EB Expo 2013 Interview: Seon Rozenblum of 3 Sprockets (Cubemen 2)

Seon Rozenblum, Director & Lead Developer at 3 Sprockets is a local indie veteran who has worked in the industry for many years, right out of my home town of Melbourne, Australia. 3 Sprockets made a name for themselves with the release of the deceptive simple, yet innovative Cubemen last year to much global critical success.

Cubemen 2 Screenshot_04

The team has followed it up this year with the re-designed Cubemen 2, rewriting the game and enhancing it for a dedicated community firmly behind the boxed men army, and hopefully attracting some new recruits as well.

At EB Expo this past weekend, I got to sit down for a chat with Seon to find out more about Cubemen 2 and what’s to come from 3 Sprockets. Seon talks candidly about the challenges of developing a sequel, the features, and their game development direction in the next generation console era.

Hangie: So first question, tell me a little about yourself and how you got into game development?

Seon: Ok, so my name is Seon Rozenblum and I’m from 3 Sprockets in Melbourne. I’ve been making games since 2006 as an independent developer. I’ve shipped about twenty titles which is pretty cool. I had another company that I sold in 2009 and then started 3 Sprockets in 2010 with Cubemen being my first game for this company. So I’ve been making games for a long time and I just love it. I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing!

Hangie: What inspired you to make Cubemen?

Seon: I’ve always liked tower defense games and I wanted to mix that with an RTS (real-time strategy) element. I didn’t like the fact that once you placed a tower it was stuck there and you couldn’t move it for the rest of the game, so I experimented with some ideas on teleporting towers around, and then I had this crazy idea of these little box men running around the place with guns and it started there.

The next thing I knew I’d released Cubemen on Steam and iOS. It did really, really well and got a lot of cool user feedback and stacks of requests for things I hadn’t thought. In the process of updating Cubemen 1 I thought, this requires a re-write *laughs* so I ended up making Cubemen 2, and now I’m excited its coming out on the Wii U as well.

Hangie: Cool! How does Cubemen 1 differ from Cubemen 2? What kind of new features did you incorporate and was it feedback from players of Cubemen 1 that drove you to add those features?

Seon: It was a bit of feedback from users and some of my own dislikes of Cubemen 1. I kind of boxed myself in a bit with some of the features in the game and didn’t really expand them very well. I always wanted to add a lot more gameplay modes and I just couldn’t do it with (Cubemen) 1.

The first thing the community wanted were a level editor obviously, and the ability to do things like capture the flag type game modes which is quite an unusual thing for a tower defense game so it required a re-write. I started to expand Cubemen 1 and it was just too hard to do.

(Cubemen) seems like a really simple game visually but its actually quite a complex game internally because you could have 150 units on the screen and thousands of projectiles, and they are all physics-based. They have to be network synced for multi-play. There’s actually quite a bit of complex code, and I just couldn’t get it working reliably in Cubemen 1 so I just rewrote it. Crazy!

Hangie: Since you had Cubemen 1 already and you said you had to rewrite a lot of code, in terms of the code base for Cubemen 2, did you have to overhaul a lot of things to get Cubemen 2 running?

Seon: Rewrote it all, from scratch! It’s like a dream come true right because game developers will finish a game and say, “If I ever have the chance to do this again, I would do it totally differently”, right? And I had my chance to do it again so I just bit the bullet and rewrote it all from scratch.

I leveraged what I learnt from Cubemen 1 so it was a much quicker process to rewrite but even today, if I were to make a Cubemen 3, again I would rewrite it because it gets to the point with spaghetti code, no matter what you do, no matter how much planning you do, it’s spaghetti at the end of the day. But there’s no plans for Cubemen 3 right now!


Hangie: *laughs* When you’re making a sequel, you get all kinds of people talking about your game and giving you loads of critical feedback on what they don’t like, how much of that actually influence on what you do for your next game?

Seon: Alot, alot! So with Cubemen 1 I was extremely active on the Steam forums which the consumers really appreciate, being able to talk directly with the developers. One of the key things that worked really well with Cubemen 1 was the simplicity, the visual simplicity so it was a real struggle for me to expand the visuals but still keep it really simple.

