Behind the Game: Blek

A conversation with Denis Mikan from Kunabi Brother about their first game Blek, how they started with no experience and ended up being written about in the New York Times, and why you sometimes need to take a step back and change your approach.

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This interview is part of a series of conversations in which I talk to small game development studios and independent developers to shed some light on the difficult decisions, surprising challenges, and funny stories great games are made of.

Denis and Davor Mikan, two brothers who live in Vienna, Austria, published their first game in December 2013. It won international recognition for innovation and design, and was enjoyed by millions of players. Blek is “an open-ended experience with deep, bauhaus-informed design; it offers a space where logics and creativity as well as personal style and temper get to play with each other.”

Each Blek level looks like a piece of modern art
Each Blek level looks like a piece of modern art

Two Brothers

Who worked on Blek and what exactly did you do?

The game was developed by my brother Davor. I was what you would call a business guy. Everything we do, we do together and discuss everything. It was a small team, only the two of us, so naturally we talked about everything. We talked a lot.

Denis Mikan in his office in Vienna
Denis Mikan in his office in Vienna

When did you start working on Blek and how did you decide that you want to work together on a game?

Although we are brothers, we didn’t actually do anything together. We never worked on a project or anything. We were talking about games and we were fascinated by the new possibilities that touch screen devices offered. We were playing games on an iPad, and we started talking about what’s good in a game or what can be done better. We noticed that we can talk about those things a lot. Then at some point we said “Why not do it? Why not do something ourselves?”

After years of working with others and for others, it was appealing for us to work together and to do something ourselves. Our own thing. What we really want. That’s how it started.

Where does the company name ‘kunabi brother’ come from?

We are brothers and we didn’t want to call the company ‘brothers something’, so we made it sound like it’s only one brother, imagining that he has a brother. ‘Kunabi’ doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a word that has roots in an abbreviation, but I wouldn’t talk about that publicly. That’s not the right place. Maybe in a bar, when it’s late in the evening, then maybe. [laughs] It’s not that interesting.

“You see people everywhere using touch screens — iPhones and iPads — all the time, for all different kinds of tasks. They are already playing in a way.”

Players who are… everybody. We were not sure back then, it was our first game. It was maybe a dangerous thing to not have a clear target group. You learn in some courses that you need to have a clear target group, but we were thinking that you see people everywhere using touch screens — iPhones and iPads — all the time, for all different kinds of tasks. They are already playing in a way. Why not make a game for everybody? The iPhone is for everybody. It’s not for a target group. That was our thinking. And it worked well.

Describing Blek is Hard

What’s your one sentence description of Blek?

It is really hard. We tried that before launching the game and it was just different sentences, different thoughts. They were all nice or interesting, but they never really described what the game is about. I will not manage to come up with a better sentence now.

On our website we put “watching it move is like watching magic.” It tells you that it’s something that’s alive, that moves, and it’s kind of magic. But it doesn’t tell you what the game is about. Mike Fahey [a journalist] from Kotaku wroteBlek is the soul of touch screen gaming, a perfect representation of what this sort of play is all about.” Obviously, it’s nice to read that, it’s very well put. It was quite a thing to see that somebody understood that it’s about touch screen gaming.

It’s a puzzle game. You draw a line. And this line starts repeating itself, and immediately starts moving. If you draw a line from point A to B, it will start repeating. It will draw itself. It will be the same gesture, it’s gesture repetition. In repeating itself it will move, and that’s the magic that we talked about.

And by drawing this line I have to hit specific targets and avoid other things in the game.

That’s the actual puzzle. You have to hit targets, circles, and avoid black circles that will choke the line in it, they are like holes. If you hit a black circle the line disappears in a hole. You have to clear all colorful circles. It starts with an easy task to hit only one circle. In later stages other mechanics are introduced and the game becomes challenging pretty fast.

Once you’ve seen it, it’s very easy to understand what you have to do. And the core mechanics throughout the game don’t really change much, right?

Yes, that was the decision from the beginning. We quickly decided we will focus on the mechanics. We will not add things that don’t support the basic mechanics — that drawing. The focus was completely on that unique mechanic.

How did you come up with the name ‘Blek’?

My brother and I are originally from Bosnia. Our mother tongue is Bosnian, or Serbo-Croatian. ‘Blek’ is how you write ‘black’ in our mother tongue. The line was like black ink. Those circles the line disappears in is the ink coming back to the origin. We were stuck with the name because the game is so simple, and on the other hand it’s hard to describe. You need to see it in action, you need to see the video. So we were stuck with the name and at some point I was thinking ‘Blek’ is how you write it.

