GvP: Good morning, it’s Martin here from Games vs Play. Today I’m meeting with Caitlin Brown and Simon Hill from Humblebee Games (shown below), who are based here in Melbourne, Australia. Thanks very much guys for meeting on this really cool morning. I don’t know what’s going on, it should be summer at the moment!
Simon Hill: It’s been a crazy summer!
GvP: Ok, let’s start. So, the first question I’ve got is, how many games have you designed or are currently working on?
Simon: Currently working on two, one digital and one tabletop – although I guess that one’s finished, isn’t it?
Caitlin: I guess we’re promoting this one. This year is going to be our year when we just go out and try to push this.
GvP: So which game is this one?
Caitlin: This is Remarkable Rhymes of the Traveller’s Times. It’s a game we Kickstarted last year in November , and we’ve got our shipment now. We’re just about to go to some markets and see how that goes. Just locally, around Melbourne. Arts and crafts markets, Sunday markets, stuff like that.
GvP: So how does this game work? Can you give us a description?
Caitlin: It’s a social card game for 3-6 players. It’s like a family-friendly version of Cards Against Humanity, where one person reads out a little rhyming story and the other players have to fill in the missing adjectives and noun blanks to complete the scene. And whoever the card reader likes the most, they pick them as the winner for that round and they get a point. And then it goes around. So you create a little story for the traveller.
Simon: Yeah. It’s really easy to play, even if you’re quite tired. It doesn’t take too much brain power, which is quite pleasant when you want to play something late or if you’re tired.
GvP: I know what you mean. Eurogames can be fun, but you have to be awake. You guys do electronic games too, is that right?
Simon: First couple were arcade games for mobiles. We did a game called Three Hungry Dragons. This was just a very simple game where you had three different coloured dragons, and you had to switch to which one was active depending on which coloured meteors were flying down the screen. We did a puzzle game where you have a character and you have to move around in a certain pattern to clear up all the spaces to get to the next level, and so on.
Caitlin: And then there was Ridiculous Skipping, which we did in June last year . That’s an arcade game, it’s a one-tap game where you have a character that skips over a rope. There’s lots of different suits you can unlock and fishes too, you can make them jump as well.
GvP: That sounds like a lot of fun. Maybe I’ll ask, how did Humblebee Games begin?
Caitlin: Well, we met at uni. Then we just happened to move into a share-house together, and then we were like, “Well, let’s make some games.”
Simon: Yeah, we started working together.
Caitlin: And then we just made it into an official business.
GvP: What were you guys studying, can I ask?
Caitlin: Games design.
GvP: Oh, that makes perfect sense [all laugh]
Simon: Pretty direct correlation there.
GvP: So how long ago was that, when Humblebee Games started?
Simon: It was about three years ago. It was about a year after we graduated that we moved into the same share-house. Very convenient for working together.
Caitlin: I would advise that for anyone starting a games company, or a developer or whatever. Just live together. [both laugh]
GvP: Well, it’s make or break, isn’t it? You’d know pretty quickly if it were going to work out. So, where does the name come from, Humblebee Games? I can kind of get how it’s buzzing off a certain pun, but what’s that story?
Caitlin: I think we just brainstormed a lot. It was the only thing we could settle with.
Simon: I think we both liked the word “humble”, because we’re both fairly humble people. And bees are a kind of animal – well, insect in this case – that have a very children’s storybook feeling as well. It was those things combined.
GvP: Bumblebees are kind of cute insects, not known for stinging that much. For me, too, it strikes a bell for ‘busy bees’ working away.
Caitlin: Yeah, little bees buzzing away. And they’re good for the environment!
GvP: So, have you guys been playing games yourselves for a while?
Simon: I guess we’ve both played games all our lives, both digital and non-digital.
Caitlin: Although I was pretty late to tabletop. At uni I started to get into that.
Simon: Oh, right? [sounding surprised]
Simon: I had no idea that before that you hadn’t played, other than Monopoly and UNO before.
Caitlin: Nope. Not really, yeah. [both laugh]
Simon: Oh, ok.
GvP: You sound shocked.
Simon: I’m broken!
