Beloved gaming mainstays robots, ninjas and monkeys are things appreciated so much by the founders of Ronimo Games that they decided upon their company name by welding the first two letters of each word together. "I think they're some of the coolest elements in gaming. I mean, who doesn't love robots, ninjas and monkeys?!" laughs Jasper Koning, co-founder and game designer at the company. "We also considered pirates, and zombies and other stuff as well of course, but that didn't make a nice name. But luckily, those are three of the coolest ones."
Before robot ninja monkeys roamed the Earth, though, there existed Banana Games. In 2003 several classmates were working on a game design course at the Utrecht School of Arts, Netherlands. The third year was split into six months of internship, six months of group work on a project assigned by Utrecht city. Areas of the city were about to undergo major reconstruction work, and so the task was to create a game that could fit into an information centre and demonstrate how great the city would look once the building work was completed.
For their project, Banana Games came up with the original downloadable PC version of paint 'em up platformer de Blob. Inspiration came from an unusual place: McDonald's. "It was actually fairly classy for a McDonald's, with leather chairs and everything. It has a huge mural of the city of Utrecht in black and white. That was part of the idea. We thought, well, wouldn't it be cool to highlight how nice this future city of Utrecht is by giving it colour yourself?" De Blob's round character was chosen as a natural fit to the input device, the information centre's trackball.
With another year left at university, however, the decision was made to sell the rights on to an interested THQ, who have so far released two entries in the franchise, developed by the now-defunct Blue Tongue Entertainment. "We thought that us working on the concept was not that handy, because we wanted to finish our school," Jasper explains, though notes that the contract procedure actually took close to a year in the end anyhow. "It would've been a possibility
Why sell de Blob?
That next concept came about during this year of contract negotiations, where their final year of education gave them the chance to work on a personal project of their choice. Some members of Banana Games teamed up with others and moved a step up the food chain to form Ronimo Games for this. The company was formally registered with the Utrecht Chamber of Commerce in March 2007, and they set to work, intent on creating a prototype that they could build themselves without thinking about selling on. The result was a 3D Jak and Daxter-style demo - "a single fairly large level with a few novel gameplay concepts" - that, as yet, has not amounted to anything commercially. "We talked to publishers at GamesCom 2007, when the demo was done, and most of them liked it but none of them had enough faith in us, as fresh students, to invest in us."
It was around the time of Game Developers Conference 2008 that THQ once more swept in with an olive branch to Ronimo Games, offering to help them push their creation forward on consoles. "At GDC 2008 we tried again, and another big problem we had at the time was that we couldn't get a console licence. A console licence requires either console programming experience or a publisher. So THQ said 'we could help you with a Wii licence, and then you could get started on porting this demo to Wii, and then we can maybe consider funding it to finish the game'." THQ "pulled some strings" and gave Ronimo the chance to sign up to Nintendo's development program at a time that the console manufacturer were setting up WiiWare. Rather than pursuing their 3D prototype further - though it is still a consideration for the future - they took the opportunity to have a crack at Nintendo's new downloadable portal. "We thought, 'why not use the Nintendo licence, the Wii licence, to make our own game that we could publish ourselves?'" reasons Jasper. "So that's what we did. That's where Swords & Soldiers came in."
Swords & Soldiers, of course, being the game that put Ronimo on the map when it was released on WiiWare in mid-2009. The cartoon 2D real-time strategy title earned multiple awards, including an IGN Editor's Choice, and at the time of writing still sits in the top 50 Wii games on Metacritic, two and a half years after release. Players take control of three different factions - Vikings, Aztecs and Imperial Chinese - through a light-hearted but challenging campaign. Rather than having any command over the fighters' movements, other than selecting which fork in a road they might take to their goal, the player's role is more about adjusting the flow and density of the warriors' march forward by purchasing units, then helping them along with mana-limited magic, plus upgrading units and spells. Its main focus is as a multiplayer game, though.
