Interview with Jamie Woodhouse
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I see elements in Qwak that remind me of several of my favorite platformer games...in the musical style, the game play, the visuals. But Qwak isn't a clone of these games. It is, to me, a unique blend of similar elements, a projection of earlier arcade games, and of console games that were available at the time it was first released. This is nostalgic for me!
And it is loads of fun!
Screen shot of Qwak
Jamie Woodhouse is the developer of Qwak, and he joins us today for a candid discussion about the game, his influences and his experiences as an indie developer.
Jamie: Great stuff! I’m glad you enjoyed it! It’s always nice to know people enjoy playing something I made.
I don’t feel Qwak is a clone of any other game either; although there are bound to be influences, I grew up in the 80’s and was very immersed in the gaming scene back then; but Qwak was very much my own baby, me following my own creative impulse.
Jamie, tell us about yourself, and briefly describe Qwak,from your own point-of-view. What were your influences and how did you develop the idea?
Well, I’ve been making games for around 25 years now, primarily on a contractual basis; and I may be best known for developing Qwak, and perhaps ATR (Team17) and Nitro (Psygnosis), so that’s all going back a few years!
I’ve also worked on a lot of game prototypes and technology that has never seen the light of day (as an example, check out: http://www.jamiewoodhouse.co.uk/pages/tools/moe.php). In recent years, I’ve breathed life back in to Qwak, with versions on the GBA and now on PC.
Influences for Qwak? There would have been so many!! The kind of games I used to really love playing back then; Starforce, Krull, Gauntlet, Defender, Starwars … hmmm, not many platform games there! I must have played Bubble Bobble, oh, and Flicky (awesome platformer, featuring a bird character), and a whole load of other platform games on the Beeb [BBC Micro – ed]; Frak, Monsters, and too many others to recall; I was really saturated with games in my younger days.
Interesting! Actually, the games you mentioned are completely different from the ones I thought about: Pengo (bird character!), Pooyan (not sure why…musically maybe), Mappy…
Sure, I would certainly have played Mappy and Pengo in the arcades. I played a lot of games back then, when I was a kid, seaside amusement arcades and all that!
How did I develop the Qwak idea? Hmm. You know, I didn’t really have an agenda or goal or anything like that, I just did what I felt at the time would work, and make a nice game. Looking back now, at the original version of Qwak on the Beeb, maybe it was too fast? Too ‘zingy’ and too hard. I’d love it like that myself! I used to love that pumped up adrenalin junkie reaction fest kind of thing, where the speed of your reflexes made or broke you (just play Defender, and you’ll get what I mean). So yeah, I just made the kind of game that I knew I’d love to play. I didn’t really make it with other people in mind!
I can see that being the case with Qwak (though I haven’t played through all the levels and haven’t played it on the Beeb). But isn’t that one of the things that pushes you to keep playing platformer games…the challenge of the nearly impossible level? I remember playing the earlier Oddworld games on the Playstation and there would be the occasional level where you had to time a jump to within…what must have beena one or two pixel tolerance. Madness! But you keep playing till you finish the level!
Yeah, I think that would drive me crazy too. I’m not keen on that kind of thing, where you have to line everything up pixel perfect to reach the next platform, or whatever. It’s too unforgiving, and doesn’t make for a fun experience.
I like a more fluid dynamic in games. It’s OK if a game is hard, but it should always have a little lee-way, a little wiggle room to recover from any errors you make. I like a‘soft’ feel in a game, no hard and fast cut off point, where you die and that’s it. An example of this would be the falling spikes in Qwak, if you stay on a level too long, you don’t just die, there is always hope, but only if you have the skill to survive.
Tell us about your testing and quality assurance process.Do you hire outside testers? I’m sure it has been different when you worked with publishers.
I pretty much just do it all myself, including testing. There’s a cyclical process; develop, test, resolve any bugs, then develop a bit more; but doing it all yourself isn’t always a good idea! It’s very important to get outside feedback, or there is a real danger of becoming too good at your own game, and tailoring it to your own skill level. Big mistake! In fact, this probably explains why Qwak isn’t an easy game.
Working with publishers has always involved a good QA process, and teams of people testing and finding bugs and issues.
How do you manage your defect/bug tracking and source control. Do you use any software tools to help with this? Has this changed over the years?
No software tools, and no tracking, other than making a note in a text file somewhere.
I don’t get all that many bugs, just a few, and I tend to resolve them as and when they pop up.
