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Interview with Thijmen Bink of ‘Metrico’

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Life sure does work out in mysterious ways… Having completely lost my bearings for our meeting earlier in the day, I later bumped into Thijmen Bink (CEO & tech director of Digital Dreams) at Holland Pavilion’s stand in the Business Area at Gamescom. And even though he wasn’t too upset at having been stood up earlier (unintentionally of course), Thijmen was still gracious enough to speak to me about his game and tell me as to why Metrico came out on Sony’s indie darling handheld.

Can you please introduce yourself?
Sure.  I’m Thijmen from Digital Dreams.  We just released Metrico last week.  Metrico is a world of infographics, bar diagrams, pie charts and line graphs, and they move to your every action in the world and we’ve been working on that for two years and it was quite a ride.

What made you decided to pick the PlayStation Vita as opposed to any other handheld?
So, Metrico is about input.  These bar diagrams, they react to your moves, so basically every step you take to the left or right or to jump or land, to shoot or hit, any form of input or any specific or combination kind of input, that’s what Metrico is about.  The Vita has so many forms of input.  It’s like a controller, but also an iPhone or smartphone, so there’s so much to experiment with and the game is about experimentation and exploration, so it’s the natural platform for Metrico.

How much experience does Digital Dreams have in terms of games development?
Well this was our first console game, but we’ve just had our 4th birthday.  Metrico took 2 years, but before that we had 2 years of working on the iOS and flash games which were really a whole other thing. Metrico is really what we’re about.  It’s what we’ve wanted to do all along and now we’ve had our break and we’ll continue to do so.

You obviously had 2 years where you were doing various flash games and iOS games and obviously after that you released the game on the Vita, which is a Sony platform. How easy was Sony to work with?
They were lovely to work with.  It was really, really good.  They write a deal, a platform deal which says okay you’re getting money once the game is done and you’re getting some marketing support.  Now obviously getting money when the game is done presents a problem.  You have to survive until then, but we managed.

Was the game being done full-time or part-time?
Full-time.

2 years full-time?
Yeah, with 3 people and 1 or 2 interns.

How did you manage to accomplish that, bearing in mind, that most people can’t survive a month, let alone 2 years?
There was a social security in Holland just for entrepreneurs if you had a good business case, so that helped us survive for a year.  We took out some loans with friends and family, which we were able to do because we had a guarantee from Sony, and there was an art grant that we got.  Add them all together and we were able to make it.

Obviously you were able to survive on limited resources for 2 years. In terms of that as well as the “investment” that you got (the loans), how much money do you think the game cost to make?
Well, that’s very hard to put a price tag on actually.  We still try to live in a cheap way and a cheap form as in we don’t have mortgages or a house or a wife with kids, so that makes it a lot cheaper for us.  We really paid ourselves the absolute minimum that we had to sort of live on. I’d say the game cost about $250,000-ish as a budget.

U.S.?
Yeah. U.S. dollars.  About € 200,000 roughly.  But, I think we don’t want to make that as a very exact calculation.  We made do with what we had and we’ll have some for the future and we’re looking to work with Sony in the future to be able to continue working and making games.  What’s important is that we made a game, we released it on a console, we had a great co-operation with Sony and people will now hopefully now start to know us and be able to play one of our first dreams, basically.

Metrico is pretty avant-garde in terms of the game-play mechanic that it presents to the game player. Given that you had the pressure of having to live for 2 years with no money, do you think it would not have been a more suitable use of your resources to maybe do something that would have been a little bit more pedestrian? Or maybe even more conventional?
Conventional is safer, more safe in a way that more people will like it, but it’s also more prone to not getting noticed.  So from a business point of view it’s just “Okay, do you want to try to fight your battle with all the other pedestrians or do you want to get yourself some stilts?” You may fall.  You have a high chance of failing and falling down, but there’s also a far bigger chance of getting noticed, and for us, we really want to make new experiences.  We want to explore and experiment ourselves, so for us it’s not really an option. We want to be that one on stilts.  We want to explore new heights.

Metrico came out free via PS Plus and this was on launch day.  Do you think it would not have been better for the game to maybe have come out as a commercial paid release and then, maybe about 6 months to a year down the line, maybe come out of PS Plus then?  I mean, that was always a business decision.  Why release for free on PS Plus on Day One?
Well, I can’t say too much, but Sony made us the offer.  Obviously Sony, or PlayStation, they want to give people with PlayStation Plus value and I would imagine that some people feel cheated if they bought the game and then within a week it was announced that the game would be free. That’s one thing.  From our perspective in a way, it’s so great to have so many people play the game.

I’ve never played it.
Well it’s only been out for a week, so there’s plenty of opportunities to have.  If we would not have gone with PS Plus, I mean the amount of people playing it would probably be a tenth of it. Right now people are playing our first real creation.  People will get to know what we want to do and hopefully like it and if they do they’ll be more interested in anything we’ll be doing in the future.  Right now it was very good towards the visibility of Metrico – sort of in terms of knowing that the game exists and is something that you will want to look forward to, as in that was 2 weeks ago when it wasn’t out so it would be free for PS Plus.

In terms of your background, what have you been doing prior to games development?
We all came straight out of college, basically.

College or university?
I, myself, come from the University of Utrecht with a technical background there, and my 2 colleagues…

What did you study?
Computer Science as a Bachelor, and the Master was Game And Media Technology, though it had literally nothing to do with games. But you know, that’s what universities advertise with.  My 2 colleagues come from an art school of Utrecht there. It’s the oldest art school that teaches in games.  It’s very much oriented towards the creative side so we have a pretty healthy balance of technical, academic, and creative free thought. What do you call it?  Talents or education.  It’s a good mix.

You obviously come from Holland, the same region as indies like Vlambeer.  What’s the development community of Holland like – with respect to Europe as a whole?
I know some other European developers, mostly from Scandinavia and in Scandinavian they’re pretty tight. But in Holland, on a geographical basis, we’re tighter.  A lot of us are based in Utrecht which is I think the 4th biggest town in the Netherlands and there is a building there and it’s called Dutch Game Garden and it’s organized by the Dutch Game Garden which is an organization that promotes the growth of young companies.  Vlambeer is based there, we are based there, and a whole lot of other companies are based there. It means that you’re more likely to walk up to each other because the threshold is very low and we’re all friends and you’re able to exchange information or talents or contacts or any information that would basically help you in getting you and your company further.  We share freely. We share what we know and what we can do and we share that freely. For example, in the case of Vlambeer, Rami obviously has a big visibility and he’s able to give you a little extra boost when it comes to getting your game out there or making your company more known.  Actually, we have been helping a lot of people with getting into contact with PlayStation or telling them how the process is going, so we all have our own things to do and what we want to do, but at the same time that means that we can help each other when we’re exploring new things.

Some of the most talented game studios in the Netherlands call (or called) Dutch Game Garden their home. Examples include Abbey Games (Reus, Renowned Explorers), Vlambeer (Luftrausers, Ridiculous Fishing, Nuclear Throne), Rage Squid (Action Henk), Digital Dreams (METRICO), Self Made Miracle (Penarium) and Ronimo Games (Awesomenauts, Swords & Soldiers) . This gathered creativity makes Dutch Game Garden a prime location for game development.

Some of the most talented game studios in the Netherlands call (or called) Dutch Game Garden their home. Examples include Abbey Games (Reus, Renowned Explorers), Vlambeer (Luftrausers, Ridiculous Fishing, Nuclear Throne), Rage Squid (Action Henk), Digital Dreams (METRICO), Self Made Miracle (Penarium) and Ronimo Games (Awesomenauts, Swords & Soldiers) . This gathered creativity makes Dutch Game Garden a prime location for game development.

Did you get in touch with Sony with regards to Metrico, or did Sony get in touch with you?
We pitched Metrico for one and a half years to Sony, but we pitched it to Sony Europe [as well].  We approached them, but then at some point Metrico got a little bit of vision because we won the Best Design award with the prototype and then Sony America approached us, so it’s a bit of both actually.

Did you ever consider the 3DS?
Yes.  We did.  We were talking with Nintendo and they were interested, but unfortunately for them, Sony was quicker to offer us a deal. And in a technical sort of point of view, as in having an engine that was ready for platform, it was better for Vita than it was for 3DS.

Do you think the design of the game concept changed in any way because of that fact that it was being hosted on Vita?
Yeah.  There was more to consider.  There were more options of input to consider.  It became a lot more interesting actually than if we would have just done it for PC, which we didn’t.  I’m very glad that’s it’s just for Vita.  Vita is a big impact.  We really, really targeted the game towards the platform and I’m glad we did.

Tearaway was recently announced that it’s coming out for the PS4, so they [Sony] are almost (retroactively) looking to “PS4-ize” it, even though it’s a game that initially was designed to take advantage of every single one of the Vita’s unique functionality features.  Do you think there is the possibility that those who don’t own a PS Vita might one day be able to appreciate Metrico on PS4? 
People have been asking already. 

I don’t think I’m the first.
No, you’re not.  I mean it hasn’t been a whole lot of people, but there have been some people.  It’s very interesting.  I have to say I love Tearaway on Vita.  It was perfect.  It was very cute.  It was enchanting really.  We’ve been thinking about it, but we literally just finished the game and we need some time to recover, but we really love working with Sony, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up doing something for PS4.  But we’re not there yet.  There’s nothing that says we are there yet. 

Even though you’ve just finished Metrico, what are your future plans as far as games development? 
To keep on making games like we just did. 

Do you have any game ideas in the pipeline?
We have so many, but we had to suppress them up to this point, in order to be able to focus.  We have some many lined up, but we simply have not had the time or opportunity to even consider it between the 3 of us.  Rest assured that we’ll have a lot more to make and that we have so much in our minds. 

Do you not find that aspect of games development really frustrating, knowing pretty well that you’ve got so many ideas and your games take so long to make, that therefore it’s almost as if by the time you reach a “dead end”, however that may be, like life, you look back and go “I still had about a thousand and one billion ideas”?  Games aren’t like films where you can make a short film in a half week.  
It depends on the concept – whether or not it should be a short film or a full feature.  If we didn’t have the deal with Sony, we probably would have made Metrico to be a short game, but it would not have been the right thing to do.  We think Metrico deserved this.  It may very well be that we are coming up with concepts that will be of shorter experience.  It’s really up to the concept.  Can you stretch it in an interesting way?  If it’s just stretching just to get those game play hours in, then we wouldn’t do that.  We’d keep it short. 

That’s basically it.  Do you have anything more to say? 
You know what? You bled me dry. 

That’s cool.  I can leave it at that.

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