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Interview with Atomic Elbow

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.

John Dexter, aka d000hg, sat down with Simon Jacoby from Atomic Elbow to discuss their IGF entry Crazy Ball, which was nominated for Technical Excellence.

Who are you and how were you involved in Crazy Ball's development?

Simon: Hi John, I'm Simon Jacoby, one of the founders of Atomic Elbow, and the graphics engine programmer.

Congratulations on reaching the finals. What caused you to enter to enter in the first place, and did you hope to do so well?

Simon: Thanks :) We have previously won SGA (Swedish Game Awards), receiving the title "Best PC-Game of the Year", so entering another competition wasn't all that far fetched. We knew the competition would be a lot harder in IGF, and are very glad to have come this far.

There seem to be a disproportionate number of Swedish game programmers compared to other European countries - I've certainly noticed a lot on Gamedev.net. Any idea why?

Simon: No, I can't say that I do, really. One of the things I do to make ends meet is teach programming at a game development school, so I know that there's a lot of interest in Sweden. That probably holds true for most Nordic countries, our neighbours in Finland are quite big in the game development / demo scene as well. Can't really say why that is, though.

How and when did your team get together? Can you give a brief history of the team?

Simon: Atomic Elbow in its current form is actually a merge of two teams. I originally started the company to make another game (now cancelled) together with two other guys (Tomas and Peter). About the same time, the (original) Crazy Ball team started up. Tomas was involved in both projects, and we all knew each other previously. Since we like working together, we merged into the team we are today.

Are you guys working as indies full-time, or around other jobs/studies?

Simon: Some of us are students, and some work part-time to make ends meet, but our ambition is to be able to develop games full-time.

Would you say your team runs more like a company, or more like a group of people making games for fun?

Simon: We definitely run the team as a company, as we all want to work full-time when we've started to make enough money from our projects. IGF and other competitions are therefore important to us, because it helps to bring attention to the team and our work.

How does your team communicate - do you rely on the internet or are you close enough together to have 'real meetings'? How large is your team by the way?

Simon: A bit of both actually. Our office is located in Kramfors, Sweden, and three members of our team live there (and work there 9 to 5, every day). Myself and Tomas live about 100 km further south, and Fredrik lives about 600km further south, but we try having regular meetings, real meetings, as often as possible (which is about every 2-3 weeks for Fredrik, as he has so far to travel). We otherwise rely on internet for other meetings, and use SVN for resource sharing. The three of us that don't come to the office every day still work during normal office hours, though. We've tried to be flexible with the times before, but we've come to the conclusion that it's most practical if everybody keeps regular office hours. It's also best for morale.

We are six members in our team:

Fredrik Erlandsson: designer, 2d artwork and project manager
Simon Jacoby: graphics engine programmer, tools, and some artwork
Tomas Jonasson: lead programmer, framework
Johan Willinger: physics programmer and game logic
Peter Bertlin: tools, network and audio programming
Jesper Lirbank: special f/x, game logic

Where did the idea for the project come from originally, and has it changed much since its conception?

Simon: The idea came from games in the same genre (for instance Hamster Ball and the like), and originally the designer (Fredrik) wanted a clown to be running on top of the ball to control it, but he later on figured that it wouldn't really add much to the gameplay, so he cut it. Other than that, he's had a pretty good idea of what he wanted the game to look like.

What were the biggest obstacles to making this game, and how did you overcome them?

Simon: Time was a big factor. We overcame it by taking a lot of short cuts, which we had to pay for later (but it worked, we won the SGA! :)) The project in its current form, SwitchBall, is actually a complete rewrite of all of the original code, and all of the graphics have been remade. But it's definitely paid off; the code is much cleaner, and the engine that we've made now is really flexible and extensible, and can actually do a lot more than just ball games ;)

Content creation was another big problem, as we are a small team, and most of us are programmers. Some of us could do graphics, so they got to do it, and a friend of ours knew how to do music, so he graciously offered to do it for free.

For the graphics in SwitchBall we hired another company of professional modellers (Innovation och Media HB) to make the models. They've been really great to work with and have given us high-quality stuff.

What were the best and worst points of development?

Simon: The worst points of development are probably all the time and money you have to spend to make it all come together. It can really cause friction in relationships, both among friends and family. But it's a fun job, and you really feel it's worth it when it's released and you get positive feedback from people who love your work! :)

How long have you been working on this game?

Simon: Original Crazy Ball development time was about six months, but we've continued to work on the project ever since we won SGA (that's when we realized the potential of the project and started getting serious), in may 2005. The code base for SwitchBall was started in summer 2005, with the beginnings of our current framework and a new prototype renderer.

What do you think makes your game stand out? Is this intentional?

Simon: I think the things that make Crazy Ball stand out among its peers is simplicity in gameplay, as we've tried to make it easy enough so that anyone can play it (not just hard-core gamers), but at the same time offering challenging puzzles that are based on realistic physics (thanks to the great Novodex physics engine from Ageia). The fact that we're using real physics means that the player will interact with the objects as he / she would do in the real world, and that makes the game's learning curve really small. And yes, it's intentional ;)

What have you learned from this project?

Simon: As we all were quite inexperienced from the beginning, a lot of things actually :) Some of the more important things are planning and project management, you really need it to make a team of people come together and work efficiently. Also, the many details and facets of running a company, it's a lot of work just to keep things floating.

What are your goals for the future and how has making the IGF finals changed things for you?

Simon: Our goal is to make the company more profitable, so we can continue making great games. Making the finals will help to bring attention to us, which is a Good Thing :)

Can you tell us how many copies of Crazy Ball have been downloaded - and do you have a target in mind for 2006?

Simon: Around 2,500 - 3000 copies have been downloaded so far, and counting.

What tools and 3rd-party libraries/software do you use for programming, modelling, artwork etc?

Simon: We used Visual Studio for the code, PhotoShop for the art, and Lightwave for the modelling. We also used the Novodex physics engine, which Ageia graciously allowed us to use. The game wouldn't have been the same without it!

Finally - what's next for Atomic Elbow? Are there more games on the way yet?

Simon: Right now we are fully focusing on finalizing Switch Ball and trying to make it as good as possible. We've had a lot of good suggestions and criticism about Crazy Ball on our forums that we've really taken to our hearts, so we really think everyone will agree that it is much improved when we release it.

Because of this we haven't started production on any more games yet, but we have started thinking about our next title. The new engine/framework and development tools that we've made have really given us with a lot of headroom regarding the types of game genres we can pursue.

...so no, right now there isn't a new title in production. Longest 'no' you've ever heard? ;)

Thanks again - I'll leave you to get back to your development now!

Simon: Thank you!

Interview conducted by John Dexter

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