How much time does it take to design a full-featured Sudoku game for Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade? If you're lead designer Ben Moy, then the answer is about two and a half years. Number puzzle fanatics are cheering this week with the release of the only Sudoku game to grace the service this generation: Merscom's Buku Sudoku, a does-what-it-says-on-the-metaphorical-box Sudoku experience that features a variety of challenges at various difficulty levels, local & online multiplayer, and even support for the Big Button Pad controller. I recently had the opportunity to ask Ben a few questions about Buku Sudoku in which we covered topics ranging from the game itself to Microsoft's controversial plan to delist underperforming games from XBLA, and even a little about his future plans for XBLA and WiiWare.
MattG: What is it about the Sudoku project appealed to you? Why develop a Sudoku game over another casual-type game?
Ben: I love challenges (that's what makes most gamers, right?) and Sudoku for the 360 or consoles in general posed multiple fresh challenges. Immediately, I picture this zen diagram with the different audiences of for Sudoku and XBLA, and the differences between pen/paper and the controller. It certainly helped working on PC Sudoku titles and having ideas that had to be put aside on those projects that became viable again. Being able to break away from the super simple mouse paradigm was a joy (despite PCs having a keyboard, UI was always about the mouse). There are so many games I want to make, but whether the prompt is some random idea in my head or 2 sentences from a colleague, designing off that is so fun. As for Sudoku instead of a different casual-type game, almost everyone has heard of Sudoku, it's an easy starter for friends and family ~ I say why not Sudoku?
MattG: What makes Buku Sudoku appeal to the core audience as well as the casual audience?
Ben: What will make Buku Sudoku appeal to the core audience? First, I'd say for Buku Sudoku specifically, advanced controls that reward precision with lightning fast entry and Duel mode, a head to head game where completing groups removes numbers from your opponents board, are designed for core gamers. Along with the competitive modes, the themes, UI, and colors are also highly customizable, allowing players to develop the killer setup to win. On top of this, you have a points system that tracks puzzles across all modes into leaderboards and varied achievements. Secondly, there is Sudoku itself.
On the surface, Sudoku is a logic game where players can always solve the puzzle with the power of their minds, their observations. By being clever, they can make deductions based on the relationship of the rules and the numbers to always be sure of the next move (a common misconception is that the with all the numbers in the puzzle, math (arithmetic) is necessary, but it's not a part of Sudoku at all). Much like the techniques that have been discovered and practiced over and over by any competitive player (rocket jumping anyone?) or time attack player, Sudoku has this too, just..less twitchy. Sudopedia.org is a great resource to show the depth in the game, and a good techniques tool to take with you on some hard co-op Sudoku.
Speaking of co-op, co-op is a great bridge for casual and core, across the world via LIVE or across the living room. Here's a chance for all sorts of different familiarities of Sudoku and the Xbox 360 to all bring something to the table. Casual or even non-electronic players will find the controls and UI are designed this way too. There are 8 basic UI styles and 8 control methods that will allow players to start with no 360 experience and soon be aiming and pulling triggers like FPS pros.
MattG: How does the Big Button Pad factor into Buku Sudoku? Why include support for it?
Ben: The one-handed controls were part of the original pitch for the game, something that I had wished Go Sudoku (our competitor on the PS3) had included, and later the DVD/media remotes became possible. So when I learned of the Big Button Controller, and it's hidden directional pad, I really wanted to support it too. I hate it when I have a system with all these controllers and I still can't play a 4 player game. I tried to make it so any Xbox360 device within reason would allow you to add more family members or friends to the game, or add amusing ways to play (dance dance doku?).
MattG: Considering that Buku Sudoku is the only Sudoku game planned for Xbox Live Arcade this generation, how did you balance the need to cram as much material into the game as possible versus the need to create a game that will not bog down players with too many features and gimmicks?
Ben: One extremely helpful feature of XBLA is [downloadable content]. This allowed us to cut some things with potential for the future, but still the balancing was difficult. It came down to focus testing and market study, and even me playing or teaching random people on trains and planes, sometimes without a common language. Focus testing, thanks to Microsoft, was really useful in making sure users were able to get into the game and understand the controls without being bogged down, while allowing us to stuff in all sorts of goodies and customization for users who look for that kind of thing. Focus testing, final answer.
MattG: There's been lots of talk lately in the gaming community about Microsoft's plans to remove underperforming XBLA games from the service. Will the threat of being delisted make you think twice about developing future XBLA products?
Ben: Marketing aside, if I make a game no one wants to play (buy), what's the point of having it take up space? I imagine there is the issue of support and dashboard update compatibility concerns in outdated shoddy or ill conceived titles, but that's speculation on my part. It's hard to justify keeping these titles available if they're losing money, but the collector in me wants to say keep them so they're not lost. But for my own future projects, it makes me more likely to choose XBLA. We spent over 2.5 years developing Sudoku and it would be annoying if it got lost in the clutter with games that the publisher just threw out there.
MattG: What's next for you? What other projects do you have in the works?
Ben: The future is bright. This year, an opportunity came along to start a new development company with some former colleagues where I could explore a lot of design avenues. With the creative aspects of Sudoku basically cemented, with the understanding I would help out where needed, I was free to pursue what is now DigiRonin Games. As masterless warriors, we've already taken on some interesting projects with hidden partners (ninjas? the shogunate?). After that? Loosing some of the ideas in my head for Wiiware and XBLA. Think mayhem and monsters, muses and gas stations, shooters that use space offscreen, a divine comedy adventure, and of course, more ways to enjoy games with friends.