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Interview with Toblo Team

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.

I chatted with a group of students and graduates from DigiPen about their game Toblo, which features some rather unique gameplay and has thus been nominated for the Design Innovation Award. Toblo has already received honors as a award-winning student showcase entry as well.

Who are you and what role did you play in Toblo?

Steve: I'm Steve Chiavelli. I worked on the networking and menus for Toblo. I also served as the team's play-test manager
John: I'm John Jensen and I programmed the physics for Toblo.
Ben: I'm Ben Smith and I programmed the graphics for Toblo.
Brad: I'm Brad Rasmussen, and I programmed the AI.
Zach: I'm Zach Peterson. I worked on tools and gameplay. I was also the team's Producer.

Congrats on your nomination and award for Student Showcase. How long have you wanted to submit a game to the IGF?

Steve: The IGF has been a goal for all of us since we started DigiPen. This was the 3rd game for all of us. It feels great to receive recognition for all the hard work.

So where did the idea for Toblo come from?

John: Well, every year at DigiPen we have to design a new game. So we got together at the local burrito joint and decided to make a game about building towers to the heavens! That's why it's angels versus demons. But eventually we saw that people loved destroying the towers a lot more than building 'em, so we went that way.
Steve: After we came up with the original tower building design, the design went through quite a few iterations before we finally settled on capture the flag. We started play-testing early and often. Luckily it led us in the right direction.

Where there any other design iterations besides learning that blowing things up was more fun than building them?

Steve: Actually the tower building went through quite a few iterations as we tried to save it. We tried making it progressively more fast-paced. It was tough making the decision to scrap all of our gameplay and start over.

Was the idea for using physics part of the game from the start or did that come about when you decided to start blowing things up?

Ben: We were always going to use physics, but we didn't expect it to be such an integral part of the gameplay from the beginning. Now it's one of our biggest selling points.
Brad: The destruction part was always part of the design, but it wasn't the main focus.

Were you guys allowed to use any pre-existing libraries or did you have to build everything from scratch?

Ben: The option was presented to us, but we thought we'd take more away from the experience if we learned how things worked ourselves. Even failure would have been a valuable learning experience.
John: But we didn't fail too bad!

What went into designing the visual style of the game?

Brad: I wanted it to be something lighted-hearted and whimsical. Also, we wanted something that was simple and stylized since we didn't have artists at our disposal.

What was the most challenging part of developing Toblo?

John: Well, for me, physics didn't really come fully together until near the end. The game was just too slow for most of the time.
Steve: Yeah, everything had to be really optimized since we knew physics was going to be the hog.
Brad: Another big challenge was deciding on major gameplay decisions and getting it to a point where it was fun. A lot of changes had to be made because of playtesting, but drawing real conclusions from playtesting sometimes lead to... long discussions.

Is there anything about the game's development that you would like to reveal to other developers as a caution?

Ben: Don't refactor your entire system the night before a milestone!
John: I'd say that developing a physics engine is actually pretty hard.
Brad: And don't get too attached to gameplay code, because it might get thrown away. Don't take it personally if you have code that has to get tossed.
Steve: If you think you are done with a feature, go back frequently and check to make sure it isn't broken. I thought the networking code was pretty much finalized and worked on menus for a few weeks. Then when I went back to finish [the networking code] up it was completely broken.

On the physics engine - was it modeled after anything or did you guys really go from scratch?

John: There is a paper called "Non-convex Rigid Bodies with Stacking" that came out a few years ago that helped stabilize the system. But collision detection and reaction was pretty much our own research, and optimizing the engine was pretty much a shot in the dark. But we were mostly trying to model after the real world, hehe.

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

Steve: We coded the game using Visual Studio 2003. We never got around to making a level editor, so we actually used Photoshop for that. Making Toblo levels is incredibly tedious =)
John: One thing that helped a lot were the Boost.org C++ Libraries. My pointers are smarter than your pointers!

How long was Toblo in development? Looking back, is there anything that could have been done to shorten that time if it was necessary?

Zach: It took us a full year to make Toblo, from concept to gold! Implementing gameplay earlier would have probably cut down on the time, but we weren't too disappointed with the development length at all since it ended up making the game better.

Is there anything else about Toblo you would like to reveal to other developers?

Brad: There's bootylicious treasure buried in the gold coasts! No, seriously, playtest early and often -- even if your game is independent!

So are you guys out of DigiPen? What are you up to now?

Steve: Yep, I am done with DigiPen. Right now I am working on a Nintendo DS game called Drawn To Life.
John: Most of us have jobs already, but we're all still finishing out our degrees. We're looking forward to graduation in April. I hear the graduation parties are crazy.
Zach: I hear the parties are bootylicious!

What do you guys think draws to you more? Working at a studio or striking off on your own at some point? Why?

John: I love the large team environment, so I enjoy the studio environment more. I've been working at Snowblind Studios in Bothell for a month now and I can't get enough of it!
Steve: I think there are merits to both. I think its important to get some real world experience at an established studio; you get to work on big-budget games on someone else's dime =) On the other hand, I think the indy scene is producing some very innovative games right now. I will definitely be trying my hand at smaller scale independent development in the near future.
Zach: Yeah.
Ben: At this point, I'm just excited to begin my new job at Snowblind Studios and learn from other professional programmers
Zach: It has been great having creative control while making projects at DigiPen and in the future I would like to be able to have that control again.

Best of luck to the Toblo team at GDC!

Interview conducted by Drew Sikora

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