XBLIG Spotlight: Clover: A Curious Tale

Welcome to this weeks edition of the XBLIG Spotlight, a re-occurring segment on Clearance Bin Review where we put the focus on Xbox Live Indie Games and the developer’s that make them.  This week I talk to Binary Twee’s Deejay about his game Clover: A Curious Tale, a puzzle platformer that takes you through a story of political intrigue in a vivid fantasyland; you’ll even get a chance to win something for your time. Check out the trailer below, a short Q&A with Deejay and my take on the game. Add Clover: A Curious Tale to your download queue!

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CdbxGywgWU

First, tell the readers a bit about yourself, who you are and how/why you decided to start getting involved in making games?

I had always wanted to be a games developer, ever since I was a kid. I’ve got letters of games designs that I had sent to CodeMasters back when I was seven years old! The dot.com boom coincided with my college and university education so I ended up in web development in the financial sector, but when the world’s economy entered recession it seemed a perfect opportunity to go back to my ambitions.

Tell us about Binary Tweed, your history as a game developer, previous efforts, etc.

Whilst I’d always daydreamed game designs, the original Clover was only my second project in XNA. The first was an example from a book!

If you had to pick one specific game (not series)  to describe as your inspiration for Clover, what would it be?

Magicland Dizzy. Gamers from outside Europe might not be familiar with the Dizzy series, although there were releases on the NES and Genesis. Fantasy World Dizzy really solidified the formula for a good collect ‘em up and certainly set the fairytale tone for the first time, but for me (and the Oliver twins will hate me saying this!) Magicland Dizzy refined that recipe and brought more contemporary aspect to the gameplay.

Clover has obviously been released as a XBLIG and PC, but have you in the past, or do you currently have plans to work in any other platform?  What made you decide to develop Clover for XBLIG?

I developed Clover for XBLIG (or Xbox LIVE Community Games as it was known back then) as there were low barriers of entry, and the possibility of an audience of 22 million users. Of course it didn’t quite work out that way, but on paper it seemed like a punt worth taking!

How long did you spend developing Clover?  Can you explain, roughly, how the development process worked for you? What tools and programs did you work with?

The original version too nine months, and the refined version Clover: A Curious Tale took another six months with the assistance of Blitz 1UP. Everything was done with Microsoft Game Studio with the ReSharper plug-in, GIMP and Photoshop.

I missed a lot of tricks during the initial development, simply because I didn’t know what the IDE was capable of. I also should’ve made a level editor, it would have saved me weeks! Two examples in particular are not knowing that you could disable content rebuilding, and not thinking to use the debugger to change the position of level items – I spent months changing XML files and rebuilding!

If you had to pick one thing that you would improve or simply do differently in regards to Clover’s development what would it be?

There are a whole heap of things that I should have improved within the game itself, but the biggest mistake in hindsight was to not take longer with the game. When I got on the Kotaku and Joystiq front pages I was delighted, but I didn’t realize what a valuable commodity that was. If I had been less naïve I would have then looked to secure funding to spend at least another year or so making it the best it could possibly have been. Unfortunately family circumstances meant I had to start earning money, and I pressured myself into releasing too soon, for better or worse.

Many gamers dream of starting to make their own games, and it is obviously easier than ever for them to do so.  What advice would you give someone hoping to make the jump from gamer to designer?

See if you can make games without depending on it for your income. If you can give up full-time work to freelance/contract in your primary discipline and work on games in your spare time, you’ll have a much easier life and will be able to explore game concepts without the pressure of having to pay the bills.

Have you found the XBLIG process to be a particularly easy or difficult one?

The XBLIG ecosystem is great. It has its flaws and frustrating elements, but really there’s nothing else on console like it, and there’s a great community behind it. It’s just a shame that the storefront is so weak… But that’s why I now work on IndieCity.com!

XBLIG have had a mixed result so far, what is one aspect/idea/change you think would better solidify the platform as a contender in the gaming industry?  What one thing do you think would improve the service as a whole, from designer to consumer?

The primary flaw of XBLIG as a distribution channel is that Microsoft have a vested interest in presenting certain things to you ahead of others. The same is true of all the big games distribution channels, and we’ve gone from a world where publishers where the ‘bad guys’ dictating what was available for consumers to buy, to a world where the promise of online retail has been withheld from us.

