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Interview with Three Rings

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.

This interview from Three Rings talks about the rootin' tootin' strategy game Bang! Howdy, nominated this year for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize and Technical Excellence; the latter of which they won back in 2004 with Puzzle Pirates.

Who are you and how were you involved in Bang! Howdy?

Michael: I'm Michael Bayne, co-founder and CTO of Three Rings and also the director of Bang! Howdy. I conceived the idea, designed and implemented the basic game and manage the development now that we've grown to a larger team.
Rick: I'm Rick Keagy, the art director at Three Rings Design, including the Bang! Howdy project. I've had the privilege of heading up a very talented team of artists who have put together an amazing looking game.

Congrats on your second IGF nomination. The IGF has changed quite a bit since your last entry, Puzzle Pirates. How do you view these changes?

Michael: I'm happy to see it expand into areas like game mods and I'm delighted to see such an increase in the number of competitors.
Rick: Thank you. I may be wrong, but it's my perception that even the independent game developers entering the IGF have become larger and better funded in the last few years. It's very exciting to see these developers still pushing the edge and not doing just "more of the same but a little better" like the big players.

Is there anything about the IGF you would want done differently?

Michael: I do wish they didn't make the weird technical distinction between "web browser" games and "grand prize" games. Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates was nominated for the web browser category and Bang! is nominated in the grand prize category, but they are of equivalent complexity and both delivered through the web browser. However, neither of them is a "web browser" game by what I believe the IGF means to encompass with that category. We do install and launch the game using a signed Java applet which provides a simple customer experience, but Bang! and Yohoho are deep and substantial entertainment experiences, not little Flash games that someone hacked out in a weekend. I applaud the recognition of "smaller" games but I wish there was a better name for them.
Rick: Nothing comes to mind. I do think that splitting out the web browser games was a good idea because before that it was a lot of apples to oranges in trying to judge them.

What was the design goal behind Bang! Howdy? What kind of game were you looking to make and why?

Michael: I originally titled the design "Strategy + Antics = Fun" and I think we've stuck largely to that mantra in the course of development. Strategy games are so serious these days and so dang complicated that I think they've painted themselves into a corner where they have to keep adding complexity to retain their existing audience and all that complexity is a huge barrier to enjoyment for a vast audience of casual strategy players. You see titles on the DS like Advance Wars and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, but practically nothing on the PC.
Rick: The design goal was to make a wacky, fun game that you could play for short periods of time and yet still accumulate stats and other stuff. We were shooting for something less complex than Puzzle Pirates, which would hopefully be easier to understand. Why we chose that route was to broaden our audience a bit, but also to continue to expand on the micro-payment model and use the things we learned from Puzzle Pirates in this area but this time build them in the design from the ground up.

To take a stab here - you shoot up people in the game, but afterwards the heavy community aspect helps people pardner up with each other easily. Is this what is reflected in the title Bang! Howdy?

Michael: We like to think of it as "shoot first, introduce yourself later." As a maker of multiplayer online games, we care a great deal about community. Bang! is less massively multiplayer in that there is no embodied virtual world and the actual gameplay involves a small number of players, but that gameplay takes place in a rich social environment where we make it easy to make and keep in touch with friends in the game, compare your achievements, and (soon in our forthcoming Gangs feature) band together with other like-minded players and compete against other Gangs.
Rick: That's pretty much it. That and the fact that there is something inherently funny about shooting first and saying hello later.

How much of an influence was Puzzle Pirates in the game and visual design of Bang! Howdy?

Michael: We learned a great deal in the making of Puzzle Pirates, but other than the fact that many of the same people that designed, worked on and created the look of Puzzle Pirates also worked on Bang! Howdy, we did not specifically look to Puzzle Pirates for inspiration. We were in fact aiming for a different audience than the one that embraced Puzzle Pirates, which tended to be into casual games and socializing. While Bang! Howdy is still much more casual and social than your average PC strategy game, we aimed to make it more of a gamer's game with more of an element of individual competition, 3D graphics, and a faster pace.
Rick: Puzzle Pirates didn't have any influence on the visual design of Bang! Howdy. We knew that with low poly 3D it was going to be a different look entirely. Plus designing a whole new look for a game when you are given a blank slate like that is half the fun of this job -- it would be a waste to just duplicate something you've done before. My colleague, Jon Demos, did some awesome initial character designs and we took that and ran from there.

The mechanic of moving pieces and waiting for them to recharge, also used in another IGF finalist Kung Fu Chess, lends a quasi-turn-based aspect to the gameplay. Was this always part of the design, or were any experiments done with real-time and/or turn-based gameplay as well?

