Following up from my review of the cheese sliding puzzle game Sleepy Mouse I got to interview the developer Dan Norris (StartGetReady). I wanted to know what the future of the hangry mouse is, and what else the developer has going on behind the scenes.
Where did the idea of a “hangry” mouse come from?
For Sleepy Mouse I wanted to make a 2D puzzle game, with a cute character that was simple but compelling; something that anyone can pick up and immediately get the hang of.
It’s hard to come up with an idea that lends itself to not only gameplay and game story but also to a social media hook. I tried quite a few ideas before hitting on Sleepy Mouse, the little mouse who likes to sleep, loves his cheese, but hates to wake up hangry! I think most of us can relate to the fury that comes with being overly hungry, and from a social media perspective I wanted to tap into something that was frequently talked about to help raise its profile, particularly amongst casual gamers… #hangry!
Is Sleepy Mouse your first journey into being a game developer?
Sleepy Mouse is my first fully completed game. I built prototypes of games when I was younger but never actually completed a full game. I remember when I was a kid, my mum promised to buy me a version of Turbo C++ if I could prove I’d learnt BASIC by building a game. So I built a text adventure for her, which did the trick and got me a version of C++.
Building the mechanisms for a game and maybe creating one or two levels is an entirely different process to building a completed product, ready for release. There’re so many more things to think about; creating menus and dialogs that react properly and are timed to what’s happening in the game, optimising for a given platform and all the things outside the development like social media and App store verification and privacy policies. It’s been a huge learning process and far more involved than I’d ever imagined.
You can come up with great ideas for games but often they’re not feasible to make, or there is simply no scope outside of the initial levels for much game development, so it’s an amazing moment that occurs when you put a few test levels together for an idea and it just works. It feels right and you can already see lots of scope to move the game forward with different types of obstacles with exciting ways to use them to create great levels. You can see how puzzle progression will work with these obstacles, taking the player through more and more interesting setups, gradually getting harder. It’s an incredible moment, when it works.
What were your inspirations for this game?
I grew up playing games in the 90s, which on the whole, were simple games to play, with very straightforward play mechanics, so when I started playing the more recent wave of mobile games, with very simple controls and ideas; it felt a bit of a return to that style. These aren’t huge open world role playing, or super intricate strategy games. The big hits tend to be very simple, casual games. Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, etc. have minimalist control mechanics and are perfect for the mobile platform. I wanted to do something a little along the same lines. Some people have said that Sleepy Mouse reminds them of the 90s pool and golf games and I think there are definitely elements of those in the game along with aspects from the newer mobile games.
Did you design this as a game that you would want to play?
This was always a labour of love project and I think because of that, I didn’t have a particular audience in mind. Sleepy Mouse was definitely built as something that I’d like to play and I do still play it quite a bit. It’s a simple game to play but I think there’s a lot of fun in replaying it and achieving better scores on each level, which some players have really taken to. One player wrote to me and said that he’d tried a level 70 times before he got it just right, to get maximum score.
I love games and I think if you make them, you should really make a game that you want to play. It’s been a really tough process, especially finding time outside my normal job to develop. I think if I didn’t enjoy playing Sleepy Mouse, I’d never have found the motivation to complete it.
Where does Sleepy Mouse go from here?
I’ve been really blown away by how much game play Sleepy Mouse has been getting from fans (the self-named ‘Cheeseheads’!) and seeing how they’ve played v1.0 through the Everyplay videos that have been shared has helped provide me with a much clearer direction for where I want to go with future versions. My current focus is on tightening up gameplay and making improvements for v1.1, which will include edits to the scoring leaderboards, with high scores for each level, improving playability in certain areas, adding achievements in the Game Center, better visual effect, improvements on video recording and search within Everyplay. I’ll get going on v2.0 straight after this. I want to add brand new levels with faster surfaces (moving away from wall surfaces to high speed bathroom/kitchen tiles), incorporate multiple screen levels with the ability to transport between parts of a level (through plug holes and pipes), add different types of helper cheese (aside from the blue cheese) which have different abilities (strong cheese with breakthrough power, soft cheese that won’t set off alarms or radios, smelly cheese that’s perhaps harder to control but maximises points potential), and of course a range of new obstacle types.
What are you favourite traps in the game?
I particularly like the moving platforms, which when I first introduced them, changed the whole feel of the game. It moved from static puzzles to more dynamic ones and opens up a lot of opportunities for different types of levels. One of the hardest things I found developing the game was limiting the different types of traps/obstacles, as it’s often easier to introduce a new type than to discover more innovative and creative ways to use the ones you already have. I’m glad I took the time to do this because it means I’ve been able to save some of the best for later stages.
I enjoyed the combination of traps such as a platform and alarm making a timed level on the fly; will there be more interesting combinations to look forward to?
I’m really looking forward to working on the new stages; the combination traps have had some great feedback so I’ll definitely have more of those types of puzzles. I’m working on different types of surfaces at the moment, which opens a new dimension to the game and opens the way for some great combinations. There will be slippery surfaces and ones that slow the cheese down. I’m also excited about getting multi-screen levels working, which will really increase the puzzle possibilities, as it’ll give me a much bigger space to work with and spread out the puzzles.
Are you planning any further games, or are you going to focus your attention to expanding Sleepy Mouse?
