In the mid-2000s, Richard Boeser was studying industrial design at Delft Technical University in the Netherlands. However, he had lost interest in product design and had instead become captivated by digital distribution. “They brought more experimental games to a wider audience,” he says. “It felt like a movement I wanted to be part of, and so I decided to focus my graduation project on the design of games.”
His project was part research, part building a game alone. It resulted in a prototype for what would become known as ibb & obb – the first game from two-man independent studio Sparpweed.
Roland Ijzermans was also studying industrial design at Delft Technical University when he met Richard and the two became friends. After ibb & obb caught Sony’s eye during its first public appearance at E3’s IndieCade in 2008, the two decided to team up and create Sparpweed.
While Sparpweed is considered a studio, Richard doesn’t quite see it as a studio in the traditional sense – noting that they collaborate with different people on different projects. “We’re not really building a studio … we’re building a network,” he says, adding “I think our strength lies in new concepts and well designed gameplay.”
The inspiration for these concepts and gameplay can come from anywhere. He notes one instance during a trip with friends in Portugal where they had to choose between a long route following a road or taking a shortcut through more bushy terrain. It was a situation that translated well into a game mechanic that requires a player to plan the fastest route through a landscape with different types of terrain that influence speed. This mechanic has become a core part of the gameplay for the newest game Sparpweed is working on: Chalo Chalo.
Test and Play
But not every idea gets turned into a game. If an initial idea seems promising, it gets prototyped. If it is fun and still feels promising, the project continues to iterate through many design and prototype steps. If there is one thing Richard is a big believer in, it’s prototyping and playtesting.
Every game he has designed has had playable prototypes from the start – all of which were continuously tested by team members, friends, and others. “I don’t believe you can design a game properly without a lot of playtesting,” he says. “Not only does it improve what you already have, it often brings new ideas.”
Additionally, he says it’s important to often view your project from a distance and evaluate what the core of the player experience should be and what to add or remove from the project to enhance it.
He recalls one experience where, through testing, he discovered that players needed to be told it was OK to stop playing. “With ibb & obb, we didn’t have a structure of levels from the start. It basically continued from start to end as one big level. This meant players never felt there was a proper moment to quit the game and take a break.”
He says players would simply continue playing until they got tired of it. Using a more traditional level structure fixed the problem, allowing players to make a conscious decision to either continue or quit playing at the end of each level.
A Slightly Unusual Workplace
Like a traditional studio, Sparpweed has a brick and mortar location, which lies in the center of Rotterdam, Netherlands. Unlike most other studios, it’s an open-office space shared with other developers. This provides unique opportunities for collaboration though. For instance, Codeglue, one of the developers Sparpweed shares a building with, was a big collaborator on ibb & obb.
However, even with its physical location, not all of the people working on Sparpweed projects are in the same city, or even the same country, and a lot of communication is done electronically.
Sparpweed also has a unique concept of time management as well. Not only is the work culture very open, flexible, and informal, but projects don’t really have deadlines – they simply continue until they’re “satisfyingly good.”
It’s a style that Richard wasn’t expecting when he first got into game design, but that goes along well with his personality. “My graduation project finished in 2007 and still today I spend time on ibb & obb – and will keep on doing so the next few years,” he says. “I had never imagined that would be the case. I’m a person with lots of patience, so I guess that’s why it worked out.”
Even though Sparpweed doesn’t have deadlines in the traditional sense, there is one type of deadline Richard has advice on: “Don’t announce release dates, even rough estimates, before you’re absolutely sure you can make it.”
The Meaning of Success
ibb & obb has now been out for over a year and Chalo Chalo is making good strides toward release. Both games have been showcased, recognized, and caught the attention of companies and players alike.
So what advice does Richard have for helping other indie developers reach success? “I would always suggest finding something your game is really good at and try to be the best at that. Spend more time on making that part better and less on adding content that broadens the scope of the game.”
However, he notes, success is different for everyone. “For me, success means creating games that I love and financially surviving at the same time. In that way, ibb & obb was successful. (I hope to create) games that people will fondly think back on for many years.”