Sometimes making a game is more about the process than it is about the end result, but it helps when the end result is a really good game.
"One of our engineers that was on the core team was referencing the one art class that he took in college. 'One of our assignments we were looking at this artist who was doing very abstract color prints and I just feel like there's a game in there somewhere.'"
And with that, the seed of "Color Zen" was planted.
For most people, matching colors together sounds like one of the world's simplest tasks; something that they have been doing since they were in diapers. Taking that kind of a basic human skill and turning it into a game that is both compelling and challenging is no easy task, but that's exactly what Large Animal Games' latest release, "Color Zen" does.
The quotes above are from Large Animal Games' co-founder and CEO Wade Tinney, a man that has been at the helm of one of New York City's longest-running game studios since they opened up shop in 2001. You may have come across some of their other titles on Facebook ("Lucky Cruise Slots," "Picturiffic"), in the App Store ("Nomsters") or you may have even messed around with their one Xbox Live Arcade game, "RocketBowl," from 2008, but it's more likely that you're familiar with the brands that the company makes games for, having worked with Lego, BBC Travel ("Photo Blitz"), STARZ ("Spartacus: Vengeance and "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena") and Universal Studios ("Universal Film Mogul"), among others. With that kind of history, "Color Zen" is an outlier for Large Animal, since it's a completely original game, and one that began as an experiment for the company.
In a little over a months time, the color matching game was conceived, prototyped, refined, developed, released, and featured in the App Store. The concept is simple; match the colors on the screen until the only one that is left corresponds to the border color, clearing the level. While the aesthetic and gameplay are on the simplistic side, "Color Zen" is actually an entirely unique experience that's available on mobile platforms (iOS and Android), as well as an entirely unique experience for Large Animal Games.
"Color Zen" began as a product of an internal game jams, which Large Animal refers to as "Project Days." These Project Days happen every few months, and the team at the studio is constantly refining the process to allow for maximum creativity. Past Project Day games have made it to the pitch state, where Large Animal have taken the games to publishers for consideration, but "Color Zen" is the first one to be released to the public. Tinney explained that the thinking behind the Project Days is for his team to "work with different people within the company, have different teams form, to use new technology, try out new ideas, and blow off steam, which is always a good thing." While Large Animal isn't the first studio to encourage their employees through a game jam, they clearly have recognized that marketable ideas can come out of these traditionally more creative exercises.
The prototype of "Color Zen" (originally called "Color Space") was the product of a team of about five employees over the course of two days, and was actually quite different from the final game. Large Animal designer, Rob Meyer, explained that the prototype's aesthetics were what hooked everyone, with the visuals and interactions being key parts that went unchanged. However, the gameplay went through a bit of an evolution, shifting from mixing colors to matching colors in the final product. The team recognized that players were getting attached to the look and feel of the game, but that there "wasn't a ton of depth to the levels," and that a lot of people have trouble strategically combining tertiary colors. Large Animal knew they had something good, but they still had some work to do.
The next step in the "Color Zen" experiment was a couple weeks of internal review, where the Large Animal team went through all of the Project Day projects and discussed and voted on the best ones. With the "Color Zen" prototype coming out on top, the concept was then given to two designers to hash out the gameplay mechanics, and nail down the finalized experience. This team of two had their way with the game for about two weeks, going through daily reviews with Tinney and other members of the design team. It was during this review process that the core design of "Color Zen" came to light, as the game began to take on its final shape.
Once the creative minds at Large Animal decided upon the finalized experience for "Color Zen" it quickly moved to the next phase of development. An entire team of seven was assigned to the project to finalize the product (level design and progression, user interface, etc.), and get it out the door in three weeks, when a launchable build was going to be submitted to the App Store. And, it was. The game successfully released on June 6, which is impressive for a game that was conceived in late April. Overall, it was about a six-week process, but, as Tinney put it, "having that tight deadline forced us to make a lot of good decisions."
With thousands of games in the App Stores, on both iOS and Android, it's hard to make any game stand out, but Tinney thinks it's a combination of the new gameplay mechanic, mixed with the flat, abstract qualities of the visuals that helped "Color Zen" rise to the top. That, and good timing.
"It was perfect, because it launched during WWDC, which is when they announced the flat design of iOS 7, so it was perfect. I think they must have seen the game come through and they were like, 'all right flat design, this is the perfect game to sell our design vision.'"
Internally, the team at Large Animal are hoping that "Color Zen" can be the model for future Project Days, and hope that more creative concepts like this can come out of these unique experiences. One way or another, fans of the game can expect more for "Color Zen," as there is at least one more level pack in development. Also, due to the success of the game so far, there are already internal talks about the potential for a sequel, and even expanding the "Zen" franchise to other experiences. Only time will tell what the future holds for "Color Zen," but hopefully it is just the first game in a long line of creative products to come out of Large Animal's Project Days.