Candy Box

An Interview with Michael Townsend, creator of “A Dark Room”.

After playing through ‘A Dark Room‘ twice a handful of days ago, I decided to contact the creator, Michael Townsend, and ask him a few questions about the development of the game and his personal background. His answers and our questions contain FAIRLY LARGE SPOILERS for A Dark Room, so if you care at all about that then please direct your mouse pointer to the above link.

Certain Age Gamer: First off, tell me a bit about yourself. Just a bit about who you are beyond what we already know.

         Michael Townsend: Mild-mannered software consultant by day, masked champion of minimalist web gaming by night! Really, though, I’m just your typical 29-year-old keyboard jockey. I work a 9-5 to pay the bills, and write/play games in my spare time. I hail from Ottawa, Canada (where it is currently pouring rain) and I’m probably a bit too obsessive about coffee.
CAG: How long did you work on creating A Dark Room?
             Michael Townsend: I started work on A Dark Room in early May, and finished it in early June. It ate up most of my free time during that period. I’m still working on it on and off, though, so it’s hard to say that it only took a month.
CAG: What kind of games have you been playing recently?
            Michael Townsend: Recently? Not much, to be honest. I tend to swing between playing games and writing games, and I’ve (obviously) been on the writing side recently. I have put some time into Gunpoint, though, and I always have time to run around in World of Warcraft. I actually got this email while deep into The Last Of Us…
CAG: You make it clear that Candy Box was an inspiration for this game, any others?
             Michael Townsend: The Settlers and the Anno games made up the framework for resource and production management. I’ve always loved “supply chain” games. I have no idea why. Rogue likes also influenced the design, both graphically and philosophically. When death has consequences, some really fun risk/reward decisions tend to emerge.
CAG: Did the storyline come first or the game mechanics?
            Michael Townsend: I’d say it was probably theme, then mechanics, then storyline.  I knew I wanted to use the general feel of idle games like Candy Box, but I wondered if I could use that framework to deliver narrative with a consistent theme. Bleak post-apocalyptic landscapes felt like an easy match to the minimalist interface, so I ran with that. The details of the narrative just sort of came out during development.
CAG: Will you be revisiting this world or are you interested in new, different experiences?
            Michael Townsend: I won’t say that I’m totally done with A Dark Room, but I wouldn’t expect any major additions at this point. I’ve been tweaking it pretty constantly over the last week, based on feedback I’ve read on forums and social media. My next project, if I ever get around to it, will likely not be related to ADR (Editor: A Dark Room). I have some other interesting ideas already, and it’d be a shame to ignore them.
CAG: How long have you been a gamer?
            Michael Townsend: As far back as I can remember, man. My first memory of gaming is when dad brought home an Apple II from work. Dark Castle and Winter Games. My parents flat-out refused to buy me a console, though, so gaming throughout my childhood was all done on the family 386. Good times.
CAG: Are you surprised by the attention “A Dark Room” has been getting?
            Michael Townsend: Yes and no. I mean, I was definitely hoping that it would catch the interest of the Internet. That said, I am constantly amazed checking my Google Analytics and seeing visitors from all over the world playing. It’s honestly a huge relief to see that I can make games that I like, and that other people will like them too.
CAG: Do the charms have only one function or are they used for more than one thing?
            Michael Townsend: Just the one. I actually added the charm at the very beginning of development with no use in mind at all. I just figured that I should have some sort of super-rare item come from the traps. It was only at the very end of development that I found a use for it. That’s not saying that I won’t add more uses later, though…
CAG: Is the assumption that the main character is an alien correct?
            Michael Townsend: Hey, I’m glad you caught that! That story point was significantly more subtle back in development, but none of my play testers figured it out. I actually went through three iterations on how to do that reveal, but I was still worried that it wasn’t obvious enough.

CAG: Have you worked on any other games?
            Michael Townsend: Oh, so many. This is probably the first one I’ve finished, though. I love to program, and the stuff I do for my day job just isn’t fulfilling on a personal level. Games are the result. Usually, I’m too ambitious in my scope, and lose interest when it takes too long for things to come together. ADR was my first attempt at trying to break that cycle.

Thank you for your time Michael! If you guys want any additional information, feel free to leave some questions in the comments section and we’ll see what we can do to get those questions answered.  No promises.