Swords & Soldiers was a success on WiiWare, coming within a year of the service's European launch. Ronimo were also fortunate enough to get help with marketing from Nintendo of Europe through their website. "Near the end
Whereas de Blob was responsible for teaching some of the members of Ronimo about publishing relations - "we didn't have any before we did that game" - Swords & Soldiers was a wake up call on the amount of time needed to bring a commercial release to fruition. "Just as we did de Blob in three months, after three months of working on Swords & Soldiers we were pretty far along. We had splitscreen multiplayer, we had two factions with all the units and spells working. But from that point to actually having a full, downloadable game with age ratings and a manual and all that stuff...polishing, balancing..." Jasper laughs heartily. "Especially with the level of polishing that we required from ourselves to make it stand out on a console platform. That was a lot of work. And we still underestimated that with Awesomenauts."
Porting Swords & Soldiers
Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network will home Awesomenauts, a multiplayer online battle arena inspired by many evenings playing Defense of the Ancients (DotA). Two teams of three fight it out, each attempting to destroy the other's base while protecting their own. Ronimo Games' take is slightly less serious in tone, though plentiful in challenge, with a cast of characters ranging from maniacal Russian monkeys and robots with gigantic jaws to chameleon cyborgs and brains in jars. Each character starts off with a number of items and abilities that can be upgraded throughout matches with credits accumulated during play; dying thrusts players into a mini-game where they fall from the sky before respawning, giving them the opportunity to grab a little more currency to aid with those modifications.
Though it's designed primarily for six person multiplayer, Awesomenauts can also be played in single player or with fewer than the full complement of people, with tough AI filling in any gaps. Should a human player join mid-match, an AI player will drop out and make way for them. Similarly, if a human needs to leave the AI will pick right up where they left off - and it's pretty smart, judging by our playtest at Eurogamer Expo. Jasper is looking after the behaviour of the CPU players. "When I see
Traditionally, DotA-style games are found on PC, but Ronimo are taking a different tack with Awesomenauts. "We wanted to bring <DotA-style games> to consoles, but streamlined, in the same way that Swords & Soldiers streamlined RTS," Jasper notes. "The genre is already very well established on PC, and it will be hard to get players to switch to something else I think. And also, at the same time, there's a big hole on the console markets - there's no real MOBAs out there." Wii will miss out on Awesomenauts, though, due to the strong emphasis on online multiplayer. "When we released Swords & Soldiers, WiiWare was still fairly healthy in hindsight, but online multiplayer was, already back then, not very well supported on Wii, and it was going to be such an online-heavy game that we felt WiiWare wasn't worth the effort."
Which is not to say that Ronimo would not consider releases on Wii U if the online situation improves sufficiently, whether that is Awesomenauts or a future title. "We'd have to see what it brings to the table in the online department, but it
Swords & Soldiers and Awesomenauts have a common design philosophy. "We always try to strive for games that appear to be really simple, or at least very easy to get into, to get started, very appealing to get started with, but then when you start playing them you'd be surprised by the layers of depth in there. There's lots of little things that keep you playing. What we've done so far is games that don't have that much content in the traditional sense, but have a lot of replayability and different tactics to try out and keep you playing."
A multiplayer focus?
Ronimo also like to put a little bit of themselves into their games; specifically, their voices. Swords & Soldiers' characters were all voiced by the team - Jasper voiced a necromancer - while several of Awesomenauts' bizarre cast share Ronimo speech. This time around, however, they've brought in professionals for several roles. "The announcer, the frog and the cowboy have all been done by one professional guy. The chameleon, the robot, the healer and the monkey, they've all been done by us." It's unsurprising to see that they saved the robot and monkey for themselves - maybe a Ronimo-voiced ninja can be expected as downloadable content...
Also be on the look out for future issues of The Indie Scene coming monthly on Cubed3. If there are any independent developers on Nintendo platforms that you'd like us to take a closer look at, please feel free to get in touch...