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Interview with Flying Bear Entertainment

The Independent Games Festival was established in 1998 as a forum for independent developers to exhibit their work, receive recognition, and meet with commercial publishers. Finalists to this event attend the GDC and compete for several awards and cash prizes. This year¹s Seumas McNally grand prize is $15,000 (up from $10,000 last year).

Out in California live two guys. Two wacky guys just crazy enough to make a crazy game, and call that game Insaniquarium. This survival game smashes head on into the virtual pet genre and mashes them together to form an addictive and fun experience. I investigated the two guys behind the game, out to answer one question, and one question only. Are they really crazy? Yes.

So who's who? What's your role on the project?
senhen: I'm Tysen Henderson, a college friend of George Fan's. We both are avid gamers, and have always wanted to make games of our own. George calls me up one day and asks me if I want to be involved in his new caraaaazy idea. Soon enough, I was doing background art, setting up the website and chatting long hours with George to come up with additions to the game world.
zapton: I'm George Fan, my role in this project would be the lead designer/programmer. The game itself is of my design, and so are most of the characters and animation so far. I called on my college friend Tysen Henderson, the most talented artist I know, when I felt that my 4-color background art needed sprucing up.

What is the object of the game?
George: Well, when you start the game, you'll have 2 guppies in your tank. When you click on your tank, some fish flakes will drop and your fish'll swim toward the food and eat it.
Tysen: fish operate on their own timers, and get hungry over time. Simple enough. Soon the fish grow, and begin rewarding you by releasing coins, that you must click on to collect.
George: each coin you collect adds to your total money, and when you've collected enough, you can use your money to purchase more fish to add to the tank, or buy upgrades such as better quality fish food
Tysen: Right when you think you have gotten a hang of the game, out of who knows where, comes an unwanted intruder... a ravenous alien carnivore, bent on seeding chaos in your tank, and eating its inhabitants. You have only one choice, and that is to fight back.
George: So you fight valiantly, and defeat the alien. Now you can go back to your fish harvesting. Your ultimate goal is to collect enough money to buy 3 egg pieces, which will then hatch into one of many different 'pets'
Tysen: If you are persistent, and quick on the click, you can collect every pet, and move to higher levels (different tanks), full of different challenges and different rules - not to mention different baddies. (Hopefully you don't go insane along the way)
George: haha
Tysen: or actually, hopefully you do
George: To keep players playing even longer, we added the 'pet' system, where at the end of each game you are awarded with a pet that can help you with its special abilities the next time you play the game The game stores which pets you've attained using a cookie in your browser
Tysen: Pets rock. They provide the distant goal aspect. Beating your time, or beating a score isn't always enough in a game. But a surviving alteration to the game that you have affected - that stuff sticks.

What inspired the idea behind the game? Was it just George's vision or did you help shape it too, Tysen?
Tysen: Well, George is the originator of this game, so this'll be his paragraph methinks
George: The idea was mine for the most part; Tysen helped a lot in terms of brainstorming new pet abilities and the like.
Tysen: Making Insaniquarium insane took a lot of heads, that's for sure. Many of our friends also helped out, chiming in with odd ideas for pets, or upgrades, or new tank ideas.
George: Indeed.
Tysen: Fans and testers lent a hand just as well.
George: Yeah, so if you could imagine one of those Koosh Ball thingies, with the solid center? I'm the solid center, and everyone's contributions are the frilly things on the sides
Tysen: I think a great asset was the message board George set up along the way. There are so many posts, we often don't have time to respond to them all, but we read them all, and everybody's suggestions are considered. Many ideas in the works are from people other than George and I.
George: Yeah, the people of the message boards have suggested some great ideas so far, and we're trying to implement the best of the suggested.
Tysen: As for inspired? Hahaha, I think there's a certain amount of gameplay simplicity and interaction that is reminiscent of 8bit console games...a lot of control without a lot of complexity. Cut out the learning curve and the addictiveness can set in earlier.
George: The idea was to create a game that's easy to get into, yet unfolds into something much deeper. When designing the game, I was focusing on keeping the interface simple and intuitive
Tysen: Funny thing about the game is that it's such a simple concept: keep fish happy. But then the insanity kicks in, and the game becomes frantic. You don't so much notice the premise's simplicity. But the simplicity keeps you playing I think.
George: The very first version of Insaniquarium was quite simple, just click on fish to feed them when they turn green. Very easy to get into, but lacking in depth. Then I played this java game online where they let you buy upgrades with the resources you accumulated, and that inspired me to add some depth to Insaniquarium

What platform was the game programmed for? What made you choose this platform?
George: The game was programmed in Java, mainly chosen for ease of accessibility, both in the fact that Java can be run on multiple platforms, and with a Java applet you can bypass the installation procedure that often prevents potential gamers from playing your game
Tysen: Yeah, platform independence is good. One dev schedule, max user base compatibility.
George: Although... we're still working on getting it to work on Macs... haha
Tysen: hehehe - still... cross-browser is nice
George: exactly