What We Can Learn From ‘Candy Box’: Part 2

This is the second part of a 2 part review of Candy Box. Part 1 can be found here.

The earliest Google hit for your game is a ‘Let’s Play’ video from April 24th and now a little over 2-weeks later it’s one of the most talked about indie games on the internet. If you can, talk a bit about the meteoric rise of Candy Box.

I released the game about three weeks ago, on Wednesday. At first, I just showed it to my close friends and family, but on Sunday I put it on a well-known french forum called “Koreus”? It was then moved by the webmaster from the forum to the homepage, and everything started from here : I didn’t talk about the game anywhere else after that, but it spread anyway

At first blush, Candy Box may not be a game that you’d think would illicit a lengthy review and interview with the developer. You go to the webpage and sit and watch. The first thing you notice is the Candy counter ticking up at a steady rate and a button that allows you to eat the candies. After accumulating and eating and dropping candies enough, eventually you get to the point where a Merchant materializes out of nowhere to offer you something in exchange for your candies. From there the game grows ever more complex and expansive. I won’t describe the actual game any further. If you haven’t played it then reading a detailed description of the game ruins some of the magic and removes some feeling of excitement at what’s coming next.

Exploration, I think, is key to what makes Candy Box so compelling.

The game has a beautiful content curve, giving the player just the right amount of content at just the right time to keep them playing for hours on end. This is reflected in the way the ASCII graphics slowly grow more complicated and expansive. Was the graphical journey the game takes intentional?

Yes, it’s absolutely intentional. In the first quest, it’s very linear, you just have a line of text. In the second quest, you have some relief, in the third you have moving bubbles, and in the fourth ennemies begin to move.. The aspect “nothing at first, and then it grows” can also be found in the graphical part.

There is a button you get as soon as you collect 10 candies that says ‘Throw 10 candies on the ground’. I ended up throwing hundreds of thousands of candies on the ground before I stopped playing because I wanted to see what would happen. You can also eat the candies, or you can buy things with the candies. None of these mechanics are ever explained to you. What happens if you eat the candies? Or toss them on the ground? You have to explore the game to get any clue. And trust me, there’s a lot to explore in this game. The way you’re given content and the rate at which it’s given to you seems perfectly in tune to keep you wanting to move forward. Other developers need to look at this content curve and then consider the games they make. Call of Duty, for example, gives you content in the form of Multiplayer rewards. These rewards are new guns and new skins for your guns, but they never significantly change the game. Mass Effect 3 has you following an ever increasingly complex story, delivering content in the form of character closure and plot twists, but there isn’t an effective reward system to keep these plot twists from eventually getting droll. Candy Box delivers content in three ways. You unlock new mechanics, you unlock new ‘story’, and you unlock new graphics. The three are balanced together. You never feel like the mechanics have outpaced the story or the graphics have become too complex to effectively present the new mechanics. All of this content is delivered to you via exploration that you as the player have to undertake.

There is never an arrow pointing to way to go.

Are you trying to make a statement with the game?

I don’t think I’m trying to make any statement : I just wanted to make a game which people would like to play to, if this worked, then that’s all what I want :)

Aniwey has professed that there really isn’t a direct influence for Candy Box. We as gamers can project whatever previous games we want onto it and say ‘This obviously was the influence” but it seems like the game was borne more out of a desire to make a fun, free game that anyone can play. Browser games are, by their nature, more open and accessible than a game developed for a specific computer platform in mind. Borderlands 2 (a game I plan on finishing some day) was released for Windows Computers in partnership with Steam. To play it, you need to install Steam first, then you can download the game through Steam’s servers and install it within Steam. Part of the agreement you make with the big faceless publishers you make when you buy a game these days is that it will come with DRM. Steam, as much as we love it, is a very restrictive and intrusive form of DRM. It just also happens to sell games for very cheap.

There are no truly free games on Steam.

You mention on the page detailing the upcoming sequel that it will be ‘Free Software’ with a link to the Free Software Foundation. You also say you care about ethical computing on, can you elaborate on this a bit? What, to you, is ethical computing?

