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Interview with Ultrafish

CreatrixThe 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.

Two members of the Ultrafish team were able to chat with me about Creatrix, a game about creating (no, really?) devices used to battle your opponents using Tetris-style gameplay to drop the pieces together. In addition to its original play style, Creatrix is the result of many years of cumulative work and a life style befitting a true independent developer.

Who are you and how were you involved in Creatrix?

Ivan: I'm Ivan Weiner, a.k.a. Spider, and Creatrix is my baby – I designed and coded the whole game and made all the art in the first 2D version. I worked on it for a couple years, and then recently decided to try to push it to the next level in order to make it something other people might play

Captain Smackdown: is who I am, a digital pirate. I did the sound design for Creatrix. I was brought in towards the end. I did a couple of sets of music in Microsoft's Music Producer and Ivan picked out the ones he enjoyed the most

Congrats on making it to the IGF finals. Is this the first time you entered a game into the competition?

Ivan: Yeah, first game I ever made, actually. I've worked on a couple since I started Creatrix, at a dot com, but Creatrix is really my first computer game

Captain Smackdown: Thanks, this is the first final of anything I have ever been in

What got you started in game development?

Ivan: I remember designing games using playing cards when I was about 6 years old. I published a board/card game right after college about 10 years ago now, and I got into making computer games about 7 years ago, about a year before I started Creatrix. I learned a lot from John Cooke, the guy who wrote the Ultrafish engine, since he let me help out on the 5 Elements Masters project for a while.  That was my first real game programming project, and John became something of a programming guru for me…

Captain Smackdown: I was an avid video game player and involved in a lot of the creative arts, so I went to school, learned 3D studio, SoftImage, moved to Los Angeles and started looking for work in gaming. I was in a project that John Cooke was programming for, he and I have been friends ever since… since Ivan and John were friends it was an easy transition. I have been mostly doing music and my talents in 3D were waning and have primarily moved to doing just music. Ivan asked me to do the sound design for Creatrix

Where did the inspiration for Creatrix come from?

Ivan: I like to make the kind of games that I want to play... I love the head-to-head puzzle games like Puzzle Fighter and the Dr.Mario-type things, but I wanted something where what you do in the puzzle part has a more direct correlation to the battle part – not just making some bad things fall on the opponent, but actually making stuff that your opponent has to deal with. I also love deck-building games, like collectible card games, so I wanted to incorporate that aspect too

So this began as a 2D project? What benefits did 3D add that made you retool it?

Ivan: honestly, not much game-wise. The 3D mainly served 2 purposes: One was to give people something pretty to look at and get them interested in playing.  Two was so that I could learn more about working in 3D. However, that said, working on a 3D engine has given me lots of ideas about expanding this into a 3-dimensional game. It's a lot of work though and before I change things on that level, I want to get Creatrix to a solid place as basically a 2D thing in a 3D world

What's the basic idea behind the gameplay in Creatrix?

Ivan: Creatrix is a robot-building puzzle game. It's a little bit like Tetris, but instead of dropping shapes, you're dropping devices. The devices combine to make contraptions, which you send out to sabotage your opponent's lab. Between your lab and your opponent's lab, the contraptions battle each other. There's also a meta-game aspect, where you choose which kinds of devices you want to use in your contraptions, because your lab can only produce 10 different kinds. Right now there are only 20 devices to choose from, but there are more in the works

Is there the ability for players to create their own devices?

Ivan: Not yet, but I am working towards creating a scripting language that allows just that, or more like adopting a scripting language for that purpose. Game balance is a big factor when you let people design their own pieces, so there has to be a system for deciding what is fair and what is not, so I'm also working on that system

How much time did you usually spend working on the game during the week, on average?

Ivan: Totally depends on the week, but lately I've been in the 50+ hour range, I'd say, and this is the hardest I've ever worked on it. It's fluctuated a lot over the years, though. There was a whole year that I didn't touch the code at all

Captain Smackdown: My involvement was pretty fast and furious towards the end. John gave me a rundown on Music Producer… a couple of days figuring that out and then it was off to the races getting the feeling of what the game needed in the sound department. I spent a lot of time making different configurations until I settled on what I thought was right. All told about 3 weeks, 5 hours to 10 hours a day.

It was easy for me to get lost in the game, watching the demo battle and listening to the music I had created

So how many years total has it been so far?

