• Create Account

Like
0Likes
Dislike

# Metanet Software

By John Hattan | Published Apr 09 2005 04:15 PM in Interviews

game games it' people we' independent don' team making
 If you find this article contains errors or problems rendering it unreadable (missing images or files, mangled code, improper text formatting, etc) please contact the editor so corrections can be made. Thank you for helping us improve this resource

The CMP Game Group (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.

Metanet Software appeared for the first time in the IGF this year for their game N, for which they won the Audience Award in the Web/Downloadable games category.

Should I ask the obligatory "tell me about yourselves" question, or should I just recommend that people look at your other interviews?

We're a team of two, and while we both have our strengths, we are each able to do everything from design and code to art and sound, which allows us the maximum amount of flexibility for game creation as a team. We're based in Toronto and have tons and tons of varied interests. We have day jobs, but hopefully that will someday change. We're most passionate about game design/development.

Before we get into specifics, let's talk a bit about design. Did you both wake up one morning saying "let's do a game about a tiny hyper-nimble bellbottomed ninja who must collect yellow boxes" or did it go deeper than that?

Well, in the State interview, we said this:

"The idea of a tiny little ninja whose only "weapon" is movement is one we've had for a long time. We kept making tile-based simulation "engines" in the hope of making a game with them (in fact, we released the source to our first engine, and called it the "ninja engine" since the idea of a ninja-game was what made us create it).

Eventually we got sick of just making better versions of our "engines" so we got around to actually making a game."

We probably never had a clear idea of what the end result would be, until it was almost done. We started with a vague idea of a one-screen puzzle/platformer with an engine that supported lots of different tile shapes, and character movement based on a simulation.

As we were making it things changed very rapidly. Once the ninja was done, we just started thinking of different objects and coding them. In hindsight, more planning might have been good -- certainly it's painful to fix and change the game now because it's messy. however, this also had the positive side-effect that instead of having a fixed design we worked towards, we instead changed the design to include anything we happened to come up with that ended up being fun.

We think that this flexibility is one of the most important aspects of independent development. A lot of small teams seem to approach it the same way that larger places do, developing a design document and then working from that. Certainly, some amount of structure and planning is necessary, but for us, emulating large teams too much seems like it would eradicate the benefit of having a small team, which is the ease with which you can change and play around with things.

So we knew from the start that you'd be a small stick figure running and jumping around a one-screen tilebased world, but aside from that we mostly just played around and tried to see what types of objects and enemies worked, so that the end result was definitely something that evolved as we made it instead of being planned out perfectly from the beginning.

Also, we knew that the visual design would have to be minimal and simple to run fast, and we knew the ninja would probably have to be pretty stick-figureish. But a lot of the visual design followed the same principles we used in coding.

One of the most important things may have been that we play a lot of games, and so we had a good understanding of what we were trying to do because it was based on games we liked, such as:
puchi

masashikun hi

soldat

zone runner
and more well-known games like Lode Runner, Super Mario/Kirby, etc..

One thing that's always fascinating about computer games is how game-universe physical laws have little relation to real-universe physical laws, but people still accept them as accurate. Game characters (in your game and others) can perform feats like standing jumps several times their own height or changing direction mid-jump, both of which are impossible in the real world but don't even raise an eyebrow in a game. Are there any "rules" for what people will accept as physically possible in a game?

It seems obvious to say this, but we figure people give games less leeway when the game is supposed to be realistic...so what people will accept is very much related to the type or style of game it is, maybe even just how it looks. Make a really weird game, and there's probably no limit to what will be acceptable.

The important thing seems to be that the game world be consistent; we just started playing Katamari Damacy and, while the collision is far from realistic, it's consistent so that eventually you know what's going to happen.
As long as the rules are constant, players can learn them and become comfortable with them.

I won't pester you with "why Flash?" questions because that's been covered adequately in other interviews [I'll include links]. Tell me a bit about the tools, though. Actionscript 1.0 or 2.0? Any particular drawing or sound tools you prefer beyond the stuff built into Flash itself?

