Paint It Back: Interview with Ed Brown

Paint It Back, a nonogram puzzle game, was released for the iOS this week.  It’s been my go-to game since, bringing back delightful memories of Picross.  The starting 30 puzzles are free.  The remaining 110 puzzles are only $2.99 (which is insane given what I paid for Picross 5-odd years ago).  It’s worth checking out.

The designer, Ed Brown, is an old friend from when he used to work at Popcap, and I had some questions about the game’s development.  I asked him if it was ok to share his responses with you, and he said yes, so I threw in a couple more questions for background, and here you go:

What inspired you to make Paint it Back?
The release of the iPad and my wanting to play Picross DS on it.  
 
How long did it take?
Pretty much three years.  But two side projects that took three or four months each and a few periods of sloth account for some of that time.  
Who worked on it?
I worked on it by myself up until it was time to add characters to the game.  I wasn’t liking what I was coming up with so I looked for a local artist here in St. Louis and found Jeff Weigel.  He drew the characters, the paintings in the ghost scene, the ghost, other stuff. 
What engine did you use?
Cocos-2D for iPhone.
What was the hardest part of transitioning to iOS from PC?
Probably learning objective-c.  It takes me a while to get comfortable in a new language.
Where can people find it?
Apple App Store.  [Here - Ed]
The images are quite varied and funny, but also quite limited in fidelity.  How did you come up with images?
There wasn’t one single overriding approach that I used, other than to draw them on an iPad using a pixel-art app called “Edge Touch.”  Sometimes I’d start with the title and then try to come up with a fitting image.  “Deer Tick Flying First Class” was one like that.  Others were finished scenes that needed punching up.  “Mugged While Tightrope Walking” was originally just a guy tightrope walking.  Some started from drawing random shapes and trying to see something in them.  A lot of the smaller paintings came from this method. 
Who did the art?  Both painting and scenes.
Jeff did most of the stuff that looks like a real illustrator did it – characters, paintings in the ghost scene, other stuff.  I did all of the puzzle paintings, ui, effects, animations.  A lot of stuff we worked on together, so it’s hard to say who actually did it.
 
How long did it take?  When did you start in earnest?
The whole game was 2 – 2 1/2 years of actually working on it most every day.  The time to create a single painting could take between 10 minutes or 10 hours. Some were a real pain to playtest and revise down to only one solution.  I’m looking at you, “Crazy Stairs.”  I made the majority of the paintings during the evening while hanging out on the couch watching tv.  That period stretched over several months.
How did you decide on the size for a painting?
That was dictated by the painting itself.  I found early on that trying to force an image to fit into a standard nonogram puzzle size like 10×10 didn’t always make for the best looking painting.  I decided to support strange grid sizes like 16×20 or 24×32 because a painting would just wind up looking right at that resolution.  If I liked how a painting turned out, I’d have to add support for that grid-size.  There’s paintings in the game that are the only ones at that particular resolution.  
How did you figure out what order to put the paintings in?  How did you figure out what was hard/easy?
I originally made around 75 paintings without thinking about where they would live in the game.  At some point I was looking them over and realized I could group some of them together by common themes in their titles.  The rooms came out of this.  After that I created paintings for specific rooms.
Determining the difficulty of a painting was just play testing the drawn image.  If it was unsolvable without guessing, I’d alter it and re-test it until it was solvable.  
How did you approach naming the paintings?
No single approach.  Although every painting title had to at least be intriguing. 
Who did the music?  It’s very catchy.
Coda.  I decided to use tracker music, looked around the net for a music person, and found Coda’s extensive backlog of songs.  I picked out a few I liked and Pay-Pal’d him the licensing money. 
Why the 2 modal buttons for paint and block?  How did you arrive at that solution?
Up until two weeks ago it wasn’t modal.  More than one beta tester suggested it to be modal, so I tried it out and I thought it was an improvement.  A user was complaining of accidentally painting squares because of fat fingers.  This helped to cut down on that.
[I'd recommend trying some of the puzzles without using the block tool, for extra challenge.  I find it kicks the mental gears an extra notch.  -Ed]
How much testing did you do, and when?
I started having people test it around a year before it came out.  The tutorial went through -many- iterations.  At first it was 17 paintings – and people complain about the 7 paintings in the current tutorial being too long!
Why does the game support device rotation, but only after the first few levels?
The tutorial room doesn’t support rotation.  I took the lazy way out there.  It has to do with the way I handle the recreating the scene when you rotate.  The artist’s dialogue complicated matters.
Why did you do Paint it Back over other concepts?  What’s the story of how you knew PiB would be what you shipped next?
A lot of reasons:
- It was a project I could handle largely by myself.  
- I liked making the paintings.
- There seemed to me to be an opening in the App Store for a quality nonogram game.
- It was a game I would want to play if I wasn’t making it.
- The theme of “museum art” seemed like new territory to explore in a game.
The project just felt right to work on.
What do you hope players take away from the game?
Mild amusement and satisfaction.
Having done both indie and industry, what are the highlights of each?
Industry:
- steady paycheck.
- learn from others around you.
- see aspects of the game industry outside of your discipline.
Indie:
- you can’t beat working on your own ideas.
- non-standard work schedule, if you want.
- you own all of the assets.
And what are you planning next?
No specific plans – totally depends on the reception to PiB.  If it goes well, I’d definitely  consider making more paintings.  If there was a scene of people making their own paintings, I’d ask people to submit them to me and I’d pick my faves, group them into a room, call it “Outsider Art” and release it as a free in-app-purchase.
I’ve got a backlog of game ideas I’d like to prototype.  I’ll probably pick one and start tinkering.  Or maybe I’ll do absolutely nothing for a while.  That sounds good, too.

