Interview with Shawnimals on Ninjatown (Alex Kain)

Afterthoughts with Shawnimals on Ninjatown

For Nintendo DS




          Today we sit here with Alex Kain (Venan Entertainment) from the Ninjatown team.  We look back at one of last years Gem’s that might have been over looked.  So let’s explore this game after it has been released for awhile.


ATC 1982:   What type of game is this for all the people who have not heard of it yet?  Also what type of engine are you using for this game to work so well?


Alex: Ninjatown is a ‘Tower Defense’ game – a type of strategy game that requires players to build defenses along a road to stop groups of enemies as they walk from one end to the other.  As you defeat enemies, you earn cookies that you can use to buy better defenses, and the enemies get stronger over time, so you’re constantly upgrading your defenses to beat each new level.


Ninjatown uses a custom-built engine that allowed us to quickly create, edit, and test new game maps all throughout development.  As development got further along, the engine became more robust, which allowed us to add cool features to make the game look and play better.


ATC 1982:   In what regards have gamers taken to this game that has exceeded your expectations?


Alex: Reading posts online about Ninjatown has been a great way to garner feedback about what people liked and didn’t like about the game.  One thing that we’re especially happy to see is debate on the forums about map strategies.  Different people have different techniques for getting through each level, and reading about how they placed certain ninjas around the map to get through an area is good fun – especially when it’s something we never considered ourselves.

One aspect of the game that we were actually worried about was that the game balance might be geared too hard for players.  We spent many a long night tweaking the enemy waves and the ninjas’ stats and whatnot, so reading reviews that said Ninjatown had perfectly-balanced classes was a huge relief for us.  We worked really hard to make sure that the difficulty would appeal to hardcore players as well as casual players, and I think we struck a perfect balance with the final game.


ATC 1982:   With this being a great game on the go.  Other then the enjoyment factor what is it that you are trying make the gamer feel when they put it down for a moment?


Alex: Well, it being a video game, the enjoyment factor is definitely the most important aspect.  Because it’s a DS game, though, we had to make sure that the game was enjoyable for 5 minutes or 5 hours, and that was one of the tough parts of design early-on.  Some games can afford to have filler content, like fetch quests or long dialog trees that pad gameplay time, but with Ninjatown we wanted players to enjoy themselves at every moment, on every level, regardless of when they decided to pick it up.  I’d say that was the most important thing for us as we developed the game.


ATC 1982:   During the development process was there anything left out that you would have loved to see in the final version?  Also what limitations did you over come if any?


Alex: There are always some ideas that fall by the wayside as development progresses, but I think that we were able to get most of the stuff in the game that we wanted.  I’d say the biggest thing that we all would’ve loved to see in the final game was extras and end-of-game rewards to increase replay a bit.  One thing that we see a lot of on the forums now that the game’s been out for a few months is that it’s lacking a bit in the replay department.  We had a lot of cool concept art that made it into the credits sequence, but there was a lot more stuff we could have had in unlockable galleries.  There was also some back and forth about a “hard mode” that would have been unlocked after beating the game, but our QA testing timetable wouldn’t have really allowed for it.


As for limitations, this was Venan’s first DS title, so there were some initial hurdles with figuring out how we could push the hardware to suit our needs.  One big issue that we were facing near the end of the development was with the number of enemy types we could have on the map at any given time.  If we ever had too many different types loaded at once, we’d get bizarre graphical glitches that made the enemies look like rainbow-colored Frankenstein’s.  Fortunately, the programming team found a workaround and we were able to have more diverse waves of enemies in the final game.


ATC 1982:   Since this game released on the DS only.  Was there ever a talk about trying to port this to the PSP or any other mobile device?


Alex: Ninjatown would be pretty cool on other kinds of handheld game systems, that’s for sure!  As for specifics, I can’t really divulge anything. Sorry!


ATC 1982:   Art seems to play an important role in this game.  How did the art team come up with designs used and were they given any freedom on this project?  If so can you give us an example please?


Alex: There was a lot of constant communication between Venan and Shawnimals about the characters in the game.  When we finalized the different ninja and enemy types, Shawn would put together the initial concept sketches.  After the Venan art team got the concept sketches, they would put together the actual character sprites and animations that show up in the game.  It was a pretty good process, and it definitely helped that the person doing our concept sketches was the person they needed to be approved by!


The art team had a pretty good degree of freedom when it came to animation, though there was always constant refinement to the look and movement of the characters.  Sometimes Shawn would point something out that he thought should look different, and other times we would change things ourselves just to make everything look better.  There really wasn’t any point in development where we had a character that we wanted in the game and Shawn said ‘no’, so things went really smoothly throughout.


ATC 1982:   One of the cool features is you can play Co-op with someone in the same room.  What are your thoughts on how multi-player was incorporated in this game?


Alex: Actually, funny story!  The way that multiplayer is implemented in the game right now came from a minor change that we made late in development!  Originally, the multiplayer game was designed so that the winner of a wave received the random power-up, and the loser received a character token.  We had this system in there for weeks, and while the games were fun, our testers found that the tide of battle turned too quickly, and players who won the first wave had a huge advantage for the rest of the waves.  So Brandon (the game’s lead designer and CEO of Venan Entertainment) and I had a quick back and forth where we sort of arrived at the same idea at the same time: switch the rewards around so that the loser gets the power-up and the winner only gets the token.  We made this little change and suddenly multiplayer was exponentially more fun.  Goes to show how a simple little change like that can make or break the game.


We’d always planned on including multiplayer in Ninjatown, and had originally considered a co-op mode that would let two players help each other on the same map.  Unfortunately, designing a fun, relevant co-op system proved to be too difficult and we ultimately decided to focus on competitive multiplayer instead.


ATC 1982:   When developing this, what is one of the most memorable moments besides it going gold?


Alex: I’ve got a good few memorable moments from throughout development.  Aside from when the game went gold, I’d have to say that putting in the “Over 9000!” gag was one of the most memorable bits, mostly because it happened during crunch time and at 2AM, when everything is funny, funny things become epically hysterical.  There was a sudden rush of excitement throughout the whole development team as Mike and Mike (the Ninjatown programmers) came up with the idea, and then ran it past our producer, Katy, who then approved the concept and asked me to write up the scene and create the cutscene.  It was like some lightning-fast “The West Wing” exchange, and the final product ended up being one of the most talked-about sequences in the whole game.


Another moment I recall was right at the very start of development, before I was even officially working at Venan.  Everybody was sitting around the conference room table throwing ideas around for how the game should play and I had absolutely no idea what a ‘tower defense’ game was.  It’s also kind of funny looking at how much the game changed from those early design sessions.  Originally, building Ninjatown was a core gameplay element over the actual tower defense.  There was a kind of SimCity-esque vibe to it, and then you’d have a ‘combat phase’ where enemies came in to destroy your buildings and get through the map.  Over the next couple months, we whittled down those ideas into the final game design, but being able to remember some of those early meetings really puts things into perspective!


ATC 1982:   On the horizon I have heard word about Ninjatown plush’s coming out.  Could we possibly see a collector’s edition packed with one of these?


Alex: Shawnimals already has a fine collection of Ninjatown plushies available through his website and in various stores around the country.  Personally, I’d love to see a Business Devil plush, but that’s all up to Shawn!  As for collector’s editions packed with plushies, I really don’t know – it’d be cool, but we’d have to make a collector’s edition before we did anything!


          Thank you for taking your time to sit down with us for a few questions.  If you have not played this game and you own a DS this might be one game that you or your kids will enjoy playing.

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