Actionscript 1.0, partially because we didn't have mx2004, but mostly because we didn't need the extra structure.

We used a structured, but not really OOP approach; we're only two people, and a lot of the stuff taught in school seems to focus on the benefits of OOP when working as part of a large team. However, having well separated objects and interfaces is important.

The graphics were all done in flash, which is a great program for editing vector shapes. Flash is really fun to use for graphics, and worked out perfectly for the style we decided on.
The sounds were done very hastily, mostly just edited stock sounds; we did use some sounds from the game "soldat" with permission of the author -- the wet meaty thwacking sounds for the ragdoll were perfect, and we couldn't come up with anything nearly as good (the chaingun sound is also from soldat). We used goldwave to edit them.

I'm going to address something you haven't yet covered in your tutorials, which thus-far only cover simple rigid-body collisions. It appears that everything in n is a single rigid body [screenshot] except for the ninja himself. He's a fluidly-moving articulated character. How exactly is he represented in code? Is he a small collection of objects (arms, torso, etc) that somehow keep themselves in proximity to each other, or is he a bones-type thing, or is he something else entirely?

Actually, when it's not a ragdoll, the ninja is a single rigid particle: a circle.

The animations/graphics had to be fooled with in order to reinforce the illusion -- for instance, when the ninja is in the "sliding" pose, it's rear foot is on the exact center/bottom point of the circle. This lets us rotate the sprite so that the foot position corresponds to the point of the circle that touches the surface. The end result is that the foot looks like it's tracking the ground's surface.

Of course, once you know the ninja's a circle, it's very easy to see -- especially when rolling around sharp points, the behaviour is very circle-like.

Another thing that we think really helped sell the animation is that it's all driven procedurally by the current parameters of the ninja; for instance, the jumping animation is driven by the player's y-velocity. This sort of feedback is very subtle but adds a lot of depth and life compared to canned animations which are simply played back.

The only time the ninja's not a circle is when it's a ragdoll, in which case it's a bunch of particles. When transitioning to ragdoll mode, we look at the current frame of animation to extract each limb's current position and velocity and use that to setup the ragdoll, which also adds to the illusion that the entire ninja's body is being simulated all the time. (This trick is mentioned in the Jacobsen paper we cite all over the place in our tutorials).

HOWEVER
Simulating the entire body all of the time is something we're looking into. Some other people are also doing this; pseudointeractive's in-development title has a main character who's completely driven by physics; the math they use is sadly still beyond us. D.I.R.T, a game entered in this year's igf, also seems to be attempting full-body-simulation.
The main problem, it seems, is that it's often hard to make controlling the character fun-feeling.

So what happens when the ninja (to use SCTV's vernacular) gets blowed up real good? Given that arms and legs can go flying everywhere, I assume he's no longer a single object. Is there some point where you say "okay, he's not a single rigid body or a ragdoll, but he's now a bunch of smaller bodies/ragdolls"?

The ragdoll is basically a chunk of code that deals with a list of particles and "stick constraints" -- which means that both the whole body and the blown-up version are identical (the blown-up version simply has some duplicate particles, so that each limb has it's own separate version of the joint particle which used to attach it to the rest of the body.. this is how other people do it as well -- at least, we didn't invent the idea ourselves, but we also don't remember where we read about it).

So.. as soon as the ninja becomes a ragdoll, it ceases to be a single body.

60 minutes mode

I noticed that you haven't released a letter to shareholders since July of 2004. Given that the stock exchanges de-list large corporations (like yours) that don't make quarterly disclosures, should I be concerned that there's some kind of stock scandal going on? What do you have to hide, Misters Burns and Sheppard?

One common misconception (which you've helpfully noted here) is that we're both male -- actually, Mare's a girl and Raigan's a guy; evidently our names don't help clear that up either
Yeah, there's no scandal, we're just slightly behind in our letters...more are coming!

Ahh, sorry about gender confusion there. Of course, given that the game is preoccupied with ninjas and explosions, it's not an entirely unwarranted assumption that there's testosterone involved. I must ask then, will either of you be participating in any of those "women in games" events that'll be at the GDC?

