Minotaur China Shop Is Live, We Talk To Flashbang

By John Walker on December 11th, 2008 at 9:02 pm.

Office-based inspiration. Click on the image for the fullsize version.

Flashbang’s latest opus, Minotaur China Shop is now online, and available to play for free via the Blurst site. Go form opinions. To mark the occasion, we grabbed Flashbang’s Steve Swink to ask a few questions about the new game, find out which comes first: the name or the game, get shown fascinating prototypes of projects, and see some fantastic behind-the-scenes glimpses into the workings of their “home for abused developers”.

RPS: Can you explain for us exactly what Minotaur China Shop is? From the clips we’ve seen, we’re seeing something halfway between a Diner Dash game and the Hulk. On fire.

Steve Swink: Ha ha, that’s pretty accurate. We actually started out making casual games years and years ago (look up “Beesly’s Buzzwords” for our first shipped title). Our CEO, Matthew, can still rattle off every Diner Dash game, who made them, their characters, plots, and relative sales numbers. The casual market seemed like a good way to build the company’s foundation. The reality was that it crushed our souls.

With Minotaur China Shop the only element your description is missing is “strategic entrepreneurial upgrading”. As the game evolved from “weird gummy minotaur ragdoll thing smashing stuff” to “actual designed gameplay” we began adding in elements like moves, upgrades, and combo systems. The end result is sort of a blend of Diner Dash, Hedgehog Launch, and Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. On fire, of course. The game is an experiment in giving the player constraints and opportunity to maximize profit within those constraints.

RPS: Which comes first – the name for the game, or the idea behind it? It’s really tempting to believe that someone said, “Jetpack Brontosaurus”, and someone else said, “Okay!”

SS: That’s very nearly how it went down! Jetpack Brontosaurus came from a single whiteboard sketch by our art director, Ben Ruiz. He was doodling one day on one of our ubiquitous wall-mounted whiteboards. What started as a humble Brontosaurus quickly grew to include turbines and safety helmet. It hung there for weeks as we finished up Raptor Safari, jet-setting its way into our collective hearts and subconscious. When the question was asked “so, chaps, what next?” all eyes turned immediately to Messeurs Jetpack and Brontosaurus upon the wall. It was a toss-up between Jetpack Brontosaurus and Stegosaurus Swiftboat. No contest.

Whiteboard preservation.

The whiteboard sketch still exists, actually, just above the Monetizationosaurus left by Kyle Gabler of 2dBoy.

Kyle Gabler Woz Ere

As for Minotaur China Shop, it’s an extension of the technology that powered Jetpack Brontosaurus. Which is to say, it began as a physics test. The apatosaurus in Jetpack Brontosaurus is actually a ragdoll throughout the game, even when he looks animated. His physical joints constantly update their target rotations to match keyframed animations. This lets us keep things physically fresh while still controlling style. Our tech artist, Adam Mechtley, spent a few days extending this “powered ragdoll” style technology to a biped. He wanted to see if we could get a physically-active ragdoll up and walking around. When he needed a model and test environment, “Minotaur” and “China Shop” seemed the natural conclusion. The first prototype of the game was all Adam in a few days of work. The early versions were very clumsy, so we leaned into accidentally breaking things as part of the gameplay. It took off from there. Here is that very first prototype. Arrow keys to move.

RPS: How is the free model working out for you as a team? Velociraptor Safari has been played a *lot* – have you figured out a way to turn that into money?

SS: Oh, it’s brilliant! Here’s how it works:

1) Make a new game every 8 weeks that amuses and entertains us, buoying our tired workaday souls.
2) Release it free on Blurst for people to play, enjoy, participate in, and offer feedback on.
3) ???
4) Profit $!

Humorously, that’s only a mild simplification. What we’ve done for 2008, alongside three iPhone games and three Blurst games, is save up money. The stuff you don’t hear about are some not-so-very-fun contract projects we did in order to “make money”, a fantastic concept we once read about in a Guy Kawasaki book. We have saved enough, at our current burnrate–6 employee salaries plus office rent, utilities, insurance etc–to spend all of 2009 making awesome games for Blurst. During that time, our goal is to drive traffic to Blurst. Once we hit a certain traffic threshold, we’re going to look at ways to make the whole thing sustainable. One idea is to offer subscriptions: users subscribe for six months or a year and get access to additional game features, community extras, special developer forums (for suggesting games and participating in beta tests and so on), unreleased prototypes, and competitions. Something like that. The whole apparatus is web-based so we can be “nimble” and “respond to changing markets.” Basically, we’re a blue-ocean, web 2.0, game 3.0 kind of company with huge upside and exponential growth potential. Or just a bunch of guys sitting around making cool games about dinosaurs and minotaurs. Your pick!

