okabu_logo.jpg[In a GameSetWatch exclusive interview, John Polson talks to Simon Oliver of Rolando creator HandCircus, now targeting PlayStation Network with the cloud-flying heroes of 'Okabu', a co-op puzzle-platformer set in a colorful toy box world.]

The dream that is HandCircus became reality initially with just one man: Simon Oliver. After HandCircus released its first trailer for Rolando, publisher ngmoco was quick to pick up the title. The two had a brief but successful run, earning critical acclaim from the iOS title Rolando and its sequel.

HandCircus have since separated from their publisher and their iDevice audience for Okabu. While the team ventures into the uncharted that is console digital distribution, the developers remain committed to bringing a colorfully poignant, thought-provoking product to PSN users in 2011.

Here Simon discusses his inspirations, the company’s humble beginnings, possible Move integration for Okabu, and open-source software projects which helped to bring Rolando to life. He also reveals the reasons behind the team’s decision to step away from the last Indie Games Arcade (IGA).

Along the way, Oliver reflects on the previous benefits of having publisher ngmoco, and he mentions a merging London meet up group that may have more collective potential than gamers can shake their motion controllers at:

About HandCircus:

Tell us what other people said when you decided to “go indie”?

When HandCircus just started out, it was just me. As much as I'd love to say the earth shook and there were gasps of astonishment from all corners of the globe, it was a very gentle start.

Rather than diving off the high-board, I started with armbands on. I was still working part-time doing a variety of game-related freelance jobs (some product design prototyping, creating some educational exhibits) until I finally took the plunge as Rolando began to take off and I was able to go "full indie."

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Simon Oliver

You wake up in the morning. What does your day look like?

I'm lucky enough to live near an open-air heated swimming pool, a remarkably good way to start the day (even in winter). The aquatic depths seem to provide some kind of weird meditative state, which usually helps break down the various challenges that we may have that week and allows me to throw a few new ideas into the ring.

Then it’s a short walk to the studio to open up before the others get there. Work is pretty varied. Being a small team, we all take on a variety of roles, so each day provides its own unique cocktail of activities. On a really fun day, I'll be prototyping new game mechanics or creating new contraptions for Okabu, and on a less interesting day, I'll be getting a whole bunch of new features into OkabuEdit or hunting down exotic bugs.

Admin days are definitely the worst, though. We're fortunate to have an extraordinarily diverse selection of places to get lunch, so we'll all head out to grab something to eat. Current favourites are a Turkish barbecue restaurant and a bizarre newsagent that sells excellent curry, plays 1990s house music, and sells giant metal sculptures.

What are your gaming inspirations?

The first computer I had was an Acorn Electron, which I shared with my two older brothers - my parents spent weeks creating our computer room, one of the best Christmas presents I've ever had. It had the computer, a TV, red and white striped walls, all these 80s gaming posters and three chairs with our initials on them.

Early on I was a little too young to really appreciate it, but as I grew older, these brightly coloured worlds began to really make an impression on me. One of my favourite games was Imogen, a wonderful game about a wizard that could turn into a cat, monkey, or bird.

The first console I ever had was the Sega Master System, which I won on a radio competition one New Year’s Eve after ringing them about 50 times, chasing them to find out who the winner was. The console that really burnt games forever into my prefrontal cortex though was the Super Famicom/Super Nintendo - I LOVED that console. Playing an imported Japanese copy of Super Mario World in 1990 was a revelation.

That and Zelda: A Link to the Past have definitely made the strongest impressions on me, but they seemed so exotic and magnificent that I couldn't imagine how they were made. The thought of creating something like that at the time seemed absurd. It wasn't until I started messing around with Flash, many years later, that the idea of making games became a possibility in my mind.

Nowadays I'll try to keep the games I buy pretty broad. I still enjoy blockbusters such as Red Dead Redemption and Uncharted 2 but probably spend more time with downloadable titles. There's been such a burst of creativity that’s come with the arrival of these new platforms (trying to avoid the words "Cambrian Explosion" here), and it’s such a pleasure to dive into PSN, the App Store, Steam, and XBLA.

Tell us about your workspace and your day to day routines.

We've got a little studio in East London, sharing with a few friends that have all started up their own thing recently. It’s pretty formal: three piece suits, bow ties and brogues Monday to Thursday, with no talking, no music and no dancing. On Friday we all unwind by flying a small kite in the patch of dirt outside, next to the incinerator.

Who else is in HandCircus? What games have you guys made before becoming HandCircus?

There's five of us in the HandCircus big tent: myself, Mikko and Matt (art), Shane (level design), and Luke (coding). Mikko and myself are pretty new arrivals to the console/handheld games industry (Rolando 1 & 2 are our only published games), but the others have gnarled craftsmen’s hands, shaped from many years of game creation.

Between them, they've worked on some fantastic titles, from LittleBigPlanet and the Silent Hill series to Galleon, Buzz and Ratchet & Clank. Among the team, we have some exotic extra-curricular experience, too - from a qualified dentist and an ex-rapper to a trained soldier and biological animator.