Well, I don't know. is there a lot is testosterone? The entire game is about running away from the bad guys -- not very macho And now that you know half of Metanet is female, have your assumptions changed? We don't think that it's testosterone, ninjas, action or explosions that alienate women gamers from some games, as much as an aesthetic or presentation that's clearly male or clearly marketed to a male audience.

One problem with the gdc is that every year it becomes more commercial. Or, this is likely just a problem with the industry that's reflected in the gdc -- you get fewer papers about cool programming tricks, and more papers about cool management tricks. The assumed size of the dev teams grows, so each year there's a bigger difference between indies and pros, which means ideas are less and less transferable to small teams. A lot of the stuff that's presented isn't feasible unless you have a gigantic team (thinking specifically about the MechWarrior animation paper, which presented a solution which was only tractable if you had a huge team of animators).

This is a roundabout way of saying that we're not sure the "women in games" stuff at the GDC is useful, it seems like it might just be "how to market games to women". That's not useful to us. Also, we're not completely sold on the idea that driving a big wedge between the genders by telling them how different they are is going to solve any issues in the long run.

For sure someone's said it before, but we don't see what the problem is: if you make a game with great gameplay and style, everyone will like it. The problem with "women in games" might be that most commercial games are, for no good reason, very narrative-heavy and thus have to pigeonhole the player into a single gender. when you think about really good games (like Zelda/Mario for SNES, Tetris, Lode Runner, Pac Man, etc..), they're very gender-agnostic. Even when they feature a male character, it's not really important in any way, because the gameplay is independent of gender -- gender is effectively irrelevant.

Which brings up the point: realistically, why would any game NOT be independent of gender? What type of gameplay REQUIRES a specific gender? A huge problem lately has been that the marketing teams and some developers within the gaming industry have realized that females are more interested in gaming than they stereotypically were as the industry developed. But for some reason, instead of just adopting the idea that females like games too, people decided to work out what females would like in a game. There have been some studies done, but not nearly enough, and not nearly as comprehensively or conclusively as is required to get a realistic idea of gender relations to gaming.

Games developed specifically for women seem to be of a particular genre or aesthetic -- not necessarily as violent, more puzzle-oriented, less graphic. We think developing games in that manner is missing the point, and is ascribing too much cred to some intangible and outdated idea of what females like and are like. Moreover, deciding what games either gender will like and won't like is an incredibly closed-minded and arrogant thing to do -- we prefer to make games not specifically marketed to either gender and instead focus on what's really important: gameplay.

In order for games to appeal to both genders, there doesn't need to be such a fundamental difference in the type of game released, there just needs to be an adjustment in marketing strategy, but more importantly a shift in ideology and conception of female gamers. There need to be more studies done, but the idea is that the industry right now is organized and marketed in such a way as to encourage the alienation of females because it either ignores their interest completely or insists that females enjoy games in a fundamentally different way than males do -- and it's like a self-fulfilling prophecy, or a feedback loop; Western society is used to the idea of accepting stereotypes and actively working to emulate them.

Gameplay isn't the problem because it's very abstract by nature. It's the cutscenes and characters and horrible narrative wankery which ruin the ambiguity by forcing the player to identify with a specific character that some script writer has created. So lame! For N, we decided to create a main character who is ambiguous enough to embody characteristics of either gender, which we think allows the player to identify with the character and game more easily, and doesn't alienate either gender unnecessarily.

Your game, along with another dozen or so small-format titles, is being honored with free GDC passes and a piece of the GDC expo hall and an awards ceremony. Outside of GDC Mobile, though, very few of the sessions really apply to small-format or web-based games. There will many more sessions covering things like puffing up games with storylines and 3D animated cutscenes and other bits of "horrible narrative wankery". Is the GDC sending a mixed message regarding small games -- they deserve attention but don't deserve discussion?

There's a great article on Gamasutra called "Soapbox: Technoholism - A 12-step Recovery Plan" which brings up some interesting points. One is: the industry is obsessed with "bigger and better", instead of subtle refinement and imagination.