I approach game programming as if I’m building a structure, like a pyramid. I need to get the base layer sorted, and defect free, before I start work on the next layer up (that uses the functionality of the base layer). So only when the current layer I’m working on is sorted and defect free, will I move up a level.
Of course, it’s always possible to miss something, or get a rare case that can break your system.
What are some of the features of Qwak that set it apart from other platformer games?
There are so many! The way the monsters bounce of the fruit and collectable items; so you can leave them in place (not collect them), and use them as ‘cover’. The way fruit and goodie scan rain down from the top of the screen. How spikes fall from the top of the screen if you’ve been on a level for too long. How some levels combine puzzle solving with action! It’s frantic, but how well you do is largely a matter of your own skill and decisions.
Screen shot of Qwak
I really like that the levels are somewhat random, with a different starting point each time, and with the exit door assigned differently. It adds some interest.
Yeah! I tried to add in lots of little things like that, to prevent the game from becoming too repetitive. So you can play it over and over, and it’s different each time. There are randomly selected features, which add variety, so for example on some levels the last key sprouts wings, and you have the chase it around the level to collect it. If you randomly lay different gameplay elements on top of each other like that, you get a lot of variety in to a game.
Did you add any of these features as an afterthought? Now that I understand that you didn’t have a specific goal when you began the project, what was your design process? Tell us about any formalities…about the process you used. Do you have a design document? A scream/sell sheet for sending to publishers (when you weren’t self-publishing)?
I can be very spontaneous, and just go for what feels right, a lot of following my gut instinct. That said, I have tried different approaches to project management, with varying degrees of success. I’m a big fan of GTD (getting things done) methodology, so a big part of that is getting ideas out of your head and into a ‘trusted system’.
For me, I’ve used mind mapping software on a PC, and also A4 file folders, containing notes and ideas on paper, all grouped together by section. So that’s two hierarchical methods of storing ideas and notes on a project. In addition to that, I also use a daily do to list, which I like to use pen and paper for, and I’ll pull ideas and things that need doing from my hierarchical storage system.
I’ve found having these two distinct types of systems (hierarchical and linear daily to-do-list) works really well. When you’re looking at what you need to do for just one day,it’s good to have it all lined up so you can just plough through the work, get on a roll, and there’s no need to interrupt this and go think what you need to do next etc. You just keep on churning it out.
I had a sell sheet when I sent out Qwak GBA to publishers. Aside from that, in the past, when I’ve approached publishers; I’ve just sent game demos and prototypes, with an accompanying letter.
Were the publishers quick to respond? What advice can you offer other developers who wish to pitch an idea to a publisher?
Well, some were pretty quick, some wanted to know more; some were quite polite, some completely ignored me.
As for advice; well, I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask! I don’t think publishers care too much about creative original game ideas; they seem more interested in churning out licensed poop, to turn a quick buck (make money).
I’d say this though, your ability to present your ideas and game making ability, in a way that publishers can understand and relate to (i.e. your ability to sell yourself), is way more important than your actual skill and ability to make games.
So yeah, presentation is everything. People (generally) only ever look at the cover of a book, or so it seems.
The PC version was just released. What other platforms does Qwak run on? Which platform is the most popular? Which is your personal favorite for playing the game?
Well, currently there are versions on the BBC, Electron, Amiga, GBA and PC. The Amiga and GBA versions are pretty much the same. I think a lot of people have very fond memories of the Amiga version (rose tinted spectacles effect perhaps?), but people who’ve played the PC version, all say very good things about that too; and I think it’s by far the best version so far, andyeah, it’s definitely my personal favorite.
The GBA version is great. The size of the elements on screen is well balanced on that device.
Thanks! Yeah, I think the game is very suited to that platform.
How do you see your own thoughts about level design, about game design, changing as you immerse yourself more into PC development?
It was my first PC game, so on the technical side; there was a certain amount of learning the ropes (new platform etc). As I learned more and more about PC game development, and looking back, I don’t feel I used its full potential. I could have perhaps been a bit more innovative, but then, it’s my first PC game, and it’s all a learning process.
As far as the level design goes on Qwak; I felt there were two basic kinds of levels, action levels, and puzzle levels. If you play the game, you’ll notice on world 2, a lot of the levels can be exited really easy, or, you can try and solve them (get past all the tricks, traps and puzzles, and collect all the goodies). I like this kind of multi-layered dynamic, where it’s easy to complete a level, but there are optional extra hard bits you can do, that will ramp up your score. It means the game offers something to everyone, no matter what you skill level.
