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CIRCLE Entertainment

24th January 2013; By KnucklesSonic8

While most (developers and gamers alike) have moved on from the more obscure takes DSiWare offers, one team has demonstrated active commitment to the cause. In the time they've developed for this platform, not one, but multiple series of games have come to the fore, including Castle Conqueror, Come On!, and The Lost Town. And with a handful of titles still on the way to continue their streak, they are likely to become the third-party developer with the most games on the service (leadership in that category currently belongs to Gameloft at the time of writing, with 21 titles).
Yes, I am speaking of CIRCLE Entertainment. With the team having made their way to the eShop on the 3DS just last year with Sweet Memories Blackjack, I spoke with Chris Chau, team CEO, to gain some insights on their development process, the partnerships they've formed for game distribution in both Japan and North America, and to discuss their plans to expand this year and beyond.

Wiiloveit: Thanks for taking time out to do this interview! To start with: How long have you guys been in business, and what is the scope of your production team?

Chris: CIRCLE has been in business for over 6.5 years. For the first four years, we developed PC and PSP games. Recently we are focusing on DS/3DS downloadable games development and digital game publishing.

Looking at your portfolio, it's hard to overlook how devoted you guys are to DSiWare. What is it about the service that attracts your team? Has it functioned as a means to generate a following for future projects?

Before the eShop was available, our games were only published on the DSi's store, which just allow users to download digital games to their DSi device. The DSi device has limited memory and you cannot store your games in SD cards for backup. After the eShop opened and the 3DS became popular, there were a lot of players visiting the eShop and choosing cheaper games on their wishlist. The platform and device have improved after a couple system updates, and finally 3DS has success in being one of the popular portable devices for gamers. These also prove the digital platform has its own potential value.

There is another reason we want to constantly support the eShop. Most eShop games provide you a complete gameplay experience without buying coins/items to constantly demand your credit card. We don't want your advantages in a game to be based on your bill; we just want everyone to pay at the same price (which is not really expensive) to enjoy a full game.

When CIRCLE puts efforts into downloadable games that allow us to quickly gain development experience, it give us a chance to trying different genres as well. Some of our titles already got attention from players -- this would be a milestone to develop retail games in planning for the future.

Just from a mathematical point of view, the numbers (i.e., just how many titles you've put out) are pretty staggering compared to other developers on this platform. Can you educate me on the development cycles or systems you adopt for such a regular output?

So far, our 23rd title is waiting for release date notification, and the 30th [set of] titles are already being developed. CIRCLE's staff always focuses on their works. Speaking of this, we were part of an investigate paper for all internal workers last month. The result shows 80% of staff understand their targets and goals. But this is not to mean we are rushing on any titles. We are absorbed, stable, and flexible in the development cycle.

For a mathematical view, if you have five production lines, each line makes a game that needs half a year, and you can develop your 20th set of games after 2 – 2.5 years. One simple sentence can explain CIRCLE's entire development team: "Thinking more than waiting."

What can you tell me about your design philosophy? I understand this undergoes much refinement and takes on different terms depending on the title, but what would you say are some of the key ideas you aim to translate on a recurring basis?

Yes, it really undergoes much refinement. Our design philosophy is casual, all just coming after periodical idea meetings. Usually, an idea meeting is setup on an unspecific date in a month. We set a topic to discuss, such as which genre we would like to explore it. After confirming a genre, we would not spend a lot of time to discuss what can we do now; we will keep asking everyone "Do you think this would be interesting?", while the question-and-answer time spurs us to have better ideas. At last, we collect good or uncompleted ideas for the next meeting -- we know we might need more time to figure out how to finish our ideas. The bad thing is, if our brains are sleeping while in the meeting, we will check some games for reference. Other games also have good things that are worth learning from and activate our creation as well.

Once an idea is totally confirmed, a planner will get ready for documentation before a programmer starts code work. Sometimes a clear mind and a clear topic could save much time in the meeting, but the first and only point is keeping our brains awake in the discussions.

Generally I find your graphic design has some consistency to it across some of what's been released. What sort of process goes into deciding on the art style behind individual projects? Have you been careful not to stray away from how existing efforts have defined your methodology?

