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Interview with AstroManic

The Gama Network 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 year there are two categories, Web/Downloadable and Open. Finalists in each category are competing for five $1,000 awards and a sixth $15,000 grand prize.

We spoke with Jack Lyon and Patrick Baggatta of AstroManic, developers of "Chomp! Chomp! Safari", which is a finalist in the 2004 IGF competition in the Web/Downloadable category.

First off, tell me a bit about AstroManic and yourselves. Are you a couple of guys running out of a garage somewhere, an arm of a giant European syndicate, or somewhere in-between?
Jack Lyon: AstroManic Studios is a two-person company that we run out of our homes. We started our company a little over three years ago to develop "advergames." But we found advergame development a little too limiting for us, since it was more about the advertising and less about the actual game. Over time, we simply evolved into a full-fledged game developer, focusing on Web-based and downloadable games.

Along with doing Web-based games for clients like Sony, MGM Studios, and Stuff Magazine, we've developed three retail games that are available for download.

In the most recent years of the IGF, the focus seems to have gotten away from the traditional methods of developing commercial games (i.e. C/C++ coupled with DirectX). Recent IGF's have seen high quality games written using tools like Python, Flash, and Director. Since Chomp! Chomp! Safari was developed in Flash, what do you consider to be the advantage of using such tools over more traditional methods?
Jack Lyon: We began developing in Flash because of our specific Web game focus. None of the traditional development tools give you the ease of Web deployment that something like Flash or Director can. Working with Flash also makes it very easy to explore a different look for our games because of the vector graphics support. But there are definitely trade-offs, while Flash is a great authoring environment and the scripting language gets more robust with each new version, achieving solid run-time performance is a constant battle and can not compare to traditional C/C++ applications.

Tell me a bit about the development cycle for Chomp! Chomp! Safari. I'll assume you did your own code, but did you do your own art and music, or did you find it elsewhere?
Patrick Baggatta: Due to other projects we were working on at the time, the development of Chomp! Chomp! Safari was an on-again/off-again process. This kind of start and stop approach did, however, present one advantage in that it gave us a lot of time to develop new ideas for the game. We actually began with a few core ideas and did a ton of experimenting and expansion as we went.

We typically develop all the assets for our games in-house including code, art, and sound, but for Chomp! Chomp! Safari we did work with a talented illustrator, Nathan Wilson, to create the animal and food art. The overall character style has been one of the big attention-getting assets of the game thus far, so we feel really good about the decision to work with Nathan.

How about the sounds and music. Did you make it in-house, contract with a musician, or find some canned music that fit the game?
Jack Lyon: Jack creates original music and sound effects for all our games including Chomp! Chomp! Safari. It's amazing how far a little knowledge of music composition and the right tools can take you in creating digital audio these days. It also allows us to do a lot of experimentation and tweaking to get just the right audio for the game. We're really happy with the final results for this game.

Is this your first GDC and/or IGF, or are you regular attendees?
Jack Lyon: We've been to GDC as a company once before. It's really a great experience for a small company like ours -- Lots of helpful tools on display and a great place to meet new distribution partners for our games. The major players in the PC Downloadable market seems to take GDC very seriously.

Have you scoped out your IGF competition?
Jack Lyon: We spend a lot of time checking out other developer's games -- especially those in the PC Downloadable category where we do our business. Quite a few of the games that were submitted to the IGF competition are in this category. We feel honored to be counted with such great games.

Ever consider doing development for portable machines, like PDAs or cell phones?
Patrick Baggatta: We have thought seriously about doing cell phone development. But, considering our size, we thought it best to stay focused on what we know, which is downloadable PC and Mac games. The cell phone market is certainly exciting, and we feel that many of our games would be great a great fit, so it might be something we take on down the road.

So what's next for AstroManic now that Chomp! Chomp! Safari is out the door?
Patrick Baggatta: We've actually just finished a picture-based puzzle game called Picture Pyramid. It's currently being distributed on some great sites like Shockwave and Real Arcade, and we've received some pretty positive feedback on it, so far. Beyond that, you're just going to have to wait and see!

Okay, guys. I look forward to seeing you at the IGF pavillion, and best of luck with Chomp! Chomp! Safari!

Interview conducted by John Hattan.

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