So specifically with the PC version, I tried to make more of the puzzle solving aspect of the game. I also introduced new elements, like the treasure chests you can collect, and also, there are different coloured levers to pull (which open different traps), and different coloured keys too.
How many people were on the Qwak team? Did this changeover the years?
Actually, there was just one person.
While I was working on Qwak Amiga, Team17 were awesome, and they did chip in ideas here and there; and also there was a graphic artist working on the game (who did the backgrounds, while I just did the sprites).
For the PC version, I did pretty much all of it myself. So, design, coding, graphics, I created all the asset creation tools, and did all the level designs too.
How long did it take to complete the level design, e.g.,for the original version?
Generally, level design takes me ages. For the PC version, it took a very long time, and I’d go over and over the levels, changing and tweaking stuff, or even scrapping levels altogether and trying new ideas. So it was all very time consuming.
There is a level editor in development now, which I hope to make available soon. It integrates with the game itself, so it will be real easy to make a level, test it, then make adjustments etc.People will be able to create and share their own levels, and Qwak adventures (i.e. several levels played in sequence), then they can upload the levels to the site, and share with other players.
Oh, and I developed the Qwak website too (including all the graphics). I also did the marketing, hmm, that was probably a very bad idea, as I suck at it, big time, and it bores the life out of me(and I’d much prefer just to be making games, working to my strengths etc).
Do you have any opinions about whether it is easier now,or more difficult, to self-market an indie game? I’m thinking of social networking…blogs, YouTube, message boards, marketing within virtual worlds, etc., the idea of viral marketing gone right or wrong. I can think of some amazing marketing successes and some failures that have happened.
Yes, I think it’s very possible to market an indie game, online; and there are a lot of options available and avenues you can explore. The hard bit is the ‘know how’. Just because you know how to make a game, it doesn’t mean you’ll know how to market it properly, it’s completely different skill.
In an ideal world, games would sell on their own merit; and I think they do to a degree, but marketing is very important too. It’s not something I would say I have a natural aptitude for either, I’m just trying to learn as I go along and trying to do my best with it.
How did you fund development of Qwak? Have sales enabled you to develop the versions for other platforms? Has there been any investment that you can speak of?
I think when you’re indie, and you’re making the games you love; there’s a price to be paid, and you soon acquire a taste for inexpensive foods like ‘beans on toast’. So yeah, I wish I could say I’ve done amazingly well, but it would be a lie. The truth is that I’ve lived very modestly, for extended periods of time, and had to do without. There has been no investment at all, and I don’t have the backing of any larger developer or publisher, or anyone; and I feel all alone in the world.
But I don’t want to sound like I’m moaning too much, I’m really glad I persevered and completed development of Qwak PC, it’s very satisfying on a creative level, to know you stuck it out, and saw something through to the end (and doing it all yourself, is tough, esp. with a quality polished game like Qwak).
Have you supported yourself, then, primarily by doing game development consulting work and with Qwak? Do you have a “day job” also (delivering pizza or selling real estate or working as an auto mechanic or doing boring programming)?
I did some contract jobs a while back, they paid ok. I also worked full time a few years back, just for a few months, developing POS (point of sale) systems. God! That was so boring! It paid well but, sadly, just didn’t get my juices flowing like making games does.
Which platform did you most enjoy developing for? Why?
You know, I think maybe the Amiga, or the GBA. Yeah, both of them were great fun to make games for.
You knew where you were on those platforms, if you made a game; you knew that the way it ran on your machine, it would run the exact same on everyone else’s machine. That’s not the case with the PC, though I am getting more and more into PC game dev, and enjoying it.
It was that way on early personal computers as well. I wrote programs for the Apple II, the Commodore VIC-20, the Atari 8-bit series. I remember having to remove white space and change variable names from 5 characters down to a single letter so that the interpreted code for a BASIC-based game would both fit into RAM and run at the same time. It was a challenge, and a lot of fun to get something to work on very limited hardware. And as you say, you knew it would work on everyone’s copy of the computer!
Yeah, it’s so true; all the limitations just forced you to be more creative. Today, things are very different and the same limitations don’t exist anymore. There’s still a need for creativity, just that you apply your creativity in other areas, to different things.
How have your tools changed over the years? And by that I mean coding language/compiler, debugging tools, art tools. How does your PC-based asset pipeline look compared with, say, the Amiga?