What I didn’t realize back then is that ‘blek’ in American English means something that doesn’t feel nice. Today, after more than three years, I’m not sure if it was a mistake or not.

The rules are simple: collect all colored circles, avoid the black ones
The rules are simple: collect all colored circles, avoid the black ones

Progressing in the Game

How do you capture the player’s interest over time? There must be some kind of progression. How do you make levels more difficult?

That was one of the main challenges in the development process. It took quite a while to develop those puzzles. If you want to keep players interested you have to build more and more challenges. Players need to change their approach several times during the game. In the first few puzzles it’s only drawing a straight line or a slightly curved line. After a few levels they would think “I know now what this is about.” That’s how we work. If we find the solution to something, we will try to apply it also to another challenge. In developing those puzzles we tried to ask the player to change the approach from time to time.

It’s not making a harder puzzle by only increasing the number of circles: one circle, two, and then you came up with a level with fifty circles. Obviously, you could do that, but that’s not innovative or interesting. It would be hard to hit fifty circles, but it wouldn’t be fun. My brother, who was designing those puzzles, tried to come up with puzzles that keep players interested and to keep them changing the approach.

How did you, or your brother, come up with those different approaches, those different ways of introducing new challenges into the game?

It was a lot of thinking about and watching different patterns and forms around him. At one point he was in the mountains and saw a Blek level in those mountains. He thought it would be nice if the solution to a level would be to draw a small and a big mountain. It was not a technical approach, how to make something difficult. It was imagining different forms and simplifying them to support the mechanics. It would not only be the solution, but the gesture that you draw would feel good.

Later levels introduce new elements and require you to change your approach
Later levels introduce new elements and require you to change your approach

Touch Screens and Gesture Repetition

“In that moment I was struck by it and said “That’s it! That’s what we are going to do.”

My brother came up with the idea in the middle of the night. Before going into games he was, and still is, a musician. In music you have gesture repetition, which is a thing you are aware of and you use in music.

Do you know what this means for music?

For music I don’t really know because I’m not a musician. He tried to explain it to me back then, but music is something I enjoy, but don’t really understand.

There is an American artist Golan Levin. He made Yellowtail. It was ported to touch screens, but it was not made for touch screens originally. It was shown in one exhibition in Austria in the 90s. I’m not sure about that, but a long time ago. I think my brother saw something that was gesture repetition and suddenly, in the middle of night, there was the idea of drawing and repeating things on a touch screen. He woke up and made a first prototype. It took him only a few hours. It was a pretty basic prototype, just showing the basic mechanic. He showed it to me the next day and in that moment I was struck by it and said “That’s it! That’s what we are going to do.”

How different was that idea back then from what Blek is today?

You can argue that it’s different because it was only an abstract idea, a very small, basic prototype. If you take the game now with the visual style, the puzzles, everything that makes that game, you could argue it’s completely different. But it didn’t change a lot. The mechanics stayed the same. We tried to preserve that feeling from that first prototype. You could also argue that the game didn’t change at all.

But you spent some time working on it. For how long did you work on Blek before it was ready for release?

From the first idea, from that first night and the day after to release it took almost a year. Most of this time went into designing the puzzles. It’s a process, you cannot do it fast. Not only the player needs to change the approach. If you want the player to be interested and challenged, you as a designer also need to change the approach from time to time. That process takes time. Just look at the game from a different perspective from time to time and think about new kinds of puzzles. The puzzles part took six months.

What Game Developers Do

“Your game would soon become something completely different, something you didn’t want to make.”

We are not like a typical company that has fixed procedures. First we need the job to be interesting, we need to like it. We also like to keep it challenging. We don’t decide six months in advance what we do. We tried to keep it open for new ideas, for new challenges. If something comes up we can decide to just change it and do something different.

Usually you have an idea, you need to build a prototype that will show you if it makes sense and if it works. You have to make that prototype. Luckily for us a prototype for Blek was pretty straightforward. For other games that we are making now it took longer because for Blek it was only one game mechanic, but for other games you might like more complicated mechanics working with each other. You need to put them in a prototype and that can take anything from one day to months to make.

For Blek we made a prototype, then we started playing with it, and discussing what the game would be like, what we want to make out of that prototype. And then you would go back to your prototype and implement a few new ideas and see if they fit like you think they will or change them. That’s the process for Blek and took one or two months.

