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Interview with Alter Ego Games Studio

RevolvedThe 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 talked with some of the developers from Alter Ego Games Studio, makers of the IGF finalist Revolved. Although the concept could be compared to other match puzzlers like Bejeweled, don't be fooled. The simple idea of rotating squares takes on a whole new meaning here.

Who are you and how were you involved in Revolved?

James: My name is James Gagnon and I'm the Project Manager for Revolved

Christian: My name is Christian Novembrino and I was the Lead Designer on Revolved

Congrats on making it to the IGF finals. How's it feel?

James: It's very exciting for us to make it to IGF with our first game. The competition has done a lot for independent developers and it's great to be a part of it this year

Christian: It feels really good to know we have made a quality product. It is nice to see that the industry awards such dedication to game making

How long have you guys known about the IGF and how long have you wanted to participate?

James: I first learned about the IGF in college. Many of us were on the same game projects while attending DigiPen. We had a game, GenJox, receive first place in the student competition in 2001 – that was an amazing experience. Ever since our first IGF we have wanted to come back

Christian: I have known about the IGF since my first day at DigiPen, back in 1998. We would make small school projects every year and a few actually made it into the student portion of the competition. Ever since that day, I have always wanted to see a game that I made outside of school wind up at that competition. This is the opportunity I have been waiting for

How did you guys come together to form Alter Ego Games?

James: All of us attended the same college. We became friends and shared the passion to make great games. It was natural for us to come together to form Alter Ego Games. Before forming the company we all hung out together and discussed the games we wanted to make. Since most of us knew each other's skill sets it was easy to see where each person would fit in within the team

Christian: I think the underlying idea behind Alter Ego Games Studio was simply a way for friends to make quality games under our own deadlines that would reach our target demographic

Where did the idea for Revolved come from?

James: The game evolved from an analog clock actually. After developing a clock in graphics class I noticed how joining clocks at the 12, 3, 6, and 9 hours formed a grid. After much iteration it was reduced to something fun, and Linkers were added to the game to create more gameplay. After that, we formed the team and the design has gone through many changes since the start of Revolved. It also started as a console game, but we wanted to test the concept out on the downloadable casual market. It was Chris's responsibility to take the console version and make it more casual

Christian: James came to me with this game mechanic as a vision for what could be an entire game. I saw that vision and I built a game around it. Through many months of design and redesign, Revolved was born. The reason for the design changes were simple… the game morphed many times over. I believe it was originally slated to be a PC title, then a console title, and then back to a PC title. Yet, this time it was geared more towards the "pop cap" audience. So that's where Revolved got its fast-paced vivid look from. Fast, simple and fun...

What were some of the major design issues? How were they solved?

James: Allowing the player to move the grid and puzzle pieces at all times and execute an array of potential moves posed the largest problem in my opinion. We didn't want to limit the player in order to keep the game fast. This proved to be a challenge for development. It was solved through a lot of play testing, bug fixes, and a few design changes

Christian: The number one issue was the overall complexity of the game. The game was very robust. Being that it was originally slated for the high-end puzzle user, the game had numerous ways to play. Now that we had changed our target demographic, the gameplay would have to change as well. We had to slim down the robust nature of the game and make it a bit more straight forward. If we did not flex with this change in our demographic, I do not think our game would have been so well received

What technical issues arose as a result of deciding to keep the game small and oriented at a wider audience?

James: One of the major factors was the download size. We wanted to keep the game as small as possible.  Real-time rotations, jpg compression, mp3 compression, and runtime font texture creation are just a few of the methods we used to keep our size down. Selecting the music was difficult as well. We wanted compelling music that could loop in the background for an extended time without giving the grinding impression that many puzzle games give with their short music loops

What was the single largest problem during development from start to finish? How was it overcome?

James: Allowing the player the full freedom to play with his/her own unique play style posed the largest challenge. There are a few basic ways to play Revolved and there are many higher level mechanics at the player's disposal. Development of the gameplay became increasingly complex as the game evolved. Once a player becomes good at the game, new concepts click and you start to understand that you can do far more than you ever thought you could with the puzzle. Only after we played the game to the point that we were amazing at it and couldn't anticipate any new natural mechanics were we able to lock down the game play functionality. After months of play testing and bug fixing the gameplay code came together more robust than I had ever hoped for. Our gameplay developers did an amazing job given the open ended gameplay of Revolved

How long was Revolved in production?

James: The casual version of the game was in development for just over a year. If you take all the time that we worked and put in sequential 40hr work weeks, I'd say we developed the game in about 6 months. All of us had/have fulltime jobs in and outside the industry, but isn't that a common trait of independent developers?

True enough. What tools were used to create Revolved?

James: The core graphics engine was developed in-house. We licensed an engine for our sound/music in order to keep development time down. The art tools were developed in-house as well, with a license of the Intel primitives for .jpg compression. Without the various mp3 and jpg compression we couldn't have hit our targeted 5MB download size. We also used Lua in the game to script our intro sequence and tutorials

Quality of life is the new hot topic in the industry today. What do you guys do to keep the pressure off and still have fun? Any thoughts on QoL in the industry today?

James: My wife is in constant competition with Revolved, she actually refers to the game as my other wife.  To be honest, there isn't much time to keep the pressure off. It would be great if the industry as a whole can overcome the QoL issue – I'm ready for the change

What are the goals you guys have set with Alter Ego Games? What are you looking to do in the future?

James: One of the reasons we formed the studio was to work on the games we want to develop. Of course, we are not opposed to paid work in the industry, but ultimately we want to continue to work on our own Intellectual Properties. We have discussed a few options for future products, but right now we have a lot of work remaining with Revolved and have to stay focused on it. In the near future you will see Revolved on cell phones, online for tournament cash play, in the stores at major retail chains, and possibly on XBox Live Arcade and Game Boy Advance. We all share the common desire to work on console games and we are ready to bring other products and new variations of Revolved to the console market. IGF is a great place to discuss this opportunity and we look forward to a great show

What advice would you give to others looking to strike out on their own as well?

Once you have the determination and ambition to ship a product, I'd recommend becoming as prepared as possible for the end of the development cycle. When people think about developing games they think about the fun and thrill of the game, not the business end. Some of the most important tasks come into view at the end when you are ready to ship. Be prepared to have contracts reviewed by lawyers, obtain copyrights and patents, secure a website for your own distribution, and be ready to negotiate with publishers and distributors. Development of games is fun, but there is also a lot of work on the business end if you want to reap the rewards of your efforts

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora

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