When you get a toy, you want to play with it. If you make a toy - a really good toy - you've got to presume the urge is even stronger. Except, no sooner than you've made this joyous thing, you've got to put it in a box and send it out to all the little boys and girls (and less little boys and girls).
It's where EA's Boom Blox team found themselves after finishing the original, the first fruit of the company's relationship with Steven Spielberg. They pushed on, apparently even before the sequel was officially green-lit or the original even hit the shelves. "At that point, often you're not sure how well the game is going to do, especially when you're doing something on a wacky new console with a wacky new idea that people haven't seen before," says senior producer Amir Rahimi.
"Though we weren't sure what people were going to think, we knew we had a great time working on it, and we had a ton of fun playing the game - which is always a great sign. Steven Spielberg felt the same way," he adds, name-droppingly. "He'd take the game home at weekends and play it with his family - and they apparently had a blast. You take that and combine it with the fact the original Boom Blox barely scratched the surface on the number and depth of ideas we had for this franchise... it was just very natural to keep working on the game. I could hardly get my team to stop playing it. Normally it's the other way around at the end of the project."
So what was different? "I think a lot of that has to do with the physics. I could take the same level that I've done bronze, silver and gold on, and know like the back of my hand, and I can play it in a very different way. I think the physics are so accurate, so realistic, that they offer a huge amount of replayability. The ability to look at something on-screen, form a mental model of what you expect to happen and actually be able to do that... or if not exactly that, find it surprises you in a way that's funny or interesting. I think that has something to do with why it never got old. And to this day it hasn't." In other words, when physics is so relatively nailed, games become compelling in the same way as, say, darts or bowling. Simple games with complex models bubbling along. With Boom Blox, the physics allow a game to be predictable in an intuitive way, and the actual game is creating impossible or at least implausible setups with which to play.
To that end, EA is pushing the game into new levels of grounded unreality, with four hundred new levels and twice the amount of multiplayer content for the sequel, Bash Party. It's the perennial more stuff sort of successor, building upon the - ah! - building blocks of the first one, with new tools. But listing what's new isn't really the point. In terms of the wider sweeping changes, the new worlds are the biggest. There are four, of which two have been revealed - pirate and outer space. Which is an excuse for new cute/creepy character designs and - more meaningfully - integration of different physics models. For the pirate levels, they're often set underwater, so you get to deal with stuff floating and bobbing and sinking, while the space levels can have zero gravity.
Generally speaking, there's more of this kind of flair, in terms of pushing the systems and seeing what the team could do with them. It's at least partially a result of the positive response to the first one. "The game exceeded everyone's expectations in terms of critical acclaim," says Rahimi. "I think what that did was to galvanise the team. It validated our thinking - it gave us a lot of confidence. A certain swagger. Every morning when they turned up for work, they turned up with this renewed sense in pride of what they were doing. It allowed us to be a lot more bold and confident in the sort of decisions we were making in Bash Party."
In other words, they felt their assumptions validated. "To hear that the game is appealing to the new Wii audience of grandmas and young children as well as the hardest of the hardcore game really validated our design philosophy," says Rahimi. "It gave us the confidence to pursue that even more. In most of our levels you'll find even more of an ability to approach it as a gamer and figure out the ideal solution, as opposed to just someone who wants to explode something and have fun with it." Not that dissenting voices were ignored. "We got plenty of feedback that the shooting game mode wasn't as fun," says Rahimi. "Shooting has taken a huge back seat in the sequel."
Perhaps the most fundamental change in Bash Party isn't in any of the game's new modes or toys - it's what you get to do with the toys, and the sharing of levels. This comes off the response to the tools shipped with the original game. "If you pop Boom Blox into YouTube, you'll find some pretty amazing stuff," says Rahimi. "The community is so intelligent with its hive-mind thinking. Everyone has at least one good idea they can contribute." (Perhaps, as Kodu's Matt MacLaurin puts it, we're all capable of "fifteen minutes of sheer brilliance".)
The problem with this cleverness is that it's left in little islands. Most Wii games require you to know Friends Codes to swap creations, and who wants to do that? "The thinking was: how can we bypass that? How can we let people share their ideas?" says Rahimi. "Essentially, we created a server that sits in EA and people send their creations up to us. And we actually broadcast that out to the world. What it means is that for the hardcore create-mode guy they have a way to share their creation, get author credit and get it rated. Even better, for everyone else - which is the majority, probably the vast majority - all they have to do is plug their Wii into the internet and they get tons of free content."
So if you're playing a particular game mode and fancy some new toys, there's an internet icon at the end. Select it, and it downloads any user-created levels in that mode. "They're tiny," says Rahimi. "They're an insignificant amount of space. They download like... that." There are deeper options for searching, with YouTube-esque rating systems, but it really is as simple as a button-press. "We really wanted to support and unlock the community. People are shelling out hard-earned money for this game - and we want it to be long-lasting and highly appealing. As a team, we're committing to supporting this feature - not only broadcasting user-generated content but creating actual levels for this feature and making them available."
Making it easier to share levels is one thing; making it easier to make levels to share is the other, to which the team's also paid attention. "On the first one, we built the editor at the same time as we were building the game," says Rahimi. "From day one on Bash Party we committed to building the entire game through the in-game editor. So every layout you see in the game is done through the editor. This focused our attention on making the editor more robust and easier to use. We added tools and features to make it much easier to pick a game mode they want to remix, then upload. On the consumer side of that equation, we've made it easier than ever - probably easier than any other game I can think of."
We talk a lot about the novelty of playing with your non-gaming family. I wonder what it's like for the developers, who have spent their working life off on their own, and finally making something they can actually show mum and dad. "First of all, for me personally, it was the first game I worked on which I could truly share with my family and connect with them on it," he says with a laugh. "I come from RTS games - and those are a little more hardcore, a little less accessible to my sixty-year aunt. To be able to put this in their hand, no matter who they are or what their background, for them to enjoy it, was immensely gratifying."
We'll find if our own grandmothers are immensely gratified when the new Boom Blox Bash Party hits soon. I could do with some gratification too, if there's some going around. Lovely gratification.
Boom Blox Bash Party is due out for Wii in May.