Interview with Michael Waites from Four Horses

It’s been a while since we last did a bonus article, but sure enough, here’s a new one! Thanks to Michael Waites from Four Horses for taking his time to answer the questions below. Anything in This text belongs to me, while anything in This text belongs to Michael. Let’s begin!

Q1: What made you decide to start work on the original Digger Dan and Kaboom title?

A1: I have always been a hobby programmer but I’d never got round to learning the C programming language. I decided that to learn the language, I needed to set myself a decent programming exercise and that re-creating an old favourite game from the past would be ideal. Initially I was developing it for the GameBoy Advance, but I switched over to the DS when that console was launched. Eventually I showed it to a potential publisher with a view to selling it as a licensed version of the original, but they suggested that I could build a new game from the bare framework with new mechanics and new levels. Sadly, they ceased trading before the game was ready to go. At this time the main character was actually a mole, but little else was designed graphically.

By this time the DSi was out and a publishing deal for a download game was going to be a lot easier to achieve than for a retail card based game. A new look was produced for the game and a new publisher found. Digger Dan and Kaboom was unleashed on the world.

Q2: How was the original game received on DSiWare? By the time it launched, the service had a horrible reputation and the 3DS was only a few months away from launch. Did you fear that reputation and a new system looming on the horizon would cause problems for the games sales?

A2: Digger Dan and Kaboom was the first game I’d worked on at all that was published on DSiWare, so I have nothing to compare it to. Reviews were very favourable but I always suspected that there was a very limited number of potential customers due to the console not being owned by a great number of people, the DSiWare shop not being the easiest to use and anecdotal evidence that a very small percentage of owners had even bothered to connect them to the internet and load up the DSiWare shop. Having said that, it did cover its development costs so I wasn’t disappointed in that respect. I just would have liked to reach a greater number of players.

Once I knew the 3DS was coming with its eShop service being available very soon after launch, I knew that that was where Digger Dan belonged. Even though the original game was/is available on the service, I really wanted to produce a stereoscopic 3D version as I think 2D sprite based games often benefit from the stereoscopic effect more than 3D model based games do.

Q3: What games influenced Digger Dan? Boulder Dash seems like a given, but I’m curious to what others inspired the creation of the title.

A3: Actually, it wasn’t Boulder Dash at all. I grew up with an Acorn Electron and never actually saw Boulder Dash on that system. The game that Digger Dan started off as a remake of was called Repton. It is also influenced by a fantastic puzzle game called Xor, also on the Acorn Electron. The Warp Holes in Digger Dan have a very similar mechanic to the BMUS teleport objects in Xor. Dig Dug and Mr Do from the arcades should also get an honourable mention here, too.

Q4: What encouraged you to remake the title for the Nintendo 3DS eShop five years after the launch of the original, if the 3DS had access to the DSiWare version to begin with?

A4: I actually had the re-make on the Nintendo 3DS running back in 2012. It also ran on the iPhone and iPad, but I scrapped those versions as I don’t like playing games on touch screens using virtual d-pads. The game was designed for Nintendo hardware and that is where it is staying. As I mentioned above, as soon as I knew that the 3DS was on its way, I wanted the game to be released on that system. I also wanted to set a new price for the game, something I had no control over with the original title. Being based on the earliest generation of gaming, it is quite different to modern games and I totally understand players not really knowing what to expect from it or whether they are going to like it or not, so the low price point reflect this in the hope that people will take a chance on it when they otherwise wouldn’t at a higher price point.

However this time it proved difficult to find a publisher to agree to publish it for me on the 3DS, though I very nearly had a publishing deal for Japan at one time. Then last year, a little bit of good fortune in my personal life left me in a position to take a chance and set up a company with the sole purpose of publishing the game on the 3DS myself, so in November last year, Four Horses was born. I also should mention that the recent introduction and adoption of the IARC system has been instrumental in this. I had enough money to pay for an artist to entirely redesign the graphics and to cover other minor development costs but nothing else. Without the IARC, the game would have probably only been released in America initially with a launch in other territories entirely being based on sales in America, something that I absolutely would not have wanted to do. Simultaneous launch, low price point and a launch sale to reward early adopters were things that I decided on long before I started the company.

Q5: After this game, does your team have any plans for the future? Either a sequel or a brand new game altogether? Or is it too early to know yet?

A5: There is nothing set in stone. I have various types of games that I would like to make, some sort of platform shooter is at the top of my favourites list, but no firm ideas that I actually think I could make into a full, enjoyable game. I don’t think I’ll do a direct sequel, again I don’t have many ideas for new mechanics that I could add to the existing ones, but if the game reaches enough players, I do plan to add some extra levels in a free patch/update.

What I can realistically achieve totally depends on returns from this game. I have a day job and am getting on a bit, so working evenings and weekends on an entirely new game would be difficult as I am always too tired! If I could quit the day job to work on something new, then I probably would. If not, then I’m thinking of trying to convince IP owners of certain existing games that I like to let me do 3DS conversions of their games for them. One in particular that I would like to do would be of the original 1984 version of Elite. Imagine that on the 3DS with stereoscopic 3D graphics on the top screen running at 60fps, with the scanner on the bottom screen, making use of the circle pad and all those other controls… The problem is, I really don’t know if 3DS owners would want a remake of that as much as I would. I have actually got a version of it working on the original DS for personal use only.

Thanks again to Michael for his time answering these questions. If you’d like to check out my review of Digger Dan DX, read the review right here.


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