There isn't really a mixed message; the only reason that mobile games are smaller is because of technical limitations. The thing is, maybe it's not so bad to have a bit of narrative in a game. The problem is that the industry is approaching it as if it's REQUIRED.. it's a very skewed perspective. Possibly one of the reasons it's like that is that it's a proven model for cranking out a lot of product: Hollywood has a "formula" which very few movies deviate from. But do we really want to take that approach with games?

Games seem much more abstract to begin with, to force them into a horribly restrictive form just so that they can be more easily mass-produced and palatable to the majority of people seems like a bad move. Then again, a large industry with large teams doesn't have much of a choice: until we get a better understanding of what "gameplay" is, it's not something you can just sit down and create to spec. It requires some experimentation and playing around, which doesn't really fit well in the business model that's been developed.

Anyway, we don't really think there's a mixed message. The industry isn't interested in small games because they think small games might be a good thing to try making. The industry needs smaller games in the same way that large tech companies need smaller ones: the small guys invent the new ideas, the large ones engulf/buy the small ones, then refine and mass-market the ideas. If left on their own, the large places would stagnate because that's just the nature of gigantic organisms: they're very slow to adapt or innovate.

Speaking of the IGF, have you had a chance to check out the other entries? Any favorites?

The IGF always reveals some awesome new games!

Gish is an excellent game, very imaginative and fun to play. Chronic Logic are one of the groups that inspired us to make games, because their games are what any indie game should be: fun and creatively different.

Wik is an amazingly well-made game: super-high production values, intuitive and fun gameplay.

Alien Hominid is something we keep getting asked about, being flash-game-makers ourselves. We've got the gamecube version, and of course it's tons of fun to play. The artwork and style is so amazing. It's a great game.

It's also "controversial as hell".

First of all, it brings to light the problems facing the igf, which is that it's intended purpose of supporting independent developers is at odds with the rules it's trying to use to carry out that mission. If we ever make it to the podium and have the "minerals", we'd like to propose that the igf use budget-driven criteria instead of a size-driven criteria for determining categories. For instance, there could be <1k, 1-10k, 10-100k, >100k. This would be similar to boxing: you don't let a 250 pound guy fight a 120 pound guy.

Secondly, the extreme similarity between alien hominid and metal slug cannot be denied. You might even consider AH a reskinning of MS. Viewed in this light the hype concerning how "innovative" it is becomes a bit depressing. The industry is in so sad a state that an arcade game from the 90s is cutting-edge and shockingly new gameplay.

"is it indie?" is apparently also a big question. One analogy can be illustrated using the film Napoleon Dynamite: The short film Peluca was made independently, screened at the Slamdance festival, and subsequently was picked up by people with money. Thus, the feature film Napoleon Dynamite was created. For some reason this important distinction (the independently made version, and the big-budget commercial release) was lost on the Slamdance people themselves -- Slamdance wouldn't have screened Napoleon Dynamite, yet they chose alien hominid as a finalist in their BALLS contest. (spelling intentional

