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Interview with Ominous Development

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.

John Dexter, aka d000hg, sat down with Eric Walker from Ominous Development to discuss their IGF entry Strange Attractors, which was nominated for Innovation in Game Design.

Who are you are how are/were you involved in Strange Attractors' development?

Eric: My name is Eric Walker and I was the lead programmer for Strange Attractors

Congratulations on reaching the finals. What caused you to enter to enter in the first place, and did you hope to do so well?

Eric: We really didn't think we would have much of a chance in the competition, actually. We mostly used the entry deadline as a goal to keep ourselves working.

How and when did your team get together? Can you give a brief history of the team?

Eric: We've all been friends since high school. I started playing around with programming back on my dad's Vic-20, and in high school I decided I would need some help if I was ever going to make a cool computer game. I recruited some friends, and over the years we've all been honing our skills either on our own or in school. Scott Stanfield basically built the Ominous Engine that allowed me to throw the game together as quickly as I did. He's completely self taught, is a brilliant programmer and excellent at organizing complicated code. Bret Alfieri has a degree in film and computer graphics; he did the art, level design and worked with me to flesh out the original idea. Chris McGarry did the music and the sound. He's an incredibly passionate and creative person and contributed a lot of ideas as to polishing up the feel of the game. Joe Saucedo is our storyteller; he's responsible for the deep and subtle plot that underlies the whole game. Actually, he's been working on various other projects since Strange Attractors is not exactly story driven.

Are you guys working as indies full-time, or around other jobs/studies?

Eric: We are definitely not full time developers. We all have other jobs and pretty full schedules outside of game development.

Would you say your team runs more like a company, or more like a group of people making games for fun?

Eric: We are people making games for fun. I think it's probably more enjoyable to work on stuff when you don't have to, but it does make deadlines very nebulous.

Where did the idea for the project come from originally, and has it changed much since its conception?

Eric: We decided to enter the one switch game competition for Retro Remakes back in April thinking that a one month deadline and simple concept would be something we could definitely get done. I came up with the idea shortly after I read the rules of that competition. The concept for the game itself can trace its roots back to the first pong game I wrote in high school. I didn't know how to put 'spin' on the ball, so I added gravity wells that would pop up at random. That concept evolved into another old game called Gravi-Ball where you switched gravity wells on and off to try and move a ball into your opponent's goal. I was thinking about trying to remake that game just before I read about the one switch competition, so it was fresh in my mind I guess. The basic idea has stayed pretty true to the original concept. There were lots of mini-games and 'challenge' levels that came and went, but the basic game play didn't change much.

We had a one-button contest on GameDev recently – what do you think of this format?

Eric: The one switch format? I think its something every game developer should try. Most of the one switch games I played felt like they were restricted by the one switch format. To put it another way, it felt like the game would be simple if you could just have separate buttons for the common game actions, and it was sometimes aggravating that there weren't. One of my goals for Strange Attractors was to make a game where you didn't really notice you were only using one button. Creating one switch games, to me, seems to polarize the concepts of interface design. It seems that the games are either all about the controls, or not at all.

What tools and 3rd-party libraries/software do you use for programming, modeling, artwork etc?

Eric: I used Microsoft Visual C++ 6, DirectX, and Paintshop Pro for my end of the project. I'm not exactly sure what's in my teammates' bags of tricks.

What were the biggest obstacles to making this game, and how did you overcome them?

Eric: I would say that the biggest obstacle was staying motivated. Since high school, a lot of the team has moved around, and we are all busy with plenty of other things. Keeping communication going between everyone, even if it wasn't project related, and using these competitions as deadlines really helped.

Were you able to meet face-to-face as a team then, or was it online-only communication?

Eric: We did most of the planning online, but Bret and I met with some frequency to tweak the design and we both drove out to Ann Arbor for a day to meet with Chris and do the preliminary sound work. Other than that it was all e-mails and blog entries.

What were the best and worst points of development?

Eric: It was a lot of fun in general. I would have to say the worst part was thinking I may have missed the deadline for the IGF because I couldn't get the ftp site to work.

How long have you been working on this game?

Eric: The first iteration was done in a month, after that we cleaned it up sporadically over the next 4 months.

What do you think makes your game stand out? Is this intentional?

Eric: Besides the little screaming men? The controls and the concepts are simple to grasp and fairly common to everyday life, but the interactions that develop quickly become more complicated than the player might expect. Obviously, some of that was intentional, but I was a little surprised at how well it all worked when I played the first demo. I think some of what makes the game fun is the learning curve. If you watch people play the game for the first time you can actually see them learning a new skill. Not a completely useful skill, mind you, but you can see them grow more comfortable with the mechanics of the game in a very pure way. I mean, it's not like they are getting better at remembering which buttons to push…

What have you learned from this project?

Eric: Probably more than anything, we've learned the importance of enforceable deadlines and intuitive controls.

What are your goals for the future and how has making the IGF finals changed things for you?

Eric: I don't think the IGF has changed too much for us. It's nice to be recognized, but it's easy to get overwhelmed by the sudden attention. As far as goals, we have more ideas for video games than we know what to do with. Hopefully one of them will bring us back to the IGF next year.

Can you give us a preview?

Eric: It's a game about breaking stuff. To quote the design doc, "Entropy is a great stress reliever." That's all I'm going to give you for now. I'm really curious to see if it turns out to be fun. I think the idea has a lot of potential and hopefully we will be able to translate it to the computer. It's a little more ambitious than Strange Attractors, so we'll see how that goes.

Best of luck to Eric and team at IGF 2006!

Interview conducted by John Dexter

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