Interview With Zaxis Games

What game engine did you build Harry in? Did you have to overcome any particularly nasty challenges on the technical front during Harry’s production, or are there any technical accomplishments you’re especially proud of?

We made Harry with the Unity engine, partly to support a fellow Copenhagen company, but more importantly for its ability to publish to multiple platforms with minimal effort and its vibrant community. It lacks some UI stuff, but it’s pretty good in a lot of other respects.

We knew from the beginning that we were trying to do something the Unity community generally advises against. Plenty of physics, combined with mesh colliders and several thousand game objects in each level, is not the ideal combination with the iPhone platform.

Basically the environment in Harry is built out of a ton of quads with a sprite on each. Then every one of these has a mesh collider attached. So there was very little room for sloppiness in code and in particular, shaders, due to the vast amount of overlapping, textured, semi-transparent quads. So we had to spend more time than expected optimizing the game, but we ended up with approximately 60 FPS on post-2nd Gen iDevices.

Did you learn any technical or game design lessons in your previous games that helped with your work on Harry?

Yes, and yes! Working with smartphone games was a challenge both in terms of design and also in terms of technical limitations. Regarding design, we initially suffered from having worked with AAA titles before and also from being avid AAA gamers. This had a tendency to cause feature creep since we just wanted to add more features and more intricate player interaction. Having only two developers and developing for a platform with a 4-inch screen with limited UI, we had to change our mindset of what a game is. We have learned to focus on the core and add features from there, instead of developing a ton of features and then removing them one by one. It’s still something we have to remind ourselves of, but we’re getting there.

On the tech side of things, this is our third game using the Unity engine, so obviously our first two releases gave a lot of insight on the affordances and constraints offered by Unity. Initially we hoped to reuse parts of the code for the old games, e.g., GUI code, but we ended up writing everything from scratch since we had become much better developers in the meantime.

Congrats on your publishing contract with E.A./Chillingo! How does that change production and release compared to the solo approach? Do you pass the game off to the publisher once your work is finished, and the publisher does all the Quality Assurance testing, marketing and release planning? What other perks does the developer get?

When we had released our previous titles we decided to look through our work folders and do a bit of “spring cleaning.” We found a folder named “PR & Marketing” that was completely empty. It would seem that no one really had an interest in that particular area; we just wanted to make games, but that doesn’t really cut it in such a competitive market. After that startling discovery we decided to get a publisher for our next game. We made a shortlist of a few interesting prospects and sent an early build of our game to Chillingo, who were first on our list. They liked what they saw, so we started working together.

We have full creative control but the producer assigned to us has received builds and given us feedback throughout the development process. Getting some external eyes on the game has been great, because you have a tendency to become blind when working so intensely with something. Adjusting difficulty when you play the game several hours a day is quite a hard task, and we don’t have access to a large group of testers.

Additionally, Chillingo has a great deal of data that helps us decide pricing, icon art, minimum requirements and whether to release normal and HD versions separately.

When both ourselves and Chillingo are satisfied, we send them a release candidate for QA testing, and they basically take over from there, doing marketing and release planning.

So what’s next for Zaxis Games after Harry releases? Do you have other projects in the pipeline already, or will you be focusing mostly on post-release support for Harry?

We have a drawer filled with game ideas, and four prototypes ready to be developed further. At the moment we have three things we want to do. We want to make an Android version of Harry, we want to make additional content for Harry, and also continue working on a game we’ve been developing for the past two months. We are going to do all three within a reasonable time frame, but the order is affected by the success of Harry.

The other game we’re working on has the ingenious working title “Rollers”. We want to try to embrace gamers much more this time, and publicly showcase our progress and hopefully get some valuable feedback from the community. We set up a blog a few days ago, where we will be posting beta builds and tutorials about stuff we’ve done in our games.

Big thanks to Kristian for taking the time out to answer our questions, and to Bo for helping arrange this interview. We’ll bring you preview footage of Harry the Fairy just as soon as it hits the Internet! In the meantime you can catch Zaxis Games at their developer blog, and also on Facebook and Twitter. Here’s the Zaxis company site, where you can get a peek at the gorgeous CGI that put Zaxis on the map in Denmark.