While it's undeniably great to see an independent developer get recognized, it's perhaps more than slightly unethical for a team with >$1M in funding, whose game is being released on two consoles, to proceed to wipe the floor with smaller teams simply because all of these independent game contests are a great way to get free publicity. It's still not clear how the game made it to the IGF: the only way to get a dev package for the GameCube, afaik, is through a publisher. Anyway.. there is of course a certain amount of jealousy here, but it's overshadowed by despair: the independent game that got picked up by the industry was the one whose core gameplay, while fun, was 10 years old. And this is marketed as "innovation". The bottom line is: these types of teams don't need the prize money --$1000 probably means they can pay one of their programmers for a few extra days --whereas it might be able to finance an entire new game from a smaller group. They also don't need the publicity, because their huge budget undoubtedly contains money to be used for advertising; this is a luxury that smaller groups can't afford. Finally, a game built with a budget greater than $100k is almost always built using contracted programmers and artists, using the mainstream assembly-line method of game development. When independent groups mimic the mainstream, it's not a good sign. To get back to the actual question: two developers who have never submitted to the igf, but who both deserve to win, are Michal Marcinkowski (soldat) and Kenta Cho (numerous games). I don't know why they haven't entered, maybe they want to give the rest of us a chance Yeah, I tend to agree that the "I" in IGF isn't well defined. Although in the past, the more expensive titles haven't necessarily mopped up the floor with the cheaper ones. For example, far-from-independent studio WildTangent ran a game in the IGF the same year that they bought a 2-story booth on the expo floor and didn't win any awards. The Rift was obviously the best-funded title of 2000 but lost most of the awards to TreadMarks, which was essentially a one-man project. Are the judges "leveling the field" and giving breaks to shoestring projects, or is there less correspondence between budget and quality than one would think? Well, we were probably thinking about Savage from last year. A great analogy (from our friend Jim Munroe, who writes a video game column for The Eye -- a local Toronto paper) is that some teams are independent, and some are just minor league. Savage won several awards, despite essentially being a mainstream game that was made by a mainstream team that hadn't yet entered the mainstream. There's a huge difference between that kind of "minor league" production, where the group is essentially Rockstar or Delphine minus the publishing contract, and someone like Chronic Logic, who have a very small team and self-publish. If you have a team made up of people who're being paid as employees, it's simply different in attitude and intent from a team where each member is also a cofounder or owner of the company. I don't think that it's a very hard distinction to make, it's obvious most of the time: when id made doom, they were a small team and everyone was contributing something special. When you look at one of the$1M IGF games, they're hiring people to help make the game. How independent can you be when you're relying on a staff of employees to make your game for you? You're just a smaller-scale EA.. minor league, not independent.

Or, you could instead compare the games themselves: Gish simply cannot be described properly, it's a game you have to play or watch to understand. Larger games tend to be more genre-bound, perhaps just because when you're dealing with a large team where not everyone helped create the idea, you need to stick to known and understood territory in order to communicate effectively and coordinate the team.

Anyway, it's very hard to define what "independent" means. I suppose that making a list of companies and using affiliation or non-affiliation with them as the basis for determining independence is no more arbitrary than using budget. It just seems that the idea should be to provide a forum for the Peluca's of the game world, NOT the Napoleon Dynamite's. If Sony and Nintendo have given you devkits and agreed to release your game, you're no more independent than a director who's signed a contract with WB or Fox -- you're working inside the system that contains the rest of the established industry. Maybe you're new, but you're hardly "doing your own thing".

I'm sure that some judges take the relative scales of the games into consideration, however since many of the judges seem to be industry veterans (many not even working in actual development but in peripheral marketing/managing/business work), it's unlikely they're sympathetic to games which aren't trying to be commercial games. If you're working for Microsoft or EA, is it because you're into games or into having a well-paying job? I'm sure that some of the judges are very sympathetic to indie developers because they themselves have ideas they want to work on outside from the stuff they're contracted to do. However, people whose primary job is licensing, managing, or otherwise not making or playing games are maybe a bit questionable -- trusting the vice president of Sony Records to judge the relative quality of different pieces of music probably isn't the wisest decision, given the stuff that Sony releases.

It's great to have a set of respected, well-known figures as judges, but (as this is a competition which presumes to be about making great games), some judges who are game players might be useful too.

Having spoken to IGF entrants since the IGF existed, I've always seen a business model. Either their product is available for purchase on their website, or the product's going to be on the shelves, or they're seeking out a publisher. Your game, however, is 100% free. You encourage people to share the game, develop levels, and just enjoy it. Is there a plan to make money off future games, consulting, or what?

This is something that we did for a few reasons. Many of the games we've enjoyed the most have been freeware: Puchiwara, Soldat, Liero, Doukutso, Ika, and anything by Kenta Cho. there are a large number of very well made and fun freeware games. Having that as an example made us feel that releasing games for free was important, to contribute to the community that gave us all those great experiences. Also, you end up doing things only for yourselves, and it's very liberating. Freeware is very important and it would be great if more people were involved with it, because the one thing that is best about freeware is innovation. Since you won't be making money from it, if the game you're making isn't new and exciting, there's no reason to be making it. This virtually guarantees that freeware will be the result of inspired and committed individuals: they have no real motivation other than a love for fun games.

