Interview with Digital Dreams Games

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In our quest to shine the spotlight on the awesome indie titles hitting home consoles, we have been lucky enough to sit down with some fantastic indie devs. This week is no exception – Geert Nellen – co-founder of Digital Dreams and game designer of the awesomely imaginative, Vita platformer ‘Metrico‘ – took some time out of his very busy schedule to answer some questions about life in the indie lane and shed light on Digital Dreams Games’ experiences of working with Sony.

1.Digital Dreams is a fairly new developer, how did you guys join up and form Digital Dreams?

Digital Dreams basically consists of 3 guys; level designer Roy van de Mortel, programmer Thijmen Bink and myself (Geert Nellen). I’m the game designer and artist of the bunch. I knew Roy from the Art school I was studying. I met Thijmen when I was looking for a programmer for my graduation project. When we graduated, we just felt the most natural thing to do was to start a company.

2. I have to congratulate you on Metrico, it’s a stunningly inventive game. It’s clearly inspired by metrics – charts, graphs and statistics – what inspired you to turn those into a game?

Thank you very much Richard! At first we the choice for infographics was purely an artistic decision. We loved how beautiful infographics could look. But when we put them in the game and played around with the mechanics of the game, we realized deep down, games are about numbers: When you strip down games to their bare essentials, it’s just about numbers: You have to kill a boss in Zelda by shooting it 3 times in the eye, which is on position ‘XYZ’. You have to eat all 240 dots in Pacman and in Prince of Persia you can’t make the jump which is 40 pixels wide. If you leave out the visuals, that’s really all there will be left. I think this minimalistic approach to game systems is interesting. We built a world out of that and we saw that it’s a lot of fun to become fully aware of all the things you do and input you give when playing a game. It turned out to be even more fun to let the player figure all of these numbers out themselves. Maybe this minimalism is a part of Dutch design, I don’t know.

digital_dreams team
The team: (left to right) Thijmen Bink (tech dir.), Roy Van Der Mortel (level designer) and Geert Nellen (Lead designer)

3. It makes fantastic use of all of the Vita’s functionality, was it always intended as a Vita game?

The game started out as a Gamejam game. We pitched several prototypes around to lots of different publishers. Sony was the first to come up with the idea to use hardware features as means of input as well. Sony also was the first to offer us a deal to work together. Ever since we messed around with the Vita and thought about the possibilities of using hardware features we loved it!

4. How did you keep generating new ideas for the puzzles in Metrico? Despite it’s deceptively simple looks, some of those puzzles are incredibly complex and creative.

[Lead level designer Roy van de Mortel shares his thoughts]
“Players might not experience it this way but every single puzzle in the game serves a purpose. Its not just a concatenation of complex puzzles. For example, some are there to learn a certain mechanic or behavior that you’ll need in a next puzzle, while others are there to give you a short break and simple satisfaction in between more difficult puzzles. When you know beforehand what you want to achieve with a puzzle its easier to come up with ideas for it because you give yourself constraints in the design process.
One of my methods was drawing completely random landscapes of bar charts and trying to come up with a puzzle for that particular scenery. It rarely works at first sight but it gave me new ideas that could work in similar layouts. A lot of puzzles made this way never made it to the final game though.I used a couple of different methods like these to try and have as much versatility in the puzzles as possible.
It also helped a lot to have a new mechanic in every world to have a fresh approach. But generally, I tossed out about half of the puzzles we made.”

5. Now, firstly, I love my Vita – but it’s no secret that not everyone is rushing out to buy one. How do you guys feel about the Vita’s well publicised struggles in the sales department? Was this a worry for you when developing?

Yes and no; Of course it’s simple math that you can’t sell many games on a system with not that many users, but on the other hand people really love their Vita and buy games for it. Vita owners are passionate gamers that are interested in original games, all of this makes it an interesting platform for us!


6. What’s it been like working with Sony? And why do you think they’re showing such staunch support for indie games this console generation?

It’s hard to deny that indie games can be innovative and are able to offer an original game experience. Sony noticed this as well and just want the PlayStation owners to be able to have these unique experiences. We think that makes sense and of course we love that they do. It’s been a great pleasure to work with them.

7. What do you think about triple A developers producing ‘indie-looking’ games. For example, Ubisofts Child of Light or Valiant Hearts? Is this something you’d like to see more of – or are they encroaching on indie territory?

We don’t think it really matters who makes a game and what name you give the studio. Indie or not, if it’s a good game, it’s a good game and that’s all that matters. I haven’t played both of them yet, but they’re definitely high on my list.

8. Sorry, bit of a long winded question here! This is a personal frustration of mine, but I’d be interested to know what you think. The term ‘indie game’ is used in the gaming industry and by consumers as though it represents a genre of game rather than simply highlighting that a game has been developed independently. How happy are you to be under the ‘indie’ umbrella? Would you rather people speak about Metrico as an awesome ‘2D puzzle/platformer’ rather than an ‘indie game’?

I get what you’re saying. I personally don’t care that much about the whole ‘indie game’ term. It’s all about the quality of the game. I keep in the back of my mind the budget of a game though; When it’s made by just a few guys I look at it differently. But the term ‘indie game’ is such a vague term nowadays, there are games developed by just 1 person, as well as indie studios with immense budgets, so the term is almost disposable to me.


9. What’s the best part about developing games independently? What’s the hardest part?

Creative freedom is very important. The hardest thing is making a game with no budget and definitely getting your game noticed right now.

10. We’ve been telling everyone to play Metrico and it’s definitely had some positive press – how difficult is marketing independently? Do you have to rely heavily on word of mouth? Have Sony helped in that department too?

Thanks a lot for telling people to play Metrico! We have no budget for marketing at all, so we’re very dependent on word of mouth. We are very lucky Sony helped a lot with marketing as well. Our trailers got posted on the official Playstation Youtube channel, and we could make blog posts on the PlayStation Blog. All of this helped a lot with getting people to notice Metrico.

11. What can you tell us about how Playstation Plus works? Metrico featured as one of last month’s free titles – did you guys receive payment for that? Or does it just help build your profile and awareness of your game and brand?

We got a payment to make it free for a month. We sure hope it helps gaining awareness for our game and company. That was one of the main reasons for us in making this decision.

12. What games have your team been enjoying – have you had much time to play them?

We just started playing Destiny and we really enjoy it. But it’s one of the first games we have the time for to play since Metrico released.
Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to play any games anymore myself. Roy enjoyed Road not Taken, and Thijmen played a lot of Don’t Starve lately.

13. Aside from Metrico, what other indie games would you advise our readers to play now or look out for in the future?

Play Ibb and Obb on the PS3 or Steam! It’s a great co-op game. We’re also looking forward to Below from Capybara Games a lot!

14. Speaking of the future, what’s next for Digital Dreams? Anything in the pipeline? Or are you taking a break?

We need a little break first, but we can’t help thinking about new ideas for future projects. We hope we can make just one of them. The future will tell what’s in store for us!