I’d only been at the GameCity festival for about five minutes yesterday afternoon when Mike “Thomas Was Alone” Bithell ushered me into the main tent in Nottingham’s old town square and told me I had to see Janksy. And I’m extremely glad he did.
Developed by teeny studio Dlala, it’s a neat physics puzzler set in deepest space. Your job is to guide a cute alien from one side of the screen to his starship on the other, using a mouse controlled grappling hook to snag nearby bases, pulling the extraterrestrial explorer across the blackness. Naturally, there are obstacles to avoid in the shape of whizzing asteroids, and special swirly icons can be collected to unlock new galaxies. Later, you have to work out the best route through more fiendish traps such as blackholes, while also making use of transportation portals.
It’s compelling stuff, cleverly taking the physics puzzling gameplay of, say, Cut The Rope, but adding other dynamics from the platforming genre. Timing is the vital unifying element: mostly, the deadly space rocks are on a patrol pattern so you need to learn how long it takes Janksy to cover distance in order to time leaps perfectly. And that task gets more complex as the levels roll on.
Dlala was formed in June by Aj Grand-Scrutton and Craig Thomas, who previously worked together at Jagex and Bossa Studios. “We essentially took all our savings, paid off our debts and moved back into our parents’ garages,” says Grand-Scrutton. “My nan’s washing machine an fridge are behind me as I work.”
The duo attended the Develop conference in Brighton over the summer where they met representatives from Microsoft, looking to promote game development on Windows 8. The Dlala chaps decided to give it a go, figuring that their project would get noticed much quicker on a fresh app store without thousands of competitors already clogging up the store front.
“It’s been pretty amazing,” says Thomas. “It’s not the first time we’ve worked with windows – in our spare time we both used the XNA Framework to develop Xbox stuff, but Windows 8 feels like a step in the right direction – it’s been so easy for us to develop on. We’ve been using C# and XAML, which is what they encourage – the approach is slightly different, but it’s not been difficult.”
Grand-Scrutton agrees: “If we have had a problem, we’ve emailed them, and they’ve introduced us to the guys who are in charge of Visual Studio – we’ve had our answers directly from them. And I don’t want to sound like a sales guy here, but the thing about Windows 8 is, if you develop for the PC, it handles the scaling for the tablet, so we’ve had one development cycle and out of that we have a PC and tablet version. And the SDK for the new phones comes out next week, so we’re hoping to do a new version for Christmas.”
So how did the idea of an intergalactic grappling hook platform physics puzzler come about? “I don’t know why but I’ve always wanted to make a mini golf game,” says Thomas. “And AJ had this great idea for a space game. And I think it was 3am, we were swapping text messages, and AJ just wrote, I’ve got an idea, I’ll tell you tomorrow. So we combined the two… and came up with something that was nothing like either!.”
And that, clearly, is the secret of collaborative game design, because with its 60 or so levels (plus a do-it-yourself editor and DLC in the making), Janksy looks like a compelling treat, that will hopefully shine on the controversial shelves of Microsoft’s Windows 8 store. It’ll be out on Friday.