23 Oct

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to have a nice chat with the good folks over at Space Whale Studios about their upcoming Xbox Live Indie/PC Game, Return All Robots!…what are we waiting for?!  Let’s get started!

Question #1

When I saw the first second of gameplay, right away I was reminded of the ice block puzzles from Ocarina on Time.  However, that was just a brief second of thought.  This game is vastly more complex than this, especially as you progress through the game.  Can you share the process of how you all came up with the idea for this game?

Answer #1

We actually came up with the prototype for RAR! at the 2009 Philly Gamejam. A gamejam is an event where teams of developers are given a short period of time (in this case, 48 hours) to produce a game from scratch, which is then judged. The theme for the 2009 Philly jam was “An age is called Dark, not because the light does not shine, but because people refuse to see.” So, we had to interpret that and somehow make a game out of it. Of the Space Whale team, three of us were there for the whole thing (Jordan Santell, Aaron Chapin and Zachary Brooks) along with several friends of ours who helped with programming and art. Some of these friends ended up working on RAR! as well.

When all was said and done, we presented our game, an action-puzzler called “The Shovelnose Screamer.” The fundamental gameplay was similar to RAR!, albeit in a different setting. You play as a giant bat that has to use his sonar to lead baby bats (who have their eyes sewn shut) out of a cave. Instead of bad robots, your enemies in this game were spiders that wanted to eat the bats. We only had a few levels for Shovelnose, but the judges really liked it and it inspired us to take that basic gameplay mechanic of ‘calling’ both good and bad entities and develop that into a full game with a more robust setting. (You can’t do too much with bats and spiders.)

The funny thing is, our initial plan was to just remake Shovelnose with a different setting and more levels. What we’ have now actually has more features than we initially planned, something that is pretty uncommon in the world of game development!

Question #2

I saw that one of the level designers (Andrew Aversa) also composed music for the game.  How was it to compose for a game you were involved in designing?   There aren’t many cases of someone designing and composing for a game outside of one-man projects.’

Answer #2

Andrew here. This is a classic example of how game development teams, especially indie ones, have a lot of fluidity. Initially, I had planned on only doing music. As the game progressed, I ended up doing some sound effects, and when it became clear that we didn’t have the manpower for a dedicated level designer I decided to take the lead on that, and later wrote the majority of the dialog as well. I have to say, I’ve always wanted to be a game designer, since well before I started writing music. So, I’d say it was a great experience, and worked out perfectly! The only problem was that many of the levels I designed were extremely hard. It’s a little bit of an injoke. At our last meeting, one of the levels I made was so hard that I literally couldn’t beat it myself.

Just as another example of multiple roles on our team, Jordan, who started out as our technical director and producer, did a ton of work ‘beautifying’ the levels – adding all of the graphical touches and facelifts to bring the barebones designs I made to life. He also designed and laid out the building where the game takes place, and even created a number of art assets himself.

Question #3

In terms of level design during game progression, what was done to prevent the game from having any feelings of repetition?  Basically, how have you attempted to keep it fresh the whole way through?

Answer #3

We thought about that early on in the process, and decided that the best way to keep things fresh was to add new mechanics as the game goes on. In addition to this, no two levels are alike – not only do things get harder, but there isn’t one ‘perfect’ solution that works on multiple puzzles. For example, one level might be a wide open space with few obstacles, a single blue robot, and lots of reds, while another has many blue robots in a cramped space with multiple hazards.

With regards to mechanics, in the Robotics Lab, the first real ‘world’ of the game after the tutorial, you’re equipped only with your remote control. Even with this considered, the levels are no cakewalk, and we’ve continuously lowered the difficulty throughout our QA process based on player feedback (it’s rare to see people even beat this lab in one sitting.) You progress from here to the Biogenics Lab, which adds the “Cyberturtle” mechanic. This allows you to fire a cybernetic, mutated turtle which acts as an obstacle to good and bad robots alike. The level design takes this into consideration, and you can’t beat any of the Biogenics levels without using the Cyberturtle repeatedly.

After this, you move on to the Cryogenics Lab and acquire the Macrowaver. In this lab, every level is full of ice blocks that you can melt – but once you do, they don’t come back. So, while you have to melt some ice blocks to beat each level, you have to start thinking far ahead  and ensure that you’re not melting a block that actually needs to stay solid for you to win! In short, the player is constantly being challenged in new ways, both through the variety in level design, new obstacles and new mechanics.

Question #4

The art in the game seems fairly simplistic, yet vibrant and effective.  Naturally for a puzzle game you guys could have come up with all sorts of artistic styles to convey.  Some games go overboard on aesthetic elements at the sacrifice of gameplay.   How was this tackled?

