Interview

Halfbrick Studios on Kinect, plushies and why it travels half way around the world to meet the fans

Halfbrick Studios on Kinect, plushies and why it travels half way around the world to meet the fans
The Penny Arcade Expo is about celebrating gaming writ large. It's sort of an 'E3 for everybody'.

In that sense, it's unsurprising that the PAX Expo Hall has traditionally been dominated by booths publicising core gaming titles and publishers.

However, this year, Halfbrick Studios flew in from Australia to attend PAX East in Boston.

Its booth was dominated by a Fruit Ninja Kinect set up, which already had a moderately-sized queue forming behind it shortly after the Expo Floor doors opened at 10:00 am.

Four iPads were also set up at a table in the middle of the booth with copies of Jetpack Joyride running the new gadgets and game content being released in April, and next to this was a store selling plush toys of some of the characters from Halfbrick's games.

We spoke with Halfbrick's community coordinator, James Schultz, in front of a plushie display.

Pocket Gamer: Considering there's another PAX taking place in August in Seattle, Washington, which is considerably closer to Australia, why make the trip all the way out to PAX East?

James Schultz: PAX East is special because all our fans are awesome. We want to meet as many people as possible. This is my first PAX and already, we've been here for an hour or two, I've been blown away by the support.

So we're going to hit PAX East, then we're going to hit PAX Prime. We're going to try to get out to as many people as possible, and just have fun with everyone.

How many times has Halfbrick attended a Penny Arcade Expo?

I think this is our third PAX.

Do you feel the show is increasingly opening up to mobile gaming?

We've always felt comfortable as far as I know, but honestly, so far the reaction has been nothing but positive. I think it has been a big shift.

People still love the hardcore gaming, but I think a lot of people are really growing into casual gamers as well, so I think there's definitely room for both.

When you're waiting for a train or a bus you're going to jump on Jetpack Joyride or Fruit Ninja, you're done in sixty seconds, it suits everyone. And obviously there's been a massive boom in the [mobile gaming] industry. We haven't had anything but positive experiences here.

Fruit Ninja Kinect is represented very heavily in your presence here at PAX. Does this suggest anything about Halfbrick wanting to expand its core identity past mobile games?

We are a mobile developer. That's what we're really good at. Obviously we try to stay on top of all the new technology, we're not set in stone as a mobile developer, but that's what we're known for, and we have no problem with that whatsoever.

We have Fruit Ninja Kinect on console, and that works great, but we just like making good games that anyone can play, that are accessible and easy to use.

So we have plush toys over here of…

This is a Raskull, that's a dragon character there, and we've got Sensei and of course some watermelon [Fruit Ninja] plushies.

Why no Barry Steakfries?

That…is a good question. We need to make it happen. [pauses] I would like a Barry Steakfries plushy.

I tend to think of Halfbrick as a very playful studio. I'm thinking about your live-action marketing spots. How does that work into the plans you make for PAX East?

We like to get a bit crazy, get a bit silly ... we've actually got a real life Fruit Ninja that's going to be walking around later this afternoon.

And in addition to that, we're doing a Fruit Ninja Kinect tournament where every day, if you can top our daily leaderboard, you'll win a custom Fruit Ninja Skin for the Xbox 360.

I hear you had trouble getting your iPads online to unlock the new Jetpack Joyride gadgets you're showing off today.

Yeah, it's fine. People will jump on, they'll get the coins, and before you know it we'll have all gadgets unlocked and people will be able to play them. So give it a couple of hours and we'll be good to go.

Turning a technical challenge into tapping the community spirit of PAX East?

The new challenge now is to help us get the gadgets. That's the challenge, baby!

Does Halfbrick plan to grow beyond mobile development and regularly work on multiple platforms simultaneously?

We're always prototyping. We have a constant process where we're trying to come up with new ideas for games, and there are no rules.

It's not like [we] have to develop [only] for iOS. We can develop for PC, it just seems that generally people have ideas that are based on mobile devices, very simple ideas that anyone can access.

That said, if somebody were to come up with a good idea that really worked with a keyboard or mouse, we wouldn't hesitate. We would definitely go there, but at the moment we don't.

We're focusing mainly on Jetpack Joyride and expanding the Fruit Ninja universe, keeping that going really strong, and making it really fun.

Do you think you'd ever move Jetpack Joyride onto Kinect? It's a jump mechanic. That's a pretty simple movement for Kinect to track.

That would be pretty fun, actually. It would be awesome to get a real-life jetpack that you could just strap on, and make that work somehow. Yeah, I don't know how it would work with Kinect, but if there's a will there's a way.

It all depends on whether the mechanics work, and if we like it, if we get excited about it, then there's going to be other people out there who will too.

[Points at the growing line in front of the Fruit Ninja Kinect setup] I'm asking because Fruit Ninja Kinect has proven to be one of the most popular Kinect titles out there, so I wonder if that's influenced your design processes?

I'm not sure in terms of the actual prototyping process. We definitely recognise the potential there. I mean, Fruit Ninja on Kinect makes sense.

It works really well. It's very simple, anyone can do it, people of all ages, two-year-olds playing it, it just works. And it's done amazingly well. We've now hit over 1 million downloads of Fruit Ninja Kinect, we're going to keep supporting that.

In terms of other games, I can't say. But yeah, definitely we understand how it works on Kinect, and we're really happy that people like it, and that Microsoft has supported us.

And with that, we left Schultz to tend the increasingly-large crowds showing up at the Halfbrick booth. We'll hopefully see a Barry Steakfries plushie at PAX Prime in a few months.

Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, who publishes widely on the subject of video games. You can follow him @DennisScimeca

Dennis Scimeca is a freelancer from Boston. His weekly video game opinion column, First Person, is published by Village Voice Media. He occasionally blogs at punchingsnakes.com, and can be followed @DennisScimeca.

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