With Cubemen 1 there were no themes at all, it was all just flat colour which made it really easy to spot things in the game at what was happening at a glance, and I wanted to keep that but still allow people to theme their characters like ninjas, or pirates, or something.

That was a real challenge for me. People definitely want to be able to go up to six player multi-player, and all the different game modes. I would never have thought about doing capture the flag if it wasn’t for the community asking for it. I’m glad the community was there to give me feedback.

Some of the new units we’ve got in Cubemen 2 are very different to Cubemen 1 because of community feedback. They wanted the ability to have units that would allow you to change the path finding on the level, so you could actually manipulate enemies to go certain ways, so again I didn’t even think of that when I made Cubemen 1. I wouldn’t say Cubemen 2 is a collaborative effort, but there was definitely a lot of community input.

Hangie: With Cubemen 2 also being created for the Wii U, what kind of challenges are there in getting them to work across platforms?

Seon: I used the Unity game engine which I’ve been using since 2006 so they do a lot of the heavy lifting for us which is great. So in terms of things like getting it up and running on the Wii U compliance, that’s pretty much all taken care of.

The challenges on the Wii U is making it intuitive. You’ve got a touchscreen, you’ve got a stylus. The touchscreen itself isn’t as good as an iPad and the stylus is way more accurate than your finger.

We wanted the ability for people to play with the stylus, but still use the D-pad and sticks so the challenge was, how do we make it as fast to play on the Wii U as it is to play with a mouse or touch, but still utilise all the features of the Wii U so players didn’t just feel like they were getting a touch game?

It took a lot of usability testing to get it right, but people are just picking it up here (EB Expo) and just playing it which is great.

Hangie: You said usability testing, how much testing would have gone into this before you felt happy to roll it out like that?

Seon: Events like this gives us all the usability testing we need. The fact that people can just pick it up and play is fantastic. For instance I’m an Apple fanboy, so stylus for me is a dirty word so my first thinking was, there’s no way we’re going to use a stylus. It has to be touch on the Wii U, but the second I started using the stylus, I thought, “WOW! This is really, really, really good!”.

I actually prefer to use the stylus than using my iPad to play the game for instance. It’s a lot more accurate, a lot of fidelity. I had to re-educate myself beforehand and once that happened, it was pretty easy.

Hangie: Have you thought about porting the Cubemen series over to other platforms? It’s already gone from Steam, to iOS and now to Wii U.

Seon: We’re coming out on Android already so that’s going to happen later in the year. We’re certified to go on PS Vita and PS4 for Cubemen 2 but (PS) Vita we may do, we’re not quite sure yet. The problem is its a much smaller screen and we’re not sure how well it will work.

The problem with PS4, we’ve got a controller version working of the game but currently all the platforms we support, no one has an advantage. We’ve got touch working just as fast as mouse and keyboard, just as fast as stylus. The PS4 controller; although it’s quite intuitive is a much slower gameplay so in our test in the office, whoever uses the controller always loses because someone with the mouse is much faster.

Cubemen 2 MainMenu

Hangie: Even with the PS4’s touch control?

Seon: Yeah, because we need to be able to touch individual tiles or units, we don’t want to simulate the mouse with the touch. So although you can do really cool things with the touch for menus and stuff, the whole disconnect between eye and finger doesn’t work very well. So even with that, it’s not fast enough.

Hangie: So, as you’re touching the controller, you need to figure out where your finger is before you can actually drag it across?

Seon: Absolutely. What we do instead is we use the D-pad and the left stick to move a tile indicator around the level. You can move it pretty quickly, but with touch I can just click on a tile. With a controller, you need to move the indicator over so it takes much longer.

We’d love to ship on PS4 but as I said, Sony have already said, Yep we love it. They already love Cubemen 2 but we just don’t think the game is going to do justice on the platform. We think players are going to get more frustrated than not, especially in multi-player gaming.

Hangie: Knowing that much, you don’t want to put out a sub-par experience if you already know it’s not going to work?

