swarm_racer.jpg Joseph White is the founder of Lexaloffle, a New Zealand based indie developer responsible for titles like Neko Puzzle, Zen Puzzle Garden and the recent Swarm Racer.

“What is it about Lexaloffle games that I love so much?” Queried Derek Yu on TIGSource at the time of Swarm Racer’s release. “Everything about them is so endearing, from the cute graphics and music to the easy-to-understand (but hard to master) gameplay. The games are just so earnest and polished. Playing one is like putting on your favorite sweater and having some tea and a scone on a blustery fall afternoon. It’s like what I imagine New Zealand to be like. Or maybe getting nuzzled by a unicorn.”

Quite a write up, certainly, but “earnest and polished” is pretty much a spot on description of Lexaloffle’s games. The bit about the “favourite sweater” isn’t too far off either – these are games with soul.

We got in touch with White via email to discuss Lexaloffle’s history and its future.

When did you start developing games?

I started out making ASCII games on a BBC Micro when I was about 10 years old. At that time I was trying to reproduce games I had seen in arcades like Moon Patrol and Elevator Action. I was happy just to get an ASCII guy with slashes for limbs running around though.

Where do you take inspiration from for your games?

All kinds of places. I think the most interesting design ideas come from things which have nothing to do with games. But in general if I want to think about games, I like listening to chip music and looking at pixel art.

I assume the idea for Zen Puzzle Garden came from things outside of games?

Yes. Originally the game was about placing objects in a garden so that they satisfied a set of rules. Trees must not be in line with each other, a stone lantern must have space around it etc. It was similar to the 8 queens on a chessboard problem. I couldn't get the rules of the puzzle to agree nicely with the theme though, and it eventually evolved into the Zen Garden idea. Once I had that theme it fell into place much more easily, because I wanted to do some kind of geometric puzzle, and raking lines in sand is perfect for that.

Zen Puzzle Garden, in particular, has had an amazing response – how does that feel?

It feels great. It's very satisfying to produce something that people can enjoy, and also it means that I can probably keep on doing what I love.

What kind of reactions have you had to your other games?

The only other Lexaloffle game which has been out for a while is Neko Puzzle. It did well as a cell phone game in China, but as a desktop game I think it mostly piggy-backs off Zen. More recently, Swarm Racer seems to be gathering a decent following. It was just a quick game for fun, but it's had such an appreciative response so far it makes me wonder why I spend so much time working on epic projects.

neko_puzzle.jpgHow did Neko Puzzle get released as a cell phone game in China?

I was doing some work with a company in Wellington which had contacts in China. We teamed up and made several ports in Java which they liked and licensed to a Chinese network. It was nice to see Neko reach its natural habitat - that game was really asking to be put on a cell phone.

What can we expect from the upcoming game, Jasper's Journeys?

Jasper was originally released in 1998 for DOS, so you can track down the old demo and find out! It's basically a mishmash of things we like about old fashioned platform games. Secrets inside secrets, quirky creature behaviour, frantic bullet dodging and a lot of leaping around. That sort of thing.

Why are you remaking it?

The DOS version didn't get around much, so it seemed worth giving Jasper a second chance. The new version is much slicker and will run nicely on modern operating systems, so hopefully it will reach a wider audience this time around.

How do you go about developing a title for Lexaloffle?

I tend to quickly prototype ideas as they occur to me, so at any one time I'll have about a dozen games bubbling away. Once I become sufficiently excited about one of them, I'll promote it to the pool of games that I work on regularly (currently Chocolate Castle, Jasper's Journeys, and one unannounced game). From then on it's just a lot of pixelling, coding, map designing, play testing and tweaking in no particular order. I think it's good to have a number of projects going on at once so that ideas can sort of cross-pollinate between them, and I can rotate around them if I need a break. The downside is that the ratio between released and unreleased games isn't so great.

What's Chocolate Castle?

It's a puzzle game which involves shifting blocks of chocolate around so that little animals can eat them. It sounds cute, but really it's a platform for designing mean puzzles.

Where does the name Lexaloffle come from?

I found it in a pile of old notes I was flipping through around the same time I needed to come up with a name for the company. I don't know what I was thinking when I wrote it down, but I liked the way it sounded. I was about to go with 'Modern Monster' or 'Yellow Rocket', so I was happy to get away from that whole [adjective] [noun] thing.

zen_puzzle.jpgGiven that you're distributing the games as shareware, do you get many people upgrading to the full versions?

In general about 1%-2%. It depends on the type of traffic coming through. People coming from a niche puzzle game site are more likely to buy the games than a stampede of download.com visitors, for example.

What made you decide to produce games for Mac as well?

Basically because I could, and because I like Macs. My games don't need much in the way of platform-specific code because I do most of the graphics in software. As long as I have a screen to blit to, a controller, and some sound, I'm happy. It's much easier to get exposure in the Mac world too. A good percentage of my customers are Mac users.

I notice you're offering discounts to schools that purchase your titles - have you had many takers on this?

Only a handful. After I heard back from a couple of teachers who were using the games to develop problem solving skills, I liked the idea and wanted to encourage it. I haven't done anything to target schools beyond that though.

Do you consider your games educational software?

Not really. It's not something I set out to do, but a lot of puzzle games are educational by nature just because…well…they're puzzles.

Finally, I almost forgot to ask about the awesome music in Swarm Racer. Who's the artist who does it, and how did you get involved with them?

The title music was written by Laszlo Vincze - also know as Vincenzo. He put out a great music disk called Emerald Box (with his demo group at the time Conspiracy), and later when I was working on Swarm Racer, one of the tracks sprang to mind as a perfect title tune. He kindly provided a copy of it that I could use, which made me very happy. It's just so damn funky.