After that, when you feel like you are ready, you go into production. Production is a process, it’s iteration, designing puzzles, thinking about the visual representation of the game. After you make a few puzzles, you start testing, showing it to people to verify that it’s not only you who is seeing things that way, that others also can understand it and that they like it. And then you see other people playing with it, looking at it, talking to you about it, so you know what changes need to be applied or what you need to do differently.

You constantly make a lot of things that don’t support the basic idea of your game. You need to be ready to let go, to make things that will never be a part of the game. They are important for the process of making the game. They show you what the game is or is not about and you cannot keep holding onto them. Your game would soon become something completely different, something you didn’t want to make.

Blek is developed with the popular game engine Unity
Blek is developed with the popular game engine Unity

Can you describe an example of one of those things that didn’t make it into the game?

One example was drawing a triangle or other geometric shape that would turn into a reflector. Your next line would bounce off of your triangle. It looks interesting, it sounds interesting, but it didn’t really support the idea to focus on the mechanics of drawing. If you start letting those things in you would soon end up with different kinds of shapes and functions and they would be interesting, but not support the basic game idea.

How do you find out that this should not be part of the final game? It that because other people tell you or is it because you realize it in some way?

It’s a mixture. You need to be open. It’s a creative process. Sometimes you test with family, with friends, with somebody you don’t know at a party maybe. Feedback would come from somebody, and he or she is not even aware that their feedback is valuable. You go back and start thinking about that feedback and realize something new. Keep that creative process going, question things, look at them not only from your perspective, a developer or designer perspective, but from somebody who will play the game. Try to see it through their eyes.

Surprising Feedback from Players

Do you remember a situation where somebody gave you feedback and told you something you did not expect?

We discovered pretty soon that people stick to their approaches. After they draw their first line they would stick to it in the next level. And if it wouldn’t work they get frustrated, but they wouldn’t let go. So we tried to change that.

Some people like to draw fast. That’s maybe people who already played other games. It was new for them that this game is not about speed. It’s actually about relaxing, taking a step back, looking at it, and then trying something new. We tried to support that in early puzzles. We don’t have a tutorial in our game, but the first fifteen levels are actually the tutorial. You start with the game, you play the game, and you don’t know but you are playing a tutorial, you are learning things.

Another surprise was that players often were absorbed by the game and not very expressive or talkative. They would feel distracted by us watching them play. They would take the iPad into another room, find a quiet corner, with no distraction, in order to focus on the game. That was interesting and satisfactory because we thought they are really experiencing something.

Do you know why? Were they worried because this is a game about figuring out the solution to the puzzle and you are going through a learning process? Sometimes, if you are attempting to learn something, you have to fail a number of times before you understand how it works. For some people this might be uncomfortable, especially if other people are watching them. Is that the reason why they left the room?

I think for some people, but not for all. You could clearly tell if somebody doesn’t like being watched because they feel being judged. People would be nervous or laugh because people tend to laugh if something is uncomfortable. People are nervous about being judged, if they are clever enough. Other people would get absorbed by the game, get really quiet, and they would discover they cannot focus. They would just go away to find the peace to focus on the game.

The White Background

Was there a time where you thought ”This is never going to work and we have to come up with something completely different”?

The whole process of making a game is challenging. It was clear from the beginning that the game will look simple, that it will be minimalistic. Minimal subjective design is more difficult because mistakes are more obvious in such an approach. In other words, you have nowhere to hide. That was one of the biggest challenges, to make that minimal design really unique, support the game visually, stay simple, and communicate clearly. On the other hand good design is difficult regardless of the approach.

“One month for a white background! It’s a white background. Just put a white background in and that’s it.”

That decision to go with simplistic visuals was made due to two reasons: one reason was not to distract from the core of the game, which is drawing and looping. The other one was that we made the game for iPad and iPhone. We would have made a different game if we made it for another device, but we were making the game for iOS devices. They are visually impressive on their own. Instead of creating something complex we wanted to use the visual impact of the Retina screens. And this seems to work best with perfect solid circles. Blek is not beautiful on an average screen. That’s an effect. We decided not to fight with the device to make something different. The visual impact comes from showing how good the hardware is.

I remember my brother was doing that background. Anybody who played the game would say that the background is white. But actually, that background is not white. It’s white-ish. It took my brother one month to find the right background. It was a discussion that would come up over and over again: ”this is what I made, but it doesn’t work”, because of whatever reason. And he would make another white background. One month for a white background! It’s a white background. Just put a white background in and that’s it. That decision to support the way the devices look, how the colors are, was simple but challenging.

