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Interview with Large Animal Games

RocketBowlThe 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 once again had the pleasure of chatting with the team from Large Animal Games, who I interviewed last year for their game AlphaQUEUE. A local development company, and one of the few in the New York City area, it's been a pleasure watching them grow over the years. RocketBowl is their second consecutive IGF finalist entry.

Who are you and how were you involved with RocketBowl?

Wade: I'm Wade Tinney, and I was the lead game designer and producer on RocketBowl

Yossi: I'm Yossi Horowitz. I was the programmer on RocketBowl

Brad: I'm Brad MacDonald, the lead artist/art director for RocketBowl

Coray: I'm Coray Seifert and I was the primary level designer and lead cheerleader for RocketBowl

Congrats on being two-time consecutive IGF finalists. How's it feel this year, coming back?

Wade: Lucky!

Brad: But the pressure is on

Yossi: I wasn't really involved with AlphaQUEUE, so this is my first project to be an IGF finalist. It's quite exciting

Wade: It's great to be in the finals. Good exposure for a small developer. We worked on RocketBowl for a year and a half, so it's a nice little payoff for us

Coray: Having watched from the audience last year while Large Animal made it to the finals, being part of the team this year was pretty amazing

Wade: There are some really great games in the finals alongside RocketBowl

Brad: Personally, I didn't think too much about IGF while we made RocketBowl. I just wanted it to be a good game. Being recognized among all those other great games is pretty awesome

Wade: I thought about nothing but IGF for that entire year and a half

You guys have been working on RocketBowl for a year and a half, is that from concept to finish? Or was the idea kicking around earlier?

Wade: The idea was kicking around for a year or so before that, but the concept was never written down until just before development started

Yossi: Actual development of the prototype started in June '03

Brad: … Which was when Yossi joined us

Yossi: A bit after I joined the team, I came up with a background story concept which we ultimately decided not to use. The idea was that the bowling balls were living creatures, which had been a slave race to FreeBowl players. But then the FreeBowl players left or died off... leaving a race of creatures who only knew life as being a bowling ball – a life that they hated but couldn't escape, because they didn't know anything else. :) I think the idea was that they were trying to overcome their compulsion to FreeBowl that continued in spite of the fact that nobody was making them do it

Coray: Actually, RocketBowl was entered into IGF last year under its old name, which at the time was FreeBowl. I think this year's success is derived almost entirely from the name change

Brad: Yeah, people were a bit confused by the name FreeBowl. "So... it's free?"

Wade: I agree. I mean... sure we spent an additional year slaving over it, but at the end of the day, RocketBowl just feels a bit more... punchy. Edgier, if you will. And more macho, of course. RocketBowl es muy macho


Brad: But not so macho as to offend the casual gamer. I think Yossi's game would've made a great JungBall. Or maybe FreudBall

So did RocketBowl end up having any sort of backstory at all?

Brad: But of course!

Wade: It's the sport of the future at the 1958 Kalamazoo World's Fair

Yossi: It had a setting and scenario, at least, though not a plot. The "utopian leisure activity" of the future, which you could sample at the RocketBowl Pavilion

Coray: I think there is a fairly deep and rich back-story woven into the descriptions and speech of the game's characters. Just ask Missy Sparks!

Yossi: I love the world "pavilion". I have a strong sense of awe and wonder associated with it, for some reason

Wade: I've always loved the whole atomic age, retro-futuristic, aesthetic, and the "world of the future" vision that world's fairs always present

Yossi: Yeah. It would be great if there were another one here in New York. I've always been sad that I was born decades too late for the last one

Brad: We tried to base the game as much as possible on the ideal world that was visualized in 1950's advertising

Wade: So many great inventions have been introduced at world's fairs… The Ferris wheel, the ice cream cone…

Brad: Belly dancing…

Yossi: "It's a Small World" and the "Carousel of Progress," both of which ended up at Disneyland and Disney World…

Brad: And now RocketBowl!

So I understand that this is the first 3D title for you guys?

Wade: Correct

Brad: The first of many

Wade: Yes, we built the game in GarageGames' Torque Engine

Yossi: Which is quite something. It's pretty amazing, what you can get for only $100. Garage Games is doing some great things. Every indie game developer who hasn't checked them out really should

Wade: Yes, we're big fans of GarageGames. We evaluated a number of other solutions and Torque was definitely the right choice for us. Great community of developers. And since perspective is such a big part of the bowling experience, we knew it had to be a 3d game

Did you guys look at any other engines besides Torque?

