Eggcitement: The story behind DS puzzle platformer DodoGo!

A game that needs a publisher, and fast

Eggcitement: The story behind DS puzzle platformer DodoGo!
| DodoGo!

It's not often that watching a game trailer convinces you of the potential of an unknown title, but that was the case the first time we saw DodoGo!.

From the lovely graphics to the variation of gameplay, cute characters and summary theme music, it's pretty obvious this is a game that needs to be released, and quick.

Check out the video for yourself here.

Of course, we had to find out more and so rolled some questions over to the game's creative director Denis Mercier, who - as you can see - replied at length and with much enthusiasm.

Pocket Gamer: What was the inspiration behind the game?

Denis Mercier: Strangely enough the penny dropped while I was playing Worms Open Warfare, and I really wanted to be able to dig the terrain using the DS stylus. That's where I got the idea for a game where the terrain was totally dynamic, where the player could dig, brush, cut, and saw with the stylus.

I wanted to give the player more power to interact with the environment while focusing less on controlling the main character.

The idea is not far from Lemmings - a stylus-based Lemmings-style game on Nintendo DS. But I was always aiming for something new and personal that focused on a small bunch of characters with enough personality to make them memorable.

They had to have soul. We needed an artificial intelligence in which characters would react to the game environment in ways that reveal their personality.

Creating characters means breathing life into them, as in the famous Italian animated cartoon La Linea by Osvaldo Cavandoli.

The game's junior Dodos are colourful characters and their sense of fun is integral to the gameplay. For example, take good care of junior Dodo eggs and they'll obey when you say "Go!" or "Stop!" into the microphone.

If you don't care for them and they get grumpy and if their shell is cracked, they'll refuse to budge and they'll poke out their tongue when you give a command. If that's the case, you'll have to chivvy them on with the stylus to get them moving.

Also, if the player drops a rock on an egg and breaks it, any egg that witnesses this will be terrified and flee the player like you're a dangerous psychopath. Then you'll have to win back their trust. There are lots of other examples.

Coming back to the issue of inspiration, we wondered what creature we could get falling off cliffs like it was natural behaviour, apart from lemmings or Mr Magoo. It had to be something with pretty limited vision. We came up with eggs.

Their shells limit their vision and make them fragile. They need to be taken care of and comforted. They are, however, eager to get out and discover the world. Like young kids, they have a rough-and-tumble character and they love discovering new things like rolling and jumping. They also love rolling about in mud and hate taking baths.

The next question was: we have the egg but what's the animal? It had to be symbolic, something dumb, something new to video games, and something with the same name in a wide variety of languages: we came up with the Dodo.

When did development start and why did you think the DS would be a good platform?

The idea started early 2006, when I was working on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, but playing games like Kirby Canvas Curse (aka Kirby: Power Paintbrush in Europe). I was very attracted by the charm and uniqueness of the Nintendo DS. So the initial inspiration is the console itself and the desire to develop a game that was totally adapted to it, based on touchscreen and microphone.

Throughout 2007, we completed the game and design concepts and set everything in place: we found the right partners to create AlienAfterAll [the game's producers], and found a studio capable of taking on the development of the game: Neko Entertainment.

We produced a few pre-demos to blaze trails and eliminate unrewarding paths, and completed a huge final game design document that was very thought-out. Development finally started in summer 2008. We have just finished.

Our objective from the beginning was to develop a top-quality game for DS. We gave ourselves over a year to do it and so we were able to really pay attention to each element: music - special effects, AI, physics, design, animation and graphics.

There seems to be lots of different types of gameplay in some levels when you're guiding the eggs, so how does all this fit together?

Good point. In DodoGo! you mainly control the eggs but you might also have to manoeuvre an enemy to complete your objectives. This gives DodoGo! a rich and varied gameplay creating a truly rare game experience.

DodoGo! is tailor-made for a handheld console so game saves are automatic and levels are deliberately short (between one and three minutes on average). As a result, we have a lot of levels.

The biggest challenge for the level designers was to keep things fresh from level to level to provide the player with new challenges at every point. This was only possible because we had already set up a system of basic gameplay building blocks, and because of the way we used the elements - wood, earth, stone, water, wind and fire and their combinations - that the game designer, Eddy Leja-Six developed.

