Luca Redwood gained notoriety in 2012 with the release of 10000000 on mobile devices. The RPG-lite match-three game was perfect for mobile devices and has the rare distinction among comparable games of having an ending. He followed that game up with an interesting multiplayer game called Smarter Than You, and in 2015 released a sequel of sorts to 10000000 entitled You Must Build a Boat. Later this year he will release his fourth game, Photographs. We spoke with Redwood about the success of his previous games and what makes Photographs different from his other projects.
Game Informer: 10000000 and You Must Build a Boat were both highly replayable puzzle games, but Photographs is more focused on characters and story?
Luca Redwood: That’s what this game is – it’s a bit of both. My niche is threading the needle between the casual and the hardcore. That’s what I tried to do with 10000000 and You Must Build a Boat. For this one, it’s trying to thread the needle between a casual game and a serious game.
Yeah, it’s a puzzle game. You’ll solve a puzzle then you get a new puzzle. On the whole narrative aspect of it – it happens around that. It’s five stories. They’re completely individual, but for you as a player you don’t say, “I’m going to play a narrative game.” You say, “I’m playing this puzzle game.” And every time you complete a puzzle, a story will be told around you.
Each of the five stories/puzzles are standalone? Or are they connected?
They can stand alone. They connect a little bit in different ways. They’re not necessarily set in the same time, but there’s one aspect from someone’s story, then you play a different story later on and you will see reference to them in their story. Then in the end it all sort of knits together in an interesting way.
What are you calling these? Stories? Episodes?
I call them tragedies. That’s the serious aspect of this game. It’s pretty dark. I always saw the pitch as imagine if Black Mirror was a game, but I think Black Mirror has done a game now, so I can’t really use that pitch. It’s all pretty bad stuff.
Do each of the tragedies have distinct puzzle mechanics? Or are they all based on the same simple hook? How does it all work?
Here’s the tricky thing with threading the needle between casual and hardcore. On PC, it’s easier. People are happy to play a serious game. It’s much harder on mobile. It’s certainly very hard to get them to read text. If you want to really tell a story on mobile, you’ve got to be inventive about how you’re going to make that happen.
The way it works in this game is you will do a puzzle and when you solve the puzzle you will get a photograph and that is a quite nice visual element to the story. There is voice-acted narration, which is like one to two short lines which I’ve found is as much as you can push it and that will tell a story. But the main thing I want to do is tell a story through the gameplay. There is one story where there are two characters trying to stay together, but circumstances are pulling them apart, and the puzzle for that story is about controlling two characters at once and trying to keep them together, but the levels are pulling them apart and you’ve got to overcome that. But when you finish that character’s story, that entire puzzle’s mechanics are completely thrown away, because it was specific to that story. If you try to put those puzzle mechanics in another story, it doesn’t tell that story. Which, in retrospect, maybe was a bit of a mistake? Because it turns out making five games is harder than making one game. But I think it works well and evokes the right emotions, even if it doesn’t explicitly say so.
Are you moving things on a grid like a match-three? Or will it be more like an adventure game?
There are a couple where you are moving stuff on a grid, but some are completely non-grid based. There is one that isn’t even turn-based, it’s real time. They’re all very, very different.
So there is no high-score chasing base puzzle game to play, like in You Must Build A Boat and 10000000? The puzzles all have distinct endings?
Yeah, that’s right. That’s the narrative part of the game. There are beginnings, middles, and ends. You can replay them, but this isn’t meant to be a super repayable puzzle game.
You did all the art for your previous games, but not this one, right?
This was another way I wanted to tell a story. I followed this artist, Octavi “Pixels Huh” Navarro, for a long time. I think we spoke a bunch of times over the years just because we were wanting to do some work together, but we were never free at the same time, but finally we were. He does a lot of work which is, “oh look, it’s just one picture,” but there is so much detail, and you can read so much of the story from just this one picture. I knew that was right for this project, so I thought rather than try to do an approximation myself, why don’t I just get this guy to do it and he was pretty keen. It looks a lot better than my own art. I drew some prototypes, and I sent them to him and he makes them look significantly less embarrassing.
Is Photographs just coming to mobile? Or will it receive a PC release, as well?
Definitely mobile and steam. Probably concurrent release. I’ve done that before and it works well, even if it’s a bit of extra work to make it all happen at the same time.