Hopefully we provide an example to people that the mainstream is for the most part stagnant and abysmal. If consumers stop mindlessly being driven by corporate marketing dollars and instead only buy games which are masterpieces, eventually the companies will have to recognize that simply churning out crap isn't a viable business model. However, we're not hopelessly naive: the likelihood is that, as with music, the mainstream will continue to grow and become increasingly vapid.

In many ways it's very confusing to consider Titanic and El Mariachi to both be movies; it invites comparison when really the only thing the two works have in common is the medium. Likewise, with video games there have always been those which are clearly the creation of talented and inspired individuals, and those which are the result of an apathetic team working their job. What's confusing is when mainstream games are brilliant (as is the case with Rez or Super Mario World), or when low-budget groups are simply striving to get "signed".

Um.. to actually answer the question, we'd like to continue to make freeware games. The main drawback is that you then have to maintain a separate career to finance your hobby. To quote Einstein, "It is best, it seems to me, to separate one's inner striving from one's trade as far as possible. It is not good when one's daily bread is tied to God's special blessing." But.. if your career is programming-related, the problem of being burnt out arises.

The question of which business model to use is certainly a hard one. The more money we get for making games, the more control other people will have over our work. There's certainly a sweet spot somewhere between the two extremes of freeware and working for EA, we're still trying to figure it out.

Possibly we'll find a way to make a living making games; certainly the approaches used by Soldat (the game is freeware but registration unlocks extra features which are nonessential to the game but still cool) or Chronic Logic (which is the video game analog of the Dead Kennedys/Alternative Tentacles: they own their label and publish themselves) are our favorites. One problem with the latter is that it results in a glut of publishers, especially with digital-based media where publishing isn't hard or expensive -- the same thing happened in electronic music, virtually every group had their own record label.

It would be nice if there's someday a video game publisher who's brave enough to adopt the independent-record-label approach: having a small roster of very talented people who are all sympathetic to each other and sometimes cross-pollinate each other with ideas. Morr Music is a great example (in the music world) of the type of thing we'd like to be involved with (in the video game world). Hopefully someone with a business-oriented mind will pick up this thread and run with it.. We know several people who are like-minded, however I don't think any of us are business-savvy enough to do it ourselves. Plus we'd all rather be making games than doing whatever it is business people do.

Finally, we'd of course love it if our games were released on all the consoles, had press releases and TV ads. However, only if they were our games and not games we were told to make by some people who don't even make games. We could easily get jobs working at a large game company. The reason we won't is because we want to make fun games, not write tedious code for someone else's game (which probably sucks).

Since it's unlikely that any major publisher would give us free reign over our project, it's unlikely that we'll ever get a major publishing deal. If a publisher emerges who actually cares about the quality of the product in itself (and not just the perceived quality as indicated by sales) we'll be eager to work with them.

Video games are very confused; since they involve modern technology it's often assumed that they can only be a commodity to be produced and marketed. No one thinks twice about an artist making a sculpture for free, yet doing the same thing with a game is apparently commendable. No one thinks twice about a team of people telling you what you must change if you want your game to be released, yet doing the same thing to an artist would be objectionable.

You can approach video games as a craft, and consider yourself some type of artisan who is involved with developing and realizing your ideas, or you can approach them as software, and consider yourself an engineer who will work on it until it meets the required specifications. Certainly both aspects are always present in different proportions, but the mainstream has skewed the public's perception towards the latter.

Part of the problem might be that computer science is often taught in a very trade-school manner: students are trained to be proficient so that they can find a good job. Hopefully, future generations will see that writing software can be just as creative and rewarding a process as any classical art form, and involve just as much experimentation and imagination.

So what's next for the little ninja feller? I noticed you've got a version 1.4 on the way, but will you ever consider doing a sequel?

