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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).
Just recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel and Joshua Goldstein, founders of Shizmoo Games, and makers of IGF finalist Kung Fu Chess, a game that takes the conventional rules of chess and tosses them out the window, replacing them with an RTS style of gameplay. Now you can move as many pieces as you want, whenever you want. After a piece has been moved, it cannot be moved for another 10 seconds or so (it's "tired"). The game is played online with up to four players battling to the death and matchmaking services. Here's what the two brothers had to say about it.
So why don't you guys explain your history? Who was the first one interested in game development?
Joshua: Dan was, because he was born first Dan chuckles Joshua: It's true Dan: Well I got a computer when I was about 6, a TI-99 4A w/ 8 or 16k of memory I believe, and my mom and I learned basic on it at that time. Joshua: I was only 2 years old, so all I could do at the time was draw bad pictures of videogames. Dan: I also played some games on it, but our parents only got us a few, like Munchman, Hunt the Wumpus, and some Scott Adams text adventures. Joshua: I guess this was 1981 Dan: Anyway over the years [my mom and I] progressed through a C128, Amiga, and finally a PC. We did some games coding on all those platforms
So you guys beat each other up often or are you nice brothers?
Dan: We used to, now we're pretty nice though Joshua: Yeah he used to play this game called "kikkoman lite", where I was the man Dan: Mostly I used to beat him up because he is four years younger, but then he got old and I had to watch out Josh: He had a little song that he'd sing while kicking my butt. Can you sing it? Come on Dan. Dan: "I'm gonna kick your butt off kikkoman liteeeee" Both brothers laugh
Haha. So when did you start actually making games together?
Dan: Together? Just recently, a bit over 2 years ago… maybe a little longer than that Joshua: I didn't really start programming much until I left high school Dan: I was working at Turbine (makers of Asheron's Call) and we decided to make this 3D marble game, kinda like a 3D version of marble madness. We worked remote then, in our spare time. After about a year of working on that, I decided to quit so we could pursue it full time. So we got together and started working on a MMRTS. One day in the shower I had an epiphany and thought of Kung Fu Chess... coded an initial version in a couple days and we both loved it. It was really just a side-project - In fact, we didn't actually mean to 'release' it initially, but so many people heard about it and started playing it we had to support it. So it was originally not our main game, and it's still not. We have a lot of stuff in the works, but it's the only thing that's actually released so far
Living together and being brothers, did this help make a lot of things easier during development?
Dan: It definitely made thing easier. We work very well together and have a shared game-playing background. Joshua: Yes, it made things much easier, mostly since we can scream at each other and not really take offense Dan: One time we were working on algorithms for our MMRTS. The problem at hand was how to fit all the physics for 10,000 units being simulated onto a single server machine. I won't go into the details, but we pretty much stayed indoors for a week straight lying on the living room rug brainstorming. And our house didn't have any heat about 50% of the time!! Joshua: yep - those were real hard times. No heat, and painful algorithms, but at least we had a cool neighbor who helped us start a rap group =)
Shizmoo. That's an interesting name. Care to explain it?
Dan Laughs Dan: Joshua will have to do that one Joshua: I don't care to explain it. However, our father thinks it sounds like a 'cow crapping' Dan: It was a pretty random choice - he thought it sounded 'cute'... And its always good the have the www.shizmoo.com address available Joshua: Actually, it wasn't our first choice… but the struggle for finding a decent domain is a tough one Dan: Sadly that affects the names of all our games :\ Joshua: Of course, our first choices weren't any more meaningful =) Err, I mean, were just as deep and meaningful as Shizmoo
Was KFC a remote project?
Dan: No, never... we actually live together at the moment. But it was often only coded by one of us at a time, because the other was working on other projects. For example, Joshua wrote most of the Java version, and I wrote most of the new downloadable version. Joshua: Java sux =( Dan: We may be working remote again soon, however. We found it to be pretty effective, and random other things in our lives have made us need to move.
What came first? The idea of having as many chess pieces moved in a turn as you want or the kung fu sounds?
Dan: The actual gameplay came first The kung fu chess sounds were strictly an add-on to make it more fun. I was considering the question of how to make massively multiplayer Archon when I thought of it. Joshua: I still think a massive multi version of KFC would be cool =)
And the sounds gave it a name? What would you have called it without the kung fu noises?
Dan: We called it Kung Fu Chess because a friend of ours said, "It's like martial arts chess!!!" He was very enthusiastic. Joshua: I dunno - initially it was called Ultra Speed Chess - at that time it was a plug-in in our MMRTS game engine. But that title never woulda stuck =P Dan: Actually now we are concentrating on having everything fit in to our new network game deployment platform Joshua: At the time we had 3 plug-ins… ultra speed chess, cheese bus racing, and the infamous 'diapers training arena' Dan: Clearly names not meant for public consumption
When I first read the title, I imagined chess pieces coming to life and kicking each other's butts when they take over a spot. How does that sound to you?
Dan: That's what everyone says! And it sounds tricky Joshua: It sounds like it was done 10+ years ago in a game called Battle Chess Dan: Yes but without an interesting new game behind it... it would be hard to do with the pieces moving like they do in KFC Joshua: Such a game could never be deployed over the web anyway - too high bandwidth requirements Dan: Unless the characters were 3D maybe. It would still be huge, though. Our decisions are often colored by the fact that we want our games to be easily distributed and played online. We always try to make very small games in terms of download size. We believe you don't have to sacrifice a lot of quality to do it, either.
