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Interview with Reflexive Entertainment

Wik and the Fable of SoulsThe 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 was able to chat with several members of the Reflexive team about their game Wik and the Fable of Souls, a game that blurs the lines between several genres. Wik's unique gameplay is a quick snag to players – who would have thought a character that swings with his tongue and shoots bugs would be so cool? Apparently these guys did. Let's find out more.

Who are you and how were you involved in Wik?

Ion: Ion Hardie, Lead Level Designer and SFX creator

Simon: My name is Simon Hallam, and I'm the Producer & Lead Programmer

Zach: I'm Zach Young, artist, music, and play tester :)

Brian: Brian Fisher, Programmer

Ion: Simon also really did a lot of the early designing in Wik

How long have you guys been together as a team?

Ion: I've been at the company for 7 years, Zach has been here for 6 years, Simon and Brian have been here for... 2-3 years?

Brian: I've been here a year and some change

Simon: I've been here 3 & a bit years

Ion: We really started working on larger, retail games. We recently transitioned to smaller, downloadable products

Brian: Starting last Christmas, went sans publisher for good

Simon: Christmas before last - but it's all good

Brian: Yeah what he said

Zach: And we are never going back to big games! EVER! You can't make me!!!

Wow that's a long time - have you guys entered games into the IGF before?

Ion: No, no IGF submissions. We have been doing downloadable games for years, but really only part time until last year

Well congrats on making it to the finals on your first year. How's it feel?

Ion: Rad!

Simon: It feels great!

Brian: Like I'm floating on a cloud

Simon: We are very excited

Zach: It's absolutely amazing, I am more proud of Wik than any other game I have ever been a part of

Ion: I think we are all pretty stoked! We are actually looking into different ideas for things to give away at IGF to get the crowd into the game...

Simon: ...like an animatronics stuffed Wik with fully articulated tongue/swing mechanism...

Brian: Indie rocks!

You guys seem to have a lot of games. What made you choose Wik? Were others up for entry as well?

Ion: We actually entered Ricochet Lost Worlds too, but it was more of a commercial success than an innovate product, I suppose, as it didn't make the finals. Ricochet is our "break out" series of games, and it has done very well for us commercially over the years

Zach: Well, technically we entered both of our relevant games, it just so happened Wik got picked ;)

Brian: For me it seems a natural fit, because we were never constrained by genre in the development

And how did Wik come about?

Simon: Each programmer here worked on a number of single day quick game prototypes, based on various original ideas we had each had. Then when we had quite a few of them the founding partners in the company basically picked which one seemed like the most interesting & likely to be commercially successful. Wik was originally a game prototype called BugEater, it seemed like the most interesting at the time and so we committed it to full development

So how long was Wik in development?

Ion: 7 months…

Simon: About 9 months

Zach: 3 months

Zach and Simon laugh

Ion: …with the whole team. Simon was actually on it a couple months longer

Brian: We had different scales of development throughout. We even did some additional development after release, in order to help it go to a larger audience by having software only rendering. So it really depends on how you like to measure :)

Ion: Simon was the original designer on the product, and he was by his lonesome in the beginning

Simon: Simon and the Lead Artist worked on the game in pre-production for an initial 2 months, hehe :)

Ion: Money-wise, 7 months for full team (that's what our accountant has the game down for)

What's the basic idea behind the game play in Wik?

Brian: Fun

Simon: The basic idea changed radically about 4 months into development. The mechanic that inspired the original 'quick prototype' (BugEater) was actually based on Missile Command (!!!). About 3 months in we didn't feel like the gameplay was fun enough, so we started coming up with crazy radical ideas. Brian had been experimenting with having Wik be affected by gravity, and at that time Wik looked more frog/iguana like

Ion: Gravity was the thing that turned the corner in my book

Brian: An apple hit my head one day...

Simon: So it wasn't long before the idea of swinging on his tongue took shape. Brian and I worked closely for several weeks at that point trying to get the feel of Wik down. I think it turned out pretty great, I'm very happy with the way Wik moves around, the rate at which a player develops skill moving him around, etc.

Brian: With respect to the story and grub collection though, those concepts were consistent throughout development

Simon: Right, the idea to have him eat bugs was in the original prototype. The basic story was also something that was worked out in pre-production and didn't change significantly throughout development of the project

Brian: Simon came up with those story themes early on (after we moved from the prototype stage) and developed a lot of stuff with the lead artist, Jeff McAteer. But fun is the basic idea :)

So does Wik span many genres, or do you consider it to be outside conventional genres?

