Interview #003: James Kay - Score Studios
Welcome back to the latest Industry Interviews! I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with James Kay, developer and founder of Score Studios. Read my interview below and make sure to follow me on Twitter....there's a giveaway currently underway!
Download Piczle Lines DX from the eShop here.
Download Piczle Lines DX 500 More Puzzles from the eShop here.
Thank you James for speaking with me today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am James Kay, a game developer of about 25 years. I grew up with computers and games, studied audiovisual design and soon after graduating started working in the game industry as an artist. My first job was at the now sadly defunkt Intelligent Games, then Criterion. I moved to Japan in 2001 and worked at Taito, Genki and Marvellous before starting Score Studios in 2009. I live in central Tokyo and have two cats who have more Instagram followers than I do.
What was the first console/game you remember playing?
That is going back a looong way. I remember playing Game & Watch games. We had Mario’s Cement Factory, which I still love. We also had a TI 99/4a with Munchman and Parsec, which were both pretty awesome games. On top of that I have a vivid memory of my dad bringing home a “portable” PC from work - a massive, heavy suitcase, the top of which opened up to reveal a keyboard and a tiny green and black screen. He then showed me Flight Simulator which was pretty mind-blowing.
What is your fondest childhood video game memory?
The first time I played King’s Quest I was utterly enthralled. Just to inhabit that world, walk around behind rocks and bushes, it was enchanting. I was also very much addicted to Ultima 4 at the time and was asked by my parents to put a pot on the stove ahead of supper. I did and went back to playing. I thought, wow, I am so engrossed I can even smell the campfire my characters are sitting around. At which point I remembered the pot I put on the stove hours earlier. Everything in it had burned and the kitchen was full of smoke.
Let's talk about Score Studios, a Tokyo-based development studio that was formed in 2009. How did the company form and who makes up the team?
I started Score Studios after several years of working within the Japanese company system. I had gotten my permanent residency, and company start-up rules had just been relaxed so you didn’t need a huge amount of investment upfront, so I thought I would give it a shot. We started out as three, and the company has grown and shrunk over time, but I’ve remained at the core of it.
The cost of maintaining employees lead us to do a lot of contract work. Though this put me in touch with a lot of interesting companies, teams, and projects and is very rewarding work in itself, we all dream of creating our own games from the ground up. Recently I’ve managed to pivot the company to focus more on developing our own IP and original games. Currently I’m working mostly with contractors on that.
Before we dive into the world of Piczle, Score Studios developed a few games for mobile devices. These include Osmosis and Raid Tactics. Would you like to share a few words about each one?
Score has produced a fair number of mobile games to date. It was always the intention to create enough titles, or create that one lucky hit, to be able to run the company off the royalties and income, rather than by having to rely on contract work. So every now and again we’d have another swing at it. Osmosis was a grid-based puzzle, a little bit like Sokoban, but you had to slide cells into each other to combine them into one. It was actually quite a brain-taxingly difficult game. Raid Tactics was yet another grid-based game, kind of a mix between a tactics game and a puzzle. You equipped your team members with loot, and fight waves of enemies on a grid. You could grind for better equipment or figure out enemies’ weaknesses.
Visibility has always been the biggest challenge for any independent developer and sadly none of these games ever got much traction, other than Piczle Lines. Puzzle games are my absolute passion, so a lot of love and attention went into Piczle. It’s really great to see players taking to it, and responding to it on social media.
Moving into Piczle (Picture Puzzles) Lines, the first title was released in 2010 for mobile devices with the latest released just a little over a year ago on the Nintendo Switch. For those unfamiliar, what type of game play is Piczle Lines?
Piczle Lines is a type of logic-puzzle where you follow hints to fill in a grid, that eventually creates an image. On a grid you are presented with colored dots with numbers on them. The idea is to connect dots of the same color by forming a line between them that covers as many grid squares as the numbers on the dots.
This sounds a lot more complicated than it is, in reality it’s quite a simple to understand mechanic, once you get your hands on it. A green dot with a 5 on it has to connect to another green dot with a 5 by dragging from one to the other. Once they connect they should cover 5 squares. Once you’ve connected all the lines you’ll have created a pixelated image!
It was a deliberate choice to not include any timer or penalty features in Piczle Lines. I think that the fun of a good logic-puzzle game is to take your time and figure things out. You can draw, erase, and try out different things until you get it right.
What was it about Nintendo's newest console, the Nintendo Switch, that you felt was an ideal choice to release your latest title in the Piczle Lines series? Part of the attraction, of course, was the fact I’m a huge Nintendo fanboy and seeing my game on their latest console was a huge draw. But as the Switch had touch-screen capabilities and Piczle Lines was designed around that input it, made sense to bring it to the Switch. On top of that, logic-puzzle games are not that common (yet?), and I am hoping to be part of a kind of movement to introduce more people to them. With the Switch’s amazing success, it was a way to reach a wider audience.
