Toybox, developed by Melbourne-based team, Barrel of Donkeys, takes the match-3 puzzle genre in a new direction with a fascinating combination of touch-shooting and multitasking. The game does a wonderful job of challenging the player, rewarding quick and precise block placement with exciting albeit subtle weapon upgrades.
The game is the brainchild of childhood mates Sam Baird and Julian Frost, and it shares an intriguing personal affiliation with the design team.
“Sam and I have been best friends for ages,” explains Julian, “so being able to make something fun together is a great privilege.”
The “fun” Sam talks about is embedded in the game’s individuality, while “self-expression” and personal voice is something he hopes will make the game special for more people. He was quick, however, to differ game development from work in a corporate design world, where fun “is always a tool, not an end in itself.”
It’s clear, then, that Toybox, in its own unique little way, represents Sam’s final break away into creative freedom. “I’m OK to have a foot in both camps,” he concludes, perhaps acknowledging the uncertain financial future of independent game development.
At first glance, Toybox might seem like your everyday run-of-the-mill puzzle game. However, after spending some time with it you might find yourself entrenched in its catchy rhythm, clever mechanics and memorable design. They all share a fascinating connection with Julian’s inner-child, and his reasoning for certain design elements provides intriguing insight to the modest and personal ideas so often found in the indie development scene.
“Since it’s a touchscreen game, I tried to make it something you’d want to touch,” Julian explains. Toybox relies exclusively on the touchscreen of the iOS device, and calls for quick responses and multitasking that truly challenge the brain. Ideally, he wanted a world where curious hands and fingers “wouldn’t actually be out of place”.
And that explains the game’s fantastic old-school toybox design, an ode to the good ol’ fashioned toy collection.
“I liked the idea of turning your phone into a personal magic box where tiny toys come to life. When I was a kid I used to keep all my most precious toys and badges in a biscuit tin, ready for when the house burned down and I only had time to take one thing.”
Julian’s house thankfully never burned down, but his obsessive packing and unpacking of his favourite toys forms the basis of his game’s design and shows how quickly a simple, loving memory can be transformed into an engaging experience for people across the globe.
Toybox incorporates strict reliance on multitasking: it encourages you to touch both sides of the screen as often as possible. It might sound easy in theory, but in execution it can pose problems.
“We needed to make sure that the player was constantly encouraged to play with both sides of the screen at once, because that’s the fun part,” explains Sam. “We also wanted to add depth to that interaction, even if both sides in themselves remained very simple and approachable.”
A game like Toybox is very different to many other games currently available on the App Store, which only compounds the already difficult task of managing app discovery for the product. The marketing element of independent game development is something that can make or break a title, and adversely affect the industry if things aren’t going too well.
Yet, the Barrel of Donkeys team is intent on focusing on a game’s design first, and building a marketing strategy around it once the foundations are laid.
“With Toybox we started with a game idea and focused on building a really great version of that idea, rather than any sort of coherent approach to the market,” says Sam.
Julian embraces the "make cool original stuff” philosophy in the hope that a good product will get noticed.
“We sort of had our heads down just making the best game we could. Now that we’ve released it into the wild it’s been intriguing to see who it appeals to, and how our not-very-strategic business model has fared,” he says.
However, while gamer and press response has been positive, there isn’t as good a response “in the way of sales yet,” says Sam, but the leaderboards are active and people are playing it.
Marketing, publishing and distribution are certainly things the indie scene could benefit from having a better understanding of, although Sam sees clear differences between what he calls the “traditional publishing model” and the kind of development Barrel of Donkeys works on. “I think we do need to learn to do it ourselves, but to be as creative in our approach as we are with making a game.”
The creativity Sam and Justin envision and live by is evident in Toybox’s fascinating and emotional design, making it representative of an industry bursting with creativity and independence.
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By Gaetano Prestia