No-one goes to Amazon and complains that they stock lots of rubbish books, because you can find exactly what you do want. Amazon don’t care what you buy, as long as you’re buying it from their site. Indie games need a similarly impartial vendor, and that’s why I now work full-time on upcoming indie games portal IndieCity.com.

What is in the cards for Binary Tweed after Clover?

Sadly Clover and Clover: A Curious Tale didn’t do well enough to pay the bills. Although I now work full-time again, I only got this opportunity as a result of my indie games development career. When giving advice to aspiring indies I think it’s important to stress that there are other ‘win’ conditions that making a sustainable business out of it – creating games may open other doors for you.

I have less time now, but I’m still working on three ideas with another two on the back burner. I’m currently seeking a pixel artist for one, another is a much more casual simple puzzley affair, and the third being actively developed is very experimental and inspired by Andy Schatz’ talk ad GDC 2011. I’ve learned a lot of these last few years, and I can’t wait to implement this in some pretty radical games.

Thank you for your time Deejay.
Add Clover: A Curious Tale to your download queue!

This edition of the XBLIG Spotlight features Binary Tweed’s epic puzzle platformer Clover: A Curious Tale. Fantastic imagery, difficult and challenging puzzles and a story full of surprising depth and sophistication, but does it all come together to make Clover a tale you need to experience or did curiosity kill the gamer?  Read on. (And I promise I’m done with the bad “curious” jokes)

Clover takes place in a vaguely familiar fantasyland by the name of Sanha populated by large eyed residents and a monarchy that is fairly beloved by all in the land.  The game begins with you taking over as the role of Sam, a 16 year old recently orphaned as a result of his mother’s death when her ship sank due to a violent attack by another country.  Sam sets out to understand what happened to his mother, and along the way discovers far more than he could of ever bargained for as his country progresses down a path of war and tyranny. Yeah. The story does get a bit preachy at the end, but for the most part I enjoyed the depth and sophistication, and found it refreshing to the normal “zombies are coming shoot them” story that makes up much of the content on the platform.  Ultimately it would be a mistake, for several reasons, to let the cartoonish nature of the game’s characters and colorful landscape fool you into thinking this is some standard XBLIG light arcade style affair.

The game’s puzzles are incredibly challenging, as not only do they require some ingenuity on the player’s part, the game will also test your ability to remember what details that at the time may have seemed trivial.  All of this is made more challenging as everything is solved with the use of a correct item (or combination of correct items), but the kicker? You can only carry three items at a time (and only two for the first few minutes of the game).  So add thinking ahead to the list of pre-requisites to solving the puzzles quickly and efficiently.  For most of the game I cursed this three-item limit but by the end I had come to realize that without it the game wouldn’t have worked as it is.  (That being said, maybe four spots would have been a fair compromise?)  I found myself genuinely stumped on at least two or three occasions and after walking back and forth for what felt like forever (in reality only a few frustrating minutes) I simply picked up the right combination or found some item I had missed and there was a deep feeling of accomplishment in having solved the puzzle, despite almost all puzzles simply resulted in more puzzles to solve upon their competition.  Additionally I was personally impressed with the number of puzzles that involved seemingly random aspects of the game that did not reveal themselves till much later in the game, Clover and its’ puzzles were very carefully designed and it shows.

Visually the game is probably in the top ten on the XBLIG service (and I only say top ten for the simple fact I’ve not seen every game on the service by a long shot).  The art design is simply superb, really no other way to describe it.  Even if the characters do have a bit of a “South Park” appearance to them at time, they fit their environment and after about 30 minutes with the game you will no longer notice or care. And the environments, the backgrounds in Clover are some of the best background art I’ve seen in any 2D game, regardless of platform. The soundtrack is both beautiful and chilling, simple yet exquisite.  I hate to use the same expression twice in one paragraph, but musically Clover is likely in the top five on the XBLIG service; with a production level simply not seen in most of the game’s on the platform.  The game also features some of the most professional voice acting you will find in an XBLIG title, both in quality of the recording and performance.  Sure a few character voices here and there are lacking, and there is the obvious fact that all guards have the same voice, but overall serves as a great example of what other indie games should try to replicate with their voice acting.

