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Japan sales lift Minnesota video game developer

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From left: Big John Games CEO and head programmer Ken Patterson, producer Evan Patterson, and sound effects artist and marketing manager Tony Williams pose with a Nintendo 3DS running "Cube Creator 3D" and a Japanese guide book for the game.

Big John Games , of Edina, was about to call it quits in the business of video game development in the summer of 2015.

In its early days, Big John Games found huge success developing lucrative printing software for Disney's "The Lion King," before becoming one of the most successful and longstanding video game developers in Minnesota.

CEO and head programmer Ken Patterson has created everything from successful fishing games on the Nintendo Wii and Nintendo DS (interestingly enough, Patterson, a native Minnesotan, wasn't a fisherman growing up), to sci-fi vehicle-based shooters, and most recently, "Cube Creator 3D" for the Nintendo 3DS.

That last game, inspired heavily by the global phenomenon "Minecraft," is what saved Big John Games from an uncertain future, becoming the eighth best-selling downloadable game for the Nintendo 3DS in Japan. Ever.

The game has remained at No. 8 for six straight months. It has outsold the ever-popular "Super Mario Bros." and "Super Mario Bros. 3," digital re-releases of the classic Nintendo Entertainment System games that shot the Super Mario brothers, Mario and Luigi, to fame and Nintendo to fortune in the late '80s and early '90s.

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Slow sales start

But at first the studio's latest game put Patterson in a dire predicament.

When "Cube Creator" was released for the American market on April 23, 2015 (just before it landed in Japan on July 15), it didn't sell very well. This followed Patterson's previous game not selling very well, and a business deal falling through. The deal would have expanded Patterson's studio from two full-time staff members and five part-time workers to 18 full-time staffers.

"In June of last year we were very, very, very close to getting funded as a company, getting a big chunk of money to expand and becoming a real big company," Patterson said. "We could have put out four or five titles a year on multiple platforms.

"That fell through; the people just never fulfilled their promise," Patterson said. "And that was hard. That's when we had to shrink. We had hit the end of the money bucket. It was really dismal and grim."

Patterson was worried; he didn't know what to expect of his company's future if sales didn't pick up by the end of the summer.

Thankfully, "Cube Creator 3D" struck a chord with Japanese gamers, selling 10 times as many copies as it had in America.

"All of a sudden it was, not hallelujah money, or winning the lottery, but it was like, 'OK, a door has opened. We can at least move forward,'" Patterson said.

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Game of survival

Looking back, the success was simple. "Cube Creator," like "Minecraft," consists of survival and crafting gameplay, voxel-based environments, and a "sandbox" world players can roam around in endlessly.

Nothing like "Minecraft" then existed on the 3DS, which Patterson saw as a huge opportunity, what with nearly 58 million 3DS units sold worldwide.

So Patterson and his team chased the opportunity by putting their own spin on the genre.

"I played a ton of "Minecraft" before we even started "Cube," so I had a good idea of how the game needed to be played and how to make it focused on stuff Nintendo players are used to," said Evan Patterson, a producer of "Cube Creator."

Big John Games followed the genre's formula, only making some tweaks. One of the main changes was doing away with "blocky characters" from "Minecraft," and using fully realized 3D models. The developer also fine-tuned the game for handheld devices.

Sticking to only minor changes worked: "Cube Creator 3D" is the developer's best-selling game, if you combine its America and Japan sales.

Onward and upward

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The ramifications of the sales resulted in a number of wins for the Edina-based developer.

For starters, and perhaps most important, Big John Games can now fund its own projects, and is doing so with one of its next games, "Racer Creator." It's the first game the studio has self-funded, which has staffers excited from a creativity standpoint.

"It's allowed us the freedom to pick and choose what projects we want to go into next," Evan Patterson said. "It's about what's best for us moving forward, not 'we have to take something now to stay alive.'"

And in a combo of both business success and personal pride, Nintendo invited Big John Games and its Japan region publishing partner, Arc System Works, to a meeting to discuss upcoming projects and partnerships. Big John Games may even have early access to Nintendo's upcoming home console, the clandestine Nintendo NX, which would allow the company to create a "Cube Creator" type of game for that platform, as well.

"In the meantime, Arc and us decided we would make another 3DS game while we wait for NX access," Patterson said.

Patterson also is going in some different creative directions with projects he and Evan have chosen to work on. For all the ups and downs and hard work, the team is finally in a rewarding place, away from the doom and gloom of last summer.

"We're having fun," Patterson said of another upcoming project. "We're taking a very interesting, fun, aggressive approach to making a game."

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