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The Gama Network (producer of Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra.com, and the Game Developers Conference) established the Independent Games Festival in 1998 to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers. They saw how the Sundance Film Festival benefited the independent film community, and wanted to create a similar event for independent game developers as well as the student population of game developers. This year there are two categories, Web/Downloadable and Open. Finalists in each category are competing for five $1,000 awards and a sixth $15,000 grand prize.
I got to meet these guys at last year's GDC during an IGDA group gathering for independent developers, and I was happy to see their game AlphaQUEUE make the IGF finals. On that note, I chatted with them online about their game, and here's what they had to say.
Who are you and what do you do?
Josh: Josh Welber here -- I was the programmer for AlphaQUEUE Wade: I'm Wade Tinney and I was the producer and sound guy on AlphaQUEUE. Also designer, but AlphaQUEUE, like all our games, was a highly collaborative game design process, and everyone on the team contributes to the final design in a significant way
How long has Large Animal been in business?
Wade: 3 years Josh: and 1 month
Did you guys start out making games or come from other professions with the urge to get into game development?
Josh: I started out, some years ago, using computers to create interactive art-installations. I got into making games as a consultant - then, as Wade says, we started Large Animal to make games exclusively (ed. this references something not included in this interview) Wade: As a company, we started out making games. Both of us did a bunch of more standard web contracting stuff before, realizing with each project that games were just more interesting. Much more interesting Josh: Much much Wade: Harder too, but in a good way
How'd you guys meet up to form Large Animal?
Josh: We met in 97 at grad school Wade: We were both doing our MFA at Parsons School of Design, and then we consulted on a few projects after school. Next we worked at a company together for a year, and then in January 2001 we started Large Animal... at the time the company was called Gamekitchen Josh: Like he said Wade: We changed the name after a year, after discovering that there was a company with a very similar name already out there
Are the two of you working in an office or online?
Wade: We have an office in the garment district of Manhattan. We are surrounded by counterfeiters. On our block, there are dudes standing on the sidewalk who will ask you "are you looking for a warehouse?" as you walk by Josh: Spacious, southern exposure -- small kitchen... There are usually 4 or 5 of us working here on any given day Wade: 3 Xbox halo set up… Josh: Really good Korean food nearby -- also excellent deals on Wigs (real human hair) Wade: Disco ball… Floors are perfect for roller-skating Josh: Well, maybe more for roller-blades... Wade: We've talked about getting some rental skates going on... secondary revenue stream. Actually, I guess it'd be tertiary, if you count the t-shirts. Josh: Quaternary? Wade: Oh right...there's the client work…
How many other people are working with you guys? What do they do?
Wade: Brad "Mack" MacDonald is our Art Director, illustrator, animator, designer, et cetera; Yossi "Mario" Horowitz is our c++ programmer; Vicky "The Fang" Fang is flash programmer, art wrangler, and designer Josh: Also, a mix of contractors, job to job...
That's quite a crew. So what are your nicknames?
Wade: J-Dubble -- That's Josh Josh: World Wide Tinney, T-Lo, Wade-O-Matic, and a few others for wade Wade: Crazy Eyes... That's what I answer to most recently
So what's it like doing game dev in the Big Apple? Do you see more developers popping up in the future?
Wade: Yes, but I imagine something a bit like whack-a-mole, wherein we've fashioned a large mallet... Just kidding...actually, New York is the bastard step-child of game development Josh: It's a pretty small group actually. Growing a bit around the edges... Wade: But everyone tends to know everyone, which is of course a good thing Josh: The cost of living here is pretty ridiculous compared to most places -- but the city is definitely worth it Wade: We're huge fans of NYC. It's funny though, when you go out to GDC or E3 and tell someone you're from New York because they're like, "Really?! People make games there?!" Josh: In terms of Game Dev -- it would be great if there were more developers around. Right now you can fit all the game developers in the city (proper) into a small bar room. So, I assume it is quite different from development in places like Austin or Cali, where there are lots and lots of other folks around doing the same thing...
What's the basic gameplay of AlphaQUEUE like?
Wade: Each level has some tiles with shapes on them and the player's objective is to cover up all of those tiles with the corresponding shape pieces. Shape pieces are pushed onto the board from the perimeter, coming out of sheds that hold an infinite supply of a given shape piece. The player must then use other sheds in combination to move a particular piece to a particular location Josh: It's a game that rewards and encourages thought - although there are occasional points where good timing is helpful, it is not required. Also, the Par based scoring system lets players self-select difficulty - and encourages them to revisit earlier puzzles to try to beat par Wade: Bottom line, the game is all about pushing shapes around on a grid and planning the order in which to push them in order to match a certain condition
How long was AlphaQUEUE in development?