Ion: Hmmm…

Simon: Personally, I think it's outside of common genres, which was something of a concern during development

Brian: It would definitely be a platformer, but that was never a design goal

Ion: I would expect to see this type of game on a PS2

Brian: Yeah, we did a lot with the control scheme to try and make it more accessible

Ion: I tried for a long time to see how the controls could work on an Xbox

Brian: But at the same time I guess you'd say the look and skill level are more towards hard-core gaming

Zach: I think it, like anything, can be placed in a few genres, but I don't think it completely fits, so I would have to say a bit outside of conventional game genres, especially downloadable games

Brian: Actually Zach said it right, put me down for his answer

Ion: Basically, we are a bunch of developers that like harder-core games and we are trying to make them fit into the downloadable games space, which is typically full of puzzle games

I can pretty much do everything in the game with my mouse - was this simple control scheme also a goal in the design? Or did that develop from the game play?

Ion: I believe it was always a goal to make it as easy as possible

Simon: It was definitely a design goal from the start

Brian: Mouse-only I think was a goal. We did some play-testing too, and that drove us to make some changes to make it more intuitive and forgiving, and to make it so it's easier to get Wik to swing faster

Ion: In looking at other titles, and evaluating what we like, we really tried to make it as easy to learn the controls as possible. It can be very off-putting to have to learn and use a bunch of buttons

Simon: At several times during development we brought focus groups in so we could watch how they play without any instruction or feedback from us other than how to launch the game. We learned a lot and adjusted the game accordingly

Brian: We really wanted it to feel very natural, like Wik was an extension of your arm almost. We wanted the motion and movement to add to the artistic qualities of the game

Simon: As natural as swinging from his tongue can be!

Brian laughs

Speaking of artistic qualities, what was the motivation behind the look of Wik?

Ion: Gollum meets a frog ;)

Zach: Well, early on Jeff and I kicked around a bunch of ideas... We wanted a look that was dark but kind of inviting...

Brian: I don't think anyone mentioned Gollum until after Wik was created...

Ion: That's true

Simon: Interestingly, in Jeff McAteer's eyes, Gollum really wasn't a direct influence

Zach: He nailed the character almost immediately in my opinion, but it took a while for everyone to kinda come around to it... the environments were designed around the look of Wik because after all, it is his world. So that was kind of a no-brainer, although it proved to be a bit of a task tying in the fairytale feel we also wanted. Just like anything else though, if you work at it enough, eventually it gets to where you want it to be

Simon: We knew the character would have frog/iguana like qualities, but we wanted Wik to feel more human, so that people could relate more and maybe even feel something for his rather sad story

Brian: I can't speak for the artists, but I know that Simon wanted the storybook influence very early on. Simon, you and Jeff wanted Wik to look like an anti-hero, right?

Simon: Yes, very much so. Wik went through a lot before he began the adventure that unfolds in the game

What sort of issues arose from the swinging game play, both from the design and technical sides?

Simon laughs

Simon: I'm not sure why that's funny, but...

Ion: What didn't arise??

Simon: …it changed things a lot!

Brian: Lots of lost time as certain team members swung around for hours at a time... :P I actually thought swinging solved a lot of the issues that came up with gravity and platforming

Ion: Ha! It changed everything. Level design, power up ideas, level completion, game timers...

Simon: The biggest problem right away was that a skilled player could reach any point on any level pretty much whenever they wanted

Zach: It's not like we competed to see who could do the most consecutive loops for days at a time or anything... :)

Simon laughs

Simon: Remember the day when we thought 7 loops was totally amazing?!?!

Brian: And then I fixed the bug...

Ion: We had to try and figure out why people would want to do certain things. Why get good at swinging was one of our largest problems. We had to figure out why people would want to get good at something like that. In the office, it seemed very cool...but we were very concerned no one would do it. (Swinging, that is...)

Brian: Ion's right – when there were no level goals, we'd spend our time swinging and jumping. But once we'd have the goal, it would be mostly jumping and grabbing and spitting

Ion: We came up with some ideas, and had to try and figure out how to get them into the game and have someone care. That was our largest hurdle, I think

Brian: Absolutely right

Ion: We had to balance the timing of the level, the control scheme of the player, the 5 minute goal and the 30 minute goal and not make the resultant gameplay too difficult

Simon: Interestingly, the dev team seemed to be split into 2 camps for a while, there were the "swingers" and the "spitters"

Ion: I was a spitter

Zach: I'm a swinger!!!!!!

Simon: Several members of the team loved jumping & swinging around. We would play on a map that had no enemies or goal for hours...

