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IGF 2010: Lazy 8 Studios

By Drew Sikora, Oli Wilkinson | Published May 27 2010 02:04 PM in Interviews

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About the Independent Games Festival

The IGF Awards take place on the evening of the third day of Game Developers Conference, and are a major celebration of the best in indie gaming, with thousands watching the award presentation before the Game Developer's Choice Awards are presented. The 2009 IGF Awards, including custom interstitials from Mega64, are available for online viewing. All GDC visitors can attend the awards. [From IGF about page]


About Cogs

Cogs is a 3D puzzle game where players build machines from sliding tiles. Players can choose from 50 levels and 3 gameplay modes. New puzzles are unlocked by building contraptions quickly and efficiently. Inventor Mode: Starting with simple puzzles, players are introduced to the widgets that are used to build machines — gears, pipes, balloons, chimes, hammers, wheels, props, and more.

Time Challenge Mode: If you finish a puzzle in Inventor Mode, it will be unlocked here. This time, it will take fewer moves to reach a solution, but you only have 30 seconds to find it.

Move Challenge Mode: Take your time and plan ahead. Every click counts when you only get ten moves to find a solution. [From IGF info page]


Interview with Rob Jagnow

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Who are you and how are you involved with Cogs?

I'm Rob Jagnow, Founder and CEO of Lazy 8 Studios and the sole programmer and puzzle designer for Cogs.


How did you become interested in game development?

To be honest, I sort of thought I'd end up in the movie industry. I spent a couple summers interning for Pixar and loved it. But when I finished my Ph.D., I found myself looking for a job in Boston so that I could be with my boyfriend while he finished his graduate work. The job hunt let me to Demiurge Studios, an indie game startup, and I loved the work. When it came time to move to San Francisco, I decided to try something of my own.


How and when did the concept for Cogs originate?

During a marathon procrastination session in grad school, while trying to beat my minesweeper score for the hundredth time, I started to realize how much time I'd wasted on such a basic game. If I invested that time into creating a game instead, I figured I could turn out something really fun. I started to think about what sort of game would be fun for me -- something with gears and pipes and machines -- and it eventually turned into Cogs.


Over the course of development, what was Cogs’ most serious issue and how was it resolved?

It only took a few weeks of development to build a basic game engine that I could use to test puzzle ideas. So I threw some puzzles together and started having friends sit down to try them out. The puzzles I had designed were way too tough to solve. As the designer, I had a skewed view of the puzzle difficulty. As it turns out, designing hard puzzles is easy. Designing easy puzzles that still have a lot of variety is hard.

Thankfully, I learned this lesson early and kept bringing in friends to try new puzzles until we finally manged to get more than 50 puzzles that are just challenging enough to be fun without being frustrating.


What’s one thing you did wrong (individually or as a team) that you feel could have been avoided? How?

I waited way too long to start promoting Cogs. I was afraid of criticism and feared that if we released screenshots or videos too early, people would quickly lose interest. The reality is that it takes a long time to build a fan base and the early adopters and beta testers are important for building the hype wave when it comes to the release date.


Was there anything you did that you think really overcame the lost momentum from starting late on the promo efforts?

Even though we got a late start, we've done a decent job of building a community on Facebook and Twitter and on various forums. Award nominations like the IGF and IndieCade have gone a long way toward building visibility for Cogs. Our bggest boost came from winning three awards at this year's Indie Game Challenge. Cogs was given the jury's award for Achievement in Art Direction, the jury's award for Achievement in Gameplay and the $100,000 grand prize in the professional category.


If there was one thing you could look back on during development and say “that was really cool” – what was it and why?

About a year before our launch date, I brought Brendan Mauro on board to do all the artwork for Cogs. When I pulled the first of his art assets into the game to replace my engineer artwork, the difference was amazing. The game immediately felt real, like you could reach out and touch it -- like you could feel the splinters in the wood and the cool, reflective bronze plaques. Little subtleties in his animations made it feel like everything had mass and momentum. It didn't feel like a computer game any more. It felt like a machine.


I think the steampunk-ish art direction works great with something centered around steampunk elements like pipes and gears and such – but were any other styles tried?

