Okabu might be the most adorable game for PlayStation Network. You play as a cloud who carries hero Yoribo who want to clean up the destruction from the Doza. Haven’t heard about Okabu before? Read our hands-on impressions.
Okabu is also the first console game from HandCircus, developer of the smash iPhone hit Rolando. In this interview, we discuss how they prepared for a PS3 game, but before that Simon Oliver, Founder, discussed where he got the idea for Okabu.
Okabu has an interesting theme where you play as a cloud cleaning up pollution. Maybe we can start talking about why you waned to create an eco-friendly game?
Simon Oliver, Founder: Yeah, sure! I don’t know if you’ve seen a show called Planet Earth, it’s a natural history program, and there was an episode of that where they went to the Okavango Delta in Botswana. They showed this footage of going into this area, which starts out at the beginning of the season as very dry. When the water arrives, the waves created a spread of a life. Plants sprout and when the seeds come in, birds arrive. You start getting mammals arriving. There is just this beautiful idea of the power of nature and how it creates this life force that makes the world grow. That’s where we took the name from, the Okavango Delta, which is obviously a bit of a mouthful. We wanted to do something a little simpler and cut it down to Okabu, a little easier to say.
We wanted to do something based on nature and the biggest opposition to nature is industrialization. In this case, we wanted to create an enemy, so we split the people in the world into two different tribes. We have the Yorubo, there this nature loving tribe. They’re farmers and live in harmony with nature. On the other side, we have the Doza. Many, many generations ago they split into two. The Doza pursue this industrialized existence where they build machines, they cut down forests, they dig into the land to extract metal. They’ve consumed all of their stuff and now they’ve come back to pursue the Yorubo’s land.
Why did you want to make a cloud the player character?
We were thinking of something that would really work and be quite flexible, something you can adapt into various shapes and forms. The cloud seemed like a natural choice because it can pick up various liquids, it can rain, steam, there are all kinds of other bits and pieces. It can suck up stuff, like in the biblical plagues where they sucked up frogs and it rained frogs. There’s a lot you can do with a cloud. Also, they are an indicator of when there is pollution where you get acid rain. We thought it was kind of a nice way to star off as a symbol of nature.
The second inspiration, I don’t know if you’ve seen this show called Monkey Magic, which is this imported show that was on British TV. It was about the Monkey King, it was based on Journey to the West. You know the Monkey King rides on clouds, yeah so we were like we got to do something with this. What happens if we had some guys that jumped on their backs and did various things? By swapping between heroes we could keep the controls very simple. We didn’t have a button that does this, a button that does this, and this. Whoever’s on their back, it becomes contextual. That means for younger players that might want to play with their parents the controls are designed to be simple and our goal was to keep the game quite accessible.
We saw Kumulo pick up water, but you also alluded to picking up or absorbing other things.
Yeah. One of the other elements you pick up is oil. You have a section where you have a puzzle where you have to spread fire to something. There’s fire at "A" and there is something that explodes that’s highly flammable at "B." What you can do is suck up some oil and paint a path for the fire to spread to blow up the exploding block or dynamite.
That doesn’t sound like the power of nature at work.
Well, there are some elements where you have to use the Doza’s elements back against them. One of the other characters who flies on the cloud’s back is a member of the Doza themselves. He decides he doesn’t like the direction they’re going in. He joins the heroes to push the Doza back. His power is to control machinery with a little remote control. He can use that to take control of robots, machines, and vehicles. We’ve got steamrollers, cranes, that kind of thing and he can use his remote control to take control of them.
[After the interview Oliver and I discussed the idea of "nature only routes" where, perhaps if you complete a level with out using Doza technology you can earn different rewards.]
Rolando and Okabu both have unique art styles with characters, I’m not sure if I’m expressing myself well, but perhaps they are "inviting." They feel friendly yet whimsical. What’s the magic ingredient, in your opinion, of creating a character like that.
We are very lucky to work with a Finnish illustrator Mikko Walamies and the reason why I wanted to start working with him initially is because he can create these character with, as you say, innate charm. When we stared working with the iPhone we wanted to keep the characters didn’t have a lot of detail, because it’s not the most powerful device. He’s able to create something with minimal detail that just has charm in the characters. It’s all down to him really. He has a natural gift for creating adorable creatures and characters.
Why did you decide to make this game for PlayStation 3 since HandCircus had their initial success with the iPhone?
We felt now was the time to do a console game. We’ve come off Rolando and Rolando 2 and it’s personally something I’ve always had a passion for since I grew up playing console games. And the opportunity to do something bigger in scale, more in depth, the opportunity to create a more fleshed out world. Doing something on PS3 seems like a good way to do that.
What have you learned as a developer moving from an iPhone developer to consoles?
I think we tried to keep a lot of the principle ideas behind the two previous games with this. Make it simple and accessible to play. Making it fun and engaging, very easy to pick up and play. That’s what we carried over. As you say, moving to consoles presents unique challenges.
We grown the team a little bit. There are five of us now, compared to two with Rolando and we went up to four with Rolando 2. We’ve managed to keep the team quite small. Being a small studio, everyone does a lot of roles, there is a lot of different hat wearing. That’s something we maintained, but we had to learn a lot in terms of the technology and art pipeline. There’s been a lot of learning, but that’s been part of the fun.
What was the biggest challenge?
I think getting our heads around this is a lot more powerful machine. Technically, there is a lot more we can do with. I think, that’s been the biggest challenge for us, how to harness all of this extra capacity and how we can use it that works well with the game.
Being one of the early success stories, what’s your vision of the iPhone landscape now with its millions of apps?
It’s very, very different. If you look at the price point, how much its changed. When we launched Rolando it was $9.99 and you know the average prices continue to slip down. And competition, as you say, is absolutely huge now. We launched in December in 2008 and the market is very different now. But, the great thing is there is still a lot of opportunity for people to have breakout hits. If you do have a product that captures people’s imaginations, is different, is priced right, and designed really well for the iPhone I still think it’s possible for developers to have that hit, but they have to work that much harder to get noticed now.
As a similar question, with respect to PlayStation 3, where do you see your success story in the console market?
We are appealing to a different market, a different base of players. Of course, there will be some crossover with people who played Rolando for the iPhone. The main thing is we want to make something that’s broad that a lot of people that can enjoy.
With the iPhone you mentioned other factors, creativity, timing, price, and market saturation. How do you factor those in when looking at the PlayStation 3 landscape compared to the iPhone?
Obviously, there is a much higher barrier to entry for developing for PSN. You do not have hundreds of millions of apps to compete with, in that respect, it is very different. The competition is less, but the quality is especially high with downloadable titles. We need to do something that matches the level of quality and stands out in that space.
While Okabu may cost less than boxed console games, even if you create a great product how do you get noticed when other games have blockbuster marketing budgets?
In terms of speaking to press like you, it’s going to be a lot of work to get noticed so people get a chance to learn about the game, try the game, and hopefully buy the game.