A new perspective
Qbism by Blowfish Studios
Published: August 3. 2011
How Blowfish Studios' addictive puzzler Qbism puffed its way to success.
“I think that feeling of creating our own stuff and seeing people enjoy it is what inspired me to take this game development thing to the next level.”
“Ever since entering the computer game industry I have always promised myself that I would eventually develop and ship my own game to market,” says Ben Lee, cofounder of Blowfish Studios, based in Sydney, Australia. Over the last 15 years, Lee and his partner Aaron Grove had been involved with a slew what he calls “hobbyist” game projects, until recently, when Grove moved to Santa Monica, CA to follow his dreams in the visual effects industry. Lee had become involved in iOS development, and was working on an iPhone game using Unity at home with his wife, when work sent him to Las Vegas for a business trip.
“Since Aaron and I were old friends and he was living in Santa Monica at the time, I made the trip there on one of my weekends to show Aaron the iOS prototypes I'd been working on,” says Lee. “He got his excitement back again for indie game development, and upon my return to Sydney we got the ball rolling with what became Qbism.”
Qbism is Blowfish’s first published game. Its premise is relatively straightforward: The player has an outlined, “empty” 3D shape made up of smaller cubes, and scattered about the screen are the cubes required to construct it. The player must slide each cube into an appropriate space in the empty outline in order to create the shape. It's a smart concept executed exceptionally well: Qbism is all about perspective, and forces the player to think in three dimensions.
> “...once I had found Unity for iPhone there was no looking back.”
Grove, whose first job in the games industry was as a character animator on the game Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, went on to become a senior visual effects supervisor at a top VFX company, working on commercials in Los Angeles. “I really enjoyed what I did, but always felt that at the end of the day, I was always creating other peoples ideas,” says Grove. “I’d been out of the game development industry for many years, and wasn't up-to-date with what products like Unity could do. When Lee showed him the demo he was working on, Grove was amazed. “We spoke about making games and I thought it was a great opportunity to create something from an idea, and see it become a product that people can interactive with and enjoy,” says Grove. “I think that feeling of creating our own stuff and seeing people enjoy it is what inspired me to take this game development thing to the next level.”
Indeed, it was Grove who came up with the original idea for Qbism, while driving back to Los Angeles after spending a week skiing in Mammoth Mountain. “While staring at the cloud formations, I was thinking that it would be interesting if I could manipulate the clouds to form shapes,” says Grove. “That basic concept grew into Qbism, and as soon as I got back to LA I was on the computer creating a rendered movie of what I thought the game should look like, play like, and do.” Shortly thereafter, Lee put together a prototype using Unity that essentially matched the movie, and Qbism went into full production.
“We chose Unity right from the start of development of Qbism,” says Lee. “After building countless number of my own game/graphics engines, I understand how much work goes into developing and maintaining one. Middleware is the way of the future for most game titles. I had been using Gamebryo for a few years in my day job, and my team there had built up some tools that attempted to do a similar job that Unity did straight out of the box. So once I had found Unity for iPhone there was no looking back.”
Lee had created several small prototypes in Unity for other games, which he showed to Grove as examples of how the two of them could create a game for the iPhone. “From creating those prototypes, I really got hooked on how easy and quick it is to develop in Unity,” says Lee. “So long as Aaron could use the content pipeline that he likes, he didn't mind which development tool we used. So Unity was go!”
The decision paid off. “Unity has proven a great fit,” says Lee of their choice. “Both Aaron and myself specialize in 3D graphics, and Unity is really the main solution for that on the iPhone.” He says that it has functioned well for their two-man setup, given the limited human resources and time. “Without it I would be busy creating the engine and Aaron would be scripting up tools,” says Lee. “We created the original Qbism in six weeks working after-hours. I feel that would not be possible without Unity.” Because he wanted to create the least amount of work to get puzzles into the game, Lee wrote code to create the silhouette shape dynamically based on spreadsheet data; with this, Grove could layout the puzzles and write his own script to output the puzzle data. “It was a definite blast to develop the original game in six weeks, with Aaron in the USA and myself in Australia,” says Lee of the process. “I guess it was a light bulb moment when I thought to myself, ‘We can really do this and publish our first indie game!’"
While neither get to play games as much as they’d like (now that actually making them encompasses much of their time), Lee is a massive fan of the Uncharted series, and cites its incredible attention to detail and polish as an inspiration. “Naughty Dog really do a terrific job on melding the character animations to the gameworld,” he says. PixelJunk Monsters, Gran Turismo, Pro Evo Soccer and various other MMORPGs occupy most of his free gaming time these days. “My other inspiration is from fictional novels,” he says. “I was a huge reader of sci-fi and fantasy novels while growing up, and really love computer games which can extend that imagination.”
For his part, Grove has always been more of a PC gamer, pointing to the Tribes games, World of Warcraft, Homeworld, and Bungie Software’s various titles as formative inspirations. “I used to be really into PC games, and always keeping my PC up-to-date with the latest tech, but now, I can't be bothered,” he says. “Besides, I have a Mac and an iPad now.
Lay of the Land
“2011 is a crunch year, in that the wider global economy is feeling the pinch and this has a flow-through effect on the games industry, too,” says Lee of the state of the games industry in 2011. “Yet with the popularity of iOS and the huge growth that Android OS is experiencing, it really is a great opportunity for good quality independent games to make their mark and obtain significant market penetration. The golden age of the Apple AppStore is over, but long live indie game development!”
Ben Lee studied Computer Systems Engineering, and initially worked for a telecommunications company before following his dream and going to work in the games industry. In 1998, he started working for a company called Perception, whose primary focus was PC-powered Arcade games like Thunderboats and Top Down Racer, using 3DFX Voodoo hardware and their Glide API. He then transitioned to DirectX during his stay at Perception, as the games they developed moved towards the home PC market. In 2000, Lee changed jobs, and has been working with low level APIs, like OpenGL, then moving onto using middleware such as UDK, Gamebryo and Unity.
Aaron Grove played lots and lots of Tribes, and created many mods for the game. He started off teaching himself 3D, then got his first job in the industry as a character animator for cut-scenes and in-game animations at Plastic Wax in Sydney. His career path then took him away from games and into visual effects, eventually landing him in Los Angeles, via London. “What's been really great is that just about all my skills from the visual effects industry can be transferred to the games industry,” says Grove.“ The only thing that I've had to learn is Unity. From my side of the world, it wasn't that hard—I just feed Ben all the assets, and let him do all the hard work. But it seemed really quick—impressively quick.”