Joel McDonald, Madison resident for nine years, released his first indie game, Prune, to the Apple App Store in July. Since then it’s been picked by the store as an Editor’s Choice and featured as best new game.
The goal in the game is to grow your tree into the sunlight. As branches spread out into the light, flowers start to bloom. On each level the number of flowers you need to “win” is portrayed by the stars in the sky. A ghostly score accompanies subtle clues to nudge you on. The game is filled with beautiful abstract designs: a sun with a darkened halo, delicate tree branches, flower petals floating upwards to merge with stars fixed in the sky’s firmament. It’s gorgeous to look at.
Snipping away at the branches encourages flowers into bloom (the total extent of violence is trimming trees) and makes Prune as compulsive as any first-person shooter. Isthmus talked to McDonald about his big international win.
Did the idea come from being out in the garden pruning, as I imagine?
I’m actually a pretty terrible gardener/arborist in real life, although I’m trying to get better! Prune got its start by accident with a tweet from a friend about a simple tree generator.
I started tinkering with the code and thought there must be a game in there somewhere but I couldn’t quite figure out what that game would be. Then, a week or so later I happened to see a tree that had partially fallen, and that’s when it clicked.
I had quit my job as designer at Raven Software six months earlier and had been prototyping a bunch of ideas. I had a few promising leads, but I was looking for a nice, short project that could help me get my feet wet. When I landed on Prune I thought it’d be a perfect project for me to complete in a month or two and release on the App Store to test out the waters. Of course, I was a little bit off in my prediction of how long the game would take.
Who did the relaxing and quasi-ambient soundtrack?
Kyle Preston did the excellent score. He’s a composer based in Seattle that I was lucky to meet online. His musical style pretty much perfectly matched the mood and tone I was going for in Prune.
How does Madison suit you as a place to create games?
Madison is great because it has both young talent coming from the university and veterans of the game industry coming from the larger studios like Raven. There’s a small but growing indie scene here in Madison that is really exciting to be a part of. Plus, it’s really nice that with Madison’s size and bike friendliness I can just hop on my bicycle and get to pretty much any coffee shop in the city within a half hour.
The downside of having a hit app is that suddenly you’ve got to spend all this time dealing with the bugs that inevitably arise, doing updates, and answering queries, of course.
I was definitely swamped by the amount of incoming emails and support requests that came in, especially in the first week. I guess it didn’t surprise me too much since I was anticipating that I’d need to spend 100% of my time supporting the game for a couple weeks. It’s not something I would necessarily want to do all the time, but so far I’m enjoying going through the process of learning how to do new things like localization, customer support, etc.
For the foreseeable future I’ll be working on Prune updates and porting it over to the other mobile platforms. I can’t wait to get back to prototyping, though.