By 2005, Chun Wah Kong had been in the games industry for over a decade. He was ill, burnt out, and felt like he had fallen out of love with video games. The moneymen thought it was too risky to invest in new ideas, so Chun just watched more and more rushed sequels and clones… Games were suffering from creative bankruptcy. Chun said no and walked away.
Facebook kept him in the gaming loop. His friends kept asking, “Don’t you miss making games?” “On a holiday in Dominican Republic, my wife Patsy and I were on a leisurely stroll watching lots of sea life in the shallower waters of the beach. When we returned to our room, I noticed a message on the towels on the bathroom wall. It read “Save Our Planet”. Chun Wah Kong recalls sharing the story of his falling in love with video games again creating Blue Eden.
A Fish Game to Make with Friends
I scribbled a lot of ideas into my notepad for a “fish game” during this holiday, and, like many ideas in the same notepad, not much was ever going to come to life, I believed. Until Hami, an Apple evangelist friend, showed me some games on his iPhone and said anyone could write and publish games on this platform.
I started speaking out my idea in front of some close friends to see if they wanted to make the game together in our spare time. We all have jobs, so it would be evenings and weekends only. “It’s gonna be fun,” I said, “Like the old times!” I promoted my idea through the wildlife documentary aspect of the future game, the swarming behaviours, and the camaraderie of friends who would just be having fun working on a project together. All in all, we are all fans of wildlife documentaries.
Plasticine, Plush Toys and Splashing Around in the Sink – How to Communicate with Remote Teammates
The initial challenge was communication. We all live far away from each other, some in other parts of the world, and we were never serious enough to have “video conferencing at 8 PM every Sunday night GMT”. It was difficult at times to relay ideas when there was little reference material and all far away. I simply had to use every smallest thing at my disposal and do whatever it took to help the other person understand. This included building plasticine models, compiling badly drawn animations, shooting video enactments with plush toys, and splashing around in the sink to capture amateur foley. Game designers sometimes use Lego to visualize, so in my mind, this is no different.
Showing the Beauty of Nature Instead of Avoiding Floating Plastic and Illegal Drift Nets
I decided I wasn’t going to have environmental issues as a part of the level design. I didn’t want it to be a game where you have to avoid floating plastic and illegal drift nets; I wanted to show the bright side of our ocean and say, “Isn’t nature great? Isn’t it worth saving from destruction?” I wanted to convey the same excitement I felt the first time I saw a school of mackerel mass together into a bait ball in a wildlife documentary on TV. This quickly became the Predator level.
The basic design of the Feeding level followed, but the eventual rules to this game went through many iterations before we settled on the match-3 styled game we have now. For a long time, it was going to be a maths game, but the rules were not easy to convey, and perhaps it was too challenging for younger children. That’s why we changed it to a much simplified matching experience. I think we made the right decision, and I know that I tend to make games too challenging for most people.
When I first saw a video of how surgeonfish mate, I imagined a game similar to Missile Command. I emailed Ben, the artist for this level, telling how I wanted the sperm and the eggs drawn in order to provide an interesting interpretation. I wanted the game to loop and go on endlessly, like Tetris. So the first level should be the result of the Breeding level. A simple find & rescue game type was proposed in a coral reef environment. In my mind, the game had to amaze from the word ‘Go’, I felt this was only achievable if the player had direct control over the fish school and interaction with the coral.
As the project was taking shape, we’ve had to say goodbye to some friends/team members because their circumstances had changed and they were no longer able to spend time on the game. Even between friends, sometimes it was not easy to tell each other to hurry up, since we were considered doing a favor for each other. Or when people were giving up their spare time for little or no monetary returns. After all, I was funding the production out of my own savings and could only afford mates’ rates. In the past, I have heard stories of friends breaking up over situations like this, but I’m glad to say that everything’s cool, and I’d be more than happy to work with any of these guys again in the future. We were in a transitional phase of development when our lead programmer Jim joined the project to implement the front end and make the gameplay. And then everything changed.
Team Expansion: New People, New Problems
I sat opposite Jim for five years at Sony when we worked on a little known game called The Getaway, and got along really well. He is the type of guy who has the drive and desire to move a project forwards, taking the game from being a little more than a tech demo or a proof of concept to a finished product. Jim was like me but with the ability to turn ideas into code which I can tinker with, offering me the tools to tweak and refine.
No family member who I thought could help got away with not being asked. This includes the two youngest on the project who were born during the development of Blue Eden, Jim’s son Musashi and my niece Vanessa. Even though they live 5000+ miles apart, their voices can be heard together as the Skoobie Games start-up jingle.
In an attempt to expand the project, I no longer sought help from immediate friends, but reached out to friends of friends and recommendations, giving opportunities to people who may have never made a game before.
The results of this were mixed. At one end of the scale, people like Minkee, Alex and Ricky did extraordinary work on the illustrations, voice-overs and 3D animations respectively; these are people who I have never met before or spoken to prior to Blue Eden. At the other end, we had people who promised to help but never followed through. It would have made a significant difference if the time and effort spent chasing those individuals were spent on the project. This has nothing to do with money, since I was more than happy at this stage to pay the rates they were asking for. Trying to set myself apart from other principals, being a dab hand at making gyozas, I offered all my potential contractors my restaurant grade gyozas as an alternative/ supplement payment. Sadly, no one took the offer which still stands today.
My friends know that I am a foodie, and I’ve been conscious about my food habits long before the start of the project – I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. If you care enough about nature, it’s not difficult to follow a responsible path. We need to make wise decisions about the seafood that we consume, by giving overfished species a break and the chance to recover. There’s plenty of alternatives available, we don’t need to stick to certain food even though we’ve always had a particular kind of fish for different occasions.
There is one thing which I hope we have achieved with Blue Eden: it’s that the game has planted a seed of awareness in people’s minds. If this happened, the many evenings that we spent in front of our computers when we could have spent it with our family and loved ones creating this game would certainly be worthwhile.
They’ve also launched a free version of Blue Eden called Blue Eden Lite on the App Store to allow more people to experience the game and bring interest to the wider topic of conservation and sustainability.