What's more, we worked hard on changing the rhythm throughout the game: in terms of the level design, the choice of tools, the switch from day to night, the music, the situations, and the bonus stages gameplay.

For example, sometimes the eggs you have to escort are split into small groups as in Lost Vikings [famous Blizzard SNES game], and sometimes come in one big group.

What were the most difficult things to get right?

While the tool ergonomics needed a lot of attention and experimentation, the most difficult thing to implement - the thing that needed the most fine-tuning - was to create a game that is accessible to a total newbie and also interesting and challenging for an experienced player.

The learning curve is progressive, and at the end of the day everybody is happy: everyone can play at their own pace with their own objectives.

There are many different ways of playing. The total beginner can take his time and really pamper his eggs to get to the next level. Experienced players, whether perfectionists or time-beaters, can take more risks.

These players won't spend time pampering eggs individually, but will use the topology to springboard eggs into somersaults and other combos. Feedback from Thierry Perreau, the creative director of Neko, who has years of experience, was precious is this regard.

A beginner's profile will shift as he plays through the game. When he gets to the end, he can play the first levels again and aim to pick up the medals and cups he didn't get first time round.

With the world rankings on the internet, players can compare times to the nearest second and try to work their way up the standings.

What do you think is the strongest part of the game?

I'd say it's the musical theme: 'Do-Do - Goooo' Once you've got it in your head, it's impossible to get rid of it. Raphael Gesqua, the composer, did a great job creating ambient sounds that really work in the game and the voices are totally cute.

The most important part of the game is the action/puzzle mix. We wanted to create a puzzle/platform cross that combines thinking with action without frightening the player off.

In some puzzle games, a player can feel blocked because a level might seem discouragingly complex from the start. Our big solution to this is a lot of small solutions.

Starting a level is never off-putting and there's always a sense of self-satisfaction at the end. Also if the player does get stuck he can play one of his Jokers to access the next level. He can always come back later whenever he wants to recover his Joker.

The icing on the cake comes just before the halfway point of the game when new dynamic features are introduced. The basic building blocks of gameplay can now be combined to create new functions. Thanks to the core game design, this clever system of connections lets the player get inventive. It's just like The Incredible Machine, with extra fun thrown in.

The player gets to be creative by altering the environment and by using enemies to activate mechanisms, or by connecting features together. And although we give information about the type and number of tools available at the start of the level, there are often alternative routes to be found.

What's the story with AlienAfterAll and Neko Entertainment? Who's the developer and who's the publisher?

Neither is either. It's a kind of rare situation. On the one hand there's AlienAfterAll, a studio dedicated to design and production, and on the other Neko Entertainment, a development studio with a solid experience in consoles and the DS. We were looking for a partner to develop our game and we showed them the DodoGo project. We instantly saw eye-to-eye and shared the same enthusiasm.

And while it is rare that a studio opens its doors to an outside designer, we were able to work together in the interests of the game itself in a much tighter framework than the classic developer/producer set-up.

Laurent Lichnewsky, who runs Neko, understood my preoccupation with sharing my vision of the game with the team so that everyone could appropriate the project, implicate themselves in it, give the best of themselves and put forward good ideas.

The creation of a game requires real teamwork: from the designer to the tester everyone has something to give. My great satisfaction is that the team enjoyed themselves, and ultimately this can be seen when you play the game.

I was fortunate enough in the past to work on games like Flashback and Moto Racer. With DodoGo!, the team shared the same excitement. There was the same sparkle in everyone's eyes.

DodoGo! doesn't have a publisher yet, but we are looking for a third partner. Like trying to gather the Triforce!

Do you plan for this to be a retail game or a DSiWare game? How about bringing it to other platforms?

The game is intended as a DS retail game to reach out to as many players as possible. We are waiting to see what people think of it before considering the next step or ports for different machines.

Given the huge appeal the DodoGo! universe has for both kids and adults alike, we very much want to develop the characters and all their endearing qualities and see them go on to new adventures.

Thanks to Denis for his detailed answers. DodoGo! will be out whenever the DS publishing community gets its derriere into gear. Soon we hope.
Jon Jordan
Jon Jordan
A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon can turn his hand to anything except hand turning. He is editor-at-large at which means he can arrive anywhere in the world, acting like a slightly confused uncle looking for the way out. He likes letters, cameras, imaginary numbers and legumes.