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Interview with Circular Logic

The 2004 IGF Competition is in the final round, and one of the ten finalists in the 'Open' category is "Bontago," by Digipen-based team Circular Logic. Bontago is a pretty unusual strategy game with a strong physics basis; played on a floating, translucent disc, players drop blocks onto the disc to gain 'influence' over areas of the board. The higher the block, the greater its area of influence, so players have to combine stacking blocks across the board with stacking them upwards. And then there's a load of thing to shake and tilt the board... I recommend the demo, it's an excellent example of a highly polished game. I caught up with the Circular Logic guys on IRC, to chat a little about the project and IGF.

OK, so, first question: who are you all, and what are your roles within Circular Logic?
Justin: I'm Justin Kinchen. I'm the designer/art guy/programmer.
Tristan: Well I am Tristan Hall, I am the producer and a programmer.
Jason: Jason Bolton, I'm a programmer.
Eric: I'm Eric Anderson, I do mainly the graphics engine programming related stuff and help out a bit here and there with other areas.
Tristan: Jason is also the tech director.

You must be pretty happy about Bontago making it through to the finals. Was entering the IGF one of your original aims, or did it just... seem like a good idea at the time?
Eric: Definately. It was an origingal aim to enter Bontago into the IGF, but originally we only were going to enter the student version. When it was finally complete, we felt that we had a good chance at going for the normal IGF, and entered both.

Oh - so you actually had two entries in there to begin with?
Eric: Well, two entries, but they were essentially the same.
Eric: But yeah.

I see. So, focusing on the finalist version, how long did it take you to develop?
Eric: It took about 7 months start to finish, with a little bit of cleanup work for approx 2 months before the submission date.
Justin: But that's with school and all in there too.

Right - how much of a role did Digipen play in guiding and assisting you? I mean, I'm guessing it was a project...
Tristan: Well we did it for our project 300-350 classes, but the ideas and programming and all the art assests came only from us.
Eric: They help to keep you on track. They could been seen as the almighty publisher where they determine whether you get paid (get a good grade). They evaluate the game at various stages of development and help you with whatever problem you may have.
Jason: The project teacher came around weekly to see if we were meeting our milestones.
Tristan: Yeah, we have weekly producer reports.
Justin: The motivation is good. It was fun to try and make a better game than the other groups.

Ah - so, quite a formal development process then. You had design documents, code reviews, and so on as well?
Tristan: No real code reviews except by ourselves...

That's what I meant.
Eric: GDD, TDD, no code reviews though they wanted to, project timelines
Jason: We had a nice design document.

Did you stick to it? :)
Eric: More or less, yes.
Jason: Yes, we did make some changes to make the game more fun.
Justin: Only a few minor changes...we added some more block shapes.
Eric: Maybe one or two things that really needed to change, and maybe a few more that got scrapped.
Tristan: The TDD on the other hand... :D
Jason: Ya, the TDD was obsolete quickly.

No massive problems forcing you to drop features because you were running out of time, though. What were the biggest problems you encountered during development?
Eric: Well, the physics made us change a few features from the game...
Eric: Orignally the board was supposed to constantly balance in the center, based on weight from the blocks.
Justin: But the physics for that was just too slow.
Tristan: And it wasn't fun.
Eric: But the physics could not handle this with more than 5 or 6 blocks, so it was scrapped in favor of special blocks, which tilted the board manually.
Eric: Plus, just getting the physics to work as desired was a royal pain...

Ah, I see - constantly rebalancing the whole board each move, I can imagine that would take some processing power. And it would have put paid to my favourite strategy of just building huge towers near my start point :)
Justin: Huge towers will not be so easy to build in future versions :)

I saw you chose Tokamak for the physics - what were the factors that led to that decision, and if you could go back, would you have picked a different approach?
Eric: It's kind of funny, really. Justin: Haha... Eric: We started off wanting to make our own from scratch. The guy who was tasked with this... did nothing, so we fired him.
Eric: At about the same time, I saw "TOKAMAK Physics Library" on Gamedev, so we tried it out. It was *EXACTLY* what we needed.
Tristan: Yeah, it work out very nicely in the end.
Eric: Optimized for stacking objects... hmmm, sounds like our game...
Tristan: We did experiment with ODE before it, though.
Eric: Yeah, we had ODE running prior to it, but it doesnt like large systems on windows or something like that, and was slow.

Was Tokamak easy to integrate into the project, or did you not have much of a project to integrate into at that time?
Justin: It was easy until we began to add in network play... then things got a bit hairy for a while.
Eric: No real major problems. A few things we would have liked to do more easily were hacked in a way into working, but more or less it was a breeze.
Eric: Tweaking it to achieve the desired effect was the hard part.

Right, the gameplay balancing.
Eric: Yeah.
Jason: It was easy it integrate, but there were a few TOKAMAK bugs that we had to work around.

What was the greatest single moment you can each recall during the project? Perhaps when the AI players first beat you, or something... :)
Tristan: Being done :D
Justin: I thought it was pretty funny when Eric was recording a video demo and the AI beat him.
Tristan: Yeah, that was pretty good.
Eric: I had tons of fun messing with the physics and making dominoes :P That was the best.
Justin: Our first network game was memorable as well.
Eric: Yes, best crash ever...
Tristan: During development we had too many things to do to really have a "moment."
Jason: I liked when I threw out all the networking code becuse it was not working, and started over.
Tristan: I like doing that to the AI too.

well, that's always something of a refreshing thing to do...
Eric: For Jason it is :P

You mentioned a sequel - I take it this means you guys are staying together?
Justin: Weather permitting.
Eric: Well, its a big *if* at the moment...

As in - *if* you win IGF?
Eric: Not that we wouldn't love to, its just the issue of $$$.
Tristan: Winning something at IGF would help, though.

Ah, of course. Which reminds me - any figures for a budget on Bontago?
Tristan: $79
Eric: $79
Tristan: Terragen
Tristan: And then tuition, I guess. :D
Eric: Not including student dev tools (like vs .net and the like, which we didnt really pay for).

Last question, then. Can you give us any idea as to what to expect from Bontago 2.0?
Eric: Justin?
Jason: I would like to see flawless multiplayer capabilities.
Justin: You can expect a complete game with levels and the like. The current version is really just a prototype. Expect things like odd shaped tables, new special blocks, turn based mode, etc.
Eric: New specials, new levels, new cool graphics.
Tristan: Hopefully the AI will be better too...
Tristan: (though it can still beat Eric).
Eric: Quiet, you.
Tristan: LOL.

Sounds good, I look forward to it. :) Well, thanks for your time, guys, and good luck at IGF.
Eric: Awesomeness.
Tristan: Thank you.
Jason: Thanks.
Eric: No problem.
Justin: Thanks for having us.
Eric: Vote for us at GDC :P

Interview conducted by Richard "superpig" fine.

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