Michael: It was in fact the very genesis of the game. I had been dissatisfied with the tedium of fully turn based strategy games and unhappy with how RTS games had pushed too far to the opposite end of the spectrum where one sits down to play and does not have a single second in the span of two hours to relax or take their attention away from the game. I experimented with various quasi-real-time or "cooldown timer" as a game designer friend more accurately called them, mechanisms to try to find a happy medium between turn-based and real-time mechanics. After a lot of prototyping, tweaking and excellent feedback from my compatriots here at Three Rings, I eventually arrived at the mechanic we're using in Bang! which has remained largely unchanged throughout the development. We have of course come up with countless ways of playing with that basic mechanic with different types of units, and cards and bonuses that tweak things slightly, but the richness that we have built up around it makes me more confident that the underlying mechanic is a good one.
Rick: The mix of real time and turn based was the main feature from the beginning of development. The first prototype was a simple 2D top down game that was just to test the fun factor of such gameplay.

What about Bang! Howdy do you think is most responsible for earning it a nomination for technical excellence?

Michael: We're one of the few companies that makes games in Java. We won the IGF award for technical excellence with Puzzle Pirates and at the time I thought that might have been because we were crazy enough to make an MMO in Java. Since then our game development toolkits have matured, we have launched a website (gamegardens.com) where anyone can download those toolkits and use them to make multiplayer online games and a small community of game makers has embraced that site and have created a bunch of interesting games. We've added support for doing games in 3D (based on the excellent LWJGL and JME projects and our own libraries). All of our libraries and toolkits (and those with which we've integrated) are released freely as open source for any aspiring indy game developer or entrenched studio to inspect and use for their projects. I'd like to think that we've been nominated because of all that. Plus Bang! is pretty dang impressive for three programmers and a handful of artists if we do say so ourselves.
Rick: I'm just a lowly artist so I could be wrong here, but I believe our engineers are doing things in 3D with Java that few other developers out there are doing. I think it's mainly that fact, but also the fact that like with Puzzle Pirates, they are pushing what's possible with Java and at the same time putting out a stable, commercial product. That ain't easy.

What made you decide to up the technology from 2D in Puzzle Pirates to 3D in Bang! Howdy?

Michael: Partly because we wanted to develop the technology and expertise to do 3D and partly because we wanted to try making a game for a more traditional gaming audience. For better or worse, a game that's not 3D has to work extra hard to prove that it's a "real game" in the eyes of many gamers.
Rick: It was a twofold decision: on the one hand this project would be our segue into 3D which would lead up to future projects, and on the other hand for this type of game and the audience we were seeking it seemed to be the best fit.

What were some technical issues that arose as a result of using 3D?

Michael: All the standard trials and tribulations of doing things in 3D. Getting the pipeline set up was a huge pain. Useful tools were nearly non-existent and what we could find in the wild was worse than having nothing at all. We ended up having to write our own exporter for 3D Studio and our own skin and bone based animation library (to which we've released the source). Of course graphics drivers are a nightmare and walking people through the process of upgrading their video drivers is dangerous and full of potential for disaster. It didn't help that a bunch of enthusiastic Puzzle Pirates players showed up with their ancient on-motherboard graphics chipsets and were perplexed why Bang! didn't run like a dream right out of the box. Doing 3D on the PC is a curse that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. I'm sure that if you can afford $50,000+ for a middleware 3D library it's a rosy walk in the park. To be fair, there is Torque, but then you have to confine yourself to game designs that mesh well with the myriad implicit assumptions in its architecture. Plus we like developing in Java.
Rick: We spent a lot of startup time trying to find and/or write exporters to get the artists' work into the game. After this initial annoyance was solved, the programmers didn't seem to hit any more roadblocks and it has been pretty smooth going.

What advantages did 3D give you over 2D for this game?

Michael: Not many. Doing animation and effects in 3D is nice because the artists are working in 3D tools anyway and you can have pretty water and cool environmental particle effects. But the actual game controls become way more complicated. Camera controls are extremely difficult to get right and its very easy to give the user 1000 ways to position the camera poorly and 1 way to position it well. It's harder to differentiate the game pieces in the middle of the fast paced action and actually visually parse the information you need to play the game. I think 3D is the worst thing that ever happened to the game industry. It's no wonder everyone is having so much fun playing retro games and 2D games on their Nintendo DS. It's an order of magnitude harder to make a 3D experience fun and intuitive. The whole industry just merrily marched down the slippery slope toward more realism and a more immersive experience and left the notion of fun lying bleeding in a ditch along the way. Alas, if we had done Bang! in 2D, the screenshots wouldn't be half as sexy and way fewer people would even try it.
Rick: The main advantage seems to be just in visual quality: the game looks fantastic, especially for a game that you can load up from your browser and be playing in a few minutes. I think there are very few smaller games like this that compare visually.

