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Interview with Team Some People (DigiPen)

KissesThe 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.

Kisses is a sort of life-and-dating sim (or in the words of the developers, a "social simulation"). Set in a snowy Eskimo village, the player has to satisfy their basic needs for food, water, and shelter while building relationships with other villagers. It's a pretty game with a fair amount of character, though it's harder than it first appears. Three quarters of the coding team were kind enough to give me an hour's Q&A (and Brent Thomas, one of the artists, was able to join us near the end).

First of all, thanks for coming - I'm sure you all have better things to be doing on a Saturday morning. Care to introduce yourselves for the logs?

Lewis: Lewis Mohr, programmer.

Gil: Hello, I’m Gil Rosado, graphics programmer.

Ryan: Ryan Juckett, programmer, designer, some art and sound work.

Congratulations on making it through to the IGF finals... was entering IGF a long-term goal with Kisses?

Ryan: It was always in the back of our minds. Some of us have been in the student showcase before and enjoyed the experience.

So the IGF page on you says that it took 10 months from start to finish - is that from first code to final build?

Lewis: Pretty much, we started coding around September 2003.

Gil: That was the amount of time that we were all working on it full-time. We have worked on it a little bit since after the initial 10 months.

Ryan: We made over 95% of the game during the school year and everything after April has been tweaks and polish. And I think it was only 8 months at school, but who's counting?

Ah, I see... this was a dedicated project for DigiPen for that first chunk of time, then?

Ryan: Yes, it was our senior game project so we had to turn in a playable product by graduation.

Lewis: Each year at DigiPen involves a project class where we make a game. This is in addition to our other classes as well.

Were they helpful in terms of providing development tools and all?

Lewis: 4 copies of Visual Studio and 1 copy of 3ds max... that's about it as far as tools go.

Ryan: We each had a computer, and a compiler. That's about all you need.

Gil: And GeForce 4 cards.

I noticed they seem to be handling the business side of things for you, too?

Ryan: They like to be in full control of everything that was made there for legal reasons.

Ahh, of course. OK, so, Kisses itself. Which parts of development proved to be the most difficult?

Ryan: Dealing with video card driver issues was always a big problem given that we didn't have easy access to every card out there. While other parts provided a challenge, we at least had control over them.

Gil: In terms of developing the graphics, the shadow implementation was the most challenging aspect. At least 4 months were spent on making sure the shadows looked right on every video card with minimal artefacts.

I guess you would have taken what you could and could not do within the allotted time into consideration during the design phase, anyway...

Ryan: Yes, we made a very detailed design document and had a good idea of what order we would cut features given time constraints.

How did the design process actually work? I don't think anyone's listed on the website as the official 'designer' for the project.

Lewis: That would pretty much be Ryan. We all had input, but he had the vision.

Executive power, huh?

Ryan: I wanted to make something that we could show off graphically and AI-wise. Given limited art resources, we can't really make it look nice if we have lots of levels and worlds, so we made it randomly generated and so forth. You want to make a good resume piece and know your constraints in the art and time departments.

Gil: The design was definitely small enough in scope that we could develop the game in the given amount of time and still have time for polishing it.

Lewis: We knew from experience that games that relied on lots of authored content weren't a good idea at DigiPen.

Right - you don't want to end up needing five times as many artists as programmers.

Ryan: Definitely not, we had three very part time artists. Mostly weekend work. And we appreciate the free help very much.

On the subject of the AI in Kisses - it's pretty cool. How's the AI model for a character actually work, under the surface?

Ryan: The villagers have a list of tasks that they can perform (make a friend, make a lover, gather wood, cook food, etc.). These are then prioritized based on their current situation and knowledge. They also talk to each other in the game about what is happening in the village.

Some kind of rumour system?

Ryan: Yes, if some one sees you hug some girl, they might tell others and it could come back to hurt you. If you know what the icons mean in the game, you can actually see what they are saying in their chat bubbles.