Next in the Piczle family is Piczle Colors, heading to the Switch later this year. How does this differ from previous versions?
Piczle Colors, on the face of it, a more traditional logic-puzzle. A grid with numbers along the top and side to show where in the rows and columns to draw blocks. However, this one has a bit of a twist, in that the hints are not in order, requiring you to think differently. So the hints don’t say a row contains (e.g., 2 red blocks first and then 3 yellow blocks), they merely say that somewhere, anywhere in that row you need to paint 2 red blocks and 3 yellow ones. Again, it sounds more complicated than it is.
On top of this, as you will have come to expect from a Piczle game, I’m packing in lots of fun bonus content, like trophies and unlockable extras.
Is there a release date confirmed at this time?
Not at this time, no, sorry. Currently we’re discussing release date options with the publisher, Rainy Frog. Hopefully people won’t have to wait too long though!
Are you able to tease any future projects you are working on today?
All the focus is on Piczle Colors right now!
But… I have started sketching out what I want to do after. I need to decide between two possible new Piczle titles next. But it will definitely be another entry into the Piczle series, one way or another.
Score Studios has also collaborated with other developers in the video game industry. Could you briefly touch upon this?
When looking for contract work, being based in Tokyo, naturally we reached out to local companies. We ended up working with interesting studios like Valhalla Games Studios, iNiS, the new Studio Istolia and Sony Interactive Entertainment. In fact, Score Studios provided the engine that runs The Last Guardian on the Playstation 4!
Being creative, it is sometimes difficult to focus mainly on the business side of things. The experience has taught me a lot, though, about running a company, contracts, business development, staffing, etc. and I take great personal pride in the fact I’ve run the company for 9 years so far with no loans, outside investment or debts. But I am a developer at heart and my focus became being creative again. Piczle Lines DX was a great project to do because it helped me find that spark again!
Outside of video games, you've also written a book titled Japanmanship: The Ultimate Guide to Working in Videogame Development in Japan? What inspired you to write about this topic?
When I first came to Japan it was still a rarity to see foreigners at Japanese game companies. I started blogging about my life and experiences and got quite a few readers that way. It also led to me writing several articles for big gaming magazines about working in Japan and the cultural differences in game development.
At some point I thought it might be worthwhile to collate all that information into a guidebook for anybody wanting to move to Japan and work in game development. So I did that! I have met people who read the book and subsequently got jobs in the Japanese game industry; I have even employed some of them!
These days, though, the number of non-Japanese in the industry has exploded! The culture on the workfloor has changed and willingness for employers to hire foreigners has meant that some parts of the guidebook are perhaps a little out of date nowadays, but I think there is still some useful information in there for the curious.
Here's one to get you thinking! Given the choice, what game from any console (past or present) would you love to see on the Switch?
Oh, too many, way too many. I think Viewtiful Joe from the Gamecube era deserves a remaster on Switch, as does Mr. Driller Drill Land, the best Mr. Driller game that was never released outside Japan. Mostly, what would really be a dream come true, would be a touch-screen enabled, Ultima series (preferably 4 through 6) with some UI improvements. It will never happen, of course, but I can dream, can’t I?
Currently, what game(s) are you playing on the Nintendo Switch?
I try to dip into as many games as I can, and obviously I’ve played all of Nintendo’s big releases. I also check out a lot of the indies that are coming out every week! But I find myself always going back to logic puzzles. The Picross series is on there, and I am also quite addicted to Fill-a-pix. Nothing is more relaxing for me than slouching on the sofa playing logic puzzles.
Finally, is there anything else you'd like to share?
I would urge people to check out the logic-puzzles available on the Switch! Piczle Lines DX has a free demo, so you can check out the mechanics and see if you like it. The full version, after several free content updates, contains 600 puzzles, and we’ve since released a standalone expansion Piczle Lines DX 500 More Puzzles! which has more puzzles - I forget how many - and an art gallery.
There is a website www.piczle.club that has info on all the Piczle games, and of course Score Studios’ Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts are all used for the latest news and updates - I love hearing from players there too! I’ve recently started a Discord server too, as an experiment, to have a more friendly, approachable location for chats with players, at https://t.co/orwzPQz209.
Finally, I’d also say to check out games like Pic-a-pix and Fill-a-pix, which I believe have free demos, and of course Picross S. The Switch is a great platform for logic-puzzles and I hope that through it many more people will discover the joy of a jolly good puzzling experience!
Download Piczle Lines DX from the eShop here.
Download Piczle Lines DX 500 More Puzzles! from the eShop here.
Follow Score Studios!