Dawngate

Dawngate is in beta!

I did the early design work on Dawngate, before I left to help finish SimCity.  Hunter Howe and the team did an excellent job bringing Dawngate to life, and I recommend you check it out, particularly if you’ve tried MOBAs in the past.

The REMA model: The PAME model

Just a quick update on my latest thoughts on REMA. Reflecting more on Daniel Pink’s work (initial thoughts) and a recent blog post on gamasutra, it’s become clear to me that REMA stages might better be represented as e Purpose, Autonomy, Mastery stages, followed by a Sharing or Artistry stage. I’ve already talked a great deal about Rollercoaster and Purpose, and Mastery is an obvious link. But the connection between Autonomy and Experiment games has really been driven home to me lately, particularly looking at how games like Skyrim and Minecraft are enjoyed. “Freedom” and “Creative” are the words at the core of this play, strongly linking them to Autonomy.

I’ve also been thinking about Civ. The importance of Management play was driven home in the BrainHex 2 studies, and Civ clearly fits in that category. And while there is some Mastery appeal, from what I know the primary appeal of Civ is the freedom and autonomy aspects – build an empire that’s your version of history. Most players play only once, and play on low difficulties where they are going to stomp the AI, rather then engaging in the available multiplayer play. In fact, Civ is a great example of the conflict between Autonomy and Mastery, as for years Firaxis has maintained the Mastery side of the game, despite the continued challenges of it, such as the unsatisfying victory conditions. Stealing “losing is fun” from Dwarf Fortress would probably greatly enhance the series for the main audience, but they’d lose the Mastery group that is their most devoted.

So I’ve been confident Management gamers belong in the autonomy/experiment group – they want to do things their way, they want options to chose from, succeed at implementing them, and have extra long sessions of progress (what I think of as “cascading plans”, which is a key Experiment game reward that drives the “1 more turn” feeling and deserves its own post). Note here its not creativity linking Experiment games, it’s Autonomy.

Putting all that together, I’ve decided to focus on Purpose, Mastery, and Autonomy by naming REMA to PAME. Daniel Pink’s work is widely read, backed by applicable and interesting research, and his words are more descriptive and have broader context. I renamed Application to Expression, which I think is also clearer, and now has better alliteration.

What’s your thoughts on this? Curious how people have been using REMA in the year since I posted it and whether these changes are helpful.

The REMA Model: The Mario Conundrum con.

Aside

It might be tricky to classify Mario as one REMA genre, but Super Mario Land 3D designers definitely used REMA as the core of their design vision:

But it wasn’t really until Super Mario 3D Land that I think I really became a lot more rigorous about enforcing that in level design, where you have a clear concept in the beginning, and that’s carried through absolutely all the way.

Why do you think that that’s important?

KH: Well, I think it has a lot to do with the acquisition of a skill, which is something that often appears very similar to the way that a narrative can develop. So, if you take a single gameplay element, let’s think about the steps that happen.

First, you have to learn how to use that gameplay mechanic, and then the stage will offer you a slightly more complicated scenario in which you have to use it. And then the next step is something crazy happens that makes you think about it in a way you weren’t expecting. And then you get to demonstrate, finally, what sort of mastery you’ve gained over it.

It’s very similar to a narrative structure that you find in four-panel comics… And this is something that ends up giving the player a kind of narrative structure that they can relate to within a single level about how they’re using a game mechanic.

The reference to manga narrative using similar form is fascinating,  It hints at a deeper connection between Rollercoaster play and Mastery play.

SimCity

I can talk about what I’m working on again!  I’m one of the designers on

As you can imagine, it’s quite a thrill to be working on such a whirlwind of Rollercoaster, Experiment, and Mastery (multiplayer!) design.  I look forward to sharing details about the design through the SimCity forums and blogs.  I’ll cross-post them here when I can.

The REMA Model: Collected Links

Here’s a list of all the REMA model articles published so far.  If you’re interested in this design lens, I recommend starting with part 1 and exploring these core posts:

And some related posts if you’re interested in more detail: