Destructoid interview: Buku Sudoku lead designer Ben Moy

On May 28, developer Absolutist and publisher Merscom gave logic fiends a decent reason to toss away their Sunday paper with the Xbox LIVE Arcade title, Buku Sudoku. The first and last Sudoku title that will be available for the Xbox 360, Buku Sudoku aims to be the definitive digital version of the popular puzzle game, providing customizable options and unique multiplayer modes. 

I had a chance to chat with the game’s lead designer, Ben Moy, about everything from designing the game to working with Microsoft, as well as his thoughts on WiiWare, casual gaming, and more. Oh, and the very important topic of samurai polar bears.

The full interview can be found after the jump. 

DESTRUCTOID
So, it’s my understanding that Buku Sudoku is the only Xbox LIVE Arcade Sudoku game, and that it’s actually going to remain that way. Can you tell me a bit about how that came about?

BEN MOY
I would speculate it was shortly after launch that the idea of having multiple pool or poker titles led to confusion with both casual and hardcore consumers alike. Further speculation would be that some people would wait on a hopefully later and more full-featured entry, in the case of competing titles. With that in mind, offering one robust title seems the way to go. Downloadable content is a nice help too.

So, one Sudoku title to rule them all?

Unless we get thrown into a lava pit, or fall like Mario. Wait, does that make Microsoft Sauron?

You said it, not me. So, I think I was told there were a number of competing Sudoku titles being pitched to Microsoft at the time. Anywhere from 10 to 20. What about Buku makes it stand out, makes it really special?

Other than a crazy devotion to cram in as many features as possible for default users and customization lovers, I’d say it’s the multiplayer. That’s the main reason I was excited about the game. When the opportunity to pitch came up, I tried out Go! Sudoku for the PlayStation 3. I got four controllers ready, had some people over, and then found out four-player meant non-local four-player. Even without egg on my face, couch multi-player was high on my list. But now it was the only way to get, if we did it for Buku Sudoku. Being able to take guests onto LIVE was a little bonus to that.

Yeah, I agree that with any game you should be able to take guests on LIVE. As far as the lack of local multiplayer, that seems to be something you see a lot lately.

It’s nice to have a game you can talk over, and unfortunately, that’s still a rarity. Not to say there aren’t some fun ones in addition to Buku Sudoku, like Puzzle Quest without turn limits, or N+.

So two years in development. As someone who doesn’t develop games — and don’t take this the wrong way — I’d have to say “EA can pump out a new Madden game year after year, and it took two years to develop an XBLA game?” What took so long? Were there specific challenges or are you just a perfectionist?

To be fair, a good chunk of that time went to contracts, hardware, non-“development” stuff. But going back to the “One Ring to Rule Them” thing, everything had to be just right, and that meant lots of play testing, focus testing, and iterative design. I’d have to concede I tend to be a perfectionist too.

As for EA? Those teams hit 200+ concurrently sometimes. Not counting external testing, we had like seven [at the] max. Lastly, testing took a while. It’s a pain, but I think the value is really passed onto the customer. I’m totally behind MS in shipping solid titles that don’t crash.

Right, it’s hard to argue with that. The certification is a dreaded process, and not one a lot of people understand. Can you tell me a bit about how that works, especially in the case of Buku Sudoku?

So I was dreading final certification, ‘cause no one had ever gone through on the first pass. It was a two week process, and I’d be looking at five to six weeks to get through this last step. But by the time we got there, we’d fixed so many bugs — thanks to excellent testing by VMC, and some of the tools MS released to developers to help prepare for cert — that we passed first go.

The milestones in general have lots of testing steps, from the start of the project. We changed menu structure and its art twice, which was a pretty large hit. After that, it was difficult getting every little nuance of Xbox 360 stuff to work, from every screen, invites, audio, rich presence (the little text line that tells you what friends are doing at every point in the game), etcetera. In addition to the wealth of options we crammed in the game ourselves.

So how has the experience been working with Microsoft on bringing the game to XBLA?

Having them arrange and pay for focus testing was a huge value addition in choosing XBLA — they really cared about the game quality.  I heard some games reach the point for testing and are shown that their game just doesn’t work.  Hearing that, at beta, my heart really went out to the developers who encountered that outcome.

Was the process difficult? Most definitely. But aren’t most worthwhile things something you have to work hard for? A lot of the changes or issues that VMC or MS testing came up with, they were negotiable. But Absolutist and Merscom were committed to quality just like Microsoft, so I didn’t fight a lot of them. Looking at much of the XBLA space, or retail, I feel a lot of developers didn’t have that luxury. I feel lucky.

It wasn’t too long ago that the developers of N+ came down pretty hard on XBLA, saying that the service — more or less — was cluttered with junk (and that’s putting it nicely). As a developer, and someone who seems pretty passionate about their game that they spent two plus years on, do you see that as a problem?

I’m not exactly privy to sales figures on all the titles, nor do I own them all, so I can’t make educated guesses based on English leaderboards. But I would hope someone plays the games, [those] games I have a hard time understanding why they’re up there.

Speculation again, but testing seems to be more of a burden than anyone counted on, and that’s likely to hit indies hard, but also make larger publishers say “take it or leave it.” So do I see it as a problem? Not for XBLA specifically. There are games I wouldn’t recommend anyone play — casual, core, or whatever — on every platform I’ve encountered. I feel the quality bar on XBLA is pretty high, but what honest person doesn’t see room for improvement in their own work or others?

I love N+ btw.

Well, we agree. Our reviewer flipped out over it. So Sudoku is a pretty “casual” experience, as hesitant as I am to say that word. And as such, the “casual” system of choice appears to be the Wii. I’d imagine that two years ago, the Wii and WiiWare may not have been an option … or was it? Was XBLA always your platform of choice?

Virtual Console wasn’t available to [us] back then, and WiiWare didn’t exist yet – we asked.  And despite working on unannounced WiiWare stuff, I definitely prefer everything [the Xbox 360] dashboard has to offer, especially the LIVE offerings.

I could ask about this “unannounced WiiWare” stuff, but I’d guess you’d shoot me down. So I won’t. But since you are working on WiiWare, can you compare developing for WiiWare versus XBLA?

I haven’t gotten into the intricacies enough to say anything worthwhile, other than the basics, not as many options, like what Xbox360 Dashboard offers, to support with Wii or WiiWare. So on one hand, that’s easier. Bug not having a matchmaking system to tap into, that makes supporting online multiplayer a headache.

Speaking from a design standpoint, Wii is about accessibility over hardcore customization.  I do wish WiiWare was “try before you buy” like a majority of the PC casual market. I think a lot of publishers are worried by something similar to what I think the N+ guys were saying, about getting lost in the shuffle when users can’t tell your game from Adam, only the other Adam is really a letter short of being a man.

Do you try demos on XBLA before purchase, or research any game via the net?

Well, I’m in a bit of a different position than most gamers because of the access I have to a lot of games. But for something like WiiWare, for instance, I’ve been given very little access to those games, so I’m kind of in the same position a lot of gamers are. And I haven’t purchased a single WiiWare game, other than the one my son bought without my knowledge. But for me, without a demo it’s a tough sale.

I know non-gamers or casual gamers who have purchased all the simple looking WiiWare games. But the people I consider gamers, they all wait for reviews or to play it somewhere else.  None have taken the plunge. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it worries me. Getting off topic? (laughs)

No way! I think this is a pretty important topic. Not exactly about Buku Sudoku, but you know … I don’t know if you noticed, but the game was actually #2 on the top downloadable games on XBLA games this week. Right behind Penny Arcade Adventures.

You kidding me? I couldn’t wait to see the list; I anticipated it since the Wednesday launch. I was a little worried at first, seeing that most forum postings were about how to grab the 200 achievement points most efficiently. But I played a little online the next day, Thursday, and in the morning I played a kid in the UK who said he didn’t expect to like the online multiplayer past the achievements, but instead he had gotten hooked and wanted to keep playing. This wasn’t solicited, nor did he know who I was. I worried a lot less after that.

I think those goes back to what we were talking about earlier — making your game stand out, letting people know that “Hey, this is worth your while. We didn’t just throw this together in a month. We’re not one of dozens of Sudoku games. We’re the only Sudoku game.”

Again, I have to hand it to Microsoft.  The achievements are a great avenue for exhibiting areas of your game that some users might not otherwise try, and then like the user I encountered, they will find parts they enjoy.

You mentioned downloadable content support for the game. How much of that should we expect to see, and how frequently can we expect it?

We need more data on what people are playing in-game, what they want to play (or change). And, of course sales, to say for sure. The range of DLC could go from themes (we had one that was an underwater level with swaying seaweed, fish, and bubble animations) to multiplayer modes I wanted to do but had to cut for time. In the latter case — or heck, all of it — once it’s feasible to make stuff, then users could even vote on what they want via the web. I’d love to have in-game voting [in a future title].

Wow, so you’re pretty serious providing what people want, versus having a stock pile of downloadable content and just waiting to fire a cannon of content. Well, you did mention you were working on WiiWare, and they have a fabulous “Everybody Votes Channel.” Maybe you can work that into there somewhere.

Bullseye. I’m a customer of my own games, but that doesn’t mean I’m the only voice.  I definitely want to tap into what people are excited about, what they want, and “Everybody Votes” is a great step or example for that endeavor.

I’m going to wrap this up, but I have an important question before I let you go.

OK

OK, so there’s a dinosaur with a peg leg and a heat-seeking laser cannon versus a blind polar bear who is a master with a samurai sword and can move at super speeds. Who wins … at Sudoku? Take your time with this one.

(After some thought)

 So I guess there are three types of dinosaurs I’m instantly familiar with — dinosaucers, dinoriders, or Denver the Dinosaur. Then there is the polar bear to identify — you have the panserbjorne from Golden Compass or the Coca-Cola bears.

(Pause for thought)

I guess I need two more polar bears, ‘cause these guys are playing four-on-four team versus Buku Sudoku. They all win, cause they dance the game out on Dance Dance Revolution-type pads, which the game supports.

— 

Thanks to Ben for his time, and be sure to check out the only Xbox LIVE Sudoku title, Buku Sudoku, if only for the achievements. Hey, you may fall in love.

Nick Chester