Before Brendan came on board, my original engineer art was more industrial -- rusty sheet metal and I-beams. I much prefer the steampunk look.


Which (if any) games, films, books, etc have influenced you most on the development of Cogs?

There were a couple films that inspired the look of Cogs, including Hellboy II and Wild Wild West. But mostly, we spent time looking at websites like Brass Goggles and OObject. Gizmodo and BoingBoing also tend to give a lot of attention to steampunk designs.


How long has Cogs been in development?

From concept to completion, it took more than five years to create Cogs. Mind you, it was a very part-time job for a long time, ramping up at the end. The long time frame gave us opportunities to iterate on the design and I'm really proud of the final result.


What were some of the elements (puzzle pieces, for example) that you were forced to cut out that you still think were really cool?

One of the very first puzzles that I created was a 15-piece globe where the tiles were floating vertical slices through the earth, exposing the inner core. The surface of the globe was animated so that when all the pieces were put together, it appeared to be rotating. It was a really beautiful puzzle, but it was awkward to interact with because the smallest pieces tended to get lost. It also broke the illusion that you were interacting with a physical machine. So we tossed it out. Maybe it will be reincarnated in an expansion pack.


What was used to make the game and what tools aided in development?

I wrote the code in C++ with Microsoft Visual Studio. The graphics engine is written in DirectX with shaders written in HLSL and tested in RenderMonkey. I've also ported the graphics API to OpenGL ES for the iPhone. On the art side, we used Maya and Photoshop for the modeling and texturing. As for the puzzle design, I wrote my own file syntax, which I purposely kept open and flexible so that modders can design their own puzzles.


What resources (eg: Websites/Books/etc) do you use to aid development on your games?

Google. Everything starts with Google. I'm constantly doing API searches and looking for example code, but I use my physical reference library less and less every day. I still occasionally reference my tattered old OpenGL manual, but it's a lot easier to cut and paste syntax from a website.


What's the main thing you think makes your game fun?

Nicole Lizzaro at XEODesign has a great white paper on emotion in games. Of the four key emotions that she lists, she refers to the first as fiero, or personal triumph over adversity. I won't lie: Cogs is a hard game. But when you put that last piece in place and your machine comes to life, you really feel like you've accomplished something.

At least, that's the academic explanation. But I also just like the feeling of creation and experimentation. I enjoy just watching the gears turn and listening to the chimes play a tune. It's the same feeling of fun you get when you take apart a toy to try and figure out how it works.


Besides the IGF, what else have you done to get your game before players? What’s worked the best?

We started a blog, a twitter stream, a Facebook page. I sent personalized emails and beta keys to more than a hundred reviewers. We do what we can to spread news through word of mouth. But ultimately, none of that really compares to having Steam put your game on sale for two bucks on Christmas Day.


Is there anything about Cogs that you would like to reveal to other developers?

I definitely learned a lot of lessons while creating Cogs and trying to get it to market. Among the more obscure lessons that could benefit other developers: Make localization easy, consider mod support from day 1, and set aside plenty of time for promotion. You can find other lessons learned at the official Cogs postmortem.


How did you feel about the judge’s feedback for your game? (this year compared to ones past, if returning finalist)

I think the feedback from the judges was very fair. It's clear that they were really attentive to the submissions.


What’s next for you?

That's a good question. While I'm more than ready to move on to the next project, I need to do what's best for the long-term survival of Lazy 8 Studios. In the short term, that likely means porting Cogs to Mac or Android.

In the longer term, I have several projects that I'd love to tackle, all very different from Cogs (and all secret for the time being). Hopefully you'll be hearing more from Lazy 8 in the future.


Based on your experiences to date, what advice would you give to other game developers who aspire to be in the IGF Finals?

If you really plan on spending the next few months -- or years -- turning your big idea into a successful game, then make sure you spend plenty of time in the planning phase. Don't be afraid to abandon or rethink your ideas. Test early and test often. Choose your testers carefully -- they need to be people who you know aren't afraid to give it to you straight, even though you might not want to hear it. And as I mentioned before, it wouldn't hurt to check out the Cogs postmortem to give you a better idea of what to expect down the road.





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