To create a new project, we will find some games for references and research key success points in art style or anything else. Somehow, finding a good art style is not an easy task, but we have some experience with this. With a sequel, we try to create a new art style that seems better, but a particular player still may like preceding ones as per their feedback. I have to say, when CIRCLE releases a new game, the screenshots must attract eyes as a first impression, then of course the price will look reasonable and the gameplay will interest them. This is a chance to give users a reason to purchase our game.

So we are really careful to design artwork. So far, we haven't strayed away from our topics, but we have indeed received feedback (from players) -- those let us know what we could improve in the next game. We will continue keeping their words in our mind.

So let's discuss some of your upcoming games, beginning with Sweet Memories Poker Night. Will gameplay function in the same way as the preceding title in the series -- having an established card game wrapped in a background, simulation component?

Regarding Poker Night, we will keep the good parts from preceding ones. In this title we want to fix a position on two points. First point: we have to choose new poker rules for a new gameplay experience; second point: we want more interactivity between the player and the girls.

Earlier last year, you released Bookstore Dream and this year plan to release two follow-ups: Publisher Dream and Café Dream. Will the first of the two touch on some of the struggles of running a game development studio? What sorts of decisions will play into the system, and have these seen to a measure of expansion over what was seen in Bookstore Dream?

Dreams. Everyone has them, even us. Do you know which company would like to set their Wi-Fi Password to "welovecoffee"? That is CIRCLE. Just kidding. Actually, many people dream to have their own café, even us; Publisher Dream is based on CIRCLE as a digital game developer, and coffee is our favorite. Perhaps this was a reason why we chose Café and Publisher for new topics. It's not an expansion pack for Bookstore Dream. These new installments have a different (doubled) gameplay experience. So far, a bigger technical problem is how to get to system optimization. We've already spent a lot time on this and the result looks good.

Your site lists a few other DSiWare concepts in development, the contents of which are a mystery. Would you care to enlighten us on those?

Sure. Please allow me to introduce some more titles.

Most players expect Publisher Dream. As I said, it's playing as a digital game development and publishing company. In this game, you have to manage different resources, especially your capital. All income comes after the end of a quarter, so your capital must have a plan of output to take care of the entire quarter. The main expense is staff salary. Once your project has delayed, it could be burning out your capital constantly. If you want to make the project complete on time, then you can simply choose games to develop and train your development team. Once these staff members gain experience, their abilities allow them to work on a new project very effectively. You also need to watch the stress level of a development team member, because higher stress will slow down their working speed. You can also improve your office environment to decrease staff stress, and after completing some milestones, you can recruit more staff and develop more titles at a time.

Another game is called Achilles Wars. The idea came from those victims in tower defense games. There are three tank brothers with unique abilities such as higher armor or heavy fire. The three brothers become a queue when they are moving in the path automatically, and you can only change direction in the cross path and switch anyone to forward or full back position. Each path has different enemies and towers on both sides. Your objective is to clean the path and pick up items in the time limit. Anyway, you can call this a "tower can't defense" game. Once you return from the battlefield, you can upgrade the three brothers for combat to follow.

is a one-button arcade game for casual and core gamers. You control Goony, a jelly-like creature, who is running down a road with hazardous obstacles. The goal of the game is to stay alive for as long as possible. If you fall off the road or fall from a high place, you lose the game. Goony is constantly on the move; he goes either left or right. There are special blocks in the game that can help you -- they are scattered across the playfield. The playfield is infinitely long and lasts until you make a mistake. The number of steps you took is your final score.

Witch & Hero is an 8-bit style action game. You play as a hero accompanied by a witch taking on the evil Medusa, who has destroyed many villages and towns with the monsters that stand before her. Medusa turned the witch into stone, so she is no longer able to move. It's up to the hero to defeat the monsters and collect their blood in order to recover the witch for a limited duration. The witch's destructive magic easily destroys monsters, but you will have to rely on the hero's willpower primarily. He is able to try and try again, but the witch cannot; thus, the hero must protect her. The game also provides different modes and many stages for challenge. It's simply a fun game to test your reaction and control.

Color Commando is a puzzle-platform game. Each level has the same goal -- that is, find a path to collect treasure box. But there are many color monsters moving in the area and blocking your way. You can't defeat them unless you collect paint blobs and use it them to paint on that area. If the colors are the same, the area will be safe. Avoiding these monsters until you reach out the treasure box -- this is Color Commando, a cool puzzle game.