I’ve said 2018 to give myself as much breathing room as possible, but I am pretty sure it’s going to be around May or June. It’s coming along really well. Some of the stories are complete, and the others are mostly complete. Just today I was casting and sorting out voice acting and voice direction. I’m at that stage so it’s coming along nicely.
When did you start working on Photographs?
I’ve had the idea for it, for about five years. It sat on the shelf because I wasn’t convinced the market was right for it and it wouldn’t sell particularly well, but there have been quite a lot of serious games like it that have come out recently. 2016 I was basically on one project that at the end of 2016 I decided I wasn’t going to bother with. That was initially the next one I wanted to do.
So you began working on it in earnest in 2017?
Yeah, in terms of – I am always designing games. I’ve got notebooks full of stuff. I designed a lot of it and then I made the decision to into full production and started writing code sort of towards the end of 2016, starting in 2017.
Mobile game development has become your full-time gig now, right? Were you surprised by the success of 10000000 and where it has lead you?
You Must Build A Boar did much better than I was expecting. I think between them they’ve done like 500,000 copies. I don’t know, if you were Activision, you would probably be pretty upset about that number, but it’s just me, so it’s kind of fantastic. But yeah, I wasn’t really expecting it, especially with 10000000. I think I stayed with my job after 10000000 for like six months, because I wasn’t quite sure if it was all going to stop the day after I handed in my notice to my employer. You know what? It’s still going alright. It’s not enough to pay may salary, but it still sells like… 50ish copies a day? Like $2 or $3 bucks?
You let people e-mail you for a free copy of You Must Build A Boat if they bought 10000000. Did that affect the sales?
I don’t think so. It was thousands, and then I would reply to the
e-mails and there would be five more in the inbox, especially in those
first few weeks, but I was happy to do it.
It was originally going to be a free expansion, and then it got so big it was its own game. What I was going to do was find a way to automatically gift a copy. I said I was going to do that, but everyone said not to do it because they wanted to support me, so I though, okay, I will open up an e-mail address. I just said, “E-mail me your receipt and I will gift you a copy,” which worked well, except I spent the first few weeks after release refreshing my inbox and sending out codes.
Sorry to focus on 10000000 and You Must Build A Boat…
Well that’s the risk right? Photographs is very different. I’m struggling because, they’re like short stories and part of the interest is in the surprise with these tragedies. You’ve got to relate to these characters and have a moment of horror and then bad things happen to them, and I am quite worried about showing too much, because then I will lose that.
Can you tell me about one of the stories?
It’s the one I am working on now. It’s called the journalist’s story. It’s about a guy and he’s running a family business and it’s going alright. It’s been handed down through generations and generations and it’s called The Uplift. It’s about a newspaper that writes uplifting news. It’s all good, and the appetite for the public changes. More hateful stuff is selling and he’s cramped in this situation between, “Okay, these are the values of our publication, and our publication is going to fail and I am going to have to close my family business. Or we can change our publication to reflect the values of dissent and hate.”
This isn’t a story that’s going to be told in text. This one is more like a word puzzle. You find works that encapsulate how he is feeling at the time, but then you have this diorama that is building up around you, and the idea behind that is if you walk away from your computer or your phone and you come back, then you know exactly where you are in the story because you have these dioramas that show that.
Of the few puzzles, that is probably the closest to 10000000 or YMBAB. You’ve got letters and you’re forming words, but then that tile disappears. So you have to be tactical about which worlds you’re going to say because you’ve got to try and clear the whole grid. If you spell this word and then this word, then you’re not going to have any vowels left.
One’s kind of like a pinball puzzle where you have to line up various elements and make sure your pinball, which is represented by an Olympic diver – not Olympics, so I don’t get sued. Athletic diver – is hitting the right places in the right order. They’re all very different.
The whole thing is that it doesn’t get boring. You’re kind of obliged in a puzzle game to have 200 levels and then it’s like, “Yeah, I already know these concepts and it’s just dragging it out.” Like most of the stories, there are 15 levels, tops, so you play through all these levels and each story takes 20-30 minutes. I basically teach a game, and then throw it away afterward, so it’s all killer no filler.
I do appreciate that in video games.
I don’t know. I think people like us like that. I don’t know if the larger archetype wants to see the bullet-point saying, “Over 900 hours of gameplay!” For me, two hours gameplay is a big tick in the plus column, but for others it might be a big tick in the minus column, so I am not sure how that is going to go.