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Interview with iSeeSoft

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 year's Seumas McNally grand prize is $15,000 (up from $10,000 last year).

This time around I had the opportunity to interview Brian Hoffer of iSeeSoft, makers of World Dance. Here's what he had to say:

Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Brian Hoffer and I am the programmer / game designer / lots of other things here at iSeeSoft. I graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2000 with a bachelors in computer engineering.

Give us a quick rundown of the World Dance team
First off, we are located in Cincinnati, OH. Here is what our team consisted of for World Dance:

Ed Chung, CEO: Ed massaged all of the motion capture data for World Dance. He also came up with the original idea and paid all the bills. He never sleeps... ever (well, except at his desk from time to time).

Scott Uhler, Character Animator: Scott is currently an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati studying Fine Arts. He created all of the character models for World Dance as well as wrote the manual and researched the various items in the game.

John Pham, 3D modeler: John graduated in 2001 with a degree in architecture from the Univ. of Cincinnati. He created all the wonderful backgrounds you see in World Dance. In addition, he designed and implemented our web site. John and I both shared the responsibility of learning how to operate the motion capture system.

Ryan Price, Artist: Ryan is also an undergrad at Univ. of Cincinnati studying Industrial Design and worked as an intern for us during development. He did a lot of concept art and sketches for us. He also created the graphics for the GUI and the packaging design for the game.

Julie Yost, Dancer: Hands down to Julie first of all. She was able to learn many different dance styles in a relatively short period of time and then perform them all while wearing the very comfortable motion capture suit. She danced all the dances you see in the game. She also holds the company record for eating a Big Mac the quickest.

Are you guys developing in a virtual environment? If so, was communication a problem during development? How did you overcome it?
We started out working over the Internet. We all worked from our homes and on our own hours. Communication was certainly a problem, first of all because most of us did not know each other. It was generally slow going because we couldn't all sit down and discuss things, it had to be done one at a time between members. This also led to confusion about who was supposed to do what and when. However, eventually we overcame this by getting an office and working somewhat regular hours. This would have happened eventually since we needed to start motion capturing at some point.

So you guys were somewhat localized from the beginning? Was this a coincidence or was it planned to keep the team within a certain area?
We were localized in the beginning. With the University of Cincinnati nearby, it was convenient to find talent. After being hired, I moved to Colorado just to try it out. I figured what the heck, I was working from home anyway. I guess I was probably the cause of the most the trouble ;) Eventually I did move back to Cincinnati and we started working in the studio.

What's the idea behind World Dance?
The story of the game is that the player is traveling to all of these locations around the world in order to learn about their culture and dance. The overall goals are to master all seven levels (each level being a different location). As the player progresses, information about the various 'treasures' they collected is placed in their Journal of the World. Everything within the levels tie together: items, costumes, dancing, character, etc. As far as the mechanics of game play are concerned, it breaks down to movement and patterns. The player must maneuver the dancer around the floor using an assortment of different dance moves. The goal of each level is to collect a certain number of 'good' items on the board while avoiding obstacles and 'penalty' items. Once the objectives of the level have been met, the player must move the dancer onto a specific area of the floor to win.

Were there any more styles of dance you simply had to cut from the game, or do these 7 cover the world's major styles? Are there any plans to add more styles?
Yes, we started with 20 styles of dance but after getting our hands dirty with motion capture and modeling and whatnot, we came to realize that 20 was a little too ambitious. So, we started cutting it down and eventually came to 7. However, we were careful to design the game in a manner that would allow us to add expansions later on. At the moment there aren't any plans to do so, but you never know.

Was this iSeeSoft's first game? If not, what are your previous titles and how did past experience benefit development this time around? If not, what major problems did the team run into during development? How did you solve them?
Yes, this was iSeeSoft's first game. I think the major problem we ran into was straying from our original idea. A few months after development began we came up with a much larger idea for the game (one that could not possibly fit our schedule). Unfortunately we got a little carried away with it and wasted some time but soon found ourselves back on track. Although looking back now, it wasn't all bad since some of the new ideas got adopted into the game. Another thing that really hurt us was that we started implementing with too general of an idea. So when it came down to actually coding the rules of the game, we were left scrambling trying to fit things together. In all, I think we did a good job of bringing things together and if anything we came out a heck of a lot smarter than we went in.

Besides correcting the problems you had developing World Dance, what other things are you looking to improve upon the next time around?
Another problem we encountered during development of World Dance was the whole motion capture thing. There was a large learning curve to overcome in using the system and figuring out how the data would fit into our pipeline. This is definitely one area that caused us a lot of trouble, which I think we will take steps to improve next time around. Other smaller things such as naming conventions, file locations, file formats, etc. got somewhat overlooked and ended up causing some headaches later down the road. I think this sort of hassle can be eliminated with better planning.

What qualities separate World Dance from the other dancing game out there today?
I feel World Dance is a lot different than dancing games already out there; the only thing being similar is the dancing theme. When you really break it down our game is a simple strategy / puzzle game. The other dancing games I have played tended to be more along the lines of Street Fighter with dancing instead of fighting (not that that's bad, I found them to be very fun). The quality that stands out the most to me about World Dance is the learning aspect. The player is given the chance to learn about what they are watching and interacting with. In addition, it can be challenging to figure out which way to best maneuver the dancer, especially for younger players.

How long has World Dance been in development? Who thought up the original idea?
World Dance was developed over the course of about one and a half years. It started out as just Ed and I working but soon grew to six people total at one point. The idea itself was born a while ago somewhere in the back of Ed's mysterious brain. He told me the idea came to him while watching a co-worker dancing on a checkerboard-tiled floor in a lab. In general he wanted a game that was very simple to play and learn. If you really rip the idea down to its roots, it could be any object moving across the grid in certain patterns. Dancing just seemed to lend itself to the idea very well.

When did you decide to enter the game in the IGF? What brought about this decision?
I believe we decided to join the IGF somewhere around one week before submissions were due. To be completely honest, I don't think many of us even considered it an option or did not even know it existed. I think Ed just mentioned it out of the blue one day and we all decided to give it a go. I think we put more hours in that week then ever before. I personally remember working all through the night and all the next day then racing to the post office with 5 minutes to spare on that Saturday. I guess it paid off though ;)

This year's IGF features a plethora of various genres and ideas. How do you view yourselves heading into competition?
I think we stand a chance against the competition, as do all of the finalists. Although our game may not stack up technically against some *cough* Ace of Angels... I think we certainly have something to bring and show off. I guess we will just have to wait and see!

The IGF is backed in part by the IGDA. Is anyone on the team a member of the association? How has the IGDA helped you, if at all?
What's the IGDA? Just kidding... I believe the only person here that is a member is Scott, and he only became a member to see if he could win a trip to the GDC (obviously before we knew we were finalists). I haven't talked to Ed about it at all, but it seems like something we should look into joining.

What's the future look like for iSeeSoft and World Dance?
Well, right now we are looking into getting World Dance out to the market. As for iSeeSoft, we have many new game ideas that we are exploring and will to start development here pretty soon.

Thanks a lot for taking the time to do this interview Brian
No problem.

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora.

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