As a journalist, it’s very rare to look at a game and think, “hey, I was there when they thought that up!” But I was with Mush. Two years ago, I had the idiotic idea of reporting on a game jam, staying up the entire time, chatting with the competitors, experiencing their minor victories and major crashes and feasting on pizza and sweets.
The end result for me was an Edge magazine feature, but during the night, one team from the University of Newport had a great idea – a platformer in which the emotions of the lead character affected its ability to interact with the game environment. The visual style was cute and fresh, capturing the handicraft aesthetic of titles like LitteBigPlanet and Rolando; and the central concept was instantly appealing. It had legs.
Today, the highly evolved progeny of that game jam prototype is hitting the Windows Phone app store. Mush is a really, really lovely physics-based platform puzzler, following an agonisingly cute creature on a sort of emotional journey through themed environments. The high concept is the interface. Different emotional states allow the critter to access different areas, and players create these emotions by drawing the requisite expression on the screen; a downturned mouth accesses sadness, a smile gets happiness. It could have been awkward and gimmicky, but thanks to the kawaii universe the interface inhabits, it works fine.
Over the last couple of years, Angry Mango – the development studio that emerged from that original game jam team – has been coding and refining its project while the staff got day jobs, finished university and learned how to attract the attention of the fickle games press. I’ve caught up with them on several occasions – enough to feel a certain parental affinity for the studio. I was there at the beginning after all – that rarely happens. It’s sort of a privilege.
I just had one question for the studio’s director Henry Hoffman on the eve of the game’s launch today – what has taken you so long? “That’s a good question,” he concedes. “I’d like to say that it was perfectionism that led us on a labour of love, and whilst that is a big part of it, there has been a lot of bug fixing too.
“With most mobile physics games, you’re given a flat level with various objects stacked up and rearranged per level. We wanted a more organic game world, so we created this sprawling, curvy environment, full of lumps and bumps. We soon found out that having such weird levels made for some unpredictable gameplay. So really, a good year or so was spent solidly refining the levels, making sure everything worked as expected so no one could get stuck under a giant catfish, for example.
“Every couple of weeks testers would come back to us with twenty or so issues. We’d fix them, and they’d raise twenty more ad nauseum. We learnt a lot from this, and we have many ways that we’d approach things differently in the future. Having a solid foundation from a code and design perspective is really integral to avoiding pitfalls in later development.”
What the team has found, however, is a lot of help and support from a slightly unexpected source: Microsoft. “We’ve been lucky enough to have a great relationship with them, and they’ve really helped us grow as developers,” says Henry. “They took us out to celebrate after winning Dare to be Digital, came to the BAFTA’s with us and have been a consistent source of help and encouragement. I couldn’t begin to imagine representatives from Apple or Google taking such an active interest in a ramshackled bunch of game students.”
He also says that Microsoft was there to check the code at every stage. “When developing for a long time, you become blind to the game and start playing it mechanically. Having that second set of eyes helped us time and again to improve every aspect of the game. From level design, to upselling, to localisation, to obscure memory leaks. I don’t think it would be possible to sneak a bug past those guys no matter how obfuscated it was”.
But, considering the smaller user base for Windows Phone compared to iPhone and Android isn’t there a teeny weeny regret that Mush wasn’t developed for a different platform? “Not at all,” says Hoffman. “I think we regret not getting Mush out on the Windows Phone earlier, but we’re much more confident that we’ll see success on this platform. It seems really hit or miss on iOS and Android, and that’s a lot of risk having put in so much work. I often see really great games on iOS in the ‘Up and Coming’ that just completely disappear off the radar. It’s a great shame”.
From here, the team is planning to support Mush with new content, and is thinking about porting it to new platforms (“Nintendo if you’re reading this get in touch!” says Hoffman). There is also another prototype in the early stages of gestation.
I hope it all goes well. They’re a lovely bunch and they have come a long way from that 48 hour game jam in Huddersfield, when amid the maelstrom of abandoned concepts, empty pizza boxes and loud recriminations, they came up with a little idea that deserved more. And it got more. And I feel, while having met the team only a few times since, and with the demands of professional distance in mind, very proud of them.