inchworm animation

We would like to thank Bob Sabiston, the founder of Flat Black Films, for giving us the opportunity to interview him about Inchworm Animation and his general feelings about working with Nintendo.  Inchworm Animation for the DSiWare has received rave reviews from websites across the internet and we feel it is one of the few great creative apps available for DSiWare.

You can check out the official website for Inchworm Animation at: http://www.inchwormanimation.com/

The official website of Flat Black Films is at: http://flatblackfilms.com/Flat_Black_Films/Home.html

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For those who don’t know about Flat Black Films, can you briefly describe the company?

Flat Black Films started as an animation company — we make films using rotoscoping software that I developed in 1997.  Most people know us for the movies “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly”.  In recent years I have gotten into programming for handheld devices.  There is “Inchworm Animation” for Nintendo DSiWare, plus three iOS apps: “Voxel”, “Headspace”, and “Retroid”.

When creating Inchworm Animation, were you inspired by any other animation programs or applications?

Not really any current applications — there was a program for the Apple II when I was growing up, called “Graphics Magician”, that allowed you to create little looping sprite animations.  I played with that all the time.

Also, really what inspired it was the little fight animations used in the old GBA game “Fire Emblem: Sacred Stones”.  I loved the attention to detail and the use of frame timing in those things.  I wanted to make a program to make little animations like that.

Since Inchworm Animation is more of an app than a game, was it easy to pitch the idea to Nintendo?  Was Nintendo easy to work with throughout the development and evaluation process?

No, it was not easy.  Nintendo weren’t interested in publishing it themselves, back in 2006 when I started on this.  I also went to several publishers and they all had the same complaint, that it was not a game.

Disney Interactive became interested in publishing it for a while in 2008, but they wanted to change it a lot to make it more kid-friendly and Disney-themed.  So I said no to them.  By that point I had spent so much time on it — I just wasn’t willing to do all the remaining work only to see it become something less than what I wanted. I would have been more of an employee, not really in charge of the project.

I did not have an easy time with Nintendo with the development and evaluation process.  That is largely my fault, because I had never published commercial animation before, and they usually work with established publishers who have gone through the process many times.  I think they got frustrated with me, and I with them.

What made you decide that DSiWare was the perfect fit for Inchworm Animation?

The DS itself is what made me want to write the program — with its two screens and stylus, it just seems like the perfect handheld animation device.  Honestly, though, by 2008 I had given up on it when in 2009 Nintendo announced the DSiWare program.  It allowed for individual developers to release their own games without having a publisher.  So I knew I had to go for it.

Does it feel good knowing that Inchworm is inspiring people who have never animated to gain an interest in animation?

Sure, that feels great — I love to see all the crazy animations that kids put up on the site.  Although I said it wasn’t for kids, I tried to keep things simple enough that kids *can* use it.  There are also some more established animators out there who use it and occasionally upload stuff. That is also thrilling to see.

As far as sales go, has Inchworm Animation’s sales on DSiWare been a success for your company?

Yes, it has more than exceeded my expectations — I’m very happy with the sales.  The initial US sales were so good that I spent last summer getting the translations done for a European version, and just last week the Australian/New Zealand version was finally released.  I’d like to do a Japanese one, but you have to have Japanese offices for that!

What were the biggest challenges in creating Inchworm Animation?  Were there any limitations with the Nintendo DS hardware that you found?

Well, the device is extremely limited by today’s standards — I designed for the original DS, which had only 4MB of RAM!  I ran into a lot of challenges trying to get everything I wanted in there.  When I moved to the DSi, things got a little easier — plus it gave me the camera, which is a huge asset for animation.

Animation is composed of many image frames, and those take up a LOT of memory.  The most challenging thing was designing a graphics engine which compresses, uncompresses, and composites the artwork on the fly.  This means that if your animation is simple, you can have many many frames without using much memory.

How long did it take to develop Inchworm Animation?  How many people worked on the project?

I started it in early 2006, so it took about 5 years to get the first version out.  I was not working on it full time, though.  Like I mentioned, in 2008 I pretty much gave up for a year because I couldn’t find any publishers.  It was only me working on it. My friend Alan Watts developed the website.  Originally we supported Wi-Fi saving and loading to the site, but we were not permitted to include that.

On April 25th, 2012, you mentioned that Nintendo had rejected Flat Black Films as a 3DS developer.  This saddened many gamers including me because Inchworm Animation received rave reviews.  Since then, fans are wondering if you have you made any new attempts to contact Nintendo and resolve this?

I emailed them a couple of months ago, to see if they would change their mind.  They did not even write me back.  I don’t really know what I did to piss them off so much. I think they prefer to work with larger companies, not single developers.

I did have to submit Inchworm 14 times before it was finally approved — the only thing I can think is that I drove them crazy with my endless submissions.  However, it was not like Inchworm was super buggy.  I was just unaware of many restrictions and development guidelines.  Like, if the device is asleep and you open it and take a picture within half a second, the outer light would not have turned off yet.  Stuff like that.

Usually I would get a report back with only one or two of these issues listed.  I would fix them and resubmit, and then they would return it with a few other problems they hadn’t found the first time.  This made me angry, but it made them angry too, I found out later, because I never used a professional Q&A service to find all of those issues before sending it to Nintendo.

I just never knew that this was something they expected me to do.  Also, I am not sure it would have really helped — I used a QA service for the European version and Nintendo still reported a lot of similar issues. Those services are used to testing games, and this was something very different.  It’s an ambitious program and was probably going to be hard to push through, no matter what.

I still would like to make a 3DS version, but it is too much for one person to deal with the development and the other publishing stuff.  I would like to find a good third-party publisher to work with me on it.  Anybody know one?  Inchworm has proven that it can make money — it is probably one of the more successful DSiWare titles.  But lately I’ve been working on my iOS apps and have not tried finding a publisher for a 3DS version.

How do you feel about the Wii U?  We’ve seen some videos that show people drawing on the Wii U GamePad’s touchscreen and then seeing your art displayed on the television.  Do you see the Wii U GamePad being a great tool for creativity?

Absolutely, it seems perfect for creative applications.

Do you think Inchworm Animation or Voxel would be a great fit for the Wii U as an eShop downloadable title?  Would you consider trying to apply as a Wii U eShop developer?

I probably won’t be doing any developing for the Wii U, because they won’t approve me as a developer! 🙂

Are there any major barriers keeping indie developers from creating games for Nintendo? Do you have any advice for Nintendo on how to make it easier for indies to develop games/applications for their products?

Well, honestly I think Nintendo has their own way of doing things, and it works for them. I don’t think they really *want* indie developers on their platform.  They have said as much in the past.  They seem to prefer to work with established game companies.

If they made it easy, they would run into the “problem” that Apple has — everyone and their mother is making apps and submitting them.  This means that they have to review all those things and support software updates.  That would mean exponentially more work for them, especially since they’re much more concerned with quality control and keeping things kid-safe than Apple is.

It will be interesting to see how it shakes out.   Nintendo’s approach seems to make more money for their developers, because there are fewer of them.  But Apple is onto something new, and it is very exciting. They are *so* friendly to developers that it makes you want to work on their platform even though you make no money.  🙂

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