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Interview with Robinson Technologies

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 year¹s Seumas McNally grand prize is $15,000.

I contacted the husband and wife team behind the IGF finalist Teenage Lawnmower for a chat on the game, and a little bit about life over in the Land of the Rising Sun for a PC game developer. Teenage Lawnmower is a game where you are hired by people to cut their lawns in order to earn money to pull you and your alcoholic (and possibly drug-addicted?) mom through the story and to one of the various alternate endings.

Who are you and what do you do?
Seth: I'm Seth Robinson, (co?)owner of Robinson Technologies. I design, program and generally keep the office (ok, room) tidy. My partner (and wife) is Akiko; she handles the art and some design stuff. I've been making games independently and doing game consultation for about thirteen years or so.

Where are you located?
Seth: Hiroshima, Japan.

What's it like developing PC games over in the Land of the Consoles? :)
Seth: I tell people I make PC games over here and they are like "huh? why?"

Ever do any console gaming work?
Seth: I've never done console. If possible I want to stay in a place where I generate my own sales online and don't need a publisher or any other party to make my business work. I really don't see much of a market for me in Japan but we have a Japanese version of TLM (wasn't much extra work, the entire scripting system is unicode) and will be making it available shortly, so we'll see.

When did you first have the TLM concept?
Seth: It was sometime last year as I started to get into 3D programming. As I began work on a 3D engine I realized I couldn't just jump straight into an RPG without testing it out on some smaller stuff to get more a of a feel. TLM was the perfect project - not too small that I would feel guilty selling it, but not too big either. There aren't many 3D game concepts where you can get away with almost zero animation and no humans. Akiko was also learning a lot and I didn't want to stress her out with having to create a ton of people.

So the transition to 3D was also a step up for Akiko and the art?
Seth: Oh for sure. This was her first 3D title and I think she did beautifully, especially for doing the entire thing herself and in such a short period of time.

TLM was your major foray into 3D - what type of games were you making beforehand?
Seth: Lots of text games including Legend of the Dragon (a BBS game), Dink Smallwood (a Zelda-ish RPG) and a multiplayer Flash web game called Funeral Quest. Every project is pretty different than the last; it really keeps things fun and fresh for me.

So the 3D venture was a way to freshen things up? Or do you believe 2D PC games are finally on their way out for good, commercially speaking?
Seth: I see 3D as a tool to make better 2D as well, and I'd be silly to ignore technology that can push a huge amount of 2D sprites with effects. The issue is if you make a game that requires 3D hardware, instantly half the world can't run it. I think (and hope) over the next few years this is going to change and I want to be ready for it. Also I think 3D specifically has a lot of great uses for the RPG I'm working on now and really helps you get the bang for your buck with art assets. I also wanted to do a 3D project because it was fresh and to brush up on my sucky math skills.

What's the gameplay like in TLM?
Seth: It alternates between two modes - a: Sitting around the house, answering phone calls and dealing with your family and b: Actually going out to a client's property and mowing their lawn which is pretty arcadish. You also get to choose how to deal with customers. Morality, honesty - you can choose which way you want to go. Each lawn and customer have their own peculiarities. If you can't satisfy a customer you won't get paid. If you can't make enough cash you and your mother won't survive.

So it's action, adventure... and no doubt some strategy in how you have to cut the lawns?
Seth: Yep - and also strategy on which jobs you accept, based on time of day, relationship with the client and such. For instance, if you join this one cult, they give you large bonuses when you mow their compound. I think the best part is the story though - you can really live in someone else's shoes for a while and try to resolve an unpleasant situation.

Cults eh? :) Also mutated killer moles, getting hit on by older women, alcoholism, drug addiction... did you have a target audience in mind or was that just decided after the game was completed?
Seth: The latter. I just make it how I want and pray someone will appreciate my so called 'art'. I've gotten angry emails from people disturbed by my games since forever; it's kind of a badge of honor now. I don't add sex or violence to generate controversy; I only add it if I honestly believe it will add to the game or story. I think people are sick of homogenized crap and want original stuff. Love it or hate it, at least it's different.

What language and API reside behind the 3D engine used in TLM?
Seth: C++ with Direct3D. It's based on the d3dapp framework. I also had the open source Cal3D skeletal animation system in and working at one point, but didn't actually end up using it. It's essentially the same engine used for my GameDev.net 4elements entry. (PS: Kevin, Dave.. plz ship that card!! ;) )

Haha. Where does the scripting language fit in?
Seth: I whipped out TLM's scripting engine in two weeks rather than mess with integrating an existing one. I needed something optimized to run hundreds of scripts at once and could be easily plugged into any project. I added the scripting engine to an existing product, Funeral Quest last month and already people have starting popping out add-ons for it, it's great. I plan on making the source publicly available at some point for people who want a simple and quick plug-in scripting engine. It's good for people who are like "what is this bison/lex crap" like me

Have you made any earlier attempts at the IGF or was this the first?
Seth: This is my first time to enter. I didn't really know about it until recently. It provided a good incentive to finish the game on schedule - finished it the day before sending the CD's actually.

You let slip earlier the mention of an RPG project - care to elaborate? :)
Seth: Sure. 99% of all game developers have a secret dream to be working on an RPG or a MMOG of some kind, right? Well I want to create (my idea of) the ultimate 3D RPG game with modding tools. Some unique features that are important to me that 'real' companies ignore to get better visuals is truly changeable worlds. Add a wall with tools, setup a bomb and destroy a wall, that kind of thing. I'm currently at the "get the engine the way you like it" stage right now, so no name or anything, but I've got several designs that have been sitting around forever. The problem is whenever you start a project this big you need to kind of take it in milestones, and releasing TLM with the beginnings of the engine was an important step.

A future IGF contestant possibly? :)
Seth: Hmm, I hope so. 2005 IGF maybe!

Sounds great. Thanks for taking the time to do the interview. See you at the GDC.
Seth: Thanks for the interview, Drew!

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora.

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