Caitlin: [mimicking Simon] “Why I didn’t know about this?!?”
Simon: I’m not judging you!
GvP: No, no, that didn’t sound judgmental!
Simon: No, not at all! I’m just surprised. I thought you’d played more tabletop games.
Caitlin: I remember I used to play a lot of card games. A lot at high school. And actually I just remembered now that when I was a kid – because after I started making tabletop games my mum was like, “Oh hey, why don’t you have a look at our old boardgames collection for inspiration?” And I was like, “What boardgames?” And she opened the wardrobe and pulled out these really old ‘90s games, like Dr Seuss games, and there was a Pokemon boardgame. There was one called The White Unicorn, or something. That was really cool – I loved it when I was a kid, and I love it now.
GvP: I guess boardgames are often things you played at home with your family. So, with the games that you guys design, where do the ideas come from?
Simon: You have to keep an open mind. Because we’re still quite new, you have to focus on simple things that work really well. Especially with digital, we can’t be too big at this point. We can’t invest in some big project that runs for 1-2 years, because we don’t know how successful something will be. We try to think up quite simple mechanics, or something that will resonate with people. You have to have something that’s instantly recognisable and understandable. And then for the theme you have to have something that’s at least semi-familiar, or something that people will recognise. If you have those two things, hopefully it will work out.
Caitlin: I guess for the ideas – if we look at our two tabletop games, one was Simon’s idea after watching a bunch of tabletop reviews or play throughs. But for Remarkable Rhymes it was only because we sort of agreed to be on at PAX without a game a month before it was meant to start!
GvP: What happened?
Caitlin: TGDA – Tabletop Games Designers Australia – they were getting this booth together, and they were like, “Who wants to be on it?” And we were like, “Yeah!” We thought we’d do something with our first tabletop, Amalgamania. But then we were like, well maybe we can do something else? And then it got to a month before PAX, and we were like, “Oh, we haven’t really prepared anything!” So we were like, let’s just make a game, a social game that’s really quick, just so we’d have something. So we did, and it was … not bad [both laugh].
Simon: Worked out pretty well really.
GvP: Sometimes having an external deadline is amazingly motivating.
Caitlin: It really is! So, one of our tabletop games was out of necessity, the other out of fun. They come from anywhere.
GvP: So, is this a full-time job for you guys?
Caitlin and Simon: Yee-esss [both laugh]
Caitlin: Around April last year  we got on NEIS, New Enterprise Incentive Scheme, which is a government-run thing where you propose a business to them and they approve, or say think about it some more.
Simon: They give small business training, so you get a Certificate III in Microbusiness Operations.
Caitlin: And then after that they give 6 months of income support. If you do well according to your business plan they give you an extra 3 months, so you could have a potential of 9 months total of income to start your business. So we proposed making games, and that’s what we’re doing.
GvP: So how many people does it take to make one of your games? Or is it you guys?
Simon: It is … us [both laugh]. We do everything.
GvP: How do you split the roles for the production of the game?
Simon: Well, Caitlin does more of the art, design and illustration. If it’s a digital game I do the programming. There’s no programming for a tabletop game, but we both do design. Caitlin does art, I’ll do image processing – there’s a lot of fiddly stuff to do. There’s always things to be done, so I’m just like, “What needs to be done?” and I just do it.
Caitlin: If it was the Kickstarter, it would be writing pages of stuff they want to know for the Kickstarter. For manufacturing you need to be comparing prices –
Simon: Yeah, spreadsheets, documents. Other than programming and art, we pretty much just split everything. “I want to work on this – do you want to work on that?”
Caitlin: It’s easier that way. One person is hard – so much work. But with two or three it’s manageable. Beyond that it starts getting miscommunications.
GvP: Cool. So, what are some games that you guys like, either digital or tabletop?
Simon: Some of my older answers are … Portal, a puzzle game. BioShock for the storytelling. Those two were really quite strong influences for me. Earlier on, big influences for me were Age of Empires, Warcraft, and Majesty.
Caitlin: For me, Fables is in there, for that balance between traditional RPG storytelling but also humour as well. And then for tabletop … this is a tricky question! [laughs] It’s hard to remember.
