"Whether we were developing the game for Save the Children or a puppy-killing Evil Mega Corp is irrelevant to me." Ste Curran, creative director at Zoe Mode, is adamant. "I still want to make something that people think is awesome. The aim wasn't to make a game as a half-hearted thank-you to people for donating money to charity. It was to make a game that's worth every one of your 400 Microsoft Points, with the added warmhearted glow that comes with gaming philanthropy after purchase.
"Zoe Mode doesn't do business with corporations that kill puppies, by the way. I'm not sure if that's company policy or whether we just haven't found one yet."
The Brighton-based studio isn't currently doing business with Save the Children either, but Zoe Mode is working on the first game to be released by the OneBigGame charity project. Titled Chime, it's what happens when you cross the music of classical composer Philip Glass with the blocks of Tetris, the principles of music sequencers and the philanthropic drive of Bob Geldoff. In other words, it's a music-based puzzle game.
OneBigGame has commissioned 15 developers to each create a game and donate all the proceeds to worthy causes. The brainchild of Martin De Ronde, co-founder of Killzone's Guerrilla Games, OneBigGame has manage to secure the involvement of developers as diverse as PaRappa the Rapper creator Masaya Matsuura, Broken Sword boss Charles Cecil and Earthworm Jim's Dave Perry. But it's fallen to Curran (best known for his role as co-host of Resonance FM's award-winning videogame radio show, One Life Left) and his team to launch the first game in the project - five years after its inception.
"The idea for Chime predates OneBigGame - but when the opportunity to build something for OBG came around it felt like a perfect fit," Curran says. "Because, if nothing else, it gave us some hard deadlines.
"And yeah, doing things for charity is good. Obviously. But it hasn't changed the way the game has been handled at all. It's a full-time project like all the others in the studio, with a team and goals and all the joy, frustration and fast food that comes with that."
There has to be something in it for Zoe Mode though. Is Chime a purely philanthropic project for the company? "Zoe's a business and businesses always need some kind of logical motivation," Curran explains. "But you can find lots of those that don't clash with charitable concern.
"And we've donated all of the revenue we'd get from the sales of Chime - we're not covering our costs here. In terms of personal motivation, and I do not have an ounce of compassion in my cold robot heart so this is simpler: I like the game, I want to see other people play it, and I want to build on it."
Curran's playing down of the charitable aspect to Chime could be interpreted as dismissive, but it reflects the wider concern of the OneBigGame project: to base success on the merit of the games released, not on the worthiness of the concept. Contrary to what one might have expected, the developers involved want to release the very best games they can, as a matter of pride - not to merely create a giveaway experience to thank donors for their 400 MSP.
In the case of Chime, the length of the game's gestation is testament to the ambition. "The design process has been on of the most organic and, to some extent slowest I've ever been involved in," says Curran. "There was no singular vision. The first time I started thinking about it was when I was approached by our audio director, Ciaran Walsh about an action puzzle game he wanted to make where your interactions actually build the music. I worked on that concept in my spare time for a while, hit a brick wall.
"Then another designer, Dan Checquer, took it in a different direction. His work made me think about the game in a completely different way and I started playing around with the idea of pentominoes and sequencers. From there it's been a process of glacial, gradual refinement by a series of talented coders, designers and artists, with me occasionally interrupting, shouting new ideas and wandering off. That sounds pretty annoying, thinking about it. Sorry, everyone."
In the game you must place Tetris-esque shapes upon a Lumines-style play area. In an inversion of the block-clearing purpose of most puzzle games, here the aim is to fill the play area with blocks, triggering audio snippets as you do so and building up the song beneath.
"I love Lumines. I know it divides people, particularly with respect to the time it takes for a single game, but it's one of the few games in which I can get completely lost," says Curran.
"We're obviously going to be compared to it, just like all block games get compared to Tetris. Which is fine because there are similarities, of course, but the two primary influences for the things I brought to the project weren't videogames; they were a plastic pentominoes set I found in a cupboard and a musical step sequencer. The sequencers brought the timeline, which is something the game shares with Lumines, while the pentominoes inspired the gameplay."
With contributions from Moby, Orbital and, of course, Philip Glass - all of who donated their compositions in the spirit of charitable concern - Chime has a prestigious soundtrack. But as the trend in music gaming moves toward personal expression over mere Simon-Says replication, I ask Curran how flexible the mixes are in play.
"You place blocks on the playfield, and they're read by a bar that moves at a constant pace, from left to right and looping back to the start. When the bar strikes them they play a sound. Blocks play different notes depending on their position on the vertical axis - a higher placed block will play a higher pitched note," he explains.
"So you're slowly building this melody over a backing loop that we provide. If you cluster blocks together they can form bigger squares, ‘quads'. The quads play special sounds and disappear when the timeline strikes them, colouring in the background. The object is to colour in the whole playfield.
"When you reach certain percentage goals - say, 20 per cent of the playfield covered - the backing loop that you're playing over will change. To that extent it's on rails, but the noise you make over that loop is wholly player controlled. There's a freeform mode where you can just play around with this, of course, like you would in a step sequencer."
There's been a lot of talk in the past few months about the death of the music game, or at least its oversaturation of the market. I ask Curran if games like Chime offers an alternate future to games that combine systems and music?
"Music is just another aspect of videogames," he explains. "Talk of the death of the music game genre is disingenuous; what people mean is, ‘Some games that are to do with music have not sold as well as expected,' and I think we can all come up with lots of reasons why that might be.
"But it's not that people have stopped caring about music, or that we've run out of ways in which people can interact with music. Still, I wouldn't describe Chime as a music game; it's primarily an action-puzzle game, like Tetris, Bust-a-Move or Pipemania or whatever, but with strong musical synchronicity."
For developer Zoe Mode, Chime could potentially launch a series - any potential sequel would not have to be part of the OneBigGame initiative, allowing the studio to recoup costs on this first title.
I ask Curran to define his hopes for the project after release. "I can't see the future. But if I could I'd hope the whole world was playing some next-next-generation sequel to Chime, that it was on all platforms including your brain, that it had saved the world back in 2010 and that the national anthem of space was some Chime composition that gets reworked every day.
"For now, though, it's XBLA only. 400 Points! I've spent more than that on five sets of virtual horse armor."
Chime is released on XBLA on 3rd February. 60 per cent of the 400 MSP (£3.40/€4.80) asking price will be donated to children's charities around the world.