An Audience With Nnooo: EscapeVektor, Spirit Hunters And Designing Games With Post-It Notes

Australian-based developer Nnooo recently invited us to visit its studio, based in Pyrmont, Sydney, to talk game development, taking risks, and how to design a video game using Post-It notes.

Post-It notes. Everywhere you look. Impossible to escape. Covered in silhouettes, random designs, mazes, outlines. Organised in shapes. Meta Post-It notes – not just for scribbles, but for the framework of things. Master plans doused in yellow. A yellow-print.

I’ve just entered Nnooo headquarters. A handshake from Creative Director Nic Watt later and I’m drawn to the main wall of the office. I walk past in a hypnotic daze, almost cutting Nic off mid-sentence – “why are all these Post-It notes on the wall,” I mutter absently, to no-one in particular. “What do they mean…”

My eyes begin scouring, entranced in this sea of yellow and biro.

“So we have this big wall in the office covered in Post-It notes,” says Nic, after I’ve regained my composure, “and the idea is that each project has its own section on the wall. If anyone has an idea they can stick a Post-It up on the wall.

“So for the Spirit Hunters section we have space dedicated to all the silhouette drawings of the characters, and that allows us to gather round and discuss it.”

I spot the silhouetted shapes on the wall, character designs for Spirit Hunters, Nnooo’s augmented reality game currently in development for the DSi and, eventually, the 3DS. They’re silhouettes because Nic wants them to be instantly recognised as such – like Pokemon.

Far more intriguing is the Post-It section of the wall dedicated to Nnoo’s top down, Pac-Man-esque puzzler EscapeVektor – a series of small maps built up into a larger meta-map.

“For EscapeVektor we have vertical columns for each of the worlds,” begins Nic, “and you can throw up doodle sketches of the levels, then it’s really easy to start manoeuvring the different levels to help decide which level should go where.”

Working on paper certainly has its restrictions, but according to Nic, these restrictions often aid the creative process instead of stifling it.

“I love Post-It notes for planning because with computers we have all these different ways of saving work, but I miss working on paper a little,” says Nic. “With paper it’s so much easier to simply scrumple things up and throw it in the bin. On a computer, even though you can delete it, it’s easy to get tied up in forcing things to work.

“I really notice in level design, that if something’s not right, people tend to try and force it to work instead of trying again. If you can prototype on paper, things are easier to throw away. Post-It notes are worthless – you are so free to scrumple it up and start all over again.”

The concept of designing creative solutions in a restrictive environment is an idea Nnooo are familiar with. Formed in 2006, with only three staff members in total, Nnooo’s modus operandi is the creation of inventive, fresh gaming experiences using limited resources.

“I was at EA and my business partner Bruce got the opportunity to move out here with the bank that he worked for,” begins Nic, “and I decided to use my savings to set up Nnooo.

“Because at that time XBLA had been out, the Wii had launched and the PlayStation network was on the horizon, so I thought setting up a company that deals in digital content might be a good opportunity.”

Nnooo’s first game was Pop- a well received, successful WiiWare title. According to Nic setting up a new independent studio was predictably tough, but not without its rewards.

“Yeah, it was hard to begin with because we didn’t have any contracts with any publishers – but things have gone really well,” says Nic. “We were really lucky – I had just finished working at EA, a couple of my friends at EA had really good contacts with Nintendo and they put me in touch with the right people. It still took a year of conversations and pitching ideas for WiiWare. Eventually they sent us some hardware to start working on ideas.”
The move to Nintendo was an important for one – especially for Nic, who’s design style is very much influenced by the tech itself.

“The hardware we work on is important,” claims Nic. “When I buy a new console I get excited by what that console can do. Nintendo are great at adding bells and whistles like Streetpass – this is the kind of thing that gets my imagination going as a consumer. Very few developers make use of these things – most are just focused on shipping a game.

“We want to try and reward the player by using their hardware in cool and interesting ways – that reinvigorates why they bought the thing in the first place.”