Ah! Heaven
is a platform game with unique Eastern, ink-painting style, depicting various regions from across the world such as China, Japan, UK, etc. You play as a soul willing to ascend to heaven. Though heaven's gate is open, God will not take you there -- you have to go by yourself. The game is controlled very simply, and in the ascension you will meet some evil things that will bring you to hell.

Your team has also contributed to other DSiWare titles through publishing partnerships. To cite a few examples, EnjoyUp Games, Tanukii Studios and Goodbye Galaxy Games all have worked with you to release their products in North America or in other territories. What's that been like?

As far as I know, what we did wasn't really helpful for our partners. In some cases here, the indie developer might need funds to complete their creations. We would like to help them by providing basic funds, preparing a Japanese version, etc. They remind us of what CIRCLE was. We were helpless when we began as a game company, so we accept their creations and do our best to help them finish their projects.

Speaking of exciting developments, I understand that early this year, you'll be releasing Swords & Soldiers 3D! Can you tell me more about how the translation has fared? Do you intend on implementing any new features?

A few months ago, we reached out to Ronimo and suggested porting Swords & Soldiers to the 3DS, because this game seems fit for dual screens. For the control part, we split it into lower-screen gameplay with the stylus and analog joystick support. Also, the game provides 3D depth function. After development began, we noticed Ronimo released DLC on other platforms, so we wanted to make add-on content for the 3DS version as a free download. This game has almost completed development; we are now focusing on the debug period. I have to say we really enjoyed Swords & Soldiers. It is a cool game and we believe that the price on the 3DS eShop will be reasonable for everyone.

What are your plans as far as bringing Castle Conqueror to the 3DS? Is the reason for this transition because it's your most successful series to date? And do you envision some of your other games receiving follow-ups on the eShop as well?

Most players who have sent mail to us told us they really enjoyed the Castle Conqueror series. Before the first Castle Conqueror released, we noticed there (DSi store/eShop) were no other strategy games. Usually hardcore players would like strategy games, but for the Castle Conqueror series, we prefer a simple style that casual players could accept it as well.

Speaking of the new Castle Conqueror on 3DS, it is a new design of turn-based strategy, combining great essences of Castle Conqueror Heroes. "The prophecy of the ancient book: When darkness comes to the Holy Land of Grejasai, people will forever suffer the cruelty of the Empire's rule." This is the game's background for the start of a war. You can choose one hero to serve one country, and each country and hero have different unique abilities. You can upgrade your castle and build defense towers on the map, training commanders to lead units for attack or defense. The world has many different units and treasures that are waiting for you to explore.

For future titles, we hope to have a new sequel of The Lost Town on 3DS, but the timing is not right so far. We also are considering to develop a new "Dream" series on the 3DS, and help other indie developers to achieve sequels to their great games, such as Go! Go! Kokopolo 3D or Ace Mathician 2. And we also reached out to some excellent developers who are glad to cooperate with us. We might be porting their perfect ideas to the 3DS, such as European War (by Easytech), Toy Defense (by Melesta), and others. There are many possibilities in future projects; I believe CIRCLE will continue bringing exciting news out later this year.

How supportive has Nintendo been with the many games you've put to market on their digital services?

Well, from what I know, Nintendo gives us a lot of technical support. Around Halloween, Nintendo prepared an independent shelf for CIRCLE's games. Besides, you can see our titles have been pushed in the eShop every week. They are very nice in how they treat small companies.

Have the sales numbers been kind to your projected outlooks?

This is a rare situation to happen: For a couple titles we've tried to develop new creations for, we received praise from players through email, but the game has not reached good sales records. Seems nothing is absolute, right?

A failed title can be a lesson, which gives us a conclusion for our game development philosophy. Users of the eShop platform have their own tastes; we have to catch up with their favorite tastes. Obviously, these are quite different on other platforms, such as smartphone games.

I'm sure this is difficult to answer, but of the many games that have been put out under your studio's name, is it possible to isolate which ones you're most proud of?

There are some titles I am very proud of. The first one is Ace Mathician, made by Hugo Smith (Goodbye Galaxy Games). Hugo has creativity and passion I've never seen. His game also won first place as Game of the Year in the DSiWare section of Nintendo Life's Staff Awards for 2012.