Wade: Yes, we looked at a number of engines. I don't know that I want to call them out here, but I will say that some of them were much more expensive and yet seemed to have inferior support and far inferior development communities compared to GG

Yossi: And as Josh, our tech lead, points out – If you're developing games for the casual market, it makes sense to be using somewhat older technology. It keeps the system requirements down (Though the upcoming Torque Shader Engine will support all the latest geewhizbang videocard tech)

What were some of the difficulties you guys had going from 2D to 3D development?

Yossi: I'd actually never worked on a 2D game until after about a year's worth of time on RocketBowl, so for me, none at all :)

Wade: Hmmm... thinking about the camera...

Brad: For starters, none of us had any real modeling experience.

Coray: Beat me to it... I was the poor soul who had to learn how to model on the fly. That got scary at times. I never knew how many different error messages one could generate until I tried to model a smooth curve

Brad: In one capacity or another we all pitched in on the modeling

Yossi: Right, that's not to say that the challenges unique to 3D game development weren't present for me, it's just that I never really started with a 2D design/development mindset

Wade: Yes, I modeled one of the bowling balls.

Brad: I spent a lot of time testing and revising textures

Yossi: I modeled the pins and the flying cars

Wade: Torque has a nice built-in terrain editor, so all of the courses were created with that, using imported bitmaps made in Photoshop as a starting point

Brad: Ah, I was just about to mention that. Now that we've had some experience I'm really looking forward to working on our next 3D title

Wade: Likewise. Torque has also gone up a few versions already

What was the largest issue that came up during development for each of you personally? How did you solve it? Could it have been avoided?

Coray: Rapidly designing and prototyping levels was an issue for me personally. I always wanted to get everything just right before I showed it to the rest of the team. That was problematic, as I lost a lot of time polishing levels that never saw the light of day. For example, the rooftop level!

Brad: Scheduling. Except for Yossi, none of us was working on the title fulltime. We had several projects running simultaneously and would have to switch into RocketBowl work mode to make our internal deadlines. We were most productive when everyone's schedules allowed for the group to focus on the project together

Yossi: Agreed. There were lots of times when I was waiting for art assets and design elements to come in before I could continue with my coding, but everyone else had their hands full with other projects. But that may have been better for the game in the long run; it gave me time to go back and polish things that I already considered done

Wade: I think for me it was finding the balance between a new style of gameplay (rocket bowling) and a style of gameplay with a long history and existing player expectations (straight bowling)

Brad: True

Wade: We wanted to do some different, but that would still appeal to people who just wanted to play a bowling game. The scoring, for example, was an issue that we discussed endlessly and implemented many different variations of. How to deal with Wild Strikes... that sort of thing

Brad: Good point, Wade. In a way, I think the gameplay was kind of risky because of the twist on traditional bowling. We really want fans of real bowling to enjoy the game as well as appeal to people who normally wouldn't play bowling games.

Yossi: Learning the innards of Torque was also pretty difficult. It's a very complex code base, and wasn't nearly as well documented back then as it is today. Tuning the physics is also something that we were doing right up to the end

Wade: Also, the control scheme was something we iterated on quite a bit. Again, the idea for the boosting mechanism is very different from other bowling games I know of. We played around with lots of variations of it, along with levels of direct ball control, launching mechanisms, et cetera. Although... I don't really see these as problems to be avoided, as much as a natural part of the process. So I'm not doing a great job of answering your question!

Brad: Over the course of the production the look and feel didn't change that drastically but the control scheme went through a bunch of revisions

Yossi: I think the look and feel did change a lot, but it was kind of incremental, so we didn't feel it that much. A few months back, I showed Coray a build from Oct '03, and he was shocked by how different it was

Wade: Yes, but we all know Coray is easily shocked

Coray: I agree with Yossi on that one. Looking back at the various iterations of interface, it's hard to even tell it's the same game. The first interface I saw looked more like a Candy Machine. I was shocked!!!

Brad: Usually, I like to start a design with some vary different directions but RocketBowl had an aesthetic theme from the beginning and we stuck with it

Coray: I wasn't really shocked…

What was some of the inspiration that went into the design of the levels to make them challenging for the player?

Wade: The main goal was to make sure that there were multiple approaches that one could take to a given pin set

Brad: And we wanted to encourage exploration

Coray: Agreed. Two very good points

Wade Tinney: A slow arc around a bank, a straight hopping shot, et cetera. Even the more mini-golf style frames (with chutes and such) have choices

Coray: In general we tried to use a format that was more like a traditional golf course, where you have different paths and angles you can take to get to the ball, rather than a mini-golf approach, which is often more of a one-way deal

What other tools beside Torque and its tools were used for RocketBowl?

