Matt Bozon's old job required him to sketch caricatures at a Six Flags theme park. His new one requires him to make the next "Contra" game. And some time in between, he got involved in the worst-reviewed DS game ever made — with surprisingly positive ramifications.
Bozon is the creative director at WayForward, a development studio in Valencia, California, where he's been designing games since the mid-'90s. Last week he spoke to GameFile about his journey as a game developer and how the company that scored a zero with one DS game wound up working on two of the most anticipated holiday titles on Nintendo's handheld system.
Bozon's career in game design started modestly: One of his first tasks at WayForward was to make art for a Super Nintendo game. The pay wasn't great right away. "It's like a lot of those other labor-of-love things," Bozon said. "We were doing lots of other jobs to subsidize our dream to be game developers, like delivering lunches."
Over the next decade WayForward created a few dozen projects: educational Muppets software; a low-selling critical darling called "Shantae" for the Game Boy Color; and a slew of licensed games, such as "Godzilla: Domination" and "The Scorpion King: Sword of Osiris."
But WayForward wanted to branch out creatively, so when Nintendo announced in early 2004 that the company would produce a two-screened handheld, the WayForward developers had some bright ideas. Bozon also had a theory about the DS. He thought it would expand Nintendo's 2003 connectivity project, which pushed for games that could be played on four Game Boy Advances, each tethered to a single GameCube home console. "I always imagined a two-screened game was going to be gameplay on two screens," he said. "You'd go into a house on the top screen and on the bottom you'd see the interior and there's still stuff going on in the top screen, which is not quite what it [turned out to be]."
Inspired by the DS announcement, the team assembled a 13-page treatment for a "Shantae: Risky Waters" DS game. The game had players rafting in 3-D on the DS' top screen while simultaneously controlling a bird on the bottom screen that was flying over a 2-D version of the river. Another phase of the game had the player digging caves in the bottom screen, while characters battled on the upper screen. They pitched it around, but no publisher took them up on the offer.
In mid-2004 the publisher THQ came to WayForward with a DS idea. THQ had licensed artwork from the makers of the hit online Korean game "MapleStory" and wanted to use the art for a DS instant-messaging program called "Ping Pals." "We had to prototype the game in the first 24 hours, having never seen the hardware, which is a huge testament to our programmers," Bozon said. They had just a handful of weeks to make the game. "We needed dev kits desperately, and here was a chance to get them."
But the problem with "Ping Pals" wasn't just time. The DS already had an IM program called "Pictochat" that came embedded into every DS. Did anyone raise their hand and ask about that? "I did that on day one," Bozon said, laughing. "THQ had their plan, and they were going to run with it.
"That's probably the game we worked on harder than any other game," he added. "The design doc for that thing was actually a bunch of sticky notes on a dry board, and about every four hours we would redesign the entire game for that entire five-week span because the technology kept shifting. We were working 24 hours a day. There was no point locking the door because there was always somebody in there."
The game was mauled by the critics, receiving a zero from some and a scattering of ones and threes from others. To be fair, the game had one rave review, from the Web site Nintendojo. It reported that, " 'Ping Pals' definitely kick-started something here," and that the game had garnered at least one super-fan. "There's one guy who was 'Mr. Ping Pals,' " Bozon said. The fan e-mailed Bozon, asking about the names and secrets buried in the program. "I was like, 'I don't know. I was half asleep. It was 5 a.m. when we were putting the names on that object.' " The game sold more than 90,000 copies in the U.S., according to sales-tracking service NPD.
A brighter future lay ahead. Within a couple of years Bozon was pitching Warner Bros. the idea to make a DS game inspired by the 1951 "Duck Amuck" cartoon. That cartoon had Daffy Duck getting tormented by the brush of an unseen animator. As best he remembers it, this was his one-sentence pitch: "Players use the stylus to harass Daffy and raise his temperature through the roof." Within a year, Warners signed on. The game, now called "Looney Tunes: Duck Amuck," made many short lists for best DS title of this year's E3 and is set for release in the fall.
WayForward also scored a plum assignment from Konami: the dream job of resurrecting the classic side-scrolling shooter franchise "Contra." Bozon and company weren't even asking for that one. "It seems kind of nuts, looking back at it," he said. This past weekend Bozon's team was putting the finishing touches on what will be called "Contra 4."
The two new WayForward DS games are set for release later this year, and it seems like the earlier suffering was well worth it. "We can point to the games we're working on now and say, 'If not for "Ping Pals" getting our foot in the door ... .' "
His company would like to make a Wii game next. What will it have to do to get its foot in there?
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