All of this is possible only because everyone at Flashbang gets paid the same (relatively low) salary, founders and fresh hires alike. We’re like a commune in that respect. A home for abused developers. Many of our guys left higher-paying jobs in the retail industry because they like fun things and dinosaurs. Also, they enjoy not having their mortal souls ground into a fine, pasty powder by the grim meathook realities of game production for THQ, Activision, and the like.

RPS: Can you explain why you use Unity, and what benefits it has over other options?

SS: There are essentially two facets to Unity. There’s the player-facing stuff, which is basically a game engine that offers full shader support, NVIDIA PhysX, and piles of features. They have all of the stuff that players like and provide different ways of getting content to them (standalone Mac/Windows builds, lightweight browser plugin, iPhone/Wii support, etc). We use the web player to be able to wrap a website and community features around our stuff, and because it makes it easier to assume people are online. Achievements and leaderboards make more sense in a web browser.

The other side of Unity is the developer-facing stuff. It provides a fantastic editing environment with a silky-smooth workflow, a well-designed API, and fast scripting languages. When we develop our games we basically play them nonstop in the editor.

Brain hurts.

As you can see in the screenshot, the game itself is running alongside all of our developer interfaces. We can pause the game, inspect values on all of our objects, move things around, re-import PSDs and Maya files, recompile scripts, and then unpause. The iteration times are amazing, which means we can try out ideas while we’re creating stuff, rather than doing hours of work with no idea how it’ll feel in the game itself.

The Unity editor is currently Mac-only, which could spur an entire conversation in itself, but they’re going Windows with the 2.5 editor release. We think this is going to be a big deal, because creating games in Unity is a fantastic experience. We love it.

RPS: What’s next? And are you up for three-name game suggestions?

SS: We have a few ideas floating around in the tasty Flashbang mindbroth at present. We’re always up for suggestions, though! If something makes everyone in the office chuckle after hearing it three times, by law we must create it. Also, keep an eye on Blurst.com; we’re VERY likely to have a game name competition at some point that culminates in us actually making a community suggested game. That’s right, kids, it’s your fifth grade math paper fantasies come to life.

Other possibilities to ponder:

Raptoregon Trail: Instead of settlers, you play as raptors. Instead of bears, squirrels, and bison for food there are raptors. You hit them with an off-road jeep. The game is identical to Oregon Trail in every other respect.
TIME DONKEY: This one is pretty self-explanatory.
Ragdinolympics: Also self explanatory.

Or maybe just “portmanteau master.”

If only all developers got their ideas this way.

By the way, the photo at the top, and the one just above here, are from Flashbang’s offices. Click on them, and all the images above, for fullsize versions. And play Minotaur China Shop here.

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41 Comments »

  1. Pags says:

    Flashbang are my single favourite developers of this year. Free-to-play physicky games in a web browser about hitting raptors with jeeps with a giant mace attached, a brontosaurus with a jetpack and a minotaur in a china shop; it’s impossible not to love them, even if you don’t actually like the games (though I maintain you are dead inside if you don’t). Their simple business plan is refreshing too – sell yourself out a little and make some rubbishy contract games that no-one will really play or care about, use money to make the games you want.

    Thing is, I would love for them to make an actual game just to see if they can come up with a concept like World of Goo where it’s fun and fresh to play for long stretches at a time rather than the quick bursts of Raptor Safari or Jetpack Brontosaurus. Whether it fails or not isn’t really important, it’d just be nice to see them attempt something sustained rather than these flashes of whiteboard-derived inspiration.

    I shall post my MCS thoughts in a second.

  2. The Poisoned Sponge says:

    Just played through a five day cycle of Minotaur China Shop, and it’s absolutely brilliant. I’m not sure whether you can make enough money actually selling stuff or if you’re just supposed to lose it and destroy everything, but I managed to make it to 28th. My mum would be so proud.

