Developer Dawn of Play recently released Dream of Pixels on the App Store to much critical acclaim. The iOS puzzler title best describes itself as a “reverse Tetris,” where you touch a giant block to remove pieces rather than place them. But it’s the unique visuals and soothing soundtrack that has undoubtedly propelled Dream of Pixels above its competition.
GamesBeat interviewed designer Žiga Hajduković and programmer Matej Jan to get some history on their studio, the development of Dream of Pixels, and the impact the extremely positive critical reaction has had on actual sales.
GamesBeat: What’s the story behind Dawn of Play?
Žiga Hajduković: We bootstrapped Dawn of Play out of a profitable R&D software company Razum that me and my friend Rok Jamnik founded seven years ago. We worked on a couple of huge enterprise software projects that we’re quite proud of, being a small, nimble team. And we had an opportunity to be a part of some really cool mobile prototyping gigs involving iPhones, mobile laser projectors, and NFC early on. In all these years, we’ve been quietly saving up money and building up an awesome team, which is now also known as Dawn of Play.
GamesBeat: Is Dream of Pixels Dawn of Play’s first game? How long was it in development?
Hajduković: No, it’s actually our third published game, after Monkey Labour and Twinoo Brain Training. I was prototyping the game for about six months in my free time to finalize the core gameplay. Development of Dream of Pixels for the iOS took us another year.
My wife was actually the lead playtester on the prototype for the first iterations when our second daughter was born, and then we showed it to a bunch of friends and neighbors and even their kids. The countless game design discussions within Dawn of Play were also key. Jan Hadžić then started working on the art direction with Matej Jan coding it full-time since January. Samo Pajk joined the core Dream of Pixels team with his coding skills a few months later. In the end, the whole development effort added up to a little more than two man-years.
GamesBeat: What were some of the challenges you found in putting a twist on the well-known gameplay of Tetris?
Hajduković: At first, I wanted to stay “true” and keep the idea of reversing Tetris as pure as possible, but we soon realized that would not make for a fun game. Some elements just had to go: no next preview, no swapping/holding tetrominoes — just a fun, one-touch action-puzzle game. After Matej took over, he upgraded all that to the next level. It took a lot of technical knowledge and non-technical experience of all of us at Dawn of Play to shape Dream of Pixels into a proper game that can hold its own when compared to Tetris.
Above: Some of the most significant iterations of the prototype, the right-most now published on Kongregate.
GamesBeat: Were you concerned at all about the $2.99 price point? That’s essentially a premium on the App Store these days.
Hajduković: We were concerned, but we thought this out quite thoroughly from the start, and we went with the premium price for a premium game. We definitely did not want to create another insta-buy, one-time-hit $0.99 or a freemium game. That is why we haven’t gone the easy way with one gameplay mode and also did an amazing job on the visuals, I must say.
GamesBeat: The dream-like visuals and sounds are key to the game’s tone. Can you discuss the development behind those a bit?
Matej Jan: We brainstormed a lot in the start, but that only led to a lot of random ideas, ranging from industrial oil-dripping to a Russian takeover theme. Jan, the art director, finally devised a clear, thoughtful concept of a relaxing game, illustrated with an impressionistic cloud-like playfield. Good design often arrives from good direction, and from that point on, it was easy to develop the animated look, select the music, and tie everything up into the context of (day)dreaming.
GamesBeat: How did you go about creating the procedural visuals? Tiny Wings is another game that does something similar, but my understanding is that it’s quite difficult and not built in to any SDKs such as Unity or Corona.
Jan: Yes, that’s a disadvantage of taking high-level engines at face value; some games just can’t lose the feel [that] they’re an Unreal or a Unity game. Some ingenuity can take you a long way. I use a custom, low-level framework — XNI — so I had to start from scratch anyway. When implementing unique visuals, you pull from your previous experience in the field — in this case, fluid simulation and particle systems. You set up a prototype and literally play with your ideas of how to achieve the final look.
GamesBeat: Did you struggle with trying to keep the game under the 50MB file size limit needed for 3G downloads?
Jan: Indeed, all due to music. I wanted the soundtrack to be a big part of the game as I knew a couple local artists that could contribute to a fitting ambient/electronic soundtrack. I had a full hour of songs selected amounting to 120MB, but in the end, not being able to download a puzzle game when you’re standing in line is something you can’t afford. We narrowed it down to five tracks, and luckily, they are all so perfect you don’t get tired of them even after the hundredth time. I know, I did my share while testing.
GamesBeat: The unlock progression for the new modes seems partly inspired by the latest Bejeweled titles. What other games besides Tetris played a role in inspiring Dream of Pixels?
Jan: I never played Bejeweled, so I don’t know. My own reason for unlockable modes is to give players some sense of size to the game. It’s an endless game in nature, which you can replay for hundreds of hours, but you could also play it for five minutes and be like, “This is it?!” Making the players work toward unlocking modes gives them the sense of how much gameplay there is even though it’s potentially infinite.
Hajduković: Besides Tetris, Pentomino was the inspiration for the puzzle mode. This is interesting since Pentomino inspired Alexey Pajitnov to invent Tetris. So two points for Pentomino!
GamesBeat: Are there any plans for additional content or versions of Dream of Play on PCs or consoles?
Hajduković: Yes, in fact, we are working on an update and are opening up the puzzle editor to some early adopters from the TouchArcade community. We plan to select some of those for the next new puzzle pack update.
We get hit by many requests for an Android version, but we do need to make ends meet on iOS first before we can sensibly move on to Android for all its fragmentation issues. The fact that Slovenia is not a supported country for paid apps on Google Play does not help.
I, personally, would like to start on the PC version next. Consoles may not be perfect for this game, with the joypads and all, but maybe one of those next-gen [user interfaces] could work — Wii U or Kinect-enabled Dream of Pixels, anyone?
We could also have the PC port ready with much less effort than moving to a different mobile platform, as Matej’s XNI framework, being XNA for iOS, could be leveraged in this case.
GamesBeat: Dream of Pixels has been very well received from the media and therefore gamers. Why do you think that is?
Hajduković: Simple, it’s über-awesome. [Laughs] But seriously, we put gigantic amounts of effort into this game, basically poured our souls straight in. The fact Dream of Pixels instantly invokes “Ah! Reverse Tetris” thoughts helps open doors and some hearts, but this also means that it instantly gets compared to the one classic, ever-green, all-time favorite amazing game of Tetris. But we are able to say that Dream of Pixels stands proudly alongside Tetris, humbly just a bit under, to show the respect.
GamesBeat: I’m curious as to how all the good press has affected sales. You have a couple other apps in the App Store, so has Dream of Pixels performed considerably better?
Hajduković: Yes, it has performed better. First, it got a huge kick-start boost with the brilliant TouchArcade review by John Polson, but then the sales started declining throughout the opening week with few bumps when other major sites covered it. All the good press certainly has affected sales, but not as much as we honestly expected it would.
I should add that our other game Twinoo Brain Training exploded to more than a quarter of a million new players after a surprise feature by AppAdvice immediately after we made it free to celebrate the launch of Dream of Pixels.
We are doing everything we can to keep us afloat — the fight is far from over!
GamesBeat: How does a successful game change your company’s plans for the near and distant future, if at all?
Hajduković: No clue, has not happened. We are bootstrapping our game studio from our R&D profits, so a successful game would definitely enable us to focus more of our efforts on Dawn of Play as it starts making a living for us — and that is all we ask.