Shin’en Multimedia, developers of two popular portable shmups, Iridion and Nanostray, have been in the business of developing games for about a decade. Fiercely focused on remaining a small, efficient team, during that time, they’ve stuck primarily to pushing the hardware of portable consoles such as the Gameboy line, before finally making their recent switch to WiiWare.
Unknown to many, Shin’en are actually based in Munich, Germany, even though their games do have a following in Japan. Siliconera caught up with Manfred Linzner, co-founder of Shin’en to discuss the company’s past, present and future.
To begin with, could you tell me how Shin’en got started?
Shin’en co-founder, Manfred Linzner: Shin’en got founded in 1999. At that time we focused in supplying soundtracks and a custom music player for Gameboy games. There was quite a lot of demand for such work as only two or three companies worldwide supplied Gameboy audio outsourcing. Quickly, we got well known and got hired for many big-name GBC soundtracks (Tomb Raider, Spider-Man, Asterix, etc). It also helped a lot at the start, knowing a few people in the business that previously created demos for the Amiga computer, like we did ourselves in the nineties. In all we, created the soundtracks for
around 200 games in the last ten years.
Besides creating audio-related stuff, we soon got into games development as well. We already had developed a number of free Amiga games in the past and were at the time focused on technology and graphics-driven games. Since then, we released one GB game, four GBA games, nine DS games and one WiiWare game. This year three new WiiWare games will be released. All that was done with a team of five people only. Around half of our games were based on new IPs created fully by ourselves.
Currently, we are really excited about the new possibilities of digital publishing. In 2009, we dipped our toes into that territory. In 2010 we’ll try to see how far we can go on that area.
Does the name of the company come from the Japanese word “shinen” or is there another story behind the name?
You are right, the name is from the Japanese word. The meaning can be ‘profound’ or ‘passion.’ And it also sounds nice in English. We all have grown up with Japanese game masterpieces and appreciate them a lot. So we thought a Japanese name would express our view about game development best. Maybe it also helped to get our games published in Japan. Nanostray and Fun! Fun! Minigolf were released there due to inquiries from Japanese companies. I don’t think that happens too often to western indie developers.
We also recognized that Japanese developers often use german words like ‘Einhaender,’ ‘Doppelgaenger’ or ‘Gestalt.’ One of us can actually read and speak some Japanese. So, we adopted that and use, since years often, Japanese names for locations and opponents in our games.
That explains a lot. The style of development shows in Nanostray 2, especially, what with all the Japanese text and some of the narration. In fact, for a while, I thought Shin’en were based in Japan myself. You said the company started out with five people…how big is the studio now?
Actually, it started with three people in the very beginning. Now we are still only five people. We often asked ourselves if we should expand. In the end we always came to the conclusion that there would be no benefit in expanding as long we can make the games we want. So instead of hiring more people and buying middleware, we invested in our own tools and talents.
Tools are really important. To create a great game with just a few people means, first, to have perfect tools. For instance, with our editor it only takes 2-3 seconds to upload and play a new level on the Wii. Textures can be updated on the fly. Also, everything is script-driven, so we only have to touch the C++ code when adding new tech or when fixing bugs. When starting development on DS, we especially created an own scripting language for that reason which is now used in all of our games. This speeds up development and quality enormously.
There’s something to be said about having smaller teams. In a way it almost feels like, sometimes, a smaller team results in a better executed game, since communication isn’t an issue.
A key benefit of our small team is the rapid iteration and, as you said, the easy communication. It’s simply a law of gamedev that a team of a 100 people is not four times more effective then a team with 25 people. With many people you always get into a lot of discussions about which direction to go. With a small team it’s much more easy to have the same vision.
Could you tell me a little about the team and division of responsibilities? What are the roles you’ve established?
From a very distant view we have three coders, one “graphician” and one musician. When looking more closely, the jobs blur much into each other. For instance, our graphician can also do a lot of stuff with script-coding in Maya. One of our coders is a great musician as well. Each one is doing level design. Many graphical FX and some shaders are also done by the coders. Responsibilities shift also with projects. And in the end i really think we have some great talent here at Shin’en.
That sounds like an incredibly flexible team. I assume it also makes prototyping and trying out different ideas easier, since everyone at Shin’en seems multi-talented. What kind of games is the team usually interested in pursuing? You’ve really expanded the genre slate of late with your WiiWare titles…
Prototyping is extremely important to us. Usually, we give two weeks to a new game idea. In two or three days, we usually then have a playable prototype of the basic idea. Then we polish the idea for the rest of the time and test out all input from the members.
In general, we are pursuing games that look and play fresh. On the other side, we really have a sense for old retro genres. That gives often quite interesting results. Finally we always pick up ideas for games that we would really like to play ourselves on the target platform.
Is this how Fun! Fun! Minigolf and Art of Balance came about? They’re a very different market demographic from the other games Shin’en are known amongst the core audience for — Iridion and Nanostray — which are more in line with that love for retro games you mentioned.