    Great interview, lovely to see a developer have so much fun making games. That’s as it should be, or some other pretentious twaddle.

  3. cowthief skank says:

    I made 12th place yay. Great fun. Love the sound effects. Just a really fun game.

  4. Downloads says:

    So I’m not going to lie, the major problem I had with MCS before right now is that I thought it cost money and I didn’t see any way to justify spending money on it. But yeah…I’m dumb.

  5. Pags says:

    Only made it to #114th, but I still feel proud.

    Anyway, my MCS thoughts: it’s the kind of game that makes me wish I wrote a blog.

    I love that it’s a game which lets you play two ways (though it does seem as though you make more monies by simply breaking stuff); what other game lets you ‘win’ by doing the opposite of what you’re originally tasked with? It’s not pulled off perfectly because of the aforementioned balance issue where it weighs (seemingly) in favour of breaking things – though arguably this could be because it’s way more fun playing it that way (however simply playing it like a modern homage to Diner Dash is quite compelling in it’s own right) – but it’s still refreshing. A word I use a lot around Flashbang, but hey, that’s what they are to me.

    It’s not got the same “oooh time for another go” factor of Raptor Safari nor is at easy to get absorbed in it like Jetpack Brontosaurus because of the five-day constraint – a constraint, it must be noted, that ties in well with the stats upgrades, with there never being enough time to buy every stat upgrade unless you’re a really good clerk or really good at raging at pottery – and of the three it’s my least favourite so far, but I can see there being just as much replay value. Leaderboards will always go some way to providing that, of course, but there’s enough game here to make it worth more than a few playthroughs.

    Also, one thing I love about Flashbang is how they understand big numbers make you feel good. Selling a teacup for $10,000 is obviously ridiculous, but when you see that money pile up and when you’re stringing together enormous combos when you don’t even realise it, it makes you feel good about yourself. It’s something they obviously understood made Raptor Safari so fun to play – where even jumping a small mound or crashing into a tree could earn you a tonne of points – and I’m glad to see they continued it here.

    Major bugbear: I wish they’d stuck with the whistling soundtrack of the first trailer.

  6. frymaster says:

    “use the arrow keys to move”
    (press arrow keys like an eedjit. Minotaur fails to move)

    Well, that was a waste of time
    (Uninstalls unity web player)

  7. Pags says:

    Frymaster sucks at life.

  8. Matthew says:

    Frymaster: Chrome? Unity web player currently has issues with Chrome (we’ll look at user agents and add a quick message about this).

  9. Benjamin Finkel says:

    When are they going to make downloadable versions of their games? I’d be so much more apt to playing the lot of them more regularly if I didn’t have to do it in my browser.

    Ben

  10. St4ud3 says:

    Played it 4x now, place 150,50,9,6 xD

  11. Tei says:

    This unity thing works smoothly on my brownser. Nice work!

  12. roBurky says:

    I found the thing worked in Chrome when I right clicked and went full screen.

  13. Fat says:

    Well it was fun, but i was a bit bored by the final level. Was hoping it would satisfy my gamer ADD a little longer. Fun though.

  14. Radiant says:

    Racked up $804K
    Soon some excel using kill joy is going to work out !OPTIMUM CALCULATIONS! and ruin this game.
    But until then 804k is my opening RPS gambit.

  15. Radiant says:

    $840k in 5 days during a recession?
    *quits job*
    *grows horns*

  16. Premium User Badge

    Arathain says:

    Arathain good salesminotaur. Arathain care about customer needs. Arathain grow business through prudent invest… nooo! Stupid shelf fall over again! Smash Arathian’s quality merchandise! Arathain will destroy all stupid shelves! Raagh!

    And in game. Arathain only 320th. Not cut out for harsh realisty of retail.

  17. A-Scale says:

    I’m quite close to eating my words on this game. I think humanizing the creators and realizing it is free changed my thinking quite a bit. I will certainly play it and get back on whether the movement/smashing is at all satisfying.

  18. Axess Denyd says:

    I love these guys, but unfortunately Raptor Safari runs like crap on my netbook (MSI Wind). I think for this type of game targeting toward the Netbook crows would be genius (hint, hint). I have a feeling that Audiosurf will be just fine on there though…

  19. John Walker says:

    My Aspire One plays World of Goo beautifully.

  20. Pace says:

    TIME DONKEY gets my vote for next project.