So what kept you guys motivated to complete a side project?
Dan: I guess we just both really liked it a lot! It was more fun than working on our main project, because that one needed a code rewrite and was getting a bit messy Also, new projects are always more fun at the start. I think only the first 30% of making the game is really fun. Joshua: We also decided it would be a good project to do to fully understand what it's like to release something multiplayer Dan: Yes, that was a big component. We thought it might help us learn the ropes before releasing our 'real' project. Of course it's done really well so now we consider it a real project in its own right.
So are you guys thinking bigger for your next release?
Dan: No, actually. We're going to release several games of this size before the bigger ones. We have a bunch of new tech that makes it easy for us to code things like Kung Fu Chess very quickly and deploy them both as web games and downloadable 'upgrade' versions. Joshua: Well... we're thinking both bigger and the same size. We're still working on an MMRTS/Action game... one is partially on hold, and one is being developed steadily. So, two MMRTS/Action games... but we also intend to write a bunch of really cool online web-games while work progresses on these projects. With large games, it's hard to figure out how long it's going to take you, so it's definitely best to hedge your bets and write other stuff in the interim Dan: Yeah the idea is for the small games to be our bread-and-butter while the larger ones gestate Joshua: Also it's just more fun. Plus, we accumulate popularity on our site(s), which will be good for releasing any larger game
Whose idea was it to enter Kung Fu Chess in the IGF?
Dan: Actually, our father! We were only going to enter our MMRTS, but he persuaded me it would be good to enter Kung Fu Chess as well... Joshua: But then after entering KFC we worked hard to polish it and stopped working so much on the MMRTS it ended up being much more ready for presenting than the MMRTS Dan: So weirdly the MMRTS ended up getting pushed out of the top ten mostly because of KFC But I'm glad it did!
Did you expect, at the beginning, that Kung Fu Chess would edge out the MMRTS?
Dan: Actually, that only became apparent afterwards because we were really too busy at the time to evaluate anything! The IGF doesn't actually evaluate the games until a month or two after the deadline, so we hadn't developed either of them to their full extent yet. Before the deadline we had been mostly working on the MMRTS, basically because I personally "really wanted to finish it" After the deadline however, we mostly focused on KFC over the MMRTS. Joshua: We knew KFC had a really good shot, and the MMRTS just wasn't ready Dan: The thing about KFC is it's very innovative (and addictive) and that's really what the IGF is about, as I understand it. Comparatively, the MMRTS just wasn't ready.
What do you think of the competition? They picked a whole slew of different and original game types this year.
Joshua: I love Insane Aquarium Dan: I like the fact that they were so eclectic in their choices. And yeah, we've played [Insane Aquarium] a lot Joshua: That's the only one of the games I can really get into. I also liked Banja Taiyo, but found the load times difficult to play through Dan: Agreed... I wasn't really so into it as a game, but I really liked their style and music. Same for Static Joshua: Yea... it's really stylish Dan: Really nice artwork there
Have either of you guys ever been to the GDC?
Joshua: No, have you? :> Dan: Been to E3 but never GDC. It will be nice - I know a lot of people who will be attending. It's going to be really fun to have a booth. Of course we'd like to win the competition, but the booth and publicity is really a fantastic prize in itself - probably more valuable, even.
And if you win? What then?
Dan: We get $15,000 It won't change anything other than our financial position, except give us even more publicity, which is always good! Joshua: We don't really need money to write our games, so it won't necessarily help our business… but it's definitely cool to have some money Dan: Well I'd personally really like to win! I think a lot more people will hear about Kung Fu Chess and Shizmoo if we do Joshua: I personally think either Banja Taiyo or that space shooter Ace of Angels is gonna win =)
So what's the future looking like for Shizmoo games?
Dan: Our next phase of business development is really to do some marketing and get more publishing contracts. We're finishing up our technology (hopefully) for creating and deploying network games really quickly. When that's done, we'll be offering a "paid upgrade" of kung fu chess with better graphics, new game types, etc.
Does this tech scale up to the MMOG level or just games like KFC?
Dan: It scales, but not as easily. It's so easy to write games like KFC with it that you don't even have to write any network code really. I wrote a multiplayer Tetris-like game in 2 hours with it, for example. Joshua: It uses EVIL 4-dimensional technology! Dan: Eventually we actually are considering opening it up to external developers.
Dan: Nope... they would write 'plug-ins' to our meta-game and might get paid royalties basically, based on usage of their games. So we would have a multi-game system that you could plug your own new code and graphics into (safely of course) and that people could then play.
Very cool. Well it seems like you guys are off to a great start! Any last words?
Dan: Yeah... PLAY KUNG FU CHESS! Joshua: Want to know the secret ingredient to Dan's burritos? Dan: I make a mean burrito Joshua: Yes, we considered giving up the game business at one point to open a burrito stand Dan: The secret ingredient is... MUSTARD! Add it to black beans, man. Ok well it's not so secret anymore I guess Joshua: really? It's mustard? He's lying Dan: no I'm not! Joshua: No one would put mustard in beans
Haha - thanks a lot for taking the time to do this interview guys
Dan: Hey no problem - thanks for the interview Joshua: Danke schon. Auf wiedersehen mein Freund!