Ivan: I think I started coding the thing about 7 years ago now, but it's always been a side project until the last 9 months.  If you put all my time together, I'd say it would amount to about 2 years of full-time work.

Captain Smackdown: That is about the time I met Ivan at a gathering a John's house, Here is this crazy guy talking about this contraption game it sounded pretty wild. I am really glad they asked me to be involved. I had heard about its progress through the grapevine and I always thought it was a great idea!

Were you ever at a point where you just wanted to get it done now, or were you just cruising, letting it finish whenever you got to the end?

Ivan: I've been pretty much steadily cruising. The only times I've wanted it done now are when I'm trying to get a final demo version out, which can be a kind of painful polishing process. The game itself may never be done in the sense of having a final version, because it's a system that's made to expand. There will always be more devices to make. So what I'm hoping is to get people playing, commenting on, and ultimately participating in the further creation of the game

Captain Smackdown: No, this was a real fun time. It was my first real soundtrack for a game and I was going to do whatever it took to get my friends the best I could afford… head down and figure this thing out!

I am kind of like Ivan, I still think of things that could be added

Would you consider game development a serious hobby or something you'd like to do full time in the future?

Ivan: For me, making games is more like an art than a job. I will always do it because it's in me and I'd go crazy if I didn't. I don't particularly want to work in the industry as a 'job' but, as demonstrated by Creatrix, I am willing to put long hours in with no pay for my art. I don't know if that answers your question... I guess the point is that I don't want to lock myself into a position where I burn out on it, which I see happening with a lot of my friends that are 'full time developers'. Sometimes I work on it like it's a hobby... sometimes like it's a job... sometimes like my life depends on it… and sometimes not at all

You mentioned the UltraFish engine. This was the engine used to create Creatrix? Why did you choose to use it?

Ivan: It was the first engine I used while learning game programming, and the original 2D Creatrix was written in it so porting was minimal. I coded for it quite a bit, so I was familiar with it, and <drum roll> it was free <cymbal crash>. It helped a lot also to be able to have John to talk to about questions I had. I still have a lot to learn in the coding department... I'm basically self-taught and that can be frustrating at times when it comes to the nitty-gritty stuff in game engines. Ultrafish is also pretty dang fast and had everything I needed to upgrade to 3D.

What other tools did you make use of during development?

Ivan: We used the DirectX Producer to do the music – that let Captain Smackdown, our musical mastermind, do some pretty cool things with semi-randomized music that's sensitive to what's going on in the game. The art was done with Photoshop and 3DS Max. The installer was made by an open-source thing that was pretty great, called NSIS. That made me think about doing development with more community-based tools, which is where I'm going now

Captain Smackdown: I have over 60 gigs in sound files of self created and purchased libraries. I use Sony's Acid Pro, along with Reason to make the sounds I don't have. That's to start with. Then, with the help of John, we sort of ported it to Music Producer and I worked it all out of that, with a lot of listening and watching to make sure it all worked out right!

What were some of the more serious issues you faced during development? How did you solve them, and could they have been avoided?

Ivan: My main issue was a lack of budget. I had enough money to pay the team for about a month and a half, so we had to be pretty quick, and not change our minds too much. Luckily I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do, and also it was really meant to be a demo of what the game could be, not a finished product. We also had problems with compatibility on various computers. It's hard to test on a lot of platforms when you can't afford to buy a bunch of test machines. But the work environment was great. We had fun working on it and it was good vibes all the way, but the money's gone again now and so I'm back to working solo... but I'm used to that

Captain Smackdown: The learning curve on Music Producer is pretty steep; it isn't as intuitive as other software I have used. But with Ivan and John's help we managed to wrangle it into place. There are things I am still trying to figure out in Producer, though. It's a process

Quality of Life has become the big issue in game development these days. As indies, we're mostly charged with our own QoL - what do you do to keep you going, to keep it fun?

Ivan: Well, I have basically devoted my life to living the way that I want and doing what I believe in. So that keeps me poor, but also keeps me from burning out. Right now I'm trading rent for programming classes. And by rent I mean the couch that I'm staying on this month. I've been living primarily on couches for years now... Creatrix was developed on them. The main thing is just to accept that I am a starving artist and keep it in that perspective. I don't need to make it big.  Don't even really want to. What I want that is starting to happen now is for people just to play my games... and that's pretty hard to make happen without an advertising budget. Now that