Seon: Absolutely, which is why when Cubemen 1 came out it was iPad only and we had people screaming, “I want to play on my phone” and it wasn’t designed to play on a phone. So we made a decision if it was going to be a bad experience, we weren’t going to ship it.

We could have said, we’re shipping on the phone, we don’t care and we could have made a lot more money but I think it would have been bad for the community so we decided not to do it.

Hangie: With Cubemen 2 coming out on Android, is that playable on phone, or only tablets?

Seon: Cubemen 2 is both for phone and tablets. We redesigned the whole workflow and usability of the game, from both a level editing point of view and a playing point of view.

It’s still hard to play on a phone, it’s not impossible. It’s quite intuitive, but when you go from a phone up to a iPad you go, “Arrggghh! This is so much easier!”, but it’s still quite competitive on a phone.

With Android for the small phones, it’ll be like an iPhone problem, but things like the Galaxy Note and the larger Nexus screens are quite nice to play on.

Cubemen 2 Screenhot_04

Hangie: Can you give us any indication on what kind of things you’re working on next, will it be Cubemen 3?

Seon: No, no…we’re currently working on another game called Fight The Dragon. It’s a mini action-RPG, hack-n-slash RPG with a complete adventure construction kit that comes with the game. So one thing we learnt with Cubemen and Cubemen 2 is that a community love making levels.

We’ve got 35,000 Cubemen 1 levels now, made by the community and we’ve already got 6,000 Cubemen 2 levels and Cubemen 2 has only been out for 4 months.

We always wanted to make an RPG, so the key for us was making a construction kit so players could make their own encounters. You’ll be able to make complete environments, place all your different enemies, traps, keys, doors, all sorts of stuff, and then ship them to the world so other people can play.

Hangie: The response that Cubemen 2 has received so far, is this what you were expecting based on the success you’ve already achieved with Cubemen 1, or has this kind of blown you away?

Seon: Cubemen 1 blew us away. We didn’t expect Cubemen 1 to do so well. We were really humbled by how well it did. Cubemen 2 has done definitely as well as Cubemen 1 did. We thought it would do better, based on the fact it’s on phones and everything else but the whole mobile platform is really hard now because Cubemen is not a free-to-play game, it’s a paid game.

Everyone’s gone free-to-play now so it’s 90% of the marketplace which is free-to-play games. So although it’s done extremely well and we’re really happy with the results, we can’t retired; put it that way. We haven’t made that much money.

The exciting thing for us with Fight The Dragon is its controller first. You’ll be able to play with a keyboard and mouse on Steam, but the whole game is designed around pick-up-and-play on a controller. It’s definitely coming to PS4, it’s definitely coming to PS Vita. We’re hoping it will come to Wii U as well, and it’ll definitely be on Steam. We’re not doing mobile, it’s not a mobile game. It’s a hardcore PC and console game.

Hangie: Any possibility of Xbox One?

Seon: We’ve applied for a developer ID, Microsoft haven’t given us one yet. Hopefully someone from Microsoft will be reading this *laugh* and will come and talk to us. We’d love to go Xbox One as well. We’re not platform bias at all, but we’re already Sony developers so its a given we’ll be launching on PS4.

Cubemen 2 Screenhot_03

Hangie: Do you have any comments or anything you’d like to say to Cubemen fans out there?

Seon: We love you! We make games for the community and obviously makes games that we want to play but at the end of the day, it’s all about getting our games out there and getting awesome feedback. I got to tell you, I’m standing here watching people Cubemen 2 and someone will walk behind me and go, “Oh that’s Cubemen! I’ve got that on Steam!”, and I’ll go “Oh! YES!”

It’s exciting right? That’s why we do it. So yeah, to the Cubemen fans; keep playing! Keep making levels and thanks very much for supporting us.

Hangie: Cool, thank you for your time today.

Seon: No worries, thank you.

Thanks to Seon Rozenblum for the sit down chat, and Nnooo for making it all possible. Cubemen 2 is out now on Steam PC, Mac and iOS, with the Wii U version to be released later in the yea via eShop. If you’re interested in what else 3 Sprockets have been working on, check out the official Fight The Dragon website for more information on their current project.