Lewis: But only Ryan knows what they mean.

Ryan: Technically it works great, but we had a hard time conveying it all to the player. You might find someone dislikes you the next day and not have a full grasp of why all the time.

Thinking about the chat bubbles - it'd be fair to say that The Sims was an influence, yes?

Lewis: The Sims and Animal Crossing were probably our biggest influences.

Ryan: We wanted to mix those two games but have a full functioning village. The AI never cheats and needs to do everything the player does. If they don't eat enough they will get unhappy and they need to sleep just like you. I don't like when the AI just sits at home all day in games and the player has to do all this work for his character.

Right - I've seen someone cook and eat while I was in their hut before, which was cool.

Ryan: I like that if you shove someone until they pass out in the snow that you can guarantee they will be famished by morning and the villagers will be disgusted by their appearance. In most games they will just go back to their normal life once they leave the screen for a while.

I always found my guy would get tired pretty quickly. Or maybe I just suck at the game...

Ryan: The main challenge of the game is to balance your energy between needs (water, food, shelter) and relationships while still getting home to sleep at night. It was hard to get new focus testers though.

Lewis: That was a challenge during development too; the AI spent a lot of time passed out...

Heh. Yeah, with the fairly low-level rules about how characters behave, it must have led to some entertaining emergent behaviour during development. Any funny stories to share?

Ryan: There were many problems that would come up with the AI. For example, when they learned to give presents they would just give them to each other back and forth until they were filled with happiness.

Lewis: Yeah, often times you'd be going to get fish, and some villager would run up and give you wood. So you'd have to drop it, only to get another piece of wood.

Ryan: Sometimes they would kiss in the centre of town and others would see. Soon the whole town was insulting and shoving each other. They tended to act up a lot when they learned new things or when game rules were tweaked. We eventually got some better debugging features working for them.

At the EDF conference here in the UK last September, the two hot topics people kept bringing up were believable characters and emergent gameplay. Kisses has managed to touch on both... any thoughts on where those areas are going to go, any things you would have liked to try to get into the game had you had more time or resources?

Lewis: One thing we had wanted to do was add a UI so that players could create gossip events to tell other players.

Ah - spreading misinformation? That would have been cool.

Ryan: I think the hardest part with believable, smart characters is getting their intelligence across to the user. There needs to be lots of audible information and such.

Right - I did notice that you'd supplemented the thought bubbles with a few sound samples. That definitely helped to clear things up on occasion.

Ryan: Yes, but we never got the "second hand thoughts" correct. Basically where someone could tell you why they don't like you based on an indirect reason.

Oh - like, you shoving someone that they like?

Ryan: Yes. It all works, but doesn't come across well all the time.

You said you continued to polish the game after the Digipen project itself ended - do you plan to continue developing the game past IGF?

Ryan: I think the game is done unless someone wants to publish it and needs it to work on older video cards or who knows what.

No plans for a Kisses 2.0?

Lewis: Well, we've all got full-time jobs now, so time is even more limited.

Gil: I don't think so.

Ryan: Not currently. We have all moved on to professional jobs at the moment.

Oh, right - have you all managed to pick up jobs in the industry, then? I'm sure people would want to know where you're working now...

Lewis: I'm working for ArenaNet on our upcoming title, GuildWars.

Ryan: I'm at Neversoft.

Brent: I'm currently at Zipper Interactive.

Ryan: Our other two artists are at ArenaNet and Whatif Productions.

Gil: I am currently working at Pipeworks Software. We just finished Godzilla: Save the Earth.

Lewis: Alex Van Berg is working for NST last I checked.

Ryan: And our musician would love a job offer.

Well, thank you all for coming. And best of luck at IGF!

Ryan: Thanks!

Lewis: Thanks!

Brent: Thanks.

Gil: Thank you.

Interview conducted by Richard "superpig" Fine.

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