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The Independent Games Festival was established in 1998 as a forum for independent developers to exhibit their work, receive recognition, and meet with commercial publishers. Finalists to this event attend the GDC and compete for several awards and cash prizes. This year's Seumas McNally grand prize is $15,000 (up from $10,000 last year).
This weekend I got the chance to interview the people behind the IGF finalist Ace of Angels, A massively multiplayer online game focusing on space combat. You, the pilot, are part of an ongoing war with various alien races, and you and fellow players on your team fight other teams, coordinated through an online chat system. In the process of playing, you can upgrade your ship with new equipment and weapons.
GDNet: Who are you and what do you do?
Seenar: I'm Bryan Stephens, the Company President. I'm 32. FearlessAoA: I'm Linda Stephens (wife of Bryan) and the CFO/ Human Resources person. JollyRoger_AoA: I'm Curt Hartung, 29. My jobs are mostly umm... keeping the computers running, server-side stuff and hacker-beater as well. Ahmed_AoA: I'm Ahmed Siddique, 26.Curt and I head the software development side. I also do most things visual... graphics engine development, graphic content director... I try and maintain a consistent visual look for the game. Seenar: [Jamey] Wagnon, our resident "God of War" could not make it today. JollyRoger_AoA: Here in the office with us. Ahmed_AoA: Curt designed the original flight model that Ace of Angels is built upon, and leads the online development efforts - we all wear many hats in the company. JollyRoger_AoA: ya. Seenar: As a small team, we are each needed for more than one area. JollyRoger_AoA: When something needs to be done, whoever is closest generally does it.
Who originally started the company and where did the game idea come from?
Bryan: Flying Rock Enterprises was started by Linda, Jamey, and Curt and me. We added Ahmed shortly thereafter. Then we formed a Limited Liability Company, and we are all equal partners. All 5 of us have the same dream of a truly interactive story line. Ace of Angels is based upon an ongoing branching storyline, where the impact of player's actions effect the future story features. Ahmed: When I met the team first, Bryan and Jamey were conveying concepts for the game and the backstory. Pretty soon I was completing sentences for them, and I think we all knew at that point that we all had wanted to work on a game like this. Linda: The original idea grew out of our desire to make the game we wanted to play but never saw produced. We all enjoyed the same kinds of games, but all saw a lot of the same things missing; we wanted to create a game with those things there, like a real backstory, real physics, real consistency and lots of war-gaming aspects. Bryan: It has been a great deal of hard work to get the body of code to completion. I am amazed at the work Ahmed and Curt have been able to do. Linda: Most of us have a role-playing background and wanted to make sure that aspect (player's actions influence the story) was included.
How did you come up with the name Flying Rock Enterprises? Curt: Gosh I dunno... we tossed around a bunch of ideas… Ahmed: It was a conversation in Curt's kitchen one day. Bryan: The name is a reference to a sentient animal in Ace of Angels. Curt: Oh yeah that's right. Bryan: They look like giant asteroids. Humans call them The Gibraltar. But, we are a gaming company - the name has to be interesting. Linda: Yeah, I think that is a requirement. Ahmed: You wouldn't believe how difficult it was to come up with a workable logo for the company!
Why "Enterprises" and not "Entertainment"? Bryan: Why limit our future? Curt: I've never really considered it. "Enterprises" just seemed natural and professional to me. Ahmed: Bryan got it - that is exactly why. We have some ideas outside of gaming, but still using concepts from game development.
So about how long has the team been together as it originated and how long in its current form? Ahmed: I met the whole team in 98... Curt: More like 97. We've been at it for about 5 years now. Bryan: We added Tim Spanjer in 2000 for art. Ahmed: …I was in Huntsville, AL then, and knew Curt (Jolly Roger). We got to talking, and one day I drove to Atlanta to meet his friends. Bryan: Hard, full time coding has been since 1998. Linda: But some of the members have had longer associations with each other. Ahmed: Curt and I started to work on the early components while we were still in Huntsville, but soon decided to move to Atlanta and formalize the development efforts.
5 years huh? So for a lot of you this was just a pastime?
Curt: mm… more like a labor of love than a pastime. Ahmed: yes indeed. Bryan: A second job really. Ahmed: An outlet for creativity. Bryan: We have put all of our energy outside of work into this project Linda: A chance to make a dream come true, to be able to say we did this: started our own company doing what we want to be doing - not just a job.
Now, you guys sound localized. Is everyone within a certain area?
