In the relatively thin history of first-person puzzle games, The Ball stands out as having the largest metal ball and also the most terrifying ape. It was knowledge of these two facts which motivated us to speak to Sjoerd "Hourences" DeJong, bossman at Teotl, and project lead on The Ball, and ask him all about matters pertaining to the spooky Unreal-powered puzzler.
RPS: Can you tell us a bit about about the Teotl team? How did you come to be working together?
DeJong: We started the team in spring 2008 with just three people, and within half a year it had grown to about seven people. Another half a year later we reached our peak, 15 people. About half the members of the team were people I already knew, or who were recommended to me by friends. The other half were talented people who just contacted me out of the blue and asked to join.
RPS: Here's a question that I got out of the question vending machine round the corner: where did the idea for the game come from?
DeJong: When I first played Portal I was impressed by how memorable and unique that game is, despite its very simple nature. Portal has only one "weapon", there are no real characters, everything revolves around a single core mechanic, and the art style is very simple and straightforward. And yet, it manages to create a more memorable experience than many big budget titles with dozens of weapons and cutscenes do. That is quite an achievement, and that has really inspired me. You don't need millions of dollars and hundreds of features to make a cool game!
RPS: How important was the Make Something Unreal competition for the development of The Ball? Did you always intend for it to be a commercial game?
DeJong: No we didn't always intend that. We originally started the project just for fun, but as the game was received so well by both Epic Games and the public, we began to realise that we could do more with it. The contest has been very important for us (thanks Epic!). It strengthened our confidence, got us publicity, and it got us money. We used the money we won in the contest to fund our company and our game.
RPS: Has the launch of UDK been useful for you and developers like you?
DeJong: Definitely! The UDK gives small teams and companies access to world-class development tools and that opens up a world of possibilities. For me personally as well. I am very experienced in Unreal Technology. The more people, companies, and institutions use Unreal Technology, the more opportunities that creates for me. It is a win-win situation for everyone involved! The UDK has been a very good move from Epic Games.
RPS: Have you been pleased or surprised by the critical reception of The Ball?
DeJong: I am pretty pleased with the reception of the game. It is an original concept, so you never quite know how it is going to go down, but people who play it seem to thoroughly enjoy it. Problem is though that a lot of people have prejudice towards the game. Rolling a ball around? Boring! That is a shame, the game is about a whole lot more than just rolling a ball around! It is a game you have to experience to understand. We just released the demo, people should give it a shot. Try it! It is free and it doesn't bite!
RPS: Is there anything you felt you would have done different, if you'd had more time?
DeJong: There always is. We wanted to do a new enemy for the final level for example, a big robot that would try to steal the Ball from the player. The train rides in Oztoc were suppose to have a lot more collapsing stuff. We wanted to have a few more large puzzles in the last two levels. We wanted to have mummies with swords and spears. And so on. Overall, we are happy with the game as it is though. The large majority of features and content has made it in.
RPS: What was the biggest challenging in building the game?
DeJong: The whole business and marketing side of it was actually the most challenging, not building the actual game itself. The amount of paperwork and chores it brings along is quite significant, while you really need all the time you can get to work on the actual game.
RPS: Do you think there should be more first-person puzzle games? Isn't it an oddly underpopulated genre?
DeJong: People still seem to largely see first-person to be an equivalent of shooters. If a game is first-person, they seem to expect guns. That perception might by hampering first-person puzzle games. Hopefully games like ours and the upcoming Portal 2 can bring a change there.
RPS: What's next for Teotl? More of The Ball, or something different?
DeJong: We will see. It all depends on how The Ball sells. We have a couple ideas, and a couple of proposals, but I can't say anything about those just yet.
RPS: Thanks for your time.