Can you guys think of any major problems you had during development? How did you overcome them?
Tysen: I think balancing the levels was a key issue for each release. Naturally, you don't want levels to be too simple or too difficult, or too fast or too slow. Specifically, level 2 took a bit of time. With a new mindset in how the big cash was made (the star potions/catchers), some of the pets and the gameplay had to be altered slightly.
George: A recent problem we've had is with the release of IE6, there's a much tighter security placed on cookies. What this means is people using IE6 are unable to save pets in their tanks. I'm doing research on the problem to find ways around this, but for now we simply have to ask our players to set their cookie security settings to low
Tysen: Yeah, really pretty deflating to see all your hard-fought pets disappear. That one is number 1 on the list I think. mmmm cookies
George: Cookie cookie cookie starts with C!

How long did it take to develop the game?
George: The project started in last July, with me working on the game about 4-5 hours a day for about a month. Back then it was a single-level game with only 3 pets. Since they announced the finalists in the IGF, we've been inspired to add more to the game. In January we added level 2 and 4 more pets to the game.
Tysen: Not to mention the competition feature, where the game is timed, and if you've mastered the specific tank and can make fast cash, you can get your name on the Insaniquarium score board!
George: Right now we are working on adding a few more pets, fine-tuning the gameplay, and adding robustness to the code/design
Tysen: after all, GDC is right around the corner :)

So you guys are located in San Jose eh?
Tysen: Actually...I'm in San Diego. But same state, so not a biggy
George: yeah and I'm actually staying in Dublin right now. But same 50 miles, so not a biggy ;)

When did you guys first hear of the IGF? What pushed you to enter in your game?
George: When I was going to school at Berkeley, I joined up with a bunch of students who were working on a submission to the very first IGF. We didn't make it to the finals, unfortunately, but that's how I first heard of the IGF
Tysen: Just last year, at GDC, I found myself most interested in the independent game developers stationed just outside the main room. Seeing all those games pumped out by normal people got me pretty excited.
George: Yeah, same here! So it was decided in the middle of last year that we submit our own game to the IGF, primarily in hopes of gaining exposure and recognition in the gaming industry
Tysen: But also as a "we can do that too" sort of thing.

And when you found out you were finalists?
George: I went bezerk when we found out we were finalists! I literally screamed YEAAAAAAAHHH in the middle of a cyber-cafe
Tysen: hahah! No kidding. My state had no lack of jubilance either when I figured out. I might have peed my pants. I don't remember details. But… maybe.

There's so much variety in this year's competition. How are you viewing yourselves going in?
Tysen: I really haven't put much thought to winning the whole thing. I think getting there at all is more than I had really expected. I'm happy to attend, see some keynotes, and chat with all the other developers.
George: oh man... honestly, I don't see us winning the grand prize. I think we're more than happy to just be finalists in the competition. Fans have commented on how addictive the game design is, so if judges are looking for that, we just might have a chance
Tysen: When it's all said and done though, I think we've got next year to think about too. Now that we know its possible to be a finalist, and that we can make some pretty crazy games, I don't think we're gunna dwell on anything.

Looking ahead, what do you think you can do better next time taking into account all you've learned this time around?
Tysen: I think getting a lot of people playing sooner would have helped. The testers and community have helped us out so much, and have said what they wanted, that it was a great source of creative fuel. Of course, now there is somewhat of a community, so the next go round will be that much easier. That's prolly the biggest thing...don't have much else on that topic... we're just learning the ropes ourselves
George: ok. Tysen answered that one good. I don't have anything to add
Tysen: I dun good
George: you dun good man

Hmmm... Flying Bear. That's an interesting name. This makes you one out of three Flying somethings in the finalist line up. What led you to choose it? (Ed note: for the record, it's Flying Rock, Flying Mikros, and Flying Bear)
Tysen: Everyone dreams of flying. I think that part is at least natural... but the truth lies more in George's childhood.
George: Yeah, I noticed that too, it was quite odd... 3 word company names that all start with Flying. Anyhow, when I was in High School, one of my friends asked me to draw a 'flying bear' for him. I guess it turned out pretty cool, cause pretty soon I was drawing flying bears for people left and right. So when it came time to name the company, the choice was natural. =)

What's planned so far for the future of Flying Bear?
George: besides working on an entry for next year's competition, we're currently looking into some different means of publishing Insaniquarium, be it online or shareware.
Tysen: Well, naturally, we're gearing up for next year's IGF. We've been discussing some new game concepts in some other genres, adding to a list of nutty games we have on a list from late night ramblings from years past
George: I don't see the list ever running out either. That's one thing we're not short on - ideas. In the far future, we hope to just be a company that has made great game after great game after great game
Tysen: where great means fun and funny, and usually a bit on the lunatic side.

The crazier the better, it seems. Guys, thanks a lot for doing this interview
Tysen: Thanks for interviewing!
George: our pleasure, thank you for having us

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora.

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