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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.
For this interview I spent some time online with 21-6 Productions talking about their game TubeTwist. 21-6 has been around in the indie world for a while now, with their most well-known title being Orbz, which is still high on the charts to this day. This is 21-6's first nomination to the IGF; they've been nominated for Technical Excellence.
Who are you and what was your role on TubeTwist?
Justin Mette: My name is Justin Mette, and I am the president of 21-6 Productions. We are an independent game studio based out of Colorado. My primary role on TubeTwist was producer but I also did some programming.
Congrats on your nomination to the IGF for technical excellence. Is this 21-6's first attempt at entering the competition?
Justin Mette: Thank you we are totally excited about it! This is our first IGF nomination and the second time we have entered a game. We entered Orbz in 2003 but did not get nominated.
The IGF has changed a few things again this year from the past two years and the past four before that - what do you think of the new format and as a developer, how would you like to see the IGF continue to evolve?
Justin Mette: I think that the new format helped to get TubeTwist recognized this year. In 2003, the categories didn't really cover Orbz very well as it was somewhere between a downloadable casual game and a harder core game. This year, the categories opened up the possibilities for more games - so much so that the competition is awesome! As far as evolution goes, I think they are on the right track this year and hope it works out so they can continue with the formula they have.
TubeTwist did very well at the IGC towards the end of last year. How would you compare that competition to the IGF?
Justin Mette: The IndieGamesCon awards are all player driven. There are no judges, just attendees voting for their favorite games. We were honored to win Best Overall and Best Single Player game of the show this year with TubeTwist. I would say IGC awards are more in line with the IGF Players Choice award but with more categories.
So how did you guys come up with the idea for TubeTwist? Did the design evolve from an original idea, or did someone on the team want to create a game like The Incredible Machine?
Justin Mette: TubeTwist started as an experiment implementing the ODE Physics Engine into Torque. The prototype ended up being pretty fun and the game kind of evolved out of that. Somewhere in the middle of turning the prototype into a game, we realized how much we could be inspired by games like The Incredible Machine; providing a sand-box like experience where the player has many, many solutions to each puzzle.
In addition to the ODE engine, what other new horizons did TubeTwist present for you and the team during development?
Justin Mette: This is the first game we've attempted to integrate a story. We really tried to capture the player's attention in the first 3 minutes of the game through the cinematic/tutorial that is played when the game first starts up. We developed a movie quality sound track, in-game cinematics, and voice-overs to help add immersion and production value to the experience in hopes to compel the player to keep solving puzzles and uncovering more of the story.
What made you guys decide to integrate ODE into the Torque Game Engine?
Justin Mette: As avid gamers ourselves, we have recognized the value of having a physics engine in a game. It opens up some doors with game play that we really want to explore (like creating a sand-box style game like TubeTwist). ODE is an open source physics engine so the price was right to start experimenting.
What do you think was the biggest design challenge you guys faced during development and how was it solved?
Justin Mette: The biggest design challenge was balancing the difficulty level of the puzzles. It took a lot of playing the game and running it through multiple Beta's to find the right progression of difficulty in the different time periods. We also introduced new tube types with each era the player unlocks to help keep the game feeling new and open up new solutions to puzzles.
How about from the production/management side?
Justin Mette: We are still a growing company and much of TubeTwist development was done on a part-time schedule by developers who had day jobs, etc. Over this past year, however, our company has grown and we had full-time employees available to finish the game and bring it up to a level of polish needed to get distribution deals.
And the technical side?
Justin Mette: Optimization of a 3D game so that it will run on lower end Windows and Mac machines is our biggest technical challenge when developing games for the downloadable game market. Even now, we are working on a patch for TubeTwist that will improve performance of the game on lower end machines (along with new puzzles that players can download from www.tubetwist.com).
Besides TGE and ODE, what other software and tools were used during development?
Justin Mette: Visual Studio is the IDE we use, CVS for source control, and 3D Studio Max for modeling. We use dotProject for task management and resource scheduling.
What was the typical work week like during development in terms of hours expended?
Justin Mette: There were seven people that worked on the game over the course of a couple of years. In the beginning when we didn't respect how much effort went into creating the game, weekly man hours were probably in the 20-30 range. Over the last 6 months, we have had full-timers working on the game to finish it and logging 80-100 man hours per week.
Was there anything besides the lack of respect that you think could have saved you guys some effort towards the end?
Justin Mette: Having full-time team members now allows us to prototype ideas quicker and iterate over the game design until it hits the sweet spot It's not a "lesson" per say but is a realization that more horse power means we can produce faster and have more fun.
What are some of the main factors you can contribute to your success as an indie development studio?
Justin Mette: The games we have finished, shipped, and are generating revenue are each games we thoroughly enjoy playing ourselves. We have some games on the shelf which never will see the light of day because we developed them for the wrong reasons and the result is uninspiring. We've got a new game in development right now which we are having a blast playing and development has been progressing much more rapidly than ever before because we are inspired and having fun. It's one of the more important lessons we have learned in our past 5 years as a studio - we have to find ways of making games that appeal to us and generate a decent stream of revenue. If early sales on TubeTwist are any indication, we are on the right track and it feels good.
Well since you've already let on to a cool new game, what's next for 21-6 as a studio?
Justin Mette: Xbox 360 Live Arcade. The kind of games we love to play and develop are a perfect fit for this new outlet of creative games. Last year we released Orbz on the first Xbox Live Arcade and it's doing well because of the full multiplayer support not normally found in "casual" games. Developing creative new multiplayer game experiences for Xbox 360 Live Arcade is right up our alley and we are looking forward to the opportunity.
Sounds great. Any last words of wisdom?
Justin Mette: We're often so caught up in the development of a game that we don't take time to talk more about our experiences. Thanks for the opportunity to discuss 21-6 and TubeTwist. Finally, what interview wouldn't be complete without pimping the demo! Take 5 minutes, download the demo from www.tubetwist.com, and see how the story begins!
Best of luck to Justin and the entire 21-6 team at IGF!