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Interview with Flashbang Studios

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.

Today I will be interviewing Matthew from Flashbang Studios, covering their new game Glow Worm. Being their second game to make it to the IGF, Glow Worm has obtained finalist status in both Innovation in Audio and Innovation in Visual Art.

Ok, first – who are you and what was your role in the development of Glow Worm?

Matthew: My name is Matthew Wegner, and my general title at Flashbang Studios is Development Director. There are only three of us in the company, though, so obviously titles don't constrain us or define our roles very clearly. With Glow Worm I handled all of the programming tasks and much of the project management stuff. I contributed to the design, but with our games we don't have any clear-cut designer; everyone participates. I also manage all of our business/distribution contacts.

Nathaniel: Are any of the others online? They're welcome to join us.

Matthew: My brother (our audio guy) might be – but the artist on Glow Worm actually left the company in June. He was our old lead artist and one of the founders and did all of the artwork for GW. Audio guy looks offline... he's actually in Minnesota now working with a studio on polish for our next title.

Congrats on making the IGF finals. How does it feel?

It's an honor to be considered contemporary with the other finalists. We were a finalist two years ago with Beesly's Buzzwords, too. I'm always kind of surprised we're picked. As far as I'm concerned being a finalist is prize enough. It's great exposure. An actual prize would be nice, too.

How long has Flashbang Studios been actively developing games?

We started the company up three years ago this March. I convinced two of my friends from my college days to move out here to Phoenix from the Bay Area. The company was formed by myself, those two friends as the artists, and my brother as the audio guy. For the first 8 months or so it was a part-time thing, with all of us contributing as much time as we were able. After that we went full-time in terms of hours invested.

What is behind the name Flashbang Studios?

You're the first person to ask that in an interview, actually. To be honest it was just a name that had a nice ring to it. We had a big list of brainstormed names and liked it the best. We liked the connotation, too – something that's used to stun and surprise. We wanted to make a splash right out of the gate. The nice thing about the name is that isn't overly violent. If you don't know what a Flashbang is you can still appreciate the sound of it (something like "Whizzbang"; it's family-friendly sounding).

What's the basic idea behind Glow Worm?

The basic idea was to make a game for the casual market: the 40 year-old soccer mom who plays games like Bejeweled. We adapted the core mechanic from a Japanese arcade game (Pururun) and tried to make it a little more accessible. Artistically we wanted to do what we wanted to do. A lot of the early casual games have no real art treatment: candy-colored cubes and spheres. We wanted to do something darker with a unique character to it.

What development tools were used in order to make Glow Worm (both in-house and externally built)?

Matthew: We use Virtools for all of our work. It's an interesting package for production work, especially casual games. Virtools is actually a 3D engine, so we're only using a subset of the features for our 2D games. Our long-term goal is to release 3D games into the casual market, though, so it makes sense to stick with one platform for everything. The other unique aspect of Virtools is the notion of schematic scripting. You can write an entire game without having to write lines of actual code with their behavior engine. It's a lot like flow-charting

Nathaniel: That looks quite slick.

Matthew: It's very non-standard, but after you get the hang of it and learn the vocabulary of which building blocks area available you can do stuff very quickly. The black lines represent flow and the blue lines represent data (this moves a group of 2D objects up and down 1 pixel to shake them) The other benefit of Virtools is an IE/Firefox plug-in to play content directly in a web browser.

Nathaniel: So your online version comes right out of the box?

Matthew: It could, yeah – the web player has the same functionality as the standalone .exe we distribute. We pare down the web version's functionality some so it's more of a teaser. Someone who just expired the 60-minute trial of the full game shouldn't be fully satisfied by the web version in my opinion.

What was the biggest challenge you had to face during development?

Focus has a big problem in Glow Worm's development. We actually halted development for 5 months to work on a project for Cartoon Network (Sealab 2021: Sweet Mayhem). It felt like we were starting over with our mindset and where the project was when we came back to Glow Worm . In general, too, we didn't have a clear metric for where we should take the design. We had a starting point – Pururun – but we never identified where our end point was. How easy should the game be? How hard? Are we aiming for people who enjoy logic puzzles or people who just want to click and be rewarded? I think as a result the actual fun-factor and playability of the game suffered from what it could have been with the same time investment and more thought up front about the design.

Did you ever push yourself to finish the game or achieve a certain milestone, or were you able to keep things evenly paced?

A little of both, but at different times. Beesly's Buzzwords, our first game, wasn't a blockbuster at all in the casual space (and we didn't make buckets of cash with the Cartoon Network deal, either). We were essentially funding the company ourselves. Everyone who works full-time pays their bills by doing something else on the side: web contract work, teaching a day or two a week, etc. The benefit of not being profitable is that we can choose how long to work on a project. Nobody is depending on Flashbang income to pay the bills so there isn't that pressure. Towards the end of the project, though, the lead artist was running low on savings. We had a lot of pressure in the last month to wrap the game up and get in on market to try to fix that. Unfortunately Glow Worm wasn't a tremendous hit, either, so we may have hurt ourselves more in the long run. With work hours we try to avoid crunch. Even on the Cartoon Network project – which had very rigid deadlines – we only worked two or three weekends in the entire 5 months (and very rarely anything past our 8 hours a day).

Have you looked beyond Glow Worm yet? What's next?

We had two projects in concurrent development up until our old lead artist left. One is a very stereotypical casual game – you move pieces around on a grid to make lines of 3.


The other was put on ice when Mike left, but we do plan to resume it next. It's a 3D shooter for the more casual player – you play an alien biologist collecting samples.

These are old now and a little rough:


(Editors note : These are prototype shots and not indicative of any final product.)

The enemy test video is just debug-spawning the enemies that were in the game at the time.

Our original plan when we started Flashbang was to get our foot into the door of the casual market by making some expected games: puzzles, word games, etc. From there we hope to use the knowledge gained from making titles for the market – along with, hopefully, some money – to create original 3D content for the casual user.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Oh, I may as well take the opportunity to plug my new website about physics games: www.fun-motion.com. In general, though, the advice I have for others interested in the IGF and in making their own games in general is to just do it. If you practice the ready-fire-aim approach, instead of ready-aim-fire, you'll be able to move a lot faster. Get something out the door and see how the market responds and make changes. It's a lot easier to see where to fire that next shot after the first one has landed.

Interview conducted by Nathaniel "gnatinator" Sabanski

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