What looks like a simple white background took a month to get right
What looks like a simple white background took a month to get right

Tips for Players

Are there any tips you have for someone who has never played Blek? How do they get the most out of playing it?

We talked a bit about it: for us it’s to be open in making the game. For players it’s to be open to accept something new and to relax. The puzzles in the first 35 levels, through half of the game, are not very hard. They are hard if you don’t relax, if you try too hard, if you overthink it. But if you relax and look how a simple form is what you need to draw, then you progress faster and have more fun with the game.

“It can happen in the background. You don’t even notice it but it happens. Because you let go.”

That’s also why people come back to Blek. I recommend coming back after a night or another day. People like to solve challenges, but you get stuck, it wouldn’t work, and you get frustrated and stop playing. But your mind keeps working and at some point you come back to the game and immediately see the solution. This experience is a crucial part of Blek: letting go of old patterns. It can happen in the background. You don’t even notice it but it happens. Because you let go.

If you run into it, if you want to push it hard and solve all the levels, then Blek closes the door. It tells you “no, stay out for a bit and then come back.”

People who don’t play games that often are maybe more curious. “What is this about? What is this? Is this a game or not?” I remember somebody on Twitter writing about Blek: “I played a game today!” He was surprised that he played a game. Maybe that’s why it worked.

It would also work for a gamer. They would run into it too fast, it would work for the first ten, fifteen levels, and then they hit the wall. That’s the point where they would recognize “I need to take a step back and think about it.” They would finish those first levels faster, but hitting the wall would be harder. People who don’t play games that often, it would take them more time, but less frustration.

This is exactly what I experienced, when I played Blek for the first time. It’s exactly like you described. I’m fascinated that a game can make you have that experience.

Thank you very much. We agree on that. [laughs]

Are there reasons for me to come back to Blek after a while, even if I finished it?

In the process of making the game we finished the game many times. We cannot judge this, we don’t really know.

A strong argument for coming back I heard from other people is that some people would find different solutions. I heard that people play in the first few levels because there is not a lot of distraction from the puzzle there. They would just play with the mechanics. And that is what I talked about: you cannot have that immediately if you start playing it, but after some time you are completely relaxed. It’s not a challenge anymore. You’ve solved it, you already played through the game. But finding new solutions is one of the qualities of Blek.

If the core mechanics feel so good that people come back into the game and play the easy levels, because they just want to draw and see the line go in different ways, I think this is a strong indicator that the core mechanics are really well designed.

Yeah, thank you. My opinion also. [laughs]

Are there any other tips that you have for more advanced players that are maybe stuck in one of the later levels?

I don’t know if I should talk about it, there is this hidden thing in the game, it’s like an Easter egg. If you draw a circle it would transform into a portal. And you can draw another circle and it would also transform into a portal. If the line goes into one portal it will come out of the second one. That hidden mechanic is not required for solving levels, but it can help to see levels from a different angle. I know a few people who more easily solve some levels with portals.

After three years now millions of people have installed Blek and maybe they play it through the end, or maybe they quit after level 30. Level 27 was a killer for a lot of people. We offer a possibility to unlock a level you are stuck in, because we found out that in some cases it would help even if the next level is, technically speaking, harder than the level you are stuck in. If you can progress to the next level some people solve that level even if it’s harder than the previous one they were stuck in. We offer three unlocks to players to give them a new start. A lot of people take that challenge and let go, come back, solve the level, but we have to accept that there is another group of people who just get frustrated and feel the game is too hard.

We have eighty levels now and we will not make any more new levels. We offer that option to unlock a level that they are stuck in and play some other levels. Let’s see how that works out. Maybe that will show us that we shouldn’t make a “high walls” design, even if it’s good.

Running a Business

You won an Apple Design Award, Blek has been written about in the New York Times and other big publications, and pretty much all the important game review sites covered it with good reviews — from a business perspective this must have worked out well for you?

It worked really well. We never counted on that much success. Interestingly, it worked best on iOS. It was a confirmation for us because the game was made for those devices. With our friends at Broken Rules in Vienna we made Blek for Wii U. It has Wii U controls, you have a touch screen and a pen you can draw with, but it didn’t work well on that platform. You cannot see it immediately but it’s there: the game feels and plays best on iOS devices. The game was pretty successful on iOS, it got a few millions of downloads. That was surprising to us that it worked that well.