I don’t want to code just for coding. I want to code in an ethical way. And I think ethical computing needs free software (free as in “freedom”). When a software is free, the user has the right to run the program, to study it, to redistribute it, to modify it, and to redistribute the modified versions. I want people to study my code if they wish, because I find a lot of interest in studying others’ code :)

You can’t get much more free (in the world of Video Games) than a browser based game hosted on a private website with no included ads. Hundreds of thousands of people have played and enjoyed Candy Box despite having zero marketing. In this new age of accessibility and reach, developers are constantly working on new ways of restricting and limiting access to their games.

What can we learn from Candy Box? I think we need to take a new approach to both content curves and distribution. Aniwey is not asking anyone to pay money to play Candy Box nor are there ads or scary warnings about piracy. It’s a free game. Do I want Bioware to make Mass Effect 4 a browser game? (Okay yes.) No of course not. What I want is for EA and their like to look at Candy Box and realize that good games can be made available without restriction and be successful not in spite of this laissez faire attitude, but because of it.

Free 2 Play shouldn’t be a curse word.

 Do you plan on opening up a way for people to donate to you in any way?

Yes, in the sequel there will be a “Donate” button. But of course the game itself will be totally free and you won’t have to pay anything to play ;)

Sometimes people don’t need Kickstarter or Steam or EA to make a good game. Just a brand new way to look at how to play the game itself.



One more thing:

Is the merchant Tom Baker (4th Doctor Who)?

Yup ! The ascii I found for the merchant is inspired by the 4th Doctor Who (wonderful TV series, by the way)


What We Can Learn From ‘Candy Box’: Part 1

Two weeks ago a deceptively simple browser based RPG named ‘Candy Box’ started showing up around our corners of the web along with people imploring others to “Play it! I’ll tell you no more!” Or, as Justin put it, “WHY CAN’T I HOLD ALL THESE LOLLIPOPS!?”.


Not Pictured: Lollipops

Increasingly it seems, games that require nothing more than an internet connected web browser are being talked about by “serious gaming enthusiasts”. Last year Frog Fractions had a meteoric rise that led to it being considered by some for Game of the Year and in 2012 the venerable browser based game Omerta (Originally released in 2003) got a full fledged PC Adaptation in the Kalypso published Omerta: City of Gangsters. There’s nothing new about the idea of a game you can play via browser, NeoPets has been kicking around the web since 1999 after all. What’s new about games like Frog Fractions and specifically Candy Box is that the nostalgic surrealism hasn’t gotten in the way of an actual good game.

 First things first, can you tell me a bit about yourself? What kind of background do you have in game creation, if any?

I’m a french student in first year of Computer science, and I’m 18. So I don’t have a lot of experience in game creation, I already made some games before, but this is the first one I release to the public! I study in the city of Caen, France.

In the past when a browser based game gained a bit of traction and recognition, it was always with caveats. Meat Boy (originally released in 2008) was a fun bit of distraction, but the Flash based game didn’t really change the way people looked at platformers. It did, however give it’s creator Ed McMillen a chance to develop a follow up for XBLA and PC. Super Meat Boy released to wide acclaim. It was a dramatic improvement on the original Flash game and took McMillen from a creator of obscure but well regarded browsers games to one of the new young superstars of the indie gaming scene.

A lot of things have changed since 2008.

Talking about background in games, what kind of games helped influence Candy Box, if any? Are you someone who plays a lot of Video Games?

A lot of people ask me about which games influences Candy Box : I really don’t know. After releasing my game, I heard about similar ones, like Frog Fractions, for example. I think mine is just classical RPG mechanics turned in an original way. I don’t really play a lot of video games. I used to play a lot, but now I just play some independant games from time to time, but everytime I do, I love it :)

 This generation of PC games has born witness to a slightly new era of independent work. Distribution and access to all 7 billion people in the world has become easier than ever and the actual process of creating a game has evolved from arduous and painstaking to something more akin to painting a picture. Beautiful and complex games can be created in a matter of days now. Because of this, indie’s have moved up right beside the more expensive and traditional types of games (“AAA”) in the usual discussions about quality. Mark of the Ninja (developed by indie company Klei) was mentioned alongside games like Mass Effect 3 and Minecraft has suddenly become the new World of Warcraft. In the center of all this excitement and change, Candy Box was released.

part 2 of this review can be found here