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"Be all you can be. Come play our snazzy web games. Shizmoo - it ownz joo."
- Haiku by Dan Goldstein
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.
I once again had the pleasure of sitting down and interviewing the two Goldstein brothers, Dan and Joshua about their IGF finalist entry. This year it's Word Ninja, a fast-paced action-crazy crossword game that pits you against multiple opponents to create words faster than the rest. It's the tried-and-true Shizmoo formula at work. If you thought they were off the hook last year, fasten your safety belts and strap in tight (and keep your eyes open for an Easter Egg link) - These guys may have been Kings before, but now they're Ninjas!!
Who are you and what do you do?
Dan: We are two crazy brothers who decided to write the world's greatest network multiplayer game engine.
Joshua: We are two crazy brothers and we plan to take over the world via mind control and trained apes who pick tea leaves!
Dan: We make great web games that leverage our cutting-edge network technology. Games that have action, strategy and everything in between
I want to hold this off but I can't - how's it feel coming back for another round at the IGF?
Dan: It feels warm and fuzzy! The IGF was an incredibly fun and hectic time last year, and I fully expect it to be the same or better this time around!
Joshua: We couldn't wait for another chance to wear funny clothes and attend the prestigious DirectX geek party! Last year we got at least 40 free drinks! Microsoft = Owned!
Dan: I anticipate owning a lot more this year, too.
For those not in the know, you guys walked away last year with an Audience Choice award for Kung Fu Chess. Word Ninja seems another contender thanks to it being easy to get into. Yay or nay? Any other higher aspirations?
Dan: Well we'd always love to win the grand prize, but yes I think people will be able to pick up and get a really good feel for Word Ninja right away. Maybe that will translate into another Audience Choice - who knows!
Joshua: No... this year we don't think we have any chance of winning. However we're almost sure to win anyway, mostly thanks to our good looks and Dan's girlish figure.
Dan: Yes I plan to be a letter this year - the letter Z or maybe X. We are, after all, sponsored by the letter Q and the number 3.
Ok, ok - we have to hear it again :-) Where did the name Shizmoo come from?
Joshua: OMG - Wasn't the answer bad enough last time?
Dan: Not a very interesting answer, I'm afraid. Our father thinks it sounds like a cow crapping. But that's not the origin.
Joshua: Okay, you want to hear the real origin? I'll give u the scoop.
Joshua: I was having sex with my now ex-girlfriend and we're both VERY weird people, so we like to make strange noises that sound cute when we do it. And so she started to go "Shizmoooo" in this very cute animal-like voice…
Dan: OMG I wish I had known that before agreeing to use the name. Too late now…
Joshua: …and I got so turned on.
Dan: Dude that's so not cool!
Joshua: I decided to name the company after it.
Dan is stunned
Dan: Please don't ever tell me whether you just made that up.
So wait a minute... wasn't Word Ninja originally called Word 'em Up? What happened?
Dan: Well some developer friends of ours that we met last year asked us to change it, because they have a game called Word Up. So since we didn't care about the name so much and they seemed to enough that they threatened us with legal battles we changed it.
Joshua: Also, our site is already too ghetto
Dan: Lol, too ghetto for what? Oh well…
So why Ninja? I mean I love Ninjas as much as the next guy and they are extremely cool but does it have anything to do with the gameplay?
Joshua: Yes. There are lots of ninjas… they come out and enter your house and kill your wives and kids and have lots of cool weapons.
Dan: But only if you can't spell correctly.
Joshua: Come play the game. It's just a click away at shiizmoo.com
Dan: SPELL THE SITE RIGHT!!
Joshua: Oh - minus one i
Dozens of Ninjas break through the windows - both brothers scream
Ok so what exactly is Word Ninja?
Joshua: It is a game so intense it defies description!
Dan: A fast-paced word game where you compete with an opponent or three to make words on a crossword board!
Joshua: That too
Dan: Unlike most crossword games you never have to wait your turn, so your friend can't take an hour to figure out his next word. This, as we all know, can get REALLY annoying.
Joshua: Yes, especially if you have sucky friends.
Hmmm - real-time Chess, real-time Scrabble... a trend perhaps? Taking slow, sometimes boring games and whipping them up to pace?
