Playing Soldiers

Playing Soldiers

Ronimo isn’t just a new game company, it’s a newly graduated game company too, and its approach to the intricacies of getting its first title out the door seems refreshingly innocent. Ronimo’s founders met while studying at the Utrecht School of Arts, where they worked on De Blob, a university project focused on a proposed redesign of Utrecht’s railway station in which players guided a lump of paint around the city centre. Despite its early limited scope (it featured a single level and, in the words of co-founder Fabian Akker, contained “20 minutes of fun”), it quickly captured the attention of publishers, and the game was eventually picked up by THQ.

Jasper Koning (left) and Fabian Akker (right)

The original team had little involvement in the resulting Wii game. “We met the developers, Blue Tongue, and gave them all the concepts we had and our extra ideas,” says Akker. “We worked a lot on the camera system, and the first thing they wanted to do was design a new one. But in the end, ours was the best, and they returned to it.” The team emerged from the process with a lot of press, high-profile fans including Alexei Pajitnov and Peter Molyneux, and, after GDC 2008, a licence to develop for Wii.

Ronimo Games (the name stands for Robot Ninja Monkey) was founded with the money from De Blob, and currently consists of seven staff and three interns. “The Blob money didn’t go very far, so half our team started working on paid Flash projects, while the other half started on our first proper game design,” explains Akker. That turned out to be another university assignment: a complex 3D action game.

“It was on the scale of Ratchet & Clank,” laughs co-founder Jasper Koning. “We over-estimated ourselves. We did manage to make a demo, and publishers liked it, but we had no track record. We eventually understood that this kind of company would be impossible long-term without digital distribution.”

“When WiiWare came out, we realised we could make a 2D game in the same time it took to make a 3D demo,” says Akker, who admits the scope granted by WiiWare’s lack of a certification process, along with the free advertising offered by the Nintendo Channel, also played a part in the choice. It seems like a slightly scrappy decision – one that chimes with the general ambience of happy chaos around the office – so it’s astonishing how fully realised the game is. Swords & Soldiers, which we’ll review on Monday, is a side-scrolling RTS, with multiple campaigns and strong local multiplayer, and beneath its cartoon surface ticks an elegant risk-reward engine.

A lot of Swords’ polish comes from how Ronimo works, suggests Akker. Although there is a design group, everyone gets a say. “It’s important to keep everyone involved. A big problem in the industry is people leaving after the first product because they’re fed up. For us, decisions can take a bit longer, but it means every choice has been explored by seven guys.”

“Development on a ‘real’ game isn’t harder, it’s just longer,” says Koning, musing on the shift from university work to consoles. “With school projects, you produce the best game for your deadline and then you move on. It means that stuff is generally 90 per cent. This game needs to be 100 per cent.”

As WiiWare games can’t be patched post-release, except in the case of a game-breaking bug, Swords has been through extensive rebalancing, with testers brought in every weekend, lured by posters in local schools. “It’s playing, playing, playing and seeing the result,” says Koning. “Given the Wii’s broad audience, it’s really important to balance it for all levels, so there’s high-level stuff and starter players still get a sense of progression.”

The team is focusing on Nintendo for the foreseeable future, with more WiiWare titles leading up to an eventual retail release. That will bring its own challenges, and the company is already considering what happens on the day its staff can no longer fit comfortably into one room. Yet, despite a steep learning curve, Ronimo has a clear sense of where it’s going. “We thought we wanted to make huge games,” says Koning, “but in the end we discovered we want to make small games that have a huge impact.”

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in E199.
Read our review of Swords and Soldiers.
 

sssss