Here are another two titles made by CIRCLE internally: The Lost Town series received good impressions from players, even in the JP region. For Castle Conqueror series, the simple strategy has been successful at catching particular tastes.

For a good sales title, that is Come On! Heroes. This was quite a surprise for us before we decided to make a new design for Come On! Dragons. It seems it also has a good score from players' votes in the eShop.

For girl games, we released Sweet Memories and Bookstore Dream. These have quite good feedback as well.

From what I have seen and know about your team, you seem to be very driven by feedback and, stemming from that, also open to constructive criticism. Yet, sometimes developers feel misunderstood when it comes to how their creative decisions for a particular project have gone unrewarded. How do you feel about the reception some of your titles have seen to?

Generally, no developer can give 100% of what players want. A long time ago, we were curious why some titles could make an amazing sales record on a specific platform, but once it released on iOS with cheaper price, that response was not looking as well. Perhaps iOS has many excellent games that are already beyond DSi or 3DS wares? Recently we found out the truth is simply as you go to restaurant. Some like beef more than mutton because mutton smells fishy, while others like mutton because they are used to the smell. Also, there are some who don't mind mutton; they just want to order meats. As I said, it is a different taste.

eShop games provide a full gameplay experience; iOS games provide coin- or item-purchase systems. CIRCLE's development mode seems fit for the eShop -- we would like to create a game with complete gameplay experiences for players. We also learn from failures and other successful games. When we fail for trying something new, we don't want to complain -- we know we should find the problem and solve it to avoid the same problem from happening again. CIRCLE always listens to players' voices and we challenge ourselves, following the best rules of game design with confidence and hard work. We believe the key to success is keeping a good attitude to treat everything as best as we can, not waiting for luck to bring a shortcut to achievement.

I know sometimes how the Western world responds to a particular title could be opposite to the feedback garnered elsewhere. Is this something you've been finding out for yourself?

Sometimes, I will bring new staff to review meetings after a game has released. Luckily to say, we learn a lot during review meetings. For every title we made, the essential fun of gameplay is the same, wherever players enjoy it.

The opposite culture reminds me of something... Many years ago, I didn't eat sushi because it's live fish. Now, I love that taste. New things or different things are not unacceptable. How to make these better-presented to our players, that still depends on what we use.

Thus far, you've put forth multiple ideas that have a strategic or action-based backing. Are there any other genres you haven't attempted that you'd like to explore in the future?

Speaking of new genres, we may want to explore puzzle and simulation games. But we have to do deeper research our current technique and expand gameplay of current genre -- all of those prove CIRCLE has a long way to go to learn how to walk.

Is there a possibility your development portfolio could begin touching on the Wii U in 2013, or do you intend to stick to handhelds over the long-term?

So far, we don't have a Wii U license, and we are now focusing on portable devices -- especially the 3DS eShop, because this platform gives us bigger energy and encouragement. We want to stand on this platform till we become stronger someday. Of course, with a greatly successful title, we will consider multiple platforms. The next milestone is to move half of staff into retail-sized games, including Lair Land Story and Lair Land Story 2 on 3DS eShop. Those are both Japanese titles and developed by CIRCLE -- it was our first baby. I'm not sure we could have an opportunity to prepare an English version, as a story game that requires translation fees would be quite an overload for us.

Would you like to close off with a personal statement addressed to our readers?

There are many younger studios who design a game pretty well. They don't have brand or prior achievements, and they might have even devoted their passions to game design. But sometimes the results are really disappointing. Sometimes it seems some players just purchase older games or even a sequel that has bad comments...more than choosing these new creations. I think some purchase those games to enjoy their childhood memories more than to enjoy a game. But if we can give younger studios a chance, send them a message to encourage them or vote for their games on the eShop for more attention, they can be better in the future. All dreams are just like a matchstick -- once it has struck a light, it could burn everything. I hope indie developers never give up on pursuing their dreams -- everyone, really!

Thanks again, Chris, for sharing all these details with us! CIRCLE Entertainment clearly has not run out of steam, and as they explore with such persistence both brand-new iterations and follow-ups on Nintendo's handheld services, their strides are bound to successfully meet pockets of gaming tastes along the way.

To learn more about CIRCLE Entertainment, head over to their website.

Interview by KnucklesSonic8