June 27th, 2007
Nitrome is a U.K. based indie game company founded in 2004 which delivers highly addictive and funny web games. Games like Hot Air, Scribble and Roly Poly showcase their talent for unique game concepts, graphics and playing mechanics.

We enjoyed talking with one of their founders, Matthew Annal, about how they started, their current work and future projects.

Q: We'd like to know a little about your background. When did you guys started making games and how did Nitrome start?

A: Nitrome started in late 2004. Me and the other owner Heather had previously worked for several agencies doing various web projects and wanted to get into an area that would allow us to develop original games. Originally our plan was to make mobile games as it was quite a new industry at the time but after making a few demo pieces we gave up on the scene and ended up taking on lots of web work to pay the bills. It wasn’t really what we wanted to do though and out of the frustration we developed our first none client commissioned web game not really knowing what we would do with it or if it would make us any money.

Q: What were the first games you launched? Where they successful?

A: Our first game was Hot Air which did ok but didn’t really make the sort of money we were used to getting from client commissioned work. It made enough money to warrant making another game though so we followed it up with Sandman which did a little better. By the time we had three games under our belt we decided it was going well enough to stop going after web work. We still don’t make that much from it but we enjoy doing it and I think that’s more important :)

Q: If you were to give a couple of suggestion to younger developers willing to sell their games to portals, what would you recommend?

A: Go round everywhere you can and get ready to haggle and ask questions. When we started we must have contacted about 100 games sites. Most of them didn’t even reply but we soon learnt who the key sites were and what we could get from going with each of them and then decided the best route to go. Another thing I would recommend is having a finished game ready that is a polished as you can make it….There are a lot of sites that will be happy to talk to you but only if they can see you can produce work of a good enough quality. Also if you don’t get a reply straight away don’t assume it is necessarily because they are not interested…..the people who run the bigger sites get very busy and it can be very easy for them to overlook an email so if you don’t hear back after a while try contacting them again.

Q: What are the games that influenced you the most in your work?

A: Ideas tend to come from things we see around us….Feed Me was purely based on seeing a Venus Fly Trap in a garden centre and wondering how it would work if it were the main character in a game. Other times a very small mechanic we see in a game gets expanded into a whole game. The idea for Hot Air came from a bit in the classic lemmings 2 where you can use a fan to blow the lemmings round the level. Even client briefs can have an influence…..Sandman came from trying to build a sand art application and wondering how we could make a game out of it.

Q: Let's talk about "Roly Poly" for a moment. We've found the game very funny and addictive. Where did you draw inspiration for it?

A: I always used to get those little mazes at Christmas with the metal balls in….I thought it would be great to expand on that and have various traps and obstacles.

Q: Space Hopper is your latest title, can you tell us how much time did it take to complete and how many people worked on it?

A: Like all our games we spent about a month on it and there were just two of us that made it not including the music which was commissioned separately for the game.

Q: What were the difficulties you had to overcome while developing Space Hopper?

A: Getting the little guy to go round the planets wasn’t that difficult but getting him to catch the gravity and land properly on others was quite problematic.

Q: Scribble has very unique style. How did you design the graphics? Is it a mix of vectors and bitmaps?

A: The main influence was obviously to scribble the graphics to go with the name. The characters came from the idea of face painting which is why they look a little clown like. It is all bitmaps unless you consider the masks for the transitions which were all done with vectors to save on file size.

Q: Can you explain how does the path recognition work in Scribble?

A: All the collision in Scribble is bitmap based. We draw all of the lines to the main level bitmap and blow up the holes out of it when there’s an explosion. The blots just a check to see if there is a pixel below them to stand on. If there is they check if there is a wall in front of them or not and if so how many pixels high it is.

Q: Since your game graphics are mostly bitmap we presume that you draw your art outside of Flash. What are the tools you use the most? Any recommendations?

A: I’m sure there are better alternatives out there but due to my background being in web work I’ve always stuck to using Photoshop, Image Ready and Fireworks. I’m not sure I could recommend them purely on a pixelling basis but they do the job.

Q: Each of your games comes with a nice soundtrack and lots of cool sound effects. Do you produce your the music?

A: We usually do the sound effects in-house but all the Music is commissioned from freelance musicians. It’s one of the few things we regularly outsource but we aren’t really big enough to warrant a full time musician so it works best that way.

Q: Can you describe what is the usual process you go through when creating a new game? What is usually the first aspect your work on? Game mechanics? Characters? Graphics?

A: We're pretty confident that we can make whatever we come up with so usually on agreeing a project between us we start by making a mock up shot. Once that’s done we get the basic programming of the game in place at the same time as the basic artwork required to make up a level. It’s a pretty organic process from then on. We all come up with things that we would like to be in the game and grade them based on difficulty to implement and how much impact we think they will have. What ends up in the finished game is basically what we have time to put in.

Q: Do you always plan every detail of a new game before starting to code or do you let the project change a bit during the development?

A: We don’t plan anything other than the initial concept. If we planned too much then we wouldn’t have time to get the games done :)

Q: Do you use beta testers for testing the games before releasing them?

A: Yes and no… we test the games ourselves as we go along and we have a few close friend who also like to test the games. We did try using more impartial people that offered to test the games but it just tended to slow the process down too much and we’d get insane suggestions of extra things to add at this late stage instead of actual bugs that needed fixing.

Q: Which tools (editors / graphics tool / versioning etc... ) would you recommend to improve the productivity or that you just couldn't work without?

A: We don’t really use anything special… just Flash and Photoshop. We’ve built some of our own things though that make some of the more mundane things easier such as a high score component for Flash and a level editor for tile based Flash games that can be reused for different games.

Q: What is your current target flash player for your games?

A: We use the newest version we can get away with – currently that’s Flash 8.

Q: Do you believe that targeting games for flash player 9 is still too early?

A: I don’t think it’s too early. We expect to start using Flash CS3 quite soon. Gamers tend to adopt the new Flash player quicker than most web users.

Q: What do you think about the latest Flash CS / Flex 2 / Actionscript 3? What are the most interesting features (if any) that you would like to experiment with or use in your next game?

A: It seems to be really good. Flash Player 9 and ActionScript 3 have a lot of speed improvements which was really our only limitation with Flash. Actually we can’t wait to get stuck in and see what we can do with that extra speed.

Q: You both license your games to portals and let people play them for free directly from your website. From a business perspective which of the two approaches is more profitable?

A: I think if you are serious about being a Flash Games developer then you have to have your own website to show off what you can do, but selling licenses to portals is the only way you are going to make enough money to cover making them at least in the short term.

Q: You have a sequel to your ‘Hot Air’ game coming out soon. Can you tell us any more about it and when we might expect to see it?

A: We have tired really hard to improve on Hot Air in every way. We have made it start a lot easier for the people who said the original was too difficult. It has more levels than the original and this time every one is different. There are some big Boss battles in this one and because you have no weapon in Hot Air you will have to figure out how to defeat each boss from the surroundings. There is also a cool little app that we are making to go with the game that allows users to design their own balloons and use them in the game. The Balloons will even show up on the score board for maximum bragging rights. We’re just putting the finishing touches to it now and doing some final testing so it should be up pretty soon.

Q: And finally…..what’s next for Nitrome. Are there any plans to expand or are you happy going as you are?

A: We have actually doubled the size of the team already from when we started and were hoping to take on more people by the end of the year so if you have talented artists or coders reading that want to work in our London office and have a passion for games send in your CV’s and examples. The extra staff won’t just be to produce more of the same though (although that will be part of it) We want to get into everything game related….multiplayer online, download games, phone games maybe even handheld and console stuff if the guys at Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony will let us :)

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