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Interview with Digital Eel

The Independent Games Festival was established in 1998 as a forum for independent developers to exhibit their work, receive recognition, and meet with commercial publishers. Finalists to this event attend the GDC and compete for several awards and cash prizes. This year's Seumas McNally grand prize is $15,000.

With the IGF Finalists recently announced, I convinced Drew to let me interview the team behind the amazingly addictive Strange Adventures in Infinite Space. They were more than happy to do an interview with me, and now all you little reader-folk can reap the benefits of my labor. Read on.

The Digital Eel Team at a glance:

Rich "zdim" Carlson
Age: 45
Years Developing: 6
Job: Professional Dreamer; Digital Eel wrangler
Favorite game of all time: Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss

Iikka "Fingers" Keranen
Age: 25
Years Developing: 6
Job: Valve level designer
Favorite game of all time: Civilization

Bill "Phosphorous" Sears
Age: 49
Years Developing: 12
Job: Artist
Favorite game of all time: Our next game.

Thanks for talking with me, guys. To start us off, could you each give me a little information about yourself?
zdim: I'm a musician. Sometimes I like to make games, like lately.
Fingers: I'm just a finn and I've always made games
Phosphorous: Old guy. Designer. Trend monger.
Fingers: when I was young I gave my games out for free, but now I make Americans pay for them
Phosphorous: I'm a survivor of third party development for the last several years.

What originally inspired you to start developing games?
Fingers: I was too little to remember
zdim: Risk. I used to make alternate Risk boards when we were kids.
Phosphorous: It's a natural process. I can never remember not thinking about games.

And to pair with the previous question, is there any single game that has influenced you and your work more than any other?
zdim: Infocom's Zork.
Fingers: let's see... if I have to think of a single game, I'll go for Master of Orion... before that, Elite
Phosphorous: Dark Tower and Green Ghost.
zdim: Doom, Heretic, Quake, and other idgames, as well....

For lack of a way to make it a longer question: How did you three meet and decide to form a team?
Phosphorous: Synchronicity.
Fingers: Rich lured me to the US with false promises of getting paid to play games all day
zdim: Iikka and I had known each other from other game company jobs. We came to Washington, met Phos at the company we were working at together, and decided to make stuff as a trio.

Bribery is a good tactic for putting together teams indeed. As a final quick question about your histories; What was the first game you each created independently and professionally?
zdim: In the mid 80's I made an Ultima-style game with EA's Adventure Construction Set called Master of Two Realms. It was awful!
zdim: Professionally, Daikatana and Anachronox.
Fingers: hm... assuming this is computer games and not the childhood die-rolling games... I made a C64 "hangman" game when I was 10, in 1987 (the kind where you try to guess a word one letter at a time)
Fingers: my first "professional" involvement was doing a couple levels for a Doom engine game called HacX... I don't think it ever sold
Phosphorous: When I was a kid I made a game called Death Maze with crayons and notebook paper.

So tell me a little bit about where the idea for Strange Adventures In Infinite Space came from.
Fingers: well, Rich and I started working on a galactic scale 4X strategy game in 1999, that we never finished... but we really liked the universe we made up
Fingers: so we later decided to make a more manageable sized game using material from it
zdim: Ever since I played a little board game in the 80's called The Voyage of the BSM Pandora; I wanted to make a game like SAIS. Starflight and Star Control 2 were similar, but huge. I wanted to make a beer and pretzel version, just like Pandora.

For those readers who haven't played the demo yet, how would you describe SAIS?
zdim: An instant space opera for people who don't have time to play games.
Phosphorous: It's fast, weird and fun.
Fingers: it's a hybrid between Minesweeper and Master of Orion

What were all your assigned duties with the project?
zdim: We each do what we do best. It's very natural, and our skills overlap somewhat, so it works out nice.
zdim: I wrote texty stuff, made sounds and music, and worked on the game design.
Fingers: Rich made all the sounds, I did the programming... Phos made alien portraits and splash screens and stuff...
Fingers: but everybody did a bit of everything
Fingers: for example there's art from all of us in the game
zdim: The background, the back story of the Purple Void universe, was made up when we were working on the 4X game.

I was wondering what you felt the major differences between indie development and more 'professional' development were.
Fingers: indie development is much more professional than the "professional" kind ;)
zdim: No deities to serve. No deadlines. Complete freedom.
Phosphorous: Making art (indie) or making a paycheck (prof). Total control vs. out of control.

So do you feel it's possible, in these days of multi-million dollar budgets, to make a living creating games with little or no budget?
Phosphorous: When phones have games everybody's screaming for good fun content. Of course. Absolutely.
zdim: Absolutely.
Fingers: yes, definitely possible... I think that guy who made roller coaster tycoon is making a living off of it :)

What development tools were critical in creating SAIS?
Fingers: pretty standard stuff... all the code was done in MSVC6, art was Photoshop and GFX2 for 8bit pixel pushing
zdim: Cool Edit (!). Coagula. CrusherX. GFX2. Photoshop. Yamaha & Korg keyboards.
Phosphorous: Photoshop, typing paper and Sharpies.

Any technical tricks that you guys are particularly proud of implementing?
zdim: The doppler shift in Plasmaworm?
Phosphorous: Making a magnifier feature for a specific sight-impaired player who wrote to us.
zdim: Using clean loops in interesting ways. Multing the sound and music tracks with a two track sound editor. Yeesh.
Fingers: I think we're somewhat proud of the mouse interface... no dozens of little icons for commands in combat and stuff
Fingers: and you don't have to touch the keyboard unless you want to :)
zdim: Having the planets rotate around their stars....ships too.

Releasing a Demo: Waste of Time, or vital to the success of a product?
Fingers: vital
Fingers: these days, even a full blown commercial triple-A game will not be released without a demo...
zdim: It's necessary if only to test to see if a game will run on your system.
Phosphorous: Necessary but sux. Necessary but painful.

Why did you decide to enter SAIS into the IGF?
Phosphorous: Why not?
zdim: It's a true indie. We'd like more folks to be able to see it and find it. Exposure.
Phosphorous: We want to share the love.
Fingers: it's just good publicity
zdim: This man has no shame.
zdim: Phos is closest, I think. ; )

Don't be humble, how does it feel to have your low-budget, low-development time game make the top 10?
Phosphorous: I feel waves of righteous smugness .
zdim: It's surprising, and fun, and it rocks, and all kinds of stuff like that there.
Fingers: and we get to go to California :)

What roadblocks did you hit during the development of SAIS?
zdim: Day job.
Phosphorous: Day job.
Fingers: day jobs aren't road blocks, they're more like speed bumps
zdim: No roadblocks when you're out cruisin' in the boonies of game development.

Any advice you have for a new developer trying to break into the industry?
Fingers: start by making games
zdim: Get skills. Know stuff. Be able to do something very well.
Fingers: expect the unexpected!
zdim: Get some serious chops. Make games. Board and card games, rpg campaigns, computer games, whatever. Finish them. Inflict them on your friends. Make more.

What's next for you three? Can we expect a SAIS 2 in the 2004 IGF?
Phosphorous: We have a lot of strange toys in the box...
Fingers: we can't promise anything, but we're always working on something :)

Alas, we've come to the end. I thank you all for taking the time to talk with me. Now's the time to say anything you might have on your mind.
Phosphorous: Endeavor to persevere.
zdim: Everything you know is wrong!
Fingers: I'd like everybody to know that Snailopus is delicious when prepared correctly
zdim: Thanks for having us.

Interview conducted by Ryan "Run_the_shadows" Coy.

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