In our first ever Developer Focus article on Boomzap Entertainment, I was able to catch up with co-founder Chris Natsuume, to talk about his game studio and philosophy on building immersive casual experiences. To see all Boomzap games, click here if you have a PC or here if you use a Mac. Make sure to check out the interview below!
How did Boomzap come about? What did you do before Boomzap?
Boomzap started with two founders, Allan Simonsen and myself. Both of us started in the hardcore game industry developing games for the PC and for consoles. Allan was from Norway, and I was raised in Texas. We used to work together in a game company in Scotland in 1999. Back then we’d go out to the pubs in Edinburgh after work and get drunk and talk about how *we* would run a game company if we were in charge. We both left that company and did other things in the game industry for a few years but still remained good friends. In 2005, we finally decided to see if we could make a go of it. Boomzap is the result.
How did Boomzap get started in developing casual games?
When I was at the Foster Business School at the University of Washington, one of the founders of Sprout Games gave a lecture to my entrepreneurship class about how he built a casual game studio and then sold it to Popcap. I was really impressed. I saw that casual games were an opportunity to start a company that we could bootstrap ourselves without chasing down investors or other partners. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to start that company that Allan and I had always talked about, so we became casual game developers – and we’ve never looked back.
Boomzap calls itself a “virtual studio” – what does that mean?
Boomzap does not have an office anywhere. I work out of a spare room in my apartment in Yokohama, and Allan works out of his condominium in Singapore. We have slowly collected a group of full-time staff from around the world – mostly from Southeast Asia – who also work from their homes. There are about sixty of us now working in places as varied as Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Penang, Solo, Jakarta, Surabaya, Yogyakarta, Kiev, Ekaterinburg, and Vladivostok. All of the work you see in our games was made by people working in their bedrooms across the world; we’re also pretty sure that most of the time at least half of them aren’t wearing pants.
It’s pretty weird working with people you can’t see. A lot of our staff have actually never met each other – some of them have not met even a single other person in the studio. In fact, there are a few people who have made games with Boomzap for years, and I have never even heard their voice! But we do try to get people together every now and then so they can see who they have been working with for the past few years by having “Boomzap Meetups” where staff gather in cities like Singapore, Manila, or Kuala Lumpur, where most of the staff reside. I’d like to say that we have thrilling creative meetings where all of the ideas for our games come from, but mostly we just get drunk, play board games, and sing karaoke. Pro-tip: Filipinos sing wicked good karaoke.
What would you say makes Boomzap different from its competition?
We’re genuinely dedicated to making games that are “Bright and Beautiful.” There is a place for horror, violence, and other adult themes in games but that’s not what our company is about. We try to find themes and stories for our games that are uplifting and settings where we can really concentrate on making beautiful things. Because we’ve been doing this so long, we’ve built a reputation in the industry for being that kind of team. Now when people apply, most of them are coming to us because they are looking for a place where they can build the kind of games we build – and that only makes us stronger and more dedicated to that goal. Now I think (hope!) we have also developed an audience that appreciates that kind of game and looks to us to provide more of that kind of entertainment.
From where do you draw your inspiration when thinking up new games?
Most Boomzap games start with someone posing a question or challenge to the design team. For instance, once the challenge was to come up with a story about a girl who lived in a world full of magic but who had no magic of her own. The team took that basic idea and created what is now the Awakening series. Another time, we really wanted to do a game where we could visit beautiful locations across Europe and dig into their history – mostly because the artists thought they could do really pretty scenes like that. We came up with the idea of ghosts and romance as a way to make the locations meaningful and to tell stories across different times – and thus the Dana Knightstone series was born.
A lot of the ideas also come from places we have been to or about things we want to do. The next sequel in the Dana Knightstone series is set in Austria because I fell in love with Vienna when I was travelling there last year. We started the Antique Road Trip franchise because I was puttering around eBay one day and thought “some of this stuff is really cool – we should make a game with it!” and then I challenged the team to come up with a design that could do that.
However, some of our inspiration is quite personal. The winged unicorn at the beginning of Awakening: The Skyward Castle was actually originally put in the Collector’s Edition content of Awakening: The Goblin Kingdom because my daughter specifically asked me to put a unicorn in the game that she could brush and feed and make her friend. How could I say no? She loved it so much, we made it a major character in the sequel.