Dan: Sounds good to us. Taking the turned-basedness out of Chess and Crossword games definitely makes for a fun, new competitive experience. We have more in the works too, as well as other styles of games that you might see for next year's competition.
Joshua: Super-Size it!
So was there really any decision between Word Ninja and Sumo Volleyball for the competition?
Dan: Yes, actually we didn't even quite have Word Ninja done at the time so it was a big debate. Last year we actually entered two games, but we decided that Sumo Volleyball and Word Ninja have such similar interfaces that we didn't want to enter both.
Joshua: We also considered writing a completely different game for the competition
Dan: At this point writing games takes us a matter of days, so it was tough to decide. I'm glad that in the end we went with Word Ninja.
So how has your technology evolved over the past year? And is it a total game framework or mostly a networking framework?
Joshua: It is a total game framework, but the key component is the networking engine.
Dan: The tech is coming fabulously. In fact, I'm working on version 2.0 right now which should be even better than the original.
Joshua: You can prototype online games with full-featured lobbies in it in hours.
Dan: Writing an online multiplayer game in hours is not something any other system I know of allows you to do.
Joshua: Yeah. Pretty much you write the game -- with no special networking code, and the system figures out the rest for you. It's packaged with an extremely simple to use graphics and sound library which make making games with it a breeze. On top of this, you can easily add configurability support to allow players to redesign the game you programmed.
Along those lines are you guys considering any plans to license the engine?
Dan: We're testing with external developers now and anticipate creating a lot more games with it in the months to come. Eventually we'll be licensing the version 2.0 technology to other game companies, who can use it to create web games, downloadable games, retail games, or even massively multiplayer environments. The engine is very flexible, and by using it developers can avoid almost all of the hassles involved with network programming. Not only that, but they can use the same code and output both an in-browser game and a downloadable 'full' version of the same game.
With all this and only three games it sounds like you guys have been working really hard on the engine side. How long has it been in development total so far?
Joshua: I think we've been in development around 2 years... though some of the code dates back even further than that.
Dan: Yeah we've been playing with the network side of things for years at this point. We didn't decide to try to make a business of it until maybe two years ago or so though. Our original product was a massively multiplayer game called StarThief, which has been sort of put on hold for a bit while we get the technology really right.
So I see the site has been redone as well - just better-looking or is there anything new server-side for the games?
Dan: There's a lot of new stuff!
Joshua: Haha, this is a long answer question
Dan: We just launched the "Shizmoo Subscription", which comes with a boatload of new games and features.
Joshua: It includes the ability to redesign any of our games to your choosing. For example, you can make new sports games in Sumo Volleyball, new chess variants with up to 8 players in Kung Fu Chess, new crossword games in Word Ninja with whatever rules you like, new graphics, scheduled tournaments,..
Dan: Every month we add new 'official' game types to the games as well - like we just added Crazyhouse, Bughouse, and Team 4-way Kung Fu Chess. We're about to do the same for Sumo Volleyball and Word Ninja as well. For the last week or so there's been new stuff for subscribers practically every day, and we don't intend to stop.
Is there any cost for the subscription? Is it indefinite or renewable?
Dan: Right now the cost is $25 for six months of play. That gets you all the features on all the games, as well as the new subscriber-only games that are going to be coming out very soon.
I understand that you guys are quite a distance from each other now - any troubles working together over the Pacific?
Joshua: We work together quite well remotely. However, I've also gone to visit Dan in Hawaii a couple times over the past six months.
Dan: Yeah I don't think there's ever a downside to your co-worker living in Hawaii and taking working vacations.
Joshua: Needless to say, Christmas in Hawaii is pretty sweet =)
You know, I think you guys should definitely come to the GDC dressed as Ninjas this year :-)
Joshua: We don't like to disappoint =)
Dan: I think we just might take you up on that offer. The PR from the Karate outfit and Crown was amazing last year. There was practically nobody who didn't know who I was. Of course, I had a silly crown on at the time so it's not that surprising.
Great. Guys, thanks again for taking the time to do the interview, best of luck and I'll see you at the GDC... or will I?
Joshua: It probably won't be hard =)
Dan: I'll bring my shuriken. And remember, seeing in one's mind's eye the attacker brings peace and tranquility to the defender. Do not underestimate the power of overwhelmingly tacky clothing and bravado.