Grapefrukt Takes Us Inside His Minimalist Artsy Video Games

Grapefrukt, aka Martin Jonasson, muses on the advantages of being a one-man team and building his own indie-game universe.

It’s the middle of August, and you’re alone at the office. While your boss and co-workers are out soaking in some rays on the beach, why not let a little procrastination get you through the empty afternoon hours ahead? Surely a session of Minecraft or Super Meat Boy never hurt anyone. 

What's that? You've played these two classic indie titles to death and are in desperate need of something new to occupy your time? Then you might enjoy the minimal graphics and addictive gameplay of Rymdkapsel, a game that treads the line somewhere between Tetris and a real-time war game. Made available earlier this month on iOS and Android platforms, this little number from Malmö, Sweden based Grapefrukt games is our latest source of time wasting pleasure.

We spoke with chief Grapefrukt, founder Martin Jonasson, to learn more about what makes the small studio tick.

The Creators Project: Hi, Martin. As a gamer, what’s it like to play your own games?

Martin Jonasson: I do play my own games, but not in the way anyone else would play them. You get quite a different relationship to something that you have to buckle down and deal with each and every day for a year. Even if it's actually enjoyable it becomes a chore eventually. It's also very hard not to only see the flaws and the things you need to fix. This comes into play even more when testing the game on new players. I try to stand peeking over their shoulder but not interfering with them at all, and it's very hard to not just call out every little mistake you can see you've made. 

Rymdkapsel is also very much a game I made for myself. I get to choose to make any game I want, so naturally I'm going to pick one that makes me excited. I don't care too much for analyzing my target market, I'd rather make cool stuff I enjoy and hope it resonates with someone else.

Can you tell us a bit about Grapefrukt games—what it is, and how you got started ?

Grapefrukt games is a one-man-band, consisting of me. I got started making games as a kid and never really strayed too far from that course. I've always been making little games on the side of my studies and jobs, and about three years ago I quit my job and went indie.

"Indie games" to me is a strange label. It's useful to group together games made independently from publishers by small teams. But you'd be hard pressed to call it a genre. Labels aside, being a one man team for sure makes an impression on the game.

Working alone gives you total control over the game, but it must also affect a game’s development process. What sort of effect did being a one-man team have on Rymdkapsel for example ?

I guess the biggest thing is that I know and understand every little corner of the thing I'm making. This is both an advantage and a drawback. It lets me noodle around with creating procedural graphics instead of explaining my vision to a programmer or to an artist. The drawback is that I rarely need to explain myself and it can be hard to tell if an idea is great while it's still in your head. 

For me it also entails a constant battle against "coderfun". Since I enjoy programming quite a bit, I often mistake a fun-to-program feature for something that needs to be in the game. 

It also puts a very concrete limitation on output--there's only so much of me to go around. Oftentimes this means cutting features and being clever about art assets just to keep myself from catching on fire. 

I guess it turns into a kind of forced minimalism. I tend to be easily distracted so I aim to keep my projects as short as I can make them, yet all my games the past years still manage to take a good year to get done, if they ever get that far. 

Those limitations must also have an effect on the visual element of your games. Can you tell us about your approach to video game design? Do you have specific inspirations?

For Rymdkapsel, for example, inspiration comes from a wide range of sources. Perhaps the most obvious is 2001: A Space Odyssey, the monoliths were a given to borrow from there. I have also had a long time fascination with infographics, the art of communicating large amounts of information in a compact visual fashion is very much applicable to games.

The game design draws from the early real-time strategy games. In my case, it was probably the original Command & Conquer that made the biggest impact on my then young self. I've tried to tap into the joy of building a base that works in the most efficient manner while trying to stay away from the war themes that are so prevalent in the genre.

What are some of your commonly-used tools?

I've always been a programmer at heart, so nearly all of my work starts with me sitting down and typing out some code. In the past, I've mostly worked with Flash. I started using it back when it was Macromedia owned, so I've been around that whole evolution. But, recently Flash hasn't really been keeping up, so I've moved over to greener pastures. Nowadays I code in a language called haxe, which is very similar to ActionScript but is evolving at a far faster rate than its stagnant predecessor. Other than that, it's fairly standard fare: Photoshop and Illustrator, plus a motley collection of command line tools to pack texture sheets, optimize png's and otherwise automate my daily tasks. I really enjoy automation, which isn't that much of a surprise if you look at Rymdkapsel.

Now that we know a little more about your graphic universe, how about telling us about your gameplay, too? How do you come up with something that’s going to keep the player’s attention?

Almost all games I've made have started out with a tiny little prototype, I never make design documents or think too much about the game beforehand. I just sit down and bang out some code over a few days and try to see what works and what doesn't.

It's actually not a very reliable process. Many games don't survive more than a few days, and even worse, a handful survive far longer when they should have been abandoned. Either way, it's a method I enjoy and it lets me "find" interesting types of gameplay almost by accident.

What projects do you have coming up on the horizon?

I haven't started working on anything new yet, but I do have a few ideas rattling around in my head. I have no idea if they're good or not, but that remains to be seen. Luckily Rymdkapsel has done well enough that I can afford to stretch my legs a little before jumping into the next thing...