Ion: That discussion was one of the main reasons that there are two game modes in the game. I never really got into the Challenge Mode, as it emphasizes swinging. However, I love the Story Mode, as it emphasizes the "spitting" model of gameplay

Simon: …other members of the team liked collecting a mouthful of bugs and spitting them shotgun-style at large swarms of flying bugs

Ion: Yes! Shotgun rules!

Brian: It's funny, the trigger that helped us to figure out how to merge the two styles better was when we discovered a bug that was making Wik swing right way faster than we wanted. But when we fixed it, the swingers swung less, so we tried amping up the swing, and then the spitters were more interested in swinging. Happy accident I guess

Ion: A great accident!

Were there any other modes of play that didn't make it into the final game?

Simon: Yes. As well as the story and challenge modes, there was going to be a skill mode where the player gained points for moving around a level in skillful/unique ways. We had something we called "glow power", which was a kind of energy that was represented visually around Wik himself as you did more and more cool loops, combinations of loops, swings and jumps, etc. We never quite figured out how to structure a set of goals for the player to accomplish and measure their performance, and we started to run short on dev time on the project. Still, the skill mode exists in some fashion in the prologue levels

So was the physics developed in house? Or did you guys use an existing library/engine?

Ion: All here!

Brian: In house

Simon: BRIAN!!! I should say the name BRIAN one more time :) Brian is out in house physics guru

Ion: Awww...how sweet...

Brian: I was making another game prototype based on a game concept of Simon's. It was basically continuous circle-to-circle collision with angular momentums, so I just put it into Wik. I wanted to do even cooler stuff (rotating polys, rigid body, etc), but the gameplay didn't need it

Simon: Brian even obeys the laws of physics in real life!

Brian: I'm a good citizen...

What other tools were used in developing Wik?

Simon: We used the core of Reflexive's Velocity Engine as the foundation for the game, and built a new technology we now call "The Prop Engine" on top of it

Zach: The artists used Zbrush for modeling the high res, rendered backgrounds, along with Photoshop, the in-game particle system (which rocks), and 3D studio Max 6

Ion: Sound: Cool Edit Pro 2.0, Sound Library: Lots of smaller ones, but the backbone is the Sound Ideas General 6000. Waves were then compressed into ogg format using different compression ratios, based on sound quality

Simon: Visual C++ 6

Zach: For music I used a Korg Triton workstation

Brian: A heavily modified anti-grain-geometry was used as an OpenGL replacement in some post release work

Simon: Originally we were using OpenGL and planned to use SDL, but after release we switched from OpenGL to what Brian said. We had a few compatibility issues with OpenGL so switched to a pure software rasterizer

So do you guys have an office? Or are you a virtual team?

Ion: An office in Lake Forest, CA

Simon: I'm virtually there right now!

Ion: We even each have our own office!

Zach: With a door!

Brian: And windows

Ion: And a window view!

Simon: It's like - the coolest! And desks and computers and toys in every office!

Ion: Simon has the most toys

Brian: The benefits of going from published to indie I guess...

Simon: Brian has a life sized Gollum in his office!

How much time per week was spent on Wik, on average? Did you guys have any serious crunch times? Could they have been avoided?

Simon: There was a very mild crunch at the end of the project. A few 16 hour days the last month or so, but mostly we kept a good balance

Brian: For me it was very erratic. Reflexive Arcade, our distribution system, shared some time. Crunch for me was madly trying to add last minute things I thought were cool, but I never felt I had to go to crunch time, so I don't think we had crunch in the way published developers would think of it

Ion: One of the weirdest things that has come out of the "no publisher" aspect is that we had deadlines, but they weren't "hard" like we had them before. Atari didn't care if we wanted to add something, or if it was "just right"...did we make the 15th or not? If not, no money. No money, no salary. When we pay for it ourselves, it is definitely different. If it wasn't good, we would make a decision to make it better without having to care about what the publisher thought. It is more of a self-policing decision-making process, and it opens up new cans of worms that we really hadn't dealt with before

Simon: Completely different to working on a high profile project for a "publisher with attitude"

Ion: Compared to our large publisher games, I really don't think we had a "crunch time" in the same way

Zach: I got a bit frazzled at the end but only because my duties doubled with the website for Wik, our arcade website, music and all of the press materials... but it was nothing like the bigger game crunch times

What other reasons made you guys decide to go indie and drop the publisher route?

Ion: Stable money, but this isn't the only answer...