What was the technology used for Bang! Howdy?

Michael: The major components are the multiplayer game libraries I mentioned earlier (available here) which are all written in Java. Along with that we used LWJGL which is a Java binding to OpenGL, and JME which is an open source scene graph engine which has matured tremendously in the last two years.

What tools were used that helped aid in development?

Michael: The artists mostly use 3D Studio (some use Maya) and of course Photoshop. They did all of the vector art (character avatars and badges) all in the Flash authoring tool even though we export everything to bitmap images for the game (we didn't want to have to write a Flash renderer in OpenGL, though that would be pretty cool). We use Subversion for version control, internally developed bug tracking and task management tools, a variety of text editors, Ant for our build system, Cruise Control to manage our automated builds. We use MediaWiki and home grown tools for sharing information about the evolving game design (and soon a public wiki for players to collect information about the game as well).

How long was the game in production? What was one major issue during production and how was it solved?

Michael: I did the first prototyping and experimentation on my New Year's holiday in January 2005. We played around with prototypes for about three months or so and decided to turn it into a real game in April 2005. The first artist joined me working full time on the project in July 2005 and we've been going ever since. There are three engineers now and all (seven) of our artists contribute part of their time to the project. Nothing stands out as especially major in terms of the issues we encountered during development. Getting the pipeline working (getting 3D models and animations out of 3D Studio and into our game) was a pretty big issue and we went through a month or two of iterations trying to use existing exporters and formats before finally biting the bullet and writing our own. Fortunately we were able to make progress on other aspects of the game during that time, otherwise it would have been a huge setback and momentum killer. The lack of a good user interface toolkit for LWJGL/JME was also something of a major issue. We also solved that by writing our own UI toolkit (it's called BUI and it is of course open source, so others don't have to suffer our same fate). Such are the dangers of being among the first to use a particular set of technologies to make a game, but we're happy to have been able to smooth the path out a bit for others who want to walk this road.
Rick: Bang! Howdy has been in production for a bit over a year and a half. The only major issue that I can think of was what I mentioned earlier, about finding exporters. It was dealt with by writing our own, but that came with a lot of back and forth to iron out all the kinks.

Was there any crunch time? Could it have been avoided or lessened?

Michael: Not a single day. We view crunch time as a bizarre artifact of pointless deadlines and lack of respect for one's employees. Bang! shipped when it was done. Everyone who worked on the project was excited about it and helped to make that happen quickly, but in a healthy way that left them with ample time to live full lives outside of their professional pursuits.
Rick: Fortunately, there was very little crunch time on Bang! Howdy and that time would probably be viewed more like a lazy afternoon nap compared to other crunch time stories in this industry. With this project we've been able to keep to our belief that quality of life and reasonable work hours will in the end lead to better products.

What's next for Three Rings?

Michael: As Bang! is an online game, we're constantly working to expand and improve it. We have two big new features coming out this month and we're getting started on the third town, Boom Town, which will add a whole new horizontal slice to the entire game (sort of a mini expansion but the whole game is structured as a series of mini expansions). Boom Town is going to expand on the steam powered robot aspect of Bang!'s steam powered wild west theme, so we're having a lot of fun with the design and prototyping of crazy robots. At the same time, Three Rings is already deeply into development on its third game about which we will be giving more detail at our GDC presentation in March and to the public at large around the same time.
Rick: We've got a bunch of plans for more games and projects. Unfortunately, I don't think I'm at liberty to discuss any of that here least I find a blow dart lodged in my neck mid sentence. Hopefully, everyone will be able to find out in the near future.

Is there anything else about Bang! Howdy that you would like to reveal to other developers?

Michael: If you've made it this far, thanks for making it through my verbose ramblings. If you're an indy game developer yourself, keep up the good work. Everyone talks about how our industry needs a good shaking up and the opportunity is right there for the taking.
Rick: There was nothing that stands out as radically different or illuminating about the development of Bang! Howdy from an art perspective. There were the usual challenges, the hard work that needed to go in it, but also the joy of creating games and of being a big part of the overall design process. To other developers I'd say -- keep on making fun games and having fun doing so!

Best of luck to the Bang! Howdy team at GDC!

Interview conducted by Drew Sikora

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