It seems much better now. I used Visual C++ for coding, which obviously has an excellent integrated debugger (very useful), a very nice development environment.
With the art assets, I used a combination of a 32-bit and an old-school, 8-bit bitmap editor, to create the game art. So for example, with the sprites, I create them in the 8-bit bitmap editor first, but over-sized. I then use ImageMajick to reduce the size and convert to 32 bit images (during the process you get a nice anti-aliasing effect on the edges), I then import in to the 32-bit editor and add borders and other effects.
For the levels, I used my own tools, including ‘Level Mapper’ [note that this is different from the in-development, in-game level editor – ed]. There is a little info on LevelMapper here.
Screen shot of the Qwak Level Mapper
Tell us which API’s you used for the PC version? Did you use any open source for the PC or any other version? (If so, that surely would have changed over the years, I think!)
With Qwak I used and API called PTK (http://www.phelios.com/ptk). It’s pretty cool, and will make doing a Mac port a breeze. It’s a thin layer of abstraction that sits between your game and DirectX or OpenGL (you can select either on your app’s startup, so there’s no need to change any of your game code).
Other than that, there’s no open source, it’s all stuff I coded myself (in C++).
Can you reveal anything about your sales over the years?
Yeah, they’ve been completely abysmal (well, certainly in recent times they have). I think for anyone reading this, the message has to be, get your marketing right. If you’re crap at something (e.g. marketing) do not try and do it all yourself, it really is shooting yourself in the foot (or head). So no man is an island, and by trying to be one, it only serves to retard your own growth.
How has your sales methodology changed over the years?
I guess in my early years, I’d always hooked up with a publisher. You know, so, I developed the game on my own initiative, and then tout it around the publishers, sign a deal, then handle all the selling of it.
Lately, I’ve been more inclined to self-publish. You know you can’t get ripped off, or burned that way, but then, there’s good and bad to everything …
How did you come to be so inclined? Has your experience with publishers changed over the years, and if so, how?
I think bad past experiences with publishers in my early days made me a little wary of getting involved again. I’m not talking about Team17; but with some publishers, I don’t know,you’d think they’d want to treat developers well; nurture them, and cultivate a positive relationship that can last years. Think win-win; rather than “we’ll just get what we want out of him now, and sod the future” kind of mentality.
Obviously, not all publishers are the same; and I’m not about pointing fingers or blaming anyone, it’s all in the past now anyway. It’s not important anymore.
I’d love to find and work with a publisher, making the kind of games I want to make, that may or may not happen, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s something that would happen overnight though. So all that’s left for me to do is keep plugging away, learning more and making better games.
The ‘bad’ with self-publishing, as I’m finding in my own situation, is that you end up doing absolutely everything yourself, and that sucks because while you may have a great talent on one or two areas, you end up spreading yourself so thinly that you only spend a tiny amount of time in the area where your strength is …
And that’s just not an efficient way of doing business.
So, I’m going way off-topic from your original question here; but I think there’s a big thing of yeah, you do need to change and adapt over the years, it’s *very* important to do so.
Are you working on any new game ideas at this time?
I’m currently integrating the new level editor in to Qwak PC. After that, I have a few ideas, but nothing concrete as yet, we’ll see…
Are you going to continue operating as an indie game developer? Tell us about any other plans you may have, moving forward?
I very much have a strong creative impulse and desire to make games, it’s something I very much love to do. Also, from a technical stand-point, I have a lot of experience and know-how. I spent years doing stuff in assembly and highly optimizing code and doing all kinds of magic tricks to squeeze out every last drop of performance on limited hardware platforms. I’m not sure those kind of skills are as relevant anymore, but it does demonstrate an ability to look at problems from many different angles, and to gauge the relative merits of possible solutions. It’s all using the mind in creative ways, all good fun.
I’m not one for blowing my own trumpet, but I know I have a tremendous level of ability and creativity, when it comes to making game; yet I can see myself, next year, flipping burgers and serving up fries in some fast-food joint.
Only kidding! I’m going to pursue my own creative impulse, build up my contacts, and I’m very sure it’ll all work out for best, and I’ll make many fantastic games in the years to come, and will completely enjoy the ride.
Jamie, thank you for spending time with me to discuss Qwak and your own history and experience. It’s been a pleasure!
Well, thank you for interviewing me! It’s been fun... would you like fries with that?
(Readers can download a demo or purchase a copy of Qwak from the game’s website, http://www.qwak.co.uk/)