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Interview with Cryptic Sea

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.

No strangers to the IGF, Alex and Edmund are making another trip to GDC as finalists. Alex's first IGF experience came with Chronic Logic back in 2003 with Pontifex 2. Edmund and Alex both were involved with Gish as finalists in 2004 and 2005. Now the two have teamed up to create the indie company Cryptic Sea, and one of their first offerings, Blast Miner, has them back in the running once more with a nomination for Technical Excellence.

Who are you and how were you involved in Blast Miner?

Alex: My name is Alex Austin, I did design and programming for Blast Miner.
Edmund: Edmund McMillen, art and design

Congrats on your return to the IGF. How's it feel to be nominated once again?

Alex: It's cool, it's always fun to go to the GDC and meet other indie developers.
Edmund: It's always fun to get to show your stuff at GDC, but I'm not completely happy with the direction the IGF seems to be heading. Meaning taking the innovation aspect out of its judging.

As past finalists numerous times, how do you feel the IGF has evolved over the years and do you like the direction it's heading now?

Edmund: Like i just mentioned, I feel like taking the innovation factor out of judging really hurts things. Personally I think the only leg-up on the mainstream we have is the ability to be innovative. Taking the focus off of that only turns us into a low budget mainstream, but I understand why they went that way. I mean it doesn't look too cool to have a bunch of tech demos and totally experimental games in your fest – you want to wow people.
Alex: I agree that there either should be a focus on innovation or actual rules for budgets, since technically a company like id or Valve could enter games into the IGF. It should be a spotlight for games that don't normally get press, but it also has to balance that with trying to get press itself. So I'm not sure what the answer is, but there's definitely a difference between something like RoboBlitz and Everyday Shooter. But both games are judged mainly on production values it seems.

So where did the idea for Blast Miner come from?

Alex: Originally the idea was to make something like Triptych, so we tried to make an arcade type of game similar to that. After that bombed we decided to try the puzzle mode, and that worked out really well.

How much more of your past experience working on other games went into this title? For example I noticed a budget, perhaps similar to Bridge Builder?

Alex: I definitely used a lot of the bridge building game ideas for the puzzle mode, also I had just finished a remake of Bridge Builder, so I also did some of the physics simultaneously for both games.

What were some of the difficulties that arose in using physics for this manner of gameplay?

Alex: There were quite a lot of difficulties with this game; explosion physics are incredibly hard to balance, and with the arcade mode it made the game very hard for people to learn.
Edmund: I think one of the main problems people had with the arcade mode was the organic nature of the gameplay the physics caused. People expected a puzzle game to have definite solutions, but the physics made things come out organic and not defined, something I personally liked a lot about it. However when you see a puzzle game, you want to play it like one.
Alex: We tried to encourage people to think of it as an arcade/action game, but it was a difficult point to get across. I still think the arcade mode is a lot of fun, but if you try to force the game to play the way you want it can be really frustrating. Luckily the puzzle mode worked out really well, and it's very easy for people to learn.

So what were some things that were done in the game to help solve these issues?

Edmund: We tried our best to make a working tutorial, but it was just still too out of the box for people to get. They saw Tetris-shaped blocks and wanted it to play as such. Momentum was something people had a hard time with as well. So the way we fixed it was we made the puzzle mode. That's really how we fixed it – we made it work, just in a different game.
Alex: We also did a lot of gameplay balancing, but explosion physics are very unwieldy.

There are other finalists in this year's competition, such as RoboBlitz and Armadillo Run, that use physics exclusively for gameplay. How much of an impact to you guys see physics to continue making in games in the future? And how?

Alex: I think physics will be making a big impact on games in the future, not always a good impact though. There's going to be a lot of games that use physics poorly, basically using rag dolls as the new lens flare. The main hurdle I see for physics based games in the future is character physics; at some point games are going to have to go from the cylinder collisions with rag dolls to full physical models of humans. With Gish we were able to do a full physical model for our character, which allows for a lot of cool gameplay but going from a circular blob to something that walks is difficult.

What advice would you give people looking to incorporate physics so heavily into their gameplay?

Alex: First learn as much as you can about physics, think about what you want to try and simulate. Once you have an idea make a prototype as soon as possible, you're going to have to do a lot of gameplay balancing. It's impossible to try and figure out how the gameplay is going to work before you have a prototype, there's just too many variables when you dealing with physics. The one thing we learned with Blast Miner is that you should also have new people playing your game regularly. We had developed skills and didn't realize how hard it was for people to learn them.

How did the game's look evolve during production, and what drove this evolution?

Edmund: The look of the game never changed much from the beta. We did play with some bump mapping but it looked pretty bad.

Let's take it back further then - what did you use to create the look of the game?

Edmund: Well we wanted to do a mining theme pretty early on and I wanted to do a crazy miner right off the bat – I had to find an excuse to animate and design a character.

Does the crazy miner play any sort of active role in the game?

Edmund: He's just eye candy. In the arcade mode you would get crazy endings depending on how you did. So you got to see him dressed up all sexy like, but other then that – no. He should though! [We should] come up with some way for us to use him

Were there any problems during development that you would like to share as a caution to other developers?

Edmund: It's easy to get used to your game as you develop it. If you get too far doing that, you lose the ability to look at it from a newbie perspective. It's good to have people testing the game honestly, don't be scared to toss out something that doesn't work and rethink your ideas.
Alex: We kind of got caught up with finishing the game that we didn't test it enough.

What was used to make the game and what tools aided in development?

Alex: I still use Visual C and the DOS editor, which is pretty ridiculous at this point but I haven't got around to changing yet.
Edmund: I used Flash for the animation and edited in Photoshop.

So how has it been for you guys with Cryptic Sea? Any advice for those looking to strike out on their own?

Alex: It's difficult doing indie games, don't expect to make a lot of money right away.
Edmund: Be honest, try your best to be innovative and realize what advantages you have over the mainstream as an indie. The indie scene is more of a starving artist scene, though most sell out when they get the chance. There's nothing wrong with that as long as you stay true to your roots.
Alex: hopefully that's not too depressing :-)

Is there anything else about Blast Miner that you would like to reveal to other developers?

Edmund: We didn't really make it, it's a farce.
Alex: If you buy it you go to heaven when you die.
Edmund: There is a hidden sex game - buy it :)

What's next for Cryptic Sea?

Edmund: Gish 2
Alex: I'm also working on Ramjets, which is currently in an open beta demo state.

Oh hey, will there be any surprises this year if you guys win an award? ;)

Edmund: We wont win anything
Alex: It would be surprising to me if we won :-)

Well I guess it wouldn't have been a surprise then anyways. Thanks a lot guys, good luck this year and see you at GDC

Alex: Thanks, see you there.
Edmund: GO TEAM!

Interview conducted by Drew Sikora

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