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Luke Petre, Matt Bell, Mikko Walamies on iPad, Simon Oliver, and Shane Bromham

What other Indies in or around London should we keep our eyes out for?

There's quite a few of us in London and nearby, and our numbers are growing - there's ourselves, Different Cloth (creators of IGF Mobile winning Lilt Line and forthcoming Project Derek), Hello Games down in Guildford (creators of Joe Danger), Inensu (new studio set up by Paulina Bozek of SingStar fame), Curve (creators of Fluidity and forthcoming Explodemon), Beatnik (of Plain Sight fame), Introversion (Darwinia, Subversion), Supermono (Minisquadron, Epicwin), Honeyslug (Hohokum, Poto & Cabenga) and many, many more. Rudolf Kremers (of Eufloria) has recently started up the London Indies meetup, too, so there's no excuse for us not getting together more.

ngmoco was your publisher. Can you explain their role(s) in more detail?

We partnered with ngmoco for the Rolando series on the iPhone, although we are self-publishing with Okabu. They approached us after we put out an initial trailer for Rolando in Summer 2008, and they were great to work with: very smart guys with a real passion for games.

They handled the marketing, PR, localization, and QA for Rolando. That allowed us to really focus on creating the game. They were really supportive and provided a valuable sounding board for ideas. Moving to self-publishing has really made me appreciate their part of the partnership even more!

More about Okabu:

You’re standing next to the President of Video Games. What’s your quick pitch about Okabu?

There should so be a president of Video Games. He would sit upon the Famicom throne at Super Potato in Akihabara. I would describe Okabu as an action-puzzle adventure, a Cloud-whale quest with flying hero companions harnessing the power of nature to drive back the corruption and pollution of the industrialised Doza clan.

There's a big emphasis on physics play and teamwork; each of the heroes has their own specific power, and you've got to use these powers together to solve the puzzles and defeat the devious machines. We want to create a world that is a pleasure to dive into, with a ton of stuff to interact with in every zone, in every nook and cranny. That’s the pleasure of working with a physics-driven world; you can add so much rich interaction to all of the elements and creatures.

I love playing games on the bed with my spouse. Is Okabu co-op local and/or online?

We've got local co-op in Okabu. Calling people names in real life is so much more fun than over the Internet.

Is there any estimate as to when in 2011 the release will happen?

It’s our first console game, so it’s hard to make exact predictions, but we're aiming for the summer. We'll only release it once we're really happy with it though, and once we've finished big-head mode.

You guys stepped away from the UK-based Indie Games Arcade show last year for an overhaul of the game. Care to explain more?

Yeah, we had to make quite a big decision around a month before the IGA, once we knew that we were targeting PS3 as our launch platform. We wanted to support different renderers (so we could take advantage of render systems specifically designed for the PS3), so we had to spend quite a bit of time restructuring the code.

This set us back quite a bit and meant that by the time the IGA came round the game barely worked! We were really disappointed not to be able to be part of the IGA; it would have been an amazing opportunity to get feedback from players.

Will Okabu stay PSN exclusive forever?

We're 100% focused on PSN at the moment, but we'd love to do more projects set in the Okabu universe in the future. Our background is iOS, so we're keeping our mobile-coding neurons sharp, ready to prepare a mobile Okabu adventure.

There seemed to be aiming involved during some points. Will Okabu use Move technology?

Of course our focus is Dualshock 3, and we want to make sure that that Okabu plays really with the standard controller. That said, Move is awesome technology, and it’s something we've had in mind since we started work on the project. We have a control scheme for Okabu that’s designed for Move, but we need to do a lot of prototyping and user testing to make sure that our ideas work outside of our heads.

What connection is there between the worlds of Rolando and Okabu? The art bears some uncanny similarities.

The worlds are separate, but the artist remains the same! Mikko's character and world designs have been a joy to work with. He's back in the team for Okabu, so it retains his Finnish flair and charming style.

How did Botswana inspire your game's title?

Ha! Well, my partner, Kate, and I have a medium-to-large obsession with animals, zoos and nature programs. I’m not sure if you've seen a show called Planet Earth that was created by the BBC a few years ago, but it’s absolutely stunning.

There was a section in the first episode that explored the Okavango Delta, and it showed how water first arrives at the dried out lands, and how that water brings the whole landscape to life; plants grow, insects spread, birds arrive. Before you know it, it’s teeming with life. It seemed to be such a perfect example of the power of nature.

The open-source software projects Ogre and Bullet Physics helped make Okabu. Care to expand on how they helped?

We are indebted to the efforts of the open-source community for all of our games. Rolando was built around the Box2D physics engine, and as you mention we've been using Ogre, Bullet Physics, and a number of other open source libraries to create Okabu.

For small teams, these fantastic libraries are invaluable, providing strong foundations to build your game upon and letting you focus on the things that will make your game unique and fun to play. It’s such a joy to not have to reinvent the wheel. Where we've had the opportunity, we've tried to contribute back to those projects and hope to again with Okabu.

[A huge thanks goes out to the guys at HandCircus, who prove to be remarkably adaptable in the face of photographic adversity! Follow the latest updates from HandCircus on their website or on Twitter @handcircus.]