GvP: So, what are some tips you would give to other games designers as they’re starting out?
Caitlin: I would say, think about your goals. Why do you want to make games? And then make a game that is directly related to that.
Simon: The more common tips are “Keep it simple, keep it small.” And don’t be afraid to move on. Sometimes you’ve learnt enough and can move on to something else. Don’t be afraid of doing that. Things evolve. You have to be really flexible, and learn to take feedback on board. It takes everybody a little while to get there, but you have to be super open to feedback, because in the end hopefully you’re making it for a group of people and not just yourself.
Caitlin: That’s sort of what I meant by being clear about your goals. Are you making it for you, or for your friends? Or for everyone? Do you want to make money?
Simon: It depends if you’re in the learning hobby phase, or if you actually want to get other people to play it. Because if it’s more learning, you can make different goals – what do I want to learn? What is that project going to teach you? If you do a couple of those types of project you’ll hopefully learn a lot quite quickly, and then you can move on to projects that you think a certain group of people might want to play.
Caitlin: You can build upon it as well. So you might finish one small game, but scope it bigger next time.
Simon: Once you’ve got a big enough library of history, you can pull out things that you’ve learnt and kind of mash things together. This kind of thing worked really well in this spot, now I’m going to use it in this space. You get your own tool set.
Caitlin: And it’s also about what’s your message, what message do you want to spread. So with Remarkable Rhymes I was really interested in poetry, but it’s really boring to most people. But if you put a bit of RPG elements into it, and a bit of creativity, you can make it fun.
Simon: I think most people do this – we certainly did this – when you start out you’re like, “What do I want to make?” That’s as far you think. And you start making something but then you realise, “Oh, maybe people won’t like this,” and then, “Oh, even I don’t like this!”
GvP: You guys have obviously done a lot of thinking and a lot of work to understand all these things already. So maybe my final question is looking to the future. What’s next for Humblebee Games?
Caitlin: We’re making another digital game at the moment, which is going back over our first puzzle game, Crumble Jumble. You have to walk along tiles to get to a door, but you have to walk along every tile. When you get to the last one you go up a level, and the levels get harder. So we’re revisiting that.
Simon: We’re simplifying it for mobile games. We found that that was one of our most successful games so far. Previously it was 3D, but we’re making it 2D and in the retro style. The retro style is quite popular, but instead of doing pixel art we’re using really simple colours and glitch art. So every so often some of the art will glitch out, and you’ll get stripes of magenta and cyan. A lot of the animations are just going to be on-off, so it’s really similar to those old games like the first Donkey Kong where the screen was just all lights but not proper animation. Things just appear and disappear. So we’re trying to mimic that kind of style. Having a mechanic that works, bringing it to a really simple, clean aesthetic that has an interesting throwback to times gone by. That’s our next attempt at a digital game.
GvP: Do you have a working title for that game that you can reveal?
Caitlin: Not … really [laughs]
GvP: You can be mysterious and say, “I cannot reveal it!”
Caitlin: Well, our working title is just Puzzle Glitch Game. [all laugh]
Simon: And for the future, we just literally a few days ago got our order for Remarkable Rhymes, which we’re both so thrilled about. So we can’t really see that far past that at the moment, because this is the next stage of seeing what we can do with Remarkable Rhymes. But we both really like narrative and story – recently we both started playing a game called Undertale, which is a very quirky RPG. We both really like narrative and quirky things. That’s something we’d really like to explore, but that genre’s kind of risky. Ideally we’d like to build up a solid foundation first, and then we could explore a lot of different areas and more quirky, less mainstream ideas. Experiential tabletop and digital games. That would be fantastic to let our creativity fly.
GvP: Like a large bumblebee – not so humble!
Caitlin: Flight of the humblebees! [all laugh]
Remarkable Rhymes of the Traveller’s Times is now available for order from the Humblebee Games website.
Games vs Play would like to thank Humblebee Games for permission to use images appearing in this post. To find out more about the latest reviews, stories and other cool things in the world of games, like us on Facebook. And remember – if you’re game, we’ll play!