We took a break and talked about things and now we are in the middle of making a new game. This new game will take longer than Blek. We hope that it will be something like Blek. A completely new, unique experience, made for the devices, although I cannot tell for what devices. Let’s keep it secret.

Blek was your first game. When you were working on the game, was this your full-time job? How did you pay the bills while you were creating Blek?

We invested our own money. My brother was working full-time, I had another job that earned money. It was a developer job, but had nothing to do with games. Luckily, we succeeded in making a game in a year or a bit less.

Maybe we were naive about that. We wanted to make something together, so we just went into it. We would probably not be having this conversation now, if the development back then took more time than we planned. We would’ve been forced to change the strategy, take other jobs or whatever. But luckily we made it, we finished the game, the reviews came in, and people were buying and playing the game, so it got us back on track.

“[T]he game looks simple. We know it’s not. It’s a process, we invested a lot of time, but there are some people who only see this simplicity […].”

It was the first game we made. We had no experience, no network. We were completely new to this. We didn’t know anybody. Obviously, we were worried. We decided not to read books or papers about game development because we would be even more afraid or confused. We decided to go with a common sense approach, to try and see what works and what doesn’t. It worked, but you don’t really know what you are doing.

My brother said “I will not pretend that I know anything. If there is a button somewhere, just push it.” Just push it and see what the button does, what its function is. We tried to apply that to our local community, to meet them, to talk to them, to get advice, to go out to show the game. We were not afraid that nobody would play the game, that nobody would like the game, or even that nobody would buy the game. We were more afraid that somebody, because sadly that’s the world out there, will copy and clone the game before we release it. That’s why we tried to keep quiet about the game. It’s appealing to some because the game looks simple. We know it’s not. It’s a process, we invested a lot of time, but there are some people who only see this simplicity or this approach and they would clone it. I know other games where that happened.

We were afraid of that, but we submitted the game for a competition in Austria. Surprisingly, we won. That was the first outside confirmation. Judges there thought that the game is great and we won “Best Game in Austria” for that year. That pushed us to release the game even faster than we were originally planning. They had a press release and it said that there is this award and the winner is Blek. They announced it with our trailer, so we were thinking “now we have to go out”.

We tried to apply all our knowledge from other work, to go out there, to show it to the press, to submit it for prizes. And that worked well. We were awarded, Blek was awarded, we got a few prizes for it. That helped. The press started writing about it. It happened pretty fast.

We were worried, but it was not that we were worried and frozen and couldn’t do anything. We used it. You need to look at the problem. Why are you worried? Where is the problem? You are worried about what? For instance that a journalist would not write about your game. Then you take a step back and see why not. One explanation is that they don’t know that the game is out. You need to approach and see what you need to do to let them know that there is a great game out there. Even if you are worried or scared or whatever. You need to be worried. If you are totally relaxed it’s not good or helpful. You need to be worried, but not too much. You need to think about the things you are worried about to find a solution to a problem.

What did you do to let the press know about the game?

I was reading articles from journalists. I would pick journalists who I think were more likely to write about the game, because they write about innovative, unique, indie games, not only big titles. I picked those journalists and approached every single one personally. I would write emails, explain why I am writing to them and why I think they might care about our game.

Before the Blek idea came up, I would talk to my brother about all the different aspects of making a game together. We were thinking we are only two brothers, only two people, and we decided to keep it like that to make it personal. We discussed how we should approach PR work. My brother told me “is this enough to see your game in the New York Times?” It was just an example, it was a joke back then. And a month after the release of Blek there was that New York Times article. It was pretty funny.

The Future

I’m not sure how much you want to talk about this, but what is it that you are working on right now?

The only thing I say: it is something that you haven’t seen in any other game. It’s again something that we hope will connect with a wide audience. Those are the similarities to Blek. It’s again more like a unique experience. A game that’s interesting to a wide audience and not just to a specific target group.

Are there other people involved this time?

There are other people involved because it’s technically much more challenging than Blek. There is a full-time programmer who works on it. There is also a junior programmer who works on it now. There is a consultant on the technical side. It’s technically really challenging.

And on the other hand we decided to help other small developers, who are like we were before we made Blek. Who make interesting games, need help in wrapping up the project, and to bring the game to a wide audience. In other words, we will became a publisher, but still stayed small. The first game we published is Euclidean Lands.

If you want to support Denis and the Kunabi Brother team please buy Blek on the App Store. And don’t forget to tell your friends about it!

Thank you for reading!

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