The Needles

The Needles
StoneLoops! and Codeminion: A New Player Has Joined

Andy Chalk | 22 Apr 2008 17:00
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The game screen is covered with a convoluted tunnel (or two) through which a row of multicolored balls slowly proceeds, and your job is to arrange them in groups of three or more of the same color, removing them from the screen and slowing the procession, buying yourself a little more time to make the next arrangement. It sounds very Zuma, and Jason Kapalka notwithstanding, it also looks very Zuma.

The twist lies in the absence of the weird frog-type thing in the middle of the screen that spits new balls out for you as fast as you can click. Instead, all you have to work with are the balls in the streams, which must be removed and rearranged one at a time. The secret to the game, insofar as I've been able to discover one, lies in the fact that removing balls from the stream can be just as useful for making combinations as placing them back in different locations, a simple-sounding twist to the game mechanic that results in a surprising new layer of strategic possibilities.

The game is more fast-paced than a lot of casual titles, but while it'll keep you hopping it never abuses you with excessively harsh difficulty. I've managed to make my way up around level 40 - I have no idea how many levels there are in total - and it's been both challenging and nerve-wracking, but never frustrating. And for gamers who didn't have the fortune to be born with my magic fingers, StoneLoops! will let you restart new games from the last level you completed, rather than knocking you all the way back down to the bottom of the pile.

Easy to learn, difficult to master - it's a cliche but it's also the linchpin of casual game design. "Casual gaming is more about the philosophy of how you treat your gamers and their time, not what kind of gameplay you're implementing," Olesiewicz told me. He said that while Codeminion would love to do a game on "a bigger scale," they would still likely remain casual at heart. "After all we have learned about game design and usability, it would be hard for us to imagine doing a mainstream hardcore game filled with blood and over-complex systems."

And with good reason. Following the rookie studio's failure to pull off a "standard" RPG called Spellscape which sputtered out in mid-development in 2003, they experienced their first success with a small title called Magic Match, although as Olesiewicz points out, "The term "casual game" was not used at the time we started the development." But the positive reaction to the simple little title was a turning point for Olesiewicz and Biedrzycki. "The commercial and critical acclaim encouraged us to specialize and try our strengths in this emerging market," he said.

Codeminion has grown somewhat since those early days, and now boasts a programmer, a designer, an artist and a web specialist. They also collaborate with other developers, sound designers, musicians and artists, and Olesiewicz says the team is always on the lookout for new talent. "To give you an example, StoneLoops! of Jurassica was developed by 18 people both from Codeminion and our contracts," he said. "That's quite a lot in our opinion. Our upcoming in-house project will have 23 developers on the credits list. But that also includes eight voice actors, as we'll have quite a lot of voiced characters there."

And while Olesiewicz and company are hard at work on what he describes as "a first true next-gen casual game," they appear to be enjoying considerable success with StoneLoops! The game has only been out for about a month, meaning "hard numbers" are in short supply, but Olesiewicz described sales of the game through the Codeminion website as "quite promising," adding that the game is selling better than Magic Match did during the early days of its release.

It's good news, and a good sign for a developer that will likely command greater attention as the casual genre continues to grow. The inability of StoneLoops! to immediately distinguish itself in a crowded genre is an unfortunate weakness, but underneath that deceiving "same as" appearance is a fast-paced game with a solid strategic element and all the production values of anything put out by PopCap. I'm still playing it - and my mom thinks it's pretty damn cool, too.

(To check out the trial version of StoneLoops! of Jurassica yourself, head to the Codeminion website at www.codeminion.com.)

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