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Interview with Ninja Bee

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.

The team from Ninja Bee took some time to answer a few questions I sent them about their IGF finalist Band of Bugs, which has been nominated this year for Technical Excellence. Here are their responses...

Who are you and how were you involved in Band of Bugs?

Kevin: I'm Kevin Heap, Lead Programmer on Band of Bugs.
Brent: My name is Brent Fox. I have been involved in Band of Bugs from the first discussions of what game we were going to make next. We have a great group of creative developers that have shared in all of the aspects of the creation of this game. As the art director, my focus has been to ensure that the game has a unique and appealing look.
Steve: Steve Taylor. I was the team lead and helped with design and programming.
Jeremy: Hi. My name is Jeremy Throckmorton, and I am Lead Designer for Band of Bugs.

Congrats on your IGF nomination. What made you submit Band of Bugs to the IGF?

Jeremy: Thanks. We’re very happy to be one of the finalists. We almost didn’t enter, truth be told. We’re a larger company than a lot of the other indie developers out there, and we didn’t want to be perceived as throwing our weight around or anything like that. After we received an invitation to submit however... we couldn’t resist. The IGF is a great showcase for the independent games industry, and we’re obviously big fans of that aspect of our industry.

Where did the inspiration for Band of Bugs come from?

Jeremy: Band of Bugs came primarily from a desire to take the tactics and strategy genre that many of us love and to make it accessible to more casual players. Of course we still wanted it to retain appeal for existing fans of the genre. We did a lot of brainstorming and came up with a game that we think captures the essence of several classic games, but is very accessible to the casual gamer.

What were some of the difficulties in designing a strategic console game that was also accessible to casual players?

Jeremy: Strategic games by their nature require more commitment than your average arcade game or point-and-click puzzler. There tends to be more for a player to learn in order to become proficient. The turn-based nature of these games tends to be a double-edged sword as well. A casual gamer likes that he can wait and plan his next move, explore his options. On the other hand, the same player doesn’t want to spend a lot of time waiting for another player to make his move. He probably has less tolerance for it than the hardcore strategy game player too.

What's the one thing about Band of Bugs that makes it accessible to casual players?

Jeremy: We simplified a lot of the systems in the game; really put a focus on the tactical combat aspect, and made sure things were as simple as possible while still retaining some depth and nuance for the dedicated players. A player doesn’t need to know the nitty-gritty of the game mechanics to play, but can dig into the game and find more advanced features of the mechanics if he chooses.

We also made the game fast playing. We minimized player downtime while still allowing for thoughtful play. Turns progress quickly, and while not executing their turn, players have options that allow them to plan for their next move.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of developing for the XBox platform?

Kevin: The Xbox 360 is an amazing platform to develop for! Besides the fact that the hardware is awesome, the tools that we have to work with are second to none. No other gaming platform on the market comes close to having the toolset this one does. We do have to meet a series of Technical Certification Requirements, which can be quite strict and difficult to meet at times. While these TCRs increase the difficulty of development, they definitely increase the strength of the system by giving the user a familiar experience across all games on the system. The user can expect to be awarded achievements in every game, for example.

What helped to define the visual style of the game?

Brent: One of our major goals for Band of Bugs was to take a tactics game and broaden the appeal in order to reach a wider audience. Not only will the tactics game enthusiast enjoy our game but it also attracts players who have yet to experience the thrill of this type of game.

The look of the game is a big factor in accomplishing this goal. Even when a game has a lot of depth many people decide to try it based on the appearance. This was an interesting challenge and it affected the subject matter and the overall art style. Band of Bugs is filled with cool looking bugs that aren’t sissy in any way but they also may be occasionally described as “cute”. The game has a mix of rich texture detail and vibrant colors that make it fall somewhere in-between realistic and cartoon-like.

Another huge influence on the appearance of Band of Bugs is the fact that it is a grid-based game. We chose not to shy away from that fact, but instead to embrace it. Our world is made of blocks. In addition to blending perfectly with game-play, a block world also made our level editor much more flexible and easy to use. It made perfect sense. This may sound like a simple solution but it also needed to look good and we were presented with several artistic challenges because of this choice. For example, how do you make blocks of water that still look and behave like water? This also had to be done a way that didn’t limit players’ ability to build any level they could imagine. These challenges resulted in a unique look that I’m proud of.

Where there any problems during development that you would like to share as a caution to other developers?

Steve: It can be somewhat difficult to simplify a game once you've started down a complex road. We're learning to develop a solid but relatively focused design and nail that rather than try to implement every crazy idea that might be applicable to a particular project.

What was used to make Band of Bugs and what tools aided in development?

Kevin: Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 and a suite of custom tools from Microsoft specifically made for the 360.
Steve: We also have a set of custom NinjaBee tools that we use to prototype, develop, and balance any game we're working on for any platform.

How do you view the current state of the indie games industry?

Jeremy: The indie games industry is in a very good place right now. In some ways it seems to be reminiscent of the early days of the industry when indie was far more common. The industry as a whole is in a transitional state as online capabilities and technologies continue to advance and become more common place. Console manufacturers, like Microsoft, have really helped to push digital distribution to the next level of feasibility, and that is nothing more than a godsend for indie publishers.

What's next for Ninja Bee?

Steve: More high-quality downloadable games! We'll continue to do work for Live Arcade, because it rocks, but we're interested in any Indie opportunity that makes sense for us. We just want to make cool games that we're proud of, and we're thrilled with how that plan has worked out so far. The future is scary-bright!

Best of luck to the Ninja Bee team at the GDC!

Interview conducted by Drew Sikora

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