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Bonsai Slice: The Twists and Turns in Game Development

Illustrator Joey Ellis has published an eye-opening account of his travails in developing the iOS game, Bonsai Slice (by Playground Theory). The game is fairly simple: players attempt to slice through a variety of objects, assisted by a tree-stump dwelling robot residing in a Japanese garden. Users play the game by making slicing motions with their device, and rack up points, giving them access to a variety of swords. As simple as the game’s premise sounds, the development of the story, characters, and visuals was a labor-intensive, two-year journey. And as Ellis writes, “where you think you’ll end up is never ever where you actually end up.”

Initially, the developers explored a number of game ideas. It wasn’t until the mechanics which permitted gamers to “chop wood” by making motions with their iPads were developed that the idea of a chopping game was settled upon. To test the concept, Ellis created crude GIF animations, eventually developing a quick workflow that took ideas from sketch to playable content within a couple days. While Ellis thought Abraham Lincoln might be a suitable character on whom to hang the game’s backstory, the team decided on a quirky robot, Multus, as the main character. The full backstory, game mechanics, rules, and scoring were worked out as Ellis – the art director and sole illustrator – developed the interface graphics. The team soon realized that simplicity was key, rejecting ideas such as a second robot antagonist and streamlining the game’s action.

Ellis’ recounting is a fascinating read that reveals the detail and behind-the-scenes development necessary to game development. His sketches show the thought process that went into minute details, such as the app icon, the weapons, and the library of “fun things to chop.” His development of Multus’ appearance and behavior was meticulous; he even created a “launch screen” – never intended to go into the game – to provide the developers with insight into the robot’s character.

Anyone interested in working in game development, or interested in developing their own app, should read Ellis’ post. It’s a thorough description of an arduous and lengthy, but from all appearances, very fun project. (The project did take a toll; Ellis reports that he’ll “never ever want to do wood texture illustrations ever again.”)

Below: User interface screens from various points in the game, under development. © Playground Theory, used with permission.

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