Brad: That old workhorse Photoshop

Wade: Custom sound sequencing tools, Ableton Live, Wavelab, and various other audio apps

Coray: Mountain Dew, Coke, Cheese Doodles, J'Adore cookies...

Wade: Illustrator…

Yossi: Visual C++, Notepad. :-) Along with Milkshape 3D for the 3D models

Coray: UltraEdit was very useful, especially for certain aspects of the level design. Much easier to manipulate the numeric properties of the objects in the level than working in the editor directly.

Brad: Copious amounts of visual reference material

Wade: Excel…

Coray: Excel was very important for editing the physics properties of the game. Almost everything was stored in data tables, which made it very easy for the designers to go in and fiddle with settings. MS Project was helpful for scheduling too

You guys said last year that you didn't use any version control for the source code - how about this year? In fact, any source control for the entire project pipeline?

Wade hides his face

Yossi: We used Code Co Op for source control for the code, but we didn't have source control for any of the other assets.

Wade: We're actually addressing that little problem now. It's been a glaring hole in our dev process

Yossi: Everything is going to go under CVS, which will drastically optimize our production pipeline. Luckily none of us all have yet fallen through that hole to our doom. But we skirted the precipice a few times

How many hours a week do you guys normally put in on the game? Were there any bad crunch periods that could have/should have been avoided?

Wade: We definitely crunched at certain points, and I suppose in theory crunch times are avoidable, but I think it takes near-superhuman force of will on the part of everyone on the team, or a bottomless bank account

Yossi: I think the biggest crunch had may have been just before the deadline for IGF '03, since we didn't decide until shortly before that we were going to enter

Coray: I think the project was managed extremely well. The only crunch that I really remember was testing and tweaking the physics the last few days. Still, that felt more like a party than crunch time. I also think Its important to note here that Wade and Josh do a great job of making sure that everyone is well rested and not overworked. I think the finished product speaks to the effectiveness of that policy

Wade: Brown-noser

Brad: We could have been much more aggressive about the production schedule and that potentially could have created more crunch times

Coray: Brown-noser? Yes-man? Come on, can't a guy have a positive attitude these days!?!

Yossi: Since Quality of Life is such a hot topic these days, I should mention that we probably have the best quality of life of any developers in the industry. We all really enjoy working here, and get huge amounts done, but still have enough time to do things outside of work

Brad: All kidding aside, that's probably true

Coray: See? Yossi is a brown-noser too ;)

Wade: See, what these guys don't realize is that it's all about to change. Soon, the door will be locked until 11:00pm every night. The whip, she shall be cracked, oh yes

Yossi cowers in fear

Brad: First person to leave before 10pm cleans the fridge

Indeed, Quality of Life is fast becoming the hot topic of the industry. What are your views on the current state of the industry's QoL, and what do you guys do to keep it fun and the pressure off?

Yossi: Well, we used to play Halo. But then Halo 2 came out, and everyone started playing together from home over XBOX Live. Except for me. Because I don't have an XBOX

Wade: Awww... that makes me sad, Yossi. You should have gotten an XBOX instead of that DS!

Coray: Word

Yossi: So instead I sneak up behind Coray and dangle a rubber mouse over his head, since he's easily shocked, as mentioned before. Then I steal his XBOX

Coray: Yeah, I don't like that game with the mouse. I vote for more Halo 2

Brad: An unofficial snacktime has emerged and usually happens in the late afternoon. It helps take the edge of the lunchtime food coma and gives us an excuse to rest our brains.

Yossi: I'm not sure I'm in a good position to comment on QoL in the industry in general. I mean, the reports are pretty awful, but I haven't had any negative experiences myself. I interned at Totally Games while I was in college; QoL was just fine there, too.

Wade: Actually, neither am I. I've never worked at another game company

Wade: We always eat lunch together…

Coray: This is true, and we go bowling together. We're all terrible, ironically. We have a great time though.

Wade: True, I forgot about the bowling. And the Chinatown dinners…

So have you guys looked beyond RocketBowl at all yet? What's next?

Wade: Oh, we've got some things up our sleeves. More 3D, more 2D… More 3rd party development, such as Saints and Sinners Bingo...

Coray: More Torque!

Wade: … Less work-for-hire…

Coray: More original titles, like RocketBowl

Yossi: More IGF finalists. I'd also like to find ways to integrate story into games for the casual market, with plot arcs, and characters arcs...

Yossi: ...as opposed to just game color and scenarios, which is most of what's been done up 'til now, even in "hardcore" game development.

Coray: More cheat codes :D

Well good luck once again guys, I'll see you at the GDC in March

Yossi: Yay!

Coray: Huzzah!

Yossi: Hip hip!

Wade: Hooray!

Brad: See you there!

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora.

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