Simon: BTW, Ion is one of the founding partners of Reflexive

Brian: We want the decision to cancel a project to be the right one :)

Ion: …but the publisher route is extremely tricky. We have traveled the roller coaster ride of hiring and firing when a publisher likes us, and then doesn't. We currently are a small team of 11 people, but we've been about 30 at our max...and this is due to the publisher/developer relationship. We would have to hire and then fire when the publisher relationship went south. I have slept a lot better at night now that I feel like we control our own destiny

Zach: Well, my personal opinion is that we always wanted to do the self published games and for the first time it looked like we could

Brian: See, Zach's answer is cool again damnit. Put me down for his

Simon: He of few but wise wordage...

Quality of Life is the new industry hot topic. What are your views on QoL in the industry, and what do you guys do to take the pressure off and keep it fun?

Ion: Ha! Get rid of the publisher and you'll be fine. :)

Simon: Oh gawd - now there's the biggest can of worms of all!

Brian: You beat me to it, Simon :)

Simon: We all thought it at the same time – I could feel it... ;)

Brian: But seriously, for me, making independent games is the biggest single impact on QoL

Ion: I have actually been following this, and I think that, for me at least, I don't feel the same as I did about this a couple of years ago when we were slaving away for Atari working on the Ravenloft prototype. I used to be extremely overworked. Now I just get to work on stuff that I like. Going indie was the best thing that probably happened to me in the last few years, professionally speaking

Simon: I would be happy if I never worked for a project for a large publisher again.

Brian: I think small teams help too...

Simon: I agree

Ion: Small teams are good...having people around that just get shit done is good too...

Simon: Everybody is directly accountable for something, nobody can slip through the cracks, much less middle management getting in the way and trying to justify their jobs, etc. Hopefully many of the working habits that are considered industry norms will be challenged by the focus that seems to be on QoL currently

Brian: Work is for working - Quality of life perks (like those from larger companies) that let you take a break from work isn't as good as just having a great work environment and work you truly enjoy

Zach: For me, it's the environment. We are all talented, respectful, easygoing friends... When you work with friends it doesn't feel like you are "working"... When we have to crunch, we are all capable, but we try and work at a steady pace so we never get burnt out. Working on the small games only enhances that because not only are you working with friends, you are working with friends on games you want

Ion: Yahoo! Amen!

Simon: Dude! How does he do that???

Ion laughs

Brian: Yeah, damnit Zach

So have you guys looked beyond Wik yet? What's next?

Ion: We've actually shipped two games since (Ricochet Lost Worlds: Recharged and Big Kahuna Reef) and we are working on two more right now

Simon: And a third is in early pre-production ;)

Ion: We are still keeping focus on what we like to make, but we still have to try and get a feel for what the market will bear...

Brian: Most times...

Ion: Our last game, Big Kahuna Reef, was a direct take on what we think the market would like. So far, we may be right. It is #1 on Real Networks, Big Fish Games, Gamehouse, and other smaller sites on the Net. Personally, I know we would like to follow Wik with other games of the same "gritty quality", but we will have to see what we can do, and what the market will bear

Brian: Following off of Ion's comment, I think our other games that are more easily classifiable in terms of genre, are an example of trying to take a game style that we don't necessarily enjoy and find a way to make them more interesting in our eyes

Simon: My impression currently is that we are working on some games that we hope will be commercial 'hits', but at the same time we love pushing the envelope to not only see what the market will bear but to also teach the market that not all downloadable games have to be match 3 puzzle based

Ion: Right. Expanding it is good to. Big Kahuna Reef also has a "Mouse Party™” option where up to 8 people can play at once. It is a riot!


Brian: I'm not a match 3 fan, but I love Big Kahuna, which was produced by James C Smith. (Mouse Party™ + difficulty and feedback are tuned so I feel I have more control)

Ion: Mouse Party™ is something that we are licensing to other companies (for free, by the way), so if you know of anyone interested...

Brian: Also, we have moved on to other games, but that doesn't mean we aren't still looking at supporting Wik. For instance, we just started hosting a "Wik Done Quick" pack, which is the fastest user-made solutions to Wik's challenge levels. If you are a really Wik-o-phile, it's something to check out, from the downloads at WikGame.com

Simon: I wanna tease, man!!! There are plans for another harder-edged game, but we'll have to see how that pans out...

Ion: Bad teaser! No biscuit!

Simon: D'ohh!

Well good luck guys, I'll see you on the Expo floor in March :)

Brian: Cool, I'm looking forward to it Drew

Ion: Thanks

Simon: See you there :)

Zach: Thanks :)

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora.

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