I’ve been so pleased with the feedback and the amount of time some players have been putting in, I’ll definitely be continuing development on Sleepy Mouse. The next release is v1.1 which will include the above mentioned changes/improvements is coming out soon and I hope to release a version on Android soon after.
Aside from Sleepy Mouse, I’ve had a number of different ideas and prototypes for new games, one involving sharks hunting shoals of fish – completely different to Sleepy Mouse. This would be a 3D turn-based strategy game that you’d play against other networked players. Each player would have 3 sharks, each with different abilities (speed, power, and defence against other sharks) and the challenge would be build a strategy to break up the shoal and eat the fish, whilst keeping other player’s sharks away. It’s very early days but I think the navigation system is quite innovative and something that I’m excited to explore further once Sleepy Mouse is complete.
What advice would you give to up-and-coming or want-to-be game developers?
This is a very crowded and competitive market; lots of people would love to become games developers. There’re many resources advising how to get into game development, so do read around. From my limited personal experience, here are a few things that I’ve learnt:
Whether you’re just doing this for fun or are really serious about making a successful game, post prototype phase, I’d strongly suggest running your development like a proper project; use source control to track changes and keep things organised, look into the best ways to build your game (what architecture to use, what development environment and tools to use). That sounds daunting but it’s fairly straight forward stuff and will save tons of time in the future, if you decide to make changes or updates. I’m paying the price in certain areas myself, I’ve just spent days re-coding the whole dialog/menu system in Sleepy Mouse, to allow for new features but other areas that I did build in a better way, have been a breeze to update.
Some excellent advice from a talk I watched recently was: Don’t try to do everything yourself. When people download your game, they don’t know and don’t care if you did it all by yourself, they only care how good the game is. Use tools, plugins and partner with other developers if you can. This can save enormous amounts of time and needless effort. Money is usually tight for us indie developers though, so if you decide to pay for any freelance help, choose carefully which bits you farm out. Probably the number one thing that indie games suffer from is poor graphics. I used a freelance hiring website to find someone to change my very poor, original artwork into something much more professional and I think doing this sort of thing is completely worth it.
If you’re serious about making a game and are looking for significant download numbers, then you absolutely have to get on social media early. Become part of the community, show screen shots of your game, even at very early stages. Start to raise awareness of your game as soon as you can. Once you get a working prototype, it’s imperative to get feedback. There’s many things you can only learn through early player testing. If you’ve got any kind of budget, then pay someone to help you with social media. It’s really difficult now for people to simply stumble across your game on any of the platforms (App store, Google play and even Steam), don’t think that you can simply release a game and people will find it. You have to get known through other means and social media is the best way at the moment.
My number one piece of advice though, is: just finish it. If you’ve an idea which you think is good, put the work in and get it finished. It’s easy to give up and start a new project but the rewards for seeing your creation through to completion are so great. Even on a personal level, to know you’ve actually made a complete game, is amazing.
Following the questions about Dan’s game I wanted to know a bit more about the inner workings of the man himself, and so presented him with the Pivot Questionnaire; the set of questions made famous by Inside The Actor’s Studio;
What is your favourite word?
Neeknock. My daughter invented it, so I’m not sure of the correct spelling; we’ll have to ask her when she gets a bit older. I gave her a conker when she was a one year old and she decided immediately that this is what conkers should be called. I might well agree with her.
What is your least favourite word?
Sprout. I’m a bit funny about sprouting things; I get a feeling somewhere between feeling sick and teeth being on edge. If someone screeched their nails down a chalkboard whilst you were hung over, it’d be pretty close to the feeling.
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
At the moment it’s sleep. My daughter has never been a good sleeper so I can’t fully describe the euphoria, on those few occasions that I’ve actually managed a good night’s sleep. I feel creative, spiritual and actually pretty emotional too.
What turns you off?
I’m terrible around mess. I can’t think straight if things are messy. I’m quite jealous (from a distance) of people who don’t seem affected by it.
What is your favourite curse word?
I don’t really swear or curse much, unless I’m on the roads and people are doing crazy dangerous things and then all hell breaks loose. I say “ah crap” a lot under my breath, when I’m working and in an American accent for some odd reason.
What sound or noise do you love?
I was watching a TV series the other day and part of the theme tune sounds like the old ZX Spectrum loading up, its actually one of the worst sounds in the world, the high pitch squeaks are pretty obnoxious but I kind of love it now; seriously nostalgic.
What sound or noise do you hate?
Years ago, I lived in an apartment and the people below where pretty filthy. Inevitably they got mice. Just the thought of that scratching sound in the walls makes me go cold. I can’t stand the little rodents. I left that place pretty sharpish. It’s ironic that I ended up making a game about a mouse.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I’m really in to (maybe a bit addicted to) cooking programs and one particular program has a judge who’s official title is Professional Diner. I love the fact that he’s not a chef, a critic or any type of actual food expert. He’s a Diner. I’m also not a chef, critic or qualified in any way to be a food expert, so I reckon I’d be perfect.
What profession would you not like to do?
Any kind of production line factory work; boredom for me is excruciating. I can’t imagine how long a day must feel in a place like that.
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Take a rest.
So, there you have it; good news for all Cheeseheads looking forward to more cheese sliding action! Dan seems really enthusiastic about his game and more driven than ever to improve it and continue development and I can’t wait to see where he takes it all from here. For latest updates follow the official Sleepy Mouse twitter page.