Gaming by numbers: The making of Hundreds
Finding value in a 'hard sell'
"I really wanted to see something succeed that was humanist and uncompromised."
Early this year, Hundreds - a collaboration between indie developers Adam Saltsman (Canabalt) and Greg Wohlwend (Solipskier) - hit iOS.
A visually minimalist arcade puzzler with seemingly simple controls, Hundreds demands excruciating precision. But for Saltsman, the game also represents something more.
"There's this really widespread, prevalent attitude that you have to condescend in order to have financial success on the App Store," he says.
"I think it's really important for games with a really pure artistic vision to enjoy enough financial success that maybe they can inspire more people to take chances."
In our latest making of, Saltsman and Wohlwend reflect on that mission, talking us through Hundreds' evolution from a flash prototype to an App Store success.
Uploaded to Newgrounds in June 2010, Hundreds began life as Flash game designed and coded by Greg Wohlwend.
"It sort of bubbled up out of a predilection for hard, strict and elegant game design, born out of restriction and my lack of skill as a programmer," he says.
"I'd coded dozens of tiny little things in Flash but never a game, even in prototype form, so I set out to think on what I could dream up that would be clear and achievable for me. I wanted to make a game all by myself. Hundreds was the result."
In the game players must touch circles bouncing within a confined area, in order to increase both their size and the number at their centre. When those numbers reach a total of 100, players progress to the next level.
The challenge comes with the fact that no circle can touch another while it's expanding.
More elegant to play than describe, the Flash version of Hundreds proved to be popular, racking up the plays and the positive comments. And that, it seemed, was that.
Then, over a year later, Semi Secret Software's Eric Johnson picked up the source code, spent the weekend porting it to iPad, and emailed the results to Wohlwend.
Inspired and excited (he emailed back "oh shit!!!"), Wohlwend began working with Johnson and Adam Saltsman, to elaborate on Hundreds' concept for a full iOS release.
While Wohlwend focused on the visual aspect of the game and Johnson did the coding, it was Saltsman that designed the majority of Hundreds' puzzles.
The goal was to explore Wohlwend's initial idea and "follow it all the way down." In doing so Saltsman took inspiration from Jonathan Blow's highly regarded puzzle platformer, Braid.
"Braid's approach to puzzle design and presentation I think is still basically best in class, " he says. "The way it introduces new ideas and you have to have these little epiphanies to solve the level.
"An idea I probably cribbed from Jonathan Blow is that a really good puzzle can never be solved by trial and error. If you don't know what you're doing, it's impossible. But, if you understand the idea behind it, then the process of inputting the solution should be very simple."
It was with this in mind that Saltsman went about creating Hundred's puzzles; sketching in his pad, prototyping, setting ideas aside to achieve "editorial distance" and brutally culling anything that didn't fit the bill.
Early Hundreds sketches by Saltsman
"Sometimes its just not new enough, or interesting enough, and you just have to kill it," he says.
"Adam experimented with a ton of mechanics," says Wohlwend, elaborating on the process.
"I think things like holes that ate circles, factories that created circles, and bombs that blew circles away were interesting ideas in our head, but didn't work in practice."
"Holes not working out was the biggest disappointment for me," adds Saltsman. "They seemed really promising, they interacted with a wide range of other circle types... but they just weren't creating interesting puzzles in the style we wanted."
Although an important part of the creative process, Saltsman's exacting quality control would lead to lost sleep.
"There was a phase where I hadn't fleshed out our core game mechanics," says Saltsman, "and we only had like 20 levels designed, and we'd been working on the game for months and months already. That still makes me uneasy.
"I think the only way I got through that was going on these long runs with my wife, brainstorming and sifting and reducing ideas until we came up with something solid that we could rely on to finish exploring the game idea."
Ultimately overcome, Saltsman's temporary angst over Hundreds' direction was an issue. The biggest problem the team faced, however, was finding a way to market the game.
Visually unfamiliar, with mechanics that don't translate particularly well in print, Hundreds could potentially have been a hard sell.
"I think it was useful," says Wohlwend of the game's website, a focal point of the marketing push. "We wanted to introduce Hundreds to people - it's a new, weird kind of game that's intriguing and a bit hard to explain.
"We definitely spent a lot of time thinking about the website, the teaser, the trailer, the icon and the screenshots. We knew it'd be a challenge to tell people about the game and we took that on as a serious design issue, just as we had with any of the game design. I think in general that approach paid off."
Other, more creative marketing ideas were also discussed. At one point during development, Wohlwend suggested cloning his own game, using cartoony, inflating blowfish in place of Hundreds' circles.
He's reluctant to elaborate on the idea, hinting that it may have not been completely abandoned.
"I sort of don't want to [say any more]," he says. "I want to make a game with this idea because I think it's really cool. I know it might come off as a ploy to rope a larger more casual audience into Hundreds, but it's really not, there's a lot more to it."
With work on the game completed towards the end of 2012, all that remained was for the team to decide upon a price point and a release date.
Initially, Wohlwend and Saltsman toyed with the idea of releasing a free version of the game, with an IAP to unlock the rest.
"We saw everyone from little kids to grandmothers play the game without any help from us and we thought we might have something that could work with free, giving people a sort of demo version. Tens!," laughs Wohlwend.
Ultimately, however, it was decided that the game would be sold for $2.99 during its first week on sale, rising to $4.99 thereafter, with a release date of January 3rd.
"December is a really sticky month," says Wohlwend. "It has all these Holiday sales and everything which are great, but everyone is crowding in to do the same thing.
"We felt like waiting a few weeks until that passed would give us the best chance at gaining more attention."
"And historically, for Semi Secret," adds Saltsman, "while the last two weeks of December is the best two week period of the year, January is actually our best five-week period."
It proved to be a wise decision.
With prominent promotion from Apple and a slew of positive reviews from critics, Hundreds has sold over 100,000 copies, enjoying high App Store chart placings since release.
Indeed, such has been Hundreds' success that the team is now planning an Android port and updates with new features and content.
"Every value we had going into this project we carried all the way through to the end, and in spite of that, or, I am tempted to think, because of that, Hundreds is resonating with more people than we ever allowed ourselves to imagine," says Saltsman.
"It's definitely the best game I ever got to work on."
"I've made over a dozen games and Hundreds is the one I feel closest to, still," adds Wohlwend. "It's even crazier that so many people are digging it."
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