We definitely want to make a sequel; there were a lot of things we couldn't do because of the limitations of the Flash player. But, we want to wait until we've made a couple other games. For one thing, this will ensure that we've got a well-tested OpenGL game framework. Also, we don't want to risk being stuck making nothing but N for the rest of our lives

However, a lot of the ideas we threw out while developing N will be re-used in future games. One thing we decided against was a grappling hook/rope (which wraps around objects, etc.). That's hopefully going to be a feature in a future game, since we've got it working -- we just need to figure out a simple and fun interface.

We'll hopefully be able to refine some things from N for use in future games: the clean/abstract design (perhaps less intense/minimal once we're working on a platform that doesn't have severe graphical limitations, but not necessarily); the 2D sideview "perspective"; a main character who's small relative to the screen; and procedural/simulation code which creates responsive and fluid animation are all things that we want to play around with and explore more.

Besides your own little IGF kiosk, where should we expect to see you folks at the GDC?

Hopefully in as many places as possible!

When this year's lineup was first announced, we saw several presentations that looked interesting, especially collision/simulation stuff. Most of the code for N was based on a 2001 GDC lecture by Thomas Jakobsen, and every year there are several papers that are applicable or useful to us. So we'll try to hit as many presentations as possible -- since there are only two of us, we'll have to get creative with the scheduling since someone's got to be tending the booth. Other than that, we're very excited to meet the other IGFers.

Any advice for budding game developers out there who want to move up to the big leagues?

This is something that we've been asked several times. It's quite confusing for us to answer; the question seems to imply that we're in the big leagues, and thus know how to get there. The fact is, we feel very far from the big leagues.. we've released a single freeware game! Not only that, but we have no urge to make it there, because all that getting there seems to bring is less creative control, and worse games as a result.
There is a very big difference between wanting to make video games, and wanting to work in the industry. Both could be considered "big league".

An analogous difference would be an automobile enthusiast who builds their own cars from scratch, and a factory worker on the assembly line at Ford Motors. One person is doing something because they love doing it and feel a need to create; the other is doing it because they have the requisite skills and they need a job.

Which isn't to say that you can't make a living doing something that you enjoy (making games); only that true success and gratification seems more likely to stem from the former case than the latter.
A do-it-yourself enthusiast could grow their business up to something analogous to "Orange County Choppers": the product is hand-made, and each person working on it has a chance to contribute something meaningful. The result is a unique product which you can call your own. The people working at that type of place are still employees, but it seems a world apart from the assembly line. Maybe because of the added amount of "authorship" or capacity for self-expression each employee is given.

Working on an assembly line will never empower you to make the games you want to make; at most, you'll be promoted to manage other workers on the line. You will have worked on the product, but it will never be your own, or an expression of your ideas, because you never had the control necessary to do this.

If you want to enter the industry, there are numerous "academies" which will train you to be proficient with a subset of the tools of the trade: programming, art, design, marketing, management.

If you just want to make games, then all you need to do is do it. This isn't meant to make it sound easy; finishing a game is quite hard. However, the best way to learn is through experience. If you're "budding" then the assumption is that you at least know how to program; think of a game design which you consider VERY SIMPLE to complete with your current team. Your first game doesn't have to be your magnum opus; forget your dreams of the MMORPG where you model Earth down to the blades of grass and players can do anything. Find a simple idea that's fun and unique, and finish it. Choose a style which, again, is simple and works with the design. Simple graphics don't have to look cheezy; design around your abilities, don't try to do things you're not good at. Don't do 3D just because you think you need to.

While it's quite possible to use traditional tools such as C++ (our friend jon has a game in the IGF student category, made from scratch in c++), we urge smaller teams to consider using alternative development environments. Flash is a fairly extreme alternative: the limitations are considerable. However, there exist many free or affordable libraries or systems designed to create 2D games, such as blitzbasic. The easier it is for you to work, the more likely the resulting product will be good, because you will have had more time to work on the gameplay and new ideas instead of hunting obscure pointer-induced bugs.

It's rewarding to write your own engine from the ground up, but having a ready-made, fully functional, and well-tested graphics/sound system which you can use will help you focus on the important part of the game, which is the gameplay and the design.

Who was Casper The Friendly Ghost before he died?

um.. Casper the human?