Much as I did enjoy the game, all is not perfect though.  The item system and means of picking up and using items was often frustrating and it was so because it didn’t have to be that way.  Not just the limit, but how easy it was to accidentally drop an item and not realize you had done so, or how some items blended in a little too well with their backgrounds and could be easily overlooked.  Even something as simple as a mild glow to the items after you have picked them up of course, would of helped.  There were also a few cases were I went to a person with the right items and for some reason I had to do so twice before it “worked.”  I fully admit though it is possible that I simply changed something without fully realizing it (but that does take us back to the ability to accidentally drop and or swap items without realizing it).  I also did find one odd glitch that cause me to fall off the map by a certain waterfall, but the game simply reset me, and all was well with the world.  The biggest complaint though to be made about Clover is the amount of time you will spend walking back and forth, over and over, and over and over, and over and over, swapping items or simply traveling from one quest to another.  Not enough to throw in the towel by any means, but enough that you may let out a few sighs after your third or fourth trip to and form the castle or the beach.

To sum it all up, Clover: A Curious Tale offers incredible visuals, super music and audio, challenging puzzles and a surprisingly sophisticated story on a platform not know for being strong for any of those.  It is by no means a perfect game, but when many ask why Clover seems to have gained a lot of attention from gaming sites and even featured as the only game for the week (and to my knowledge only XBLIG ever) in a Xbox Live Deal of the Week the answer is simple; it is one of the best games on the service and a stellar example of what Xbox Live Indie Game’s could be. I’ve enjoyed a number of other titled on the service, but never have I lost so many hours to a XBLIG and not been aware of it.  If you are a fan of the indie games or are simply looking for a game to “try it out” I can’t help but recommend Clover.

Add Clover: A Curious Tale to your download queue!

Final Rating: 9/10

CBR Break Down:
Console Played On: Xbox 360 – XBLIG
Approximate Time to Completion: ~5 Hours
Gamer Score Earned: N/A
Price Bought at: N/A – Review copy furnished by Binary Tweed
Current Price: 240 Microsoft Points ($3)
Recommend Purchase Price: If you didn’t get it during the DOTW this is the cheapest it goes due to Microsoft’s rules about file size and price. It’s worth it.

Ok, I lied, again.  It does get cheaper. You guessed it; we have some copies of the game to give away!  Binary Tweed has been kind enough to give us 5 codes to give out to you, yes you with the wandering eye.  This week’s contest will be fairly simple but with a couple of changes, including a third way to enter! (We really are too nice to you people)

First entry:  Post on this XBLIG Spotlight and tell us your favorite 2D platformer.   Are you an old school Mario fan? Or do you kick it new school with games like Sposion Man? (I know that is technically 3D, but we’re going to count it) Let us know below. This time around, a hidden number (but at least 2) of the winners are guaranteed to come from posting on this blog! That means the only way to actually enter for a shot at all 5 codes is to post on the blog!

Second entry: Follow us on twitter and send the following tweet:

@ClearanceBinRev is giving away 5 copies of the #XBLIG Clover: A Curious Tale! Details: http://bit.ly/gNWTXo

Remember that you have to follow us; any winner we attempt to DM via Twitter who isn’t automatically forfeits their win.

If you enter via Twitter include your twitter name in your post below, winners who have their twitter listed will receive their codes immediately after winning.

Third Entry: Like our Facebook page and then simply like the post on our wall for this article.  Simple as that. (Keep in mind the article may be lower on the Facebook page towards the end of the contest)

Contest will go until Wednesday at 6pm CST.  A pool of all eligible entries will then be randomly selected from and the winners will be notified. CBR reserves the right to disqualify any entry we feel either violated the rules or spirit of the contest, including attempts at duplicate entries. Winner selected with no twitter name provided will be notified by email and have 24 hours to respond.

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About Tristan Rendo

I've made movies, written and performed music, and in January of 2011 got bored and started the awesome gaming site you see before you. My gaming roots began with the original NES, and endless hours spent spilling quarters into machines at the local arcade. I have a personal collection of over 200 Nintendo 64 games, and for many years it was the only system I owned. I re-entered the modern generation of gaming consoles when I decided to purchase a 360. I typically prefer the single player experience of games, so I’m usually playing through some single-player campaign, but can occasionally be found doing some damage in Halo Reach.