It was a good idea and the game was solid, but WeirdBeard needed a bit of magic to bring 99 Bricks: Wizard Academy to life.
It started as a relatively simple Flash game that linked Tetris blocks to real life physics, but in the years that followed it grew into the largest project ever for Amsterdam based independent game studio WeirdBeard. At the time, when the studio made the transition from Flash to Unity 3D they remembered that funny little game. It would be exactly the kind of small game they needed to practice their skill set. WeirdBeard CEO Niels Monshouwer smiles weary: “Perfect example of ‘famous last words’”, he says. “We planned for a couple of weeks work, but the project really caught everyone’s attention and it kind of spiraled out of control.”
The development team saw the potential of a physics based Tetris game for mobile devices and decided that this was their next big game. Maybe even their breakthrough game. But then everything had to be perfect. The search for the perfect game lead to seven big changes to the project. Anything from game structure to new graphics to overhauled controls for block rotation and placement to the implementation of new monetization models. It was clear that the team lacked direction.
After a year and a half in development Weirdbeard finally felt confident to take the game for a test drive during a local multiplayer event. It was a disaster. Monshouwer remembers the lackluster response of the players. “We were shocked that players just didn’t seem to have fun with it. In our minds the game was finished but that night proved we were a long way off. It just wasn’t good enough.”
That same weekend Creative Director Joram Rafalowicz went into what he calls ‘emergency brainstorm mode’. He wanted to get rid of the nursery theme they had going for the game and find something else to tie the whole experience together. He came back with a special level full of little magical events like freezing blocks and obstacles that would constantly frustrate players progress. He called it Terror Mode and it turned out the most fun the team ever had with the game.
Rafalowicz described the game to Artist/Game Director Samar Louwe as ‘Fighting a god that doesn’t want you to build a tower’. Much like the Tower of Babel. Louwe started sketching out ideas for the appearance of the game and in that first sessions he designed the wizard like he appears in the finished project. The god never made it in the game, but the wizard sure did. After a weekend of designing Louwe presented the idea: The Wizard was an apprentice at the Wizard Academy and his adversaries were his fellow students that played tricks on him. Along the way he learns a few tricks on his own that make building the tower easier. It captured the imagination of the whole team.
The new Wizard theme was just what the project needed. It was the cement that glued everything together. It gave a reason to build the tower (“It seemed legit that building a tower was a requisite for the Wizard Academy diploma”) and it introduced the power ups and enemies in a natural way. Finally there was a clear direction for the art style and graphics, but also for the music and sound effects. Monshouwer: “It can be a pitfall to think about music and sound so late into a project but in this case it worked out well. Composer Jonathan van den Wijngaarden worked his magic on the sounds and that tied up the world of 99 Bricks; Wizard Academy nicely.”