Sometimes the characters are even extensions of the personalities of their creators. The designer who started the Dana Knightstone series, for instance, identified heavily with the main character (a fiction novelist), being a creative writer herself. Most of Dana’s thoughts or comments on things that happened were similar to how she would react. Several people who played the first Dana Knightstone game said she sounded just like her!
What’s the most challenging thing about making games? Was there any instance when you ever considered quitting or giving up?
Give up making games? No way. Honestly, I have no idea what most of us would do if we didn’t do this. Sure, it’s a hard business – the hours are long, the work is intense, and you basically live in front of a computer. The business environment is also rough. Game companies go out of business a lot. We’re seven years old now, and that’s *ancient* for an independent developer. But honestly, it’s really hard to complain. We make games for a living. In our houses. On flexible schedules. I see a lot of my wife and kids – and so do the rest of the staff. Lots of ‘zappers still live with their extended families, and in many cases are able to help take care of little brothers, cousins, elderly parents, etc. We all have pretty good lives. Honestly, the biggest challenge we have is making sure that we keep making products good enough that we can all keep doing this for a very, very long time.
What non-Boomzap game do you often find yourself playing nowadays, just for fun?
This would be a very different answer for any of the team. We have people who are serious hardcore game fans, and people who love casual games. But lately, I find myself playing a lot of iPad games. It’s just an incredibly fertile medium for playing games, and there is so much more that can be done with it. I’ve been thrilled at how well our games have done on the iPad and find myself really drawn into some of the games other developers are doing on the platform. Lately I play a lot of Fairway Solitaire – it’s just got an amazing level of polish, and great balance.
What’s your personal favorite among the Boomzap games?
You know, actually it’s the Antique Road Trip games. I love all of our games, but those are the ones I find myself going back to over and over again. Partly it’s because they are really replayable, but mostly because they just feel warm, friendly, and comfortable – like an old sweater. I was also more involved in the actual design of that franchise than some of the others, which were more the product of other designers on the team, so I guess it’s sort of my baby. A lot of the locations in there were chosen from my own history – I went to college in Austin, my family is from Virginia Beach, and my father has a tiny cabin near Sault Ste. Marie on the shores of Lake Huron. So for me, it’s a very personal game. Also, apparently, I like banjos.
What’s the story behind Boomzap’s name?
I’m almost ashamed to say it because it’s so mercenary, but it came from an article I read about making memorable company names. If I remember right they said you were supposed to have a double-letter in it somewhere, have it be made of two syllables, and start and end in a hard consonant sound. If it had a z in it, that was supposed to be good, too. They also suggested that it start with a letter early in the alphabet so it would show up early on lists. I took all of that and found a bunch of those sounds that Batman made when he beat people up in comic books (like “Pow!” “Wham!” and “Boom!”) and fed them into an Excel sheet that generated a couple hundred possible names. I ran those through Go Daddy to see which had the .com available, and ended up with about twelve. Boomzap was the one that fit the most criteria… so it was done. Just think, we were almost Whamsmack…
In what direction do you think casual games are headed, especially with all the new gadgets and mobile devices popping up? Care to make any predictions about the gaming scene?
Obviously, tablets and other mobile devices are going to play a huge role in the future of casual games – that’s already obvious and something Boomzap is making a huge commitment to. So that’s not so much a prediction as a statement of the obvious. What I think a lot of people are missing, however, is what this means to the potential audience for casual games. To date, our biggest markets have been in the US and Europe – places where most people have access to a desktop or laptop computer. But what we’re seeing in the rise of tablets and smartphones is a huge number of people in the developing world who never had access to a computer suddenly having access to a tablet or a smartphone. We’re talking about places like India, Indonesia, rural China, and Latin America. This is a huge, huge potential audience, and they are likely to start gaming in casual games, not hardcore.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to the Big Fish members that play your games?
Honestly, I’d really just like to sincerely say thank you so much on behalf of the whole team here at Boomzap. Being able to tell stories, draw fantastic landscapes, compose beautiful music, and write the code that makes it all work… we’d all do this as a hobby if it weren’t our jobs. We can’t ever have enough gratitude for the people who support what we do. So, thank you again, and we hope we can keep making bright and beautiful games for you.