When doing Fun! Fun!, we were looking for a nice party game on WiiWare. We all like Minigolf a lot and thought it would be cool to play such a game in beautiful environments. And so we did it.
For Art of Balance it was quite similar. Besides World of Goo and the new Tetris, there were no puzzle game that interested us much. So we planned to do an absolutely addictive and ultra-polished puzzle game that should stand on its own. It should have a relaxing feel and gorgeous look. You should feel refreshed after playing. I think we really made all that happen with Art of Balance.
A lot of people probably aren’t aware of this, but you’ve actually done a number of more “casual” games for The Game Factory in the past. Garfield’s Nightmare, Harvest Time Hop And Fly… that’s some range.
Yes, thats true. TGF were looking for good quality in their handheld games and so that was a perfect match for us. We really enjoyed working with them. We never thought games for kids should be shovelware, so we really put our heart into those games as well. Finally, it was great to see that the target group really liked the games we did.
After a decade of portable games, you’ve moved to doing console games with WiiWare, which is a first for Shin’en. But at the same time, it’s also a “limited” platform in a sense, similar to portables. What has the transition been like? Do you find yourself approaching projects with a different mindset on WiiWare?
Actually, we don’t see the Wii as a limited platform because any platform is limited. And if you look at titles like Mario Galaxy, you see it’s not the hardware that limits you but just imagination.
The transition from DS to Wii was straightforward as we could reuse most of our tools, our scripting language and our overall engine design. Of course, now we had the possibility to add a lot of new tech, especially on the gfx and audio side that was simply not possible on the DS. For instance, the physics-based water model with refractions and reflections in Art of Balance is custom tech that would be impossible to do on the DS. However, creating games hasn’t changed much since moving to Wii.
What has been the biggest benefit is the 40Mb we now can utilize on WiiWare. On DS, we usually had only 4MB. Now we can do things on a much larger scale then before without worrying about space limits. In 40Mb you can really do large games that look and sound perfect. No problem. I think it was good to have that small space on DS. So we were forced to find clever ways how to do so much with little resources. This now pays fully out on WiiWare.
Wow, haha, I wasn’t expecting to hear that! I guess having to consistently optimize for all those years really did help in the end. I’m seeing some similarities with Factor 5 in Cologne, who were also very focused on Nintendo hardware, and they, too, had a lot of custom audio and visual tech…
Without improving our technology for many years, it would be impossible to create the quite complex nowadays games in great quality. It’s also the only way to allow quick prototyping. Another key benefit is that the engine gets more and more robust and scalable over the years.
WiiWare has actually matured quite a bit over the past year, and it seems like a lot of the games people get excited about now are the more traditional style ones. Platformers, retro-revivals like Mega Man 9 or Blaster Master. Do you see yourself trying something in that vein, given that you’re still so passionate about oldschool games, or do you want to keep experimenting with new genres?
We’ve already discussed various options of how to evolve our more retro IPs on WiiWare. One thing is for sure: if we do a new sequel, then it must be really the best possible on that platform.
I was just playing Nanostray 2 the other day on the DS again. The touch controls make a huge difference to the experience — it’s very enjoyable. It almost reminded me of some older shoot-em-ups I played on the PC in the 90s, like Raptor II, since you could control those with a mouse, and it felt much better than using an analog stick. I have to say, Nanostray is one of the few DS games that would really benefit from a larger screen. Maybe the touch control could translate well to the Wii’s pointer…?
I think it would be a cool idea for a 2nd player in co-op to move the satellites and / or their aiming with the Wiimote. Could be really something nice and fun!
Haha, should we take this to mean that we’re going to see Nanostray 3 soon on WiiWare…?
I would say that’s a valid possibility.1 : )
Something I very much wanted to touch upon before we wrapped up was that Shin’en are one of the more notable game developers in Munich, aside from publishers that have branches there. The other is probably Kalypso, who have a presence there in the form of RealmForge. Do you ever get together with other developers to share ideas at the IGDA? What’s the scene like over in Munich, since no one really talks about it in the news?
There are some PC developers here in Munich and even a new WiiWare developer. Not to forget the guys from Spinor and their powerful Shark3D engine. My colleagues have met some of them here and there. Besides that, there is not much interaction as far as I know.
So you’ve gone from Amiga to Gameboy Color to GBA to DS, and now you’re on WiiWare. This is over a span of a decade, where you’ve developed everything from sound technology for games to casual games oriented at a younger audience to games in a very beloved niche, and onto more mainstream “all ages” games. What’s the plan, going forward, for Shin’en? Do you think about the state of the company 2-3 years from now, or are you taking it a year at a time?
The new digital download situation changed everything for us. We can now freely decide what to do for what costs and in what time frame. 2010 will be very important for us because it will show if we can be successful on being mainly ‘digital.’ Besides that, we don’t plan much more ahead then the next one or two games. Staying small and powerful was always our future.
Thank you so much for your time. It’s been great talking you about Shin’en and your games. Do you have anything you’d like to add before we close this out?
Thanks to all our fans and their support in the last decade!