Josh: About 3 months over-all. However, AlphaQUEUE is a sequel to the first game we developed as a company (QUEUE) Wade: So there was a pretty clear framework in place
What are the differences in gameplay between QUEUE and AlphaQUEUE?
Josh: The core mechanic is the same, but we changed the scoring system, level system, and music and graphics Wade: With AlphaQUEUE, we were able to address a lot of issues that we had with the original game, such as the fact that in the original game, you were racing the clock. We realized that this is really frustrating and anathema to the essence of the game. So eliminating the time component was a primary objective. Also, we wanted to break the game up into smaller chunks, rather then the single, monolithic 100 level experience that the first game offered. But I think the most obvious differences for most people are in the graphical treatment and the audio. We wanted to give the Brad treatment to the original game. Also, I worked with Michael Sweet from Audiobrain on the music. The original game was designed to be a web-based experience rather than a downloadable that people would pay for Josh: Big difference. I think that was what inspired the new organization of the levels, among other things Wade: So with AlphaQUEUE, we sought to add value to the original experience. We also added several new pieces to the game system, such as the Pusher-Man, which enable some interesting new levels.
What were some design issues you had to face in AlphaQUEUE?
Wade: Well, designing a 'sequel' is a unique design problem. There is a core framework in place and a desire to improve it and bring something new to the experience. Josh: For me, the biggest change was going from a time-based system to a par-based scoring system. This affected all aspects of the game Wade: True dat Josh: It opened up a lot of new design possibilities for individual levels Wade: So one must decide which direction(s)/features are going to constitute an improvement, as well as trying to determine what the essence of the experience is Josh: yup -- that was a tough one Wade: So, as we've said, the timer was the first thing to go, since it felt like it was a non-essential layer. Beyond that, we spent time thinking about possible new puzzle pieces and trying to hone in on the ones that would yield the most interesting puzzles when combined with other game objects Josh: There were quite a number of pieces that didn't make the cut, and we spent a fair amount of time determining the behavior of the pieces we did add Wade: There was also a lot of thought given to the par system, and how to represent player performance Josh: At first, the moving pieces followed fixed paths wherever they appeared - but the player could not see that path ahead of time. Adding in designer-constructed paths, which were always visible, really made the Pusher and Chomper much more useful, and more fun to play with Wade: I think my favorite new mechanic as a designer was the ability to put shape tiles on top of bridge stacks Josh: Yup -- those got us into the 3rd dimension
What tools were used for development of the game by the various departments?
Wade: Photoshop, Director, Reason and Wavelab for the audio, Word for the legal, Eudora for PR and Marketing.... Josh: Also, we relied on a bunch of in-house Director tools for asset wrangling, building, and for the core game/GUI engine Wade: Yes...and the audio Josh: Oh, right, I forgot the audio composer tool... Wade: And Josh developed a kick ass level designer
Is that an in-game designer or an external tool?
Josh: Well, both Wade: It's not publicly accessible as of right now Josh: Right, but it is designed as just another interface on top of the game code
Did you guys have need for any version control software?
Josh: We might have done better with one -- but we're not using source control on Director projects. Basically, we would just run nightly, automated backups Wade: There was only one full-time programmer on that project, so versioning was pretty easy to manage by hand. At least, it seemed easy from where I was sitting... Josh: Yeah - it was not much of an issue. We did get a lot of help (as on most of out projects) from some simple asset management tools we have
So have you guys been waiting for this game to enter into the IGF? Had you thought of entering a previous game at all?
Wade: We entered Unipong last year and also entered another game this year, Freebowl. Obviously, neither of those made the cut. Inexplicably.
Any thoughts on why AlphaQUEUE came out on top?
Wade: I suspect it has to do with the level of polish... AlphaQUEUE had been in the world for months and gone through many iterations by the time it was entered. Unipong and Freebowl were both pretty rough at the time of entry, and not just rough in the art/code sense, but the details of the game design were also in flux. Therefore their true genius may not have been completely obvious to the judges Josh: I would be really interested to get more detailed feedback from the judges, even anonymously, about both AlphaQueue and FreeBowl -- it would be really cool if IGF started giving feedback like that Wade: Amen
Well I bid you guys good luck and I'll see you on the expo floor
Wade: Excellent! See you next month. Stop by and see us at the IGF booth, everyone! Josh: ok -- thanks. Look forward to seeing you all in beautiful San Jose...