The small Danish studio Italic ApS recently launched Animal Captain, a children’s game for iOS devices inspired by the story of Noah’s Ark, in which young players solve logic puzzles by pairing the correct animals in rooms on a ferry. Put a snake and a mouse in the same room, and you might have trouble brewing. But never more than can be quickly remedied by switching animals around to achieve more peaceful relations.
Launching children’s games in today’s crowded market is notoriously hard, with popular titles like Subway Surfers, Minecraft, Moviestar Planet and Toca Boca on offer, and recouping on development costs typically requires a serious PR effort, external funding and a very time- and resource-efficient development team.
This holy trinity of video game production has been the basis of Thomas Ryder and Camilla Pedersen’s work with Animal Captain. Both a couple in their private life and the dynamic work duo behind Italic ApS, they have done everything themselves (with the exception of public relations, outsourced to PR Nordic) ever since The Danish Film Institute (DFI) granted them 142,916 Danish crowns (DKK) for project development support in 2012.
“We applied for support funds when we realized that this was a relatively small production, and we got the money. DFI only covers around 60 per cent of the actual production costs, so we need to generate quite a lot of revenue for this to turn into good business,” says Ryder, a Danish games industry veteran and now enjoying life as an independent game designer. “However, if we were really interested in money, we would close up shop tomorrow and find ourselves some real jobs instead. We chose to make a living from developing games, as we simply cannot stop, and that always carries with it great economic risk.”
Before receiving project development support, Italic ApS was also granted 75,000 DKK in concept development support from DFI. “We spent four months on the game in 2012,” says Pedersen, “and since then we have been working on it when we had breaks from other projects. Animal Captain has basically been paid for with revenue from these projects.”
Like her partner in crime, Pedersen also finds great satisfaction in the freedom of being an independent designer and developing her own games, but she does not believe that the project will reach the break-even point, noting that Italic ApS are dependent on additional support funds in order to start up new projects.
Ryder spent eight years working as a graphic artist and game designer in the Danish branch of the big Rupert Murdoch-owned software developer NDS. When NDS Denmark closed in 2010 and laid off 53 employees with one fell swoop, he was one of them, and he saw this as an opportunity to become an independent developer. He started up the game developer House on Fire in 2012, releasing the critically acclaimed iOS game The Silent Age, and then proceeded to found Italic ApS earlier this year.
Camilla Pedersen and Thomas Ryder
Pedersen spent four years at NDS before a brief tenure at Deadline Games until their closure in 2009, working on the game engine for the studio’s swan song title Watchmen: The End is Nigh, as well as the unreleased Bonnie & Clyde-style action game Faith and a .45. Following that, she had been developing iOS games and apps.
With his background in visual communication from the Danish Design School, Ryder was responsible for all graphics, audio and design for Animal Captain. Pedersen has an education in multimedia technology from ITU and programmed the entire game in a new engine (Corona), while running all administrative tasks in Italic’s two-developer setup.
The transition from working with a dark, somber game like The Silent Age was a welcome change for Ryder. “That was quite heavy game and after a year and a half with it, I felt like doing something completely different before I finished up the second half. Something light and innocent – something with a blue sky and vibrant colours. I had loads of ideas lying around, but the Animal Captain concept stood out for several reasons; the idea was very simple, and working with it was therefore very flexible. We would also be able to create the game within a limited period of time and with a limited budget.”
“We wanted to create a game for small children, because seeing them use iPads so intuitively is very fascinating,” Pedersen continues. “Our primary focus has been on developing a slick and entertaining game, and we have not focused all that much on learning. However, children clearly learn something about solving logical problems from the game. It is our general experience that small children mostly just like to touch the animals and move them around, while the 4-6 year-olds tend to be more interested in the gameplay.”
“We used animals as game elements because of the simple reason that most adults and children have a basic understanding of which animals can and cannot coexist,” states Ryder. “But I am not really interested in inter-animal relations. I am much more interested in the logical puzzle running underneath the hood. If you strip the game of all graphics and audio, every level will be a small logical task about identifying and grouping elements in boxes. Will children learn something from that? That is hard to say. But it is probably a good brain exercise.”
The most valuable takeaway for the Animal Captain developers has been the importance of testing with children, as they think very differently than adults. “Not basing our design on long academic segment analyses was a conscious decision,” adds Ryder. “We went for entertainment and throughout the development process, we had a lot of children play the game with us looking over their shoulder and subsequently adjusting our design based on their reactions until we felt that there was nothing left to adjust. Very un-academic, but quite efficient.”
“As an adult, you typically act from a rule set that has been agreed upon and repeated together with all of the other adults throughout a long life,” Ryder points out. “Children, on the other hand, react completely instinctively or from self-invented rule sets – they have not learned all of the adult rules yet. Most adults entertain the idea that a game’s difficulty should increase in a relatively straight curve from the first level to the last one. Children tend to like variation in level difficulty, however – for instance, having an easy level appear right after a hard one.”
“Their focus is also very different. There is a fox in Animal Captain that none of the other animals like. We adults perceive the fox as a game element that should be isolated, but we experience again and again that children feel great empathy with the fox. They identify it as an outsider and make up their own stories about what it thinks and how it feels,” explains Ryder, who drew upon various sources of inspiration for the game. He points to German design culture – in particular the two simplistic German toy brands Playmobil and Märklin – as well as the Danish artists Hans Scherfig and Herman Stilling’s paintings as primary influences on the game’s visual style.
In the end, having fun both creating and playing the game has been of utmost importance to Ryder and Pedersen. “I think that you learn when you are having fun,” Ryder concludes. “Just like movies and comic books are something that you enjoy when relaxing in your spare time, games are not really fit to be the bait that makes players swallow an agenda or learning that they are not really interested in. There are loads of examples of games with political, religious or pedagogical agendas, and they usually suffer from the same problem: They are made by people with agendas and not by people who just want to create entertaining games.”