  21. x25killa says:

    Played it on Firefox 3.0.4 and runs well on it.

    Good game, excellent for short bursts of chaos or calm.

  22. Junior says:

    I love it, but it’s not quite compulsive enough, and feels a little unresponsive as you lumber around. But I suppose that’s the point of being a Minotaur in a chinashop.

    #29 after a couple of goes, I’d also recomend digging out a joypad and setting up joytokey with it, it just feels right that way.

  23. Buckermann says:

    The next game I want to see is “Undeadninjapirate Marriage Desaster”.
    I think it’s also pretty self-explanatory.

  24. The Hammer says:

    Only played a little bit, and already it’s everything I’ve hoped for – and I hoped for A LOT!

    This has been like my most waited game next to Wrath of the Lich King. Good job, Flashbang!

  25. Down Rodeo says:

    These guys seem really nice! I like the way they approach things. My problem is the Unity web player. It’s odd that they support MacOS but not Linux – then I suppose Macs have been becoming gradually more popular of late with the whole “I’m a Mac” irritating adverts.

  26. Snuffy says:

    I’m ticked that the Unity player doesn’t support Google Chrome. I have to play it in IE, and that’s not fun.

  27. Dominic White says:

    It seems like the key to getting a high score is to balance both playstyles. Start out trying to please your customers, but once you get near the end of the workday, flip out and trash everything you haven’t sold yet.

  28. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    The Minotaur’s a ragdoll! That explains so much of why his existence is one of sadness and rage. And why it’s so hard to satisfy the customers.

  29. A-Scale says:

    Played it. As I suspected the serving element is quite boring, but thankfully the smashing is good fun. Shame I can’t just smash away all day.

  30. Hermit says:

    Ah, nothing destroys china like a whirlwind of firey rage. Played a quick game this morning and thought it was brilliant. Leaderboard score submission failed though, which is a shame.

    Also TIME DONKEY has got epic written all over it. The thought of taking a donkey up to 88mph and scorching burning hoof trails into the ground as I jump back in time to the English Civil War is instantly appealing.

  31. CPY says:

    Too bad that bull in china shop won’t do almost any damage at all in real life…
    Myth BUSTED!

  32. Malagate says:

    CPY, does that fine salesman in the China shop look like a bull to you?
    Yes, he does look like a bull, but he’s not a bull, he’s a Minotaur, the give away was the fact he’s got hands and is walking around on two hooves rather than four.
    It’s a well documented fact that Minotaurs are full of unquenchable rage and immense destructive power, hence the hilarity of having one in a China shop.

  33. Dorian Cornelius Jasper says:

    That’s because the bull didn’t have MINOTAUR RAGE INSURANCE.

    (Which is in all caps because it’s MINOTAUR RAGE INSURANCE, natch.)

  34. frymaster says:

    @Matthew: IE8b2

  35. Mike says:

    Great game Flashbang! I’d imagine I will be be returning to this quite often

  36. BaconIsGood4You says:

    Great game. The one issue is that it seems a bit too much luck based (what with the prices and arrangement of the store). Obviously not a super competitive game, but I found myself restarting when I’d get a crap first day.

  37. sinister agent says:

    “Furious SCUBA Priest”

  38. chesh says:

    The game is lovely, but I’m really most curious about that Monetizationosaurus. Just what is the line from Lion King > Aladdin > Cave Story > Odin Sphere? The first two being two of the best Disney movies of my youth and the latter two being some lovely games that are both somewhere on the indie-ish spectrum (though at quite opposite ends of it).

  39. Kua says:

    The humour, the gameplay, the style, the fact you play it in your fraggle rocking browser. Just wow. Wow. Wow Wow.

    Minotaur complaint: The ‘shake arrows off’ power-up reloads too quickly. I found myself scraping together little bits of cash and constantly reaching for the z-key. So the second half of a level, gets you like 2% of your cash. Which steals some fun, but to be honest my fun levels were pretty bounteous. I could have just stopped pressing zed but there was just a little bit more moneyz to be had and this game has reminded me why aiming for high scores is so much fun. Course you never beat that dude at the top but that’s ok because he’s a robot.

  40. Phil Willis says:

    @Kua

    I am NOT a robot.

  41. Heliocentric says:

    Sure thing buddy, sure thing…