IGF 2010: Loren Schmidt
game feedback games star development guard lot time
The IGF Awards take place on the evening of the third day of Game Developers Conference, and are a major celebration of the best in indie gaming, with thousands watching the award presentation before the Game Developer's Choice Awards are presented. The 2009 IGF Awards, including custom interstitials from Mega64, are available for online viewing. All GDC visitors can attend the awards. [From IGF about page]
About Star Guard
Guide the spaceman through the castle and defeat the wizard. [From IGF info page]
Interview with Loren Schmidt
Who are you and how are you involved with StarGuard?
My name is Loren Schmidt, and I developed Star Guard.
How did you become interested in game development?
I didn't have a computer or a console in the house as a young child, but what little exposure to electronic games I had was enough to fascinate me. Before I had a computer, I used to make up boardgames and try to convince my brother to play them. I should apologize to him, I think. A lot of those were really terribly constructed and probably weren't much fun at all.
What inspired Star Guard’s retro graphics and feel?
Going into the project, I wanted to have a set of constraints. So I drew up an artificial 'spec'- it isn't based on any particular piece of hardware. Sprites can be no larger than 12x12, and each character can use no more than 12 sprites. 8 colors and alpha are allowed, with no partial transparency.
Anything larger than 12x12 is made by manually placing multiple sprites (including the boss).
It isn't that I want the game to feel like it came out of any particular historical period. I just enjoy working within limits, and want it to feel self consistent.
Over the course of development, what was StarGuard’s most serious issue and how was it resolved?
The biggest problem was me, really. This is the first large project I've actually completed, and I quite honestly came very close to not finishing it. I did try to develop it in a productive fashion, and at times it worked fairly well. But I have a lot to learn when it comes to organizing larger projects.
What’s one thing you did wrong (individually or as a team) that you feel could have been avoided? How?
More specifically, the biggest problem I ran into was organizing the project well. I'm still actively trying to learn how to improve in this area. This was all pretty new to me, and there were alot of times when I ran into situations I'd never encountered before. Development went best were when I was really organized, and I could see the game improving at a steady rate. That did wonders for my motivation. Several times I fell out of that positive feedback loop. Progress slowed to a crawl, and I had trouble working in a focused manner (this was especially toward the end of the project,when all that remained were the boss and a few UI elements).
If there was one thing you could look back on during development and say “that was really cool” – what was it and why?
I remember being happy when I implemented the exploding platforms in level 5. They're a simple idea, but I had fun making them. I really enjoy focused tasks like that. It's fun to take a simple element of a game, something unglamorous like a button in a UI or a tuft of grass, and just focus on it for a while, trying to make it feel really solid.
How long has Star Guard been in development? How much development time remains?
It took about 16 months to complete. I was in school at the time, so I wasn't able to develop it full time. It's more or less done now. There are a few things about it that don't feel quite complete to me. Though my focus has shifted to a couple of new projects, I intend to keep making small changes and fixing bugs.
Were you working on Star Guard exclusively before you completed it? How did you stop other ideas from drawing you away from Star Guard?
I'm all for people making multiple games at once if they have the skills to stay productive and motivated. I'm not sure I'm quite there myself. I got caught up in a few smaller projects during development, and overall I'd say I wasn't up to the task. But it wasn't all bad.
For instance, when Star Guard was nearing completion a friend encouraged me to participate in the 48 hour Ludum Dare competition for the first time. It was a lot of fun. I got quite excited about developing the little game I made, and spent quite a few days on it after the deadline. The game's here, if anyone wants to play it. All told it was a really good experience. But it was a bit strange going back to developing Star Guard. I felt somewhat guilty for having temporarily abandoned it.
Given that I'm still actively figuring out how to develop games productively, I think making multiple games at once is pretty dangerous for me. I have enough trouble staying on top of things when I'm just doing one project. I don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with it, but right now I'm a little leery of doing that myself.
What was used to make the game and what tools aided in development?
I used FlashDevelop, which is a free IDE for Windows.
What's the main thing you think makes your game fun?
Eep. I think one of its defining features is that it knows exactly what it wants to be. The core of the game was established a long time ago, and all the details of the execution exist only to support that core.
Besides the IGF, what else have you done to get your game before players? What’s worked the best?
I'm not really very comfortable with the business side of things, to be honest. I just like making things, and I don't like having to think about what will and won't sell. That said, I am trying to transition into doing game development full time, and I'm trying to at least develop a feel for the basics so I can do so sustainably.
I don't think, at this point, that I have any particularly valuable advice about publicity to offer. One thing I'd recommend, however, is making sure that the game stands on its own legs. I see a lot of games with fancy trailers and good marketing work which simply aren't good games, and that's putting the cart before the horse.
Is there anything about Star Guard that you would like to reveal to other developers?
As is true of a lot of small developers, my testers were volunteers from all over the world. I couldn't watch them play in person. To partially compensate for this, during testing I asked testers to send me a video of their first playthrough. Not everyone was able to do this, but a lot of people did.
Watching people as they learned how to play the game was really scary. I cringed every time someone got confused, or died repeatedly because of bad jump tuning or an unfair piece of level design.These videos were invaluable as I tuned things and refined the level design.
I'm thankful to the people who helped me test or sent me feedback, it's all been tremendously helpful.
How did you feel about the judge’s feedback for your game?
I like the idea of giving all entrants feedback. It seems like it's a particularly good idea in cases where people aren't finalists, and they otherwise wouldn't know how well appreciated their games are. I do wish the feedback were more in depth. A lot of the IGF feedback I've seen released around the web has been too general to be of use in improving a game. I realize that for practical reasons, judges aren't asked to write an in-depth piece of feedback for each entrant. I'm okay with the way the system works: it seems like it's a tremendously complicated thing to organize, and it's doing a pretty good job (and there are so many games...).
But if I could have my way, there'd be pile of really expertly written, detailed feedback for every entrant. I think that would be tremendously helpful for developers.
Is there any item of feedback from the judges that you specifically took note of?
I really do appreciate the supportive comments I received from judges. But as feedback, it wasn't specific enough to be very actionable. I'm partial to detailed, brutally honest feedback. Feedback like, "I fell into a pit in level 3 over and over because the player movement seemed pretty slippery" is incredibly useful.
What’s next for you?
I'm ready to try and make a living by making games. I'm working on a stripped down RPG called "Tiny Crawl." My second project is a tiny game called "Tin Can Knight," which should be out soon.
I have some other ideas that aren't at all commercially viable, but which I'd really like to be able to put time into. Some are games, and others aren't. I'm interested in finding ways of realizing those projects.
What’s the main thing you’ve learnt when developing Star Guard that you’ll take forward to your next game?
I learned that I could finish things. I have a history of taking on large projects and not completing them. It means a lot to me to be able to look back at this and know that I can stick with a project and see it through to completion.