Answer #4

Zach, our lead artist, is really great at creating unique characters and quirky aesthetics.  Good art cannot thrive if it clouds the gameplay, though. Our 2010 Dream Build Play submission (in January) was far too saturated and bright to discern the action from the backgrounds which was key to gameplay, so Zach decided to create a color saturation and contrast balance to separate key elements from the backgrounds.  By muting the colors and eliminating contrast in the background art, the characters and interactive objects, with more vibrant colors and heavy black outlined contrast, were able to stand out to the immersed player as ‘these are the art pieces on screen i should be focused on’.   With the comfort of not interrupting gameplay, the overall ‘feel’ which we discussed early on in the project could take hold. From the beginning, we didn’t want to make a super-serious tone for our game, mostly because that wouldnt match our own personalities as individuals and game designers. We all love awkwardness and dark humor, so we had fun with the style. Pulling together chibi-esque character proportions, wacky 80s hairdos, and backdating the lab technology to be outdated by today’s standards, we were able to create an interactive environment that was both fun to look at and fun to explore, and games in the end, above all else, have to be fun.

Question #5

People love game music…well rational good human beings that is.  What inspired the decision to hold a remixing contest with the winner having his/her song included in the soundtrack?  One could say that this type of freedom is a luxury of being an Indy dev.

Answer #5

The remix contest was Andrew’s idea. He’s been involved with the OCReMix.org community for years, and proposed that it would bring additional attention to our game and start engaging people to become fans. In this Facebook and Twitter-dominated Internet age, it’s less about pushing a product on to people and more about providing them with a real experience, and allowing them to connect with you as a developer, rather than acting like some faceless, monolithic corporation. To that end, we’ve also attended a number of indie showcases and events like Artscape in Baltimore and the 8static chiptune show in Philadelphia, all so we can meet and engage people one-on-one.

Question #6

What was your goal with this game? Obviously you all want it to be fun and successful.  Have you achieved what you wanted with it up to this point, and how do you feel this experience will springboard future game development at Space Whale Studios?

Answer #6

Well, as you said, our first goal was to produce something fun, that we could all be proud of. As I mentioned before, we’ve achieved more in terms of the game’s scope and design than we had initially planned, and I think even if the game wasn’t commercially successful we would still be pleased with our own work. Part of this project was also seeing how well we all work together; analyzing our ability to work as a team, and how this part-time, volunteer company fits into our lives. On that level, we’ve definitely learned a huge amount about game development, each other, and ourselves, so again, I’d say that was a big success.

Lastly, and this is something we can’t predict, we want this game to really tell the world about our studio and set the stage for future titles. When we formed this company, our first game idea was very broad in scope, and as we pitched it to various publishers and funding sources, we realized that we needed to start at the bottom and establish our name before we moved on to more ambitious projects. Money isn’t even our main objective here, though it certainly would be nice if RAR gives us more of a war chest to hire contractors, get office space, etc. We just want as many people as possible to hear about us and our game, download, play and enjoy it, so that when future projects start to materialize, we have an existing base of fans and proof that we are capable of producing great games.

Question #7

Now I have to know.  Whom on your team came up with the viral marketing videos for the game, and who the hell was in that adorably creepy robot costume!?

Answer #7

Ha, I was hoping you saw those. Early on in our research about game development and marketing we found that it really takes a lot of promotion to get people to notice your game – you can’t just send out review copies once it’s released. Both Eric Smith at Geekadelphia (a local tech blog) and some MBAs at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton b-school emphasized this. So, Jordan and Aaron eventually came up with the idea of doing a series of ridiculous commercials involving one of the robots from our game and releasing those sometime before the game’s release.

Zach started writing some possible scenarios, and the whole package of ideas got handed off to Alanna Goracy of Electric Palm Tree, a local video production company. We met with Alanna and her friend Matt LaRoche, hashed out the specifics of each scenario, set up a shooting schedule and shot the things. The EPT folks really brought our rough ideas to life, and provided the robot costume too. The awkward (yet hilarious) nature of the final videos pretty much represents our collective sense of humor.

As for who was in the robot costume… the answer is, another robot.

Question #8

When can we expect Return All Robots! to hit Xbox Live Indie Games and PC?

Answer #8

We’re adding the final touches to the game now, and our goal release date is by the end of this month. However, the approval process for Xbox Indie Games can take a variable amount of time, so November may be the more realistic date.

So there we have it!

Time will tell if Return All Robots! lives up to what’s been seen and read of so far.  Though, I have an inkling this one is going to be a most enjoyable time sink – especially for puzzle lovers out there…now I need to find out if the robot within a robot was actually a bad robot playing a good robot or piloted by a potentially nefarious woodland critter!