But above all, Nic wants his games to be a fun experience. In all games, he believes, tactile control systems and rewarding feedback is paramount.

“The main thing is to make games that are fun and entertaining,” begins Nic. “Generally I like to make games that are enjoyable across the board. What I don’t like are games that are difficult for the sake of it, or games that try and dictate how they are to be enjoyed.

“Nintendo are a big inspiration for me, because they make games of amazing quality, they get difficult and challenging, yet they are welcoming to new players. They make the player feel happy and satisfied. Just making Mario run around – you sit there laughing and giggling. That’s the sign of a good game. Portal is a good example, you can feel satisfied by messing around.”

Nnooo’s latest project, EscapeVektor, fits Nic’s design sensibilities seamlessly. With a slick learning curve and seamless design, Nic has to wrench the WiiRemote from my cold dead hands. The most relevant touch point is probably Pac-Man and, more specifically, Pac Man DX – it’s a game that plays around with various risk/reward mechanics. The aesthetics, although simple, are consistent and seamless – custom built for the Wii itself, a console where intricate details are often lost in the resolution.

“Working in the video games industry, part of the challenge is making sure the design and the art fits within certain limitations,” says Nic. “I think that’s a very strong part of my approach to design.

“With EscapeVektor, part of the challenge is that we have to be able to create games that we can finish as a company. There are only three of us, so our art style is very much dictated by our budget and the talent of the team. I know that I can’t create super beautiful visuals, and there’s part of me that doesn’t want to focus on that either. That’s one constraint. I then try and identify an art style that’ll remain consistent within these constraints.”

EscapeVektor’s look is defined, to an extent, by constraints – but it’s also a very deliberate aesthetic choice.
“I really love vector graphics,” claims Nic. “I love that clean sharp look. So EscapeVektor is really inspired by that – also the neon visual look of Tron. The Wii is also sub HD, so when you try and create detailed visuals that often gets lost. On my plasma at home, EscapeVektor still looks great.”

Nic’s second project, Spirit Hunters, is also very much a Nnooo title. An augmented reality title that uses the DSi’s camera to allow players to search out ‘spirits’ in the real world, the inspiration evolved from the fact that Nic wanted to find the most effective way to create an RPG without expending Nnooo’s limited resources.
“We can’t make a big expansive world,” begins Nic, “but I really want to make an RPG! So why not make the real word the playing area, and we can focus on creating the characters?

“Don’t get me wrong, we’ve bitten off a bit more than we can chew in this game, and it’s been more complicated than we imagined, but it has allowed us to focus on things like abilities.”

Spirit Hunters also focuses on another of Nnooo’s design strengths – utilising the “bells and whistles” Nintendo tend to add to their handheld consoles. According to Nic it’s about adjusting your design sensibilities, and looking from the top down.

“I supposed in my heart I’m a big Nintendo fan,” laughs Nic, “but there are very few developers in the world who have a top down view of design. A lot of people design work from the technology up.

“To give an example – I really love Rockstar’s games, but they seem to be a lot more content focused or technology focused,” he continues. “Don’t get me wrong Grand Theft Auto is an amazing game, but there is still something missing for me – games like Portal, or the games that Nintendo make, you turn it on and become immediately satisfied and engrossed.

“That’s what we’re aiming for.”

I receive a tap on the shoulder. My time is up. As I leave the office I can’t help but pause at the main wall in the office, drenched in yellow Post-Its.

The Post-It note was invented by Art Fry in 1968, as a substitute for a book mark. Once again I’m struck by the creativity involved in adapting something as cheap and common as the Post-It note into something quite dazzling and large scale. Two seconds ago I was playing EscapeVektor with a WiiRemote, now I’m looking at the entirety of its creation. Stuck to a wall. In Post-It Notes.

As I close the door behind me, and head towards my next appointment, I’m struck by two thoughts – Post-It notes are such an incredible invention…

And I want to play some more EscapeVektor.

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