Lightwood Games is an independent UK developer, focusing on word games, card games and puzzles. They were making games for iPhone for 5 years before being approved for Nintendo development last year. We caught up with Senior Developer, Katherine Gordon, to talk about games development, the experience of working with Nintendo, and Lightwood’s latest title, Word Party. A party game with lots of words, the title caught our eye at EGX 2015, thanks to the robots.
How did you get started in games development?
I’d grown up playing games and, like many people, longed to be able to create them myself. Somehow I ended up making websites instead! I studied Maths and Computer Science at Keele University where they taught us core programming concepts and we worked mostly in Java. The web development I’d been doing for years – learnt out of necessity to help my parents with their business.
My first job in the games industry was as a web site developer with Astraware. They started teaching me their game development tools and I was soon working exclusively on games.
How was it, going from website development to using the game development tools?
Going from Java to C++ I actually used a book called C++ for Java programmers! Once you’ve learnt the fundamental concepts of programming the actual language isn’t too much of a problem, it’s mostly just a case of learning a different style of brackets! The final project in the book was a basic card game which evolved into Astraware Solitaire and has been ported to many different platforms since I first made it!
When I joined Chris at Lightwood [Founder/Managing Director] he had just completed his first game for a client and was eager to create something unique. Suddenly I was involved in the entire game creation process – from initial idea, through prototyping, to the finished product! Our first major game together, Word Search Party, featured a live online mode where you solve a puzzle with/against an opponent.
Is it quite unusual to be involved in the entire game creation process? How did you find it?
For independent developers it’s not unusual to be involved in the entire process, but many people who want to work in games I suspect envisage just spending their days coding and that’s all! That’s certainly how I started even though it was a fairly small company – I didn’t have any influence over which games would get made or much creative input in the direction of projects.
I think, the smaller the company the more involved you have to be with the whole process. Coming up with crazy game ideas is great fun. Seeing ideas become prototypes and then evolve into finished products is really exciting! Plus, I manage our social media feeds and deal with all the customer support so I get to talk to actual players of our games. Miiverse makes that even more fun with everyone drawing cute pictures!
Sopio is a points and puns card game.
You started off making games on iOS. Did you consider making games for Android? How did you then make the move to developing for Nintendo consoles?
Visibility on the App Store has become increasingly difficult as the amount of content has increased and we were discussing ways to expand our reach. However, we found it even worse on Android! We’ve released a few games on Google Play with much lower download numbers. Plus, Android users seem even less willing to part with any money and more likely to use ad blockers!
We’ve always designed our games for touch input so most console development doesn’t really make sense for us. The Nintendo 3DS seemed like a great platform for our games – the touch input suits us very well. Plus, we discovered a surprising lack of word puzzles on the eShop!
It’s true, there are a lot of puzzle games that involve blocks, pictures, numbers… Not really words. I hadn’t realised before!
If you searched the eShop for “word” you used to just get games with sword in the title! Hopefully now our word games are appearing first!
I’d heard getting accepted into the Nintendo development program was unlikely, but since we have a number of years of experience creating games now we thought it was worth a try. Once we were approved for 3DS so quickly, Chris couldn’t resist requesting access to Wii U as well, and suddenly we were developing for both systems!
With mobile development someone else is bound to have shared a tutorial using a feature you’re trying out for the first time. Working with Nintendo systems means figuring everything out ourselves.
How has developing for Nintendo differed from developing games for mobile platforms?
Developing for mobile is very fast for us – I can usually put together a basic playable prototype in a day so we can test out new ideas. Developing for Nintendo required a huge new skill set for each of us so everything is a lot slower! Chris is doing most of the Wii U development whilst I focus on the 3DS, as they each use their own tools so it made sense to split the learning between us.
Working in environments where I can’t just find the answer to a problem on the internet is quite challenging! With mobile development someone else is bound to have shared a tutorial using a feature you’re trying out for the first time. Working with Nintendo systems means figuring everything out ourselves. I’m never one to shy away from a challenge though and it’s incredibly satisfying when things do finally work.
Nintendo themselves have been great to work with. If we get stuck with weird development problems they provide email support. Going through the review process is slower than we’re used to with Apple – but they are very communicative throughout and always willing to help.
How did the idea for Word Party first come about?
Word Party is the game I always wanted to play when the Wii first came out, but it never existed! We both love playing party games, but really wanted one that tested our word skills as we’re complete word puzzle addicts. The word games that do exist for Wii we found either hard to control, or rather boring. We’ve been making word based puzzle games for a number of years now so we’d like to consider ourselves experts! After releasing Word Search by POWGI for Nintendo Wii U we were confident in our abilities to finally create Word Party.
What was the creative process like, designing all of those mini games?
Creating the mini games varied greatly. We decided early on that we wanted about 30 and spent a long time drawing bad sketches and trying to work out which ones of our crazy ideas would actually be fun to play.
Some were obvious – of course we needed a word search, and everyone on Miiverse loves the One Word variation so that should be on the list too! There’s a set of puzzles in the game with a newspaper theme which are based on the puzzles we’ve created with POWGI.
Other games sprung from silly puns – “Spelling Bee! – what can we do with bees?!” resulted in the first mini game we made. Each bee has 3 letters on its back and you have to choose the bees where adding a B in front makes a real word. ‘Say R’ came about in a similar fashion. Some evolved from something as simple as “I want a game with a pinata!” or “Everyone loves robots, what can we do with them?”
At one point, we started making a word ladder style game (changing one letter at a time to make a new word) and quickly realised that the scoring just didn’t work – whoever went first always won! The next day Chris had the idea for Flowerpots which fixed the scoring and let us keep the basic game mechanic but with much better scoring rules. With the added bonus of pretty flowers.
Would you bring Word Party to another platform?
We’ve had a number of people ask whether the game will be coming to any other devices. We just don’t know yet but it’s a possibility. However, we designed the game with the Wii Remote controllers in mind. Whilst all the games are playable with the Wii U GamePad, a touch screen does make them considerably easier! We usually hand that controller to whichever player has never used a Wii before to give them a chance. We’ve tried to make the kind of family friendly social game for which the Wii U is so well designed!
Which game is your favourite, then?
My favourite mini game in Word Party? Now that’s a tough question! It’s probably ‘On Target’ – you have to make 5 letter words by adding the first and last to the 3 middle letters you’re given. Each middle has multiple possibilities and I really enjoy trying to find the high-scoring ones at speed.
And was there any game that you had to leave out, or just didn’t work?
There were quite a few that didn’t make it! We had a few ideas which involved using a mobile phone keypad like you would have used to send text messages a few years ago… but realised that kids would have no idea what it was about!
So what’s next for you? More Wii U and 3DS games?
We’ve been working on a puzzle compilation for Nintendo 3DS and we’re very excited that it’s going to include Amiibo support! After that, we’re hoping to revisit some of our former mobile hits and bring them to the Nintendo consoles.