d like to learn from that experience.


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Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and wrote the book "The Legend of Zelda - A Complete Development History". He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.