Curt: Yes, basically. Bryan: The company is located in Marietta, GA - a suburb of Atlanta. Jamey and I grew up there. Linda: Everyone resides in the Atlanta metro area. Curt: I've sort of been bouncing around, From Connecticut originally, then to Florida and Alabama... been in Atlanta last 4 years now. Bryan: Actually, Linda and I are 1/2 mile from the office. Ahmed is a bit closer to Downtown Ahmed: I've been around, including a 7-year stay in Pakistan. But Atlanta is home now.
When you guys were designing Ace of Angels, what goals were you setting for yourselves?
Curt: Massively multiplayer (before it was cool). Bryan: Real space combat, not airplanes in space. Curt: A logical storyline with believable reactions and nations and worlds. Ahmed: Gameplay to the max... make the best space combat sim ever no holds barred! Curt: And FAST... it had to be fast. Bryan: Storylines that happened once, not everyone taking the same path ala Tie Fighter. Linda: Fun to play at all levels. Curt: It also had to run on a 486DX/50 laptop. But that requirement has been advanced a smidgen. Ahmed: To set a new stage in space flight sim combat - give players what they have wanted most in terms of interaction with one another and the online world. Linda: Easy to get started but with lots of details if you want them. Ahmed: Playability at many levels including character development and character interactions… something new! Yet familiar.
And how well do you think you guys have done in achieving those goals? Bryan: We have done a great job so far. Our flight engine is the fastest sim I have ever played - it uses a real-space model. Linda: we had people sitting down and playing the game with 5 basic commands when we showcased at DragonCon. And the players figured out other commands without anyone telling them. So easy-to-learn commands was a goal we met. Ahmed: I'm trying to put it into words... it's normally difficult for me to say that I am satisfied completely with development... but I have to say that I am pleased with what we have produced. Linda: we also have the online community that we knew would be essential to our game universe. Ahmed: I enjoy the game, and I really like the feedback we are getting from our players Curt: Most of us are active in online genre games; we all bring something a little different to the mix - from chat channels to web forums to MUD's and FPS shoot-um-ups. Ahmed: In many ways I think Ace of Angels is a success, on personal levels and on professional levels. Curt: There is a very broad set of online experience within the group to draw upon, and a connection to most of the communities.
What problems did you face as a team? How did you overcome them?
Curt: Guns. 50 paces Bryan: As a small team of friends, I think we have avoided most of the issues of a bigger team. We are able to talk about issues and come to solutions rather than focusing on problems. Curt: My primary problem has been that we started out not really knowing what we were doing. Not in terms of programming but in terms of game construction experience. We went down some blind alleys Bryan: It has been a learning experience. Curt: We made some right decisions too, though; mostly it's been a success story. Both Ahmed and myself were professional programmers before we were game programmers, so we brought a much more controlled and regulated feel to the development then I've seen in some shops, and that has saved us some trouble. Linda: I agree a lot of our issues/problems were because we had never done something like this. Ahmed: Since we had limited resources in-house, we tried contracting artwork. This met with some success and also many difficulties. Often, it was difficult to have a suitable flow of information and feedback to the artists, and many times the work called for too many revisions. It was around then when we hired Tim (now our Lead Artist) who has done a fantastic job of learning the feel for the game. Bryan: Now that we have Tim it's not a problem anymore Ahmed: And now [Tim] is helping us train more artists to augment development.
You guys said earlier that the game's flight model was very realistic. Exactly how realistic and how does this factor into the gameplay? Bryan: The fighters facing and movement are not locked together. Once you stop thrusting, you can rotate without changing directions. Ahmed: We wanted to give maximum capability of real space combat without the difficulties of Newtonian movement in 3d space. Bryan: It's like asteroids in 3D. Curt: The concept of banking and turning are removed entirely, you have only direction and thrust. Initially this was problematic because you could not face where you wanted to go. We overcame that by allowing reverse thrust that was as powerful as forward thrust. Ahmed: The spaceships behave as they would in space, but have some intelligence in their controls to perform actions that the player really wants, like de-accelerating in your previous direction of motion in favor of where you are thrusting now (when you are thrusting). Curt: That's what made it work. Linda: As far as gameplay, the best way to illustrate it is a strafing run on a capital ship. You line up thrust and then fire and rotate as you go by to continue to hit it. The same sort of thing happens in fights between fighters. You have longer engagement windows than if you have thrust and facing locked together. Ahmed: You have very fine movement control and the ability to readily traverse the vast spaces between points of interest in space. There is also a mode of flight that allows a more traditional flight model... this is because such a flight model is a subset of a more real flight model employed by Ace of Angels.
