I’m always excited to see new and creative things come out of Hawaii’s tech scene. But “Sushi Star,” a new game for the iPhone, is an app that I’m especially happy to see finally launch.
“Sushi Star” hit the Apple App Store last week. A beautifully designed and carefully architected game, it is the result of over a year of intensive work (and substantial reworking) by Brian Dote, a good friend and fantastic developer, and his partner Peter Wubbels.
The moment I first heard about it, I nagged Brian obsessively about it. The day it was ready for the first round of beta testing, I literally pinged him minute by minute until I could install it. And as he and Peter processed a torrent of feedback, much of it demanding a great deal of additional work, I was awed and impressed by how “Sushi Star” evolved and improved.
I’m not a hardcore gamer, or even much of a casual gamer (as my hapless, ignored opponents in “Words With Friends”will attest), but “Sushi Star” enjoys a a prominent early position among the eight pages of apps and folders on my iPhone.
“Building a game is more labor intensive than I could have ever imagined,” Brian told me, when I asked to pick his brain after the app went live. He compared the process to that of making a movie.
“A movie requires three things done perfectly, professionally, and in conjunction with each other: story, visuals, and music,” he explained. “A game is the exact same way.”
To be sure, there are a few “making sushi” games already out there. But if there’s anything that stands out in Brian’s work, it’s his attention to detail, reaching a level of polish that rivals the work of huge software houses with dozens of employees. (Not surprisingly, Brian spent several years working at Apple.) And from the earliest iterations, “Sushi Star” was beautiful to look at.
While Brian had designed several other apps on his own, he said he felt this game needed “that extra oomph.” So he turned to Audra Furuichi of the popular web comic “Nemu Nemu.”
“We hired Audra to do the character design, because I absolutely love her work and want to keep it ‘local,” Brian said.
As for the music, Brian had a very specific idea about what he was looking for.
“I wanted the audio to be catchy and evoke a positive happy reaction subconsciously,” he said. “I wanted the music to be something you’d overhear at a restaurant, immediately recognize as ‘Sushi Star,’ and unknowingly crack a smile.”
He noted the instant familiarity of other video game soundtracks, from Super Mario Brothers to Angry Birds. His aim was nothing short of what he called ”the ‘Tetris’ of game music.”
And he thinks he got it, thanks to the Emmy award-winning team of Mark Schultz and Dan Vitco. A team that his partner stumbled across by chance.
“Peter showed the game off during his trip home for his sister’s wedding,” Brian said. “Turns out his uncle is a music producer, and voila!”
I must admit, I almost always turn off the music in any game I play. But perhaps because I know what went into the music in “Sushi Star,” I’ve happily allowed its earworm to lodge itself in my brain.
“We started the project while Peter lived in Hawaii and we both worked together,” Brian explained. “About six months in he left for California, and we completed the game by working remotely.”
But the project took longer than planned. Much longer.
“We were foolish to think that we could finish the game and ship in October 2010,” he said. “I wanted to hit the back to school market but we missed that.”
And he admits that he and Peter lost momentum many times.
“We found it hard to keep momentum up as we spent our own time and money on the project,” Brian recalled. “I call it blood, sweat, and weekends.”
And it turns out that testing a game is harder than you might think.
“Testing the game over and over was tiring, since because it’s a game, you can’t ‘skip’ to the part you need to test,” he said, “That’s a huge challenge. I can’t tell you how many nights I fell asleep testing a game feature.”
Nonetheless, the pair was making progress, and more than once, they thought they were close to being finished.
“It’s amazing,” he said. ”There were so many times when we’d add something that we’d both look back and say, ‘Wow, now this is a game.’ We’d then add something else two weeks later and say, ‘Wow, no no no, now this, this is a game!”
Indeed, Brian said that users will see less than half of what they’d built.
He said: “We added so many things to the game, then took them out. Added features, removed them. We both had different opinions and views on fun and that was a challenge to reconcile.”
The game does feature a few personal touches. Sueko the Sushi Girl is named after Brian’s daughter, whose Japanese middle name is named after her grandmother. And Sueko’s voice is none other than Peter’s wife.
After hundreds of hours of work that nobody could see, Brian and Peter were finally ready to let other people try “Sushi Star” in a closed beta test. They started collecting names and iPhone UDID numbers. I suggested that they use the TestFlight iOS beta testing platform to make managing the process easier, and since it turned out to be a useful service, I barged my way to the front of the line.
In May, beta testing started. I fired up “Sushi Star.” And the game promptly kicked my butt.
Brian said: “Our beta test showed us one thing: we had played the game for far too long to look at it with objective fresh eyes. Turns out what we thought was easy was way too hard for most players. We had a year of gameplay under our belts whereas our beta testers were playing for the first time.”
He and Peter took their testers’ feedback to heart, and in some ways, went back to the drawing board. Many of the tweaks made late in the development process focused on gameplay and difficulty. Some things were slowed down, helpful guides were added for certain actions, and so on.
Of course, they were aware that making a game too easy would also turn off hardcore gamers.
“We kept trying to find the balance of fun, complexity, replay value, addiction, and so on,” Brian said. “The time spent making the game fun was the biggest challenge.”
Ultimately, the goal of “Sushi Star” was to be enjoyable for adults, but still playable for kids as young as five or six years old.
“I wanted the game to be easy enough for my kids to play, easy enough for someone to play without needing to read,” Brian said.
On June 23, “Sushi Star” was submitted to Apple. Five days later, it was available to the world.
The similarities between video game design and movies don’t end on the release date.
“Games are a hit-driven business like a movie, and we knew up front that without a solid marketing plan we wouldn’t see great sales… and that’s exactly the case right now,” Brian admitted. “Our sales are about 20-25 percent of what my projections were, but that’s because we haven’t done any marketing yet.
“We are planning that right now,” he said.
But after all that blood, sweat, and weekends, Brian said he’s ready to do it all over again.
“We are going to start on another game, we’re addicted,” he said. “We both want to build mobile games, and only mobile games for a living. After finishing this first one I can’t imagine doing anything else.”