How does the game's interactive story work?
Bryan: The interactive story has been the work of Jamey and myself. It covers a future history of the Known Sphere (the name of the Campaign Universe). As I said, squadrons will be formed by players who sign up. They will then be scheduled for missions (like being in a soccer or softball league). The outcome of these missions will determine what will happen next, not only to your squadron but other squadrons in the theater. If you do not damage to destroy the enemy battleship, it is coming back. Campaign Mangers will review all missions, deciding on experience and awards, as well as creating the next missions. All missions will have unique briefings for the players. Also, characters are more than just pilots; they will also belong to special organizations depending on their nation. The Zethi, for instance, have religious orders called Taqat. You Taqat will give you additional tasks on a mission, and additional contacts in your briefings. Characters will get experience points to increase their attributes and rank. You do not play missions over - they happen once. Every character's story will be unique. Curt: Though we have always planned to have recurring missions as some aspect of the game, just not the fully supported campaign version. Ahmed: I think this is where Bryan and Jamey had the most fun... I would listen to them talk about the universe, and it was amazing to hear the details they were addressing. Bryan: We basically have the Campaign skeleton, but the story will be written by the players interacting with each other. Ahmed: It was like two Gods talking about everything from the science of the world to the people inhabiting the universe they just created a few hours ago. Bryan: Even we do not know how the war will end. Ahmed: I think the goal there was to design such a detailed universe with such reason and logic behind its developments that it would govern itself. Curt: Ya Ahmed: when there is a question about something in the game it is never a conversation as to how do we make this fit, it's always a "because this" type answer.
What influenced the decision to choose Ace of Angels as the game title? Curt: Hmm… Bryan and Jamey, as part of their background construction, came up with the idea that the name of the game was actually a line out of a poem. The original line was "And once They Were Angels", but we massaged it a little and it became "a time when anyone could be an 'Ace of Angels'" to describe the pilots of the era.
I was about to say, it sounds like a WWII squadron of bombers or something Is that a hidden meaning or anything as well? Curt: No, but lots of our approaches and models are based on WWII fighter combat - how could it not be? Most of the politics are modeled on WWI though, Bryan? Bryan: We did not want to have any nation that was "evil." Each nation has its own sympathetic viewpoint and motivations.
When you guys started on this game, the IGF was nonexistent. When was the decision made to enter the competition? Ahmed: I was going to the GDC last year, and thought it would be great to have our game as an entry for the IGF competition. At the time we decided that it would be best to hold off a year so that we could bring the game closer to completion before really taking it into a public form, so we did and here we are now. Many of our friends had suggested the same when they learned of the IGF event last year.
In my interview with Shizmoo Games (Kung Fu Chess) they cited you guys as a game they think will win. Looking at this year's mix of interesting games, how do you view yourselves going into the competition? Curt: I think our chances are good - a few of the other games are interesting though - quite an offering. Bryan: I like our chances, but it is clear our fellow developers will give us a run for our money. Ahmed: Wow... thanks, [Shizmoo]. It means a lot to have peer developers notice you. Win or loose, it's going to be great to be there. Linda: I'd like to think we have a good chance, but what developer wouldn't?
The IGF is backed in part by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Are any of you members? Bryan: I joined as an individual. Ahmed: I am...recently joined. Curt: I sponge, reading all the literature, and will join soon. Ahmed: I want to look into getting younger people interested in developing gaming content at earlier ages.
So you want 13yr olds to get interested at like 6 or 7? Ahmed: LOL Curt: yeah, the entry age into game development is already pretty young... I wrote my first game (commie-kill) for the Apple II when I was 12. It was in assembly, compiled with Big Mac. I still have it…it sucks.
What's planned for the future of Flying Rock? Bryan: We are planning to continue development of computer games Linda: lol - we were just discussing that earlier today. Bryan: We like the MMPOG format and are working on the design doc for the next project. Ahmed: We look forward to creating interesting games that are at the frontier of creative content. Curt: We're leveraging our existing MMPOG technology against a forward going grass-roots company philosophy, to develop the next paradigm of gaming presence. Ahmed: We actually have 6 concepts, but I think we have decided on a winner today. I could feel the energy in where the ideas were going. It's a bit early to say in a public format exactly what the concepts are, of course.
Guys, it's been a pleasure. Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me and do the interview Bryan: No problem. Ahmed: Thank you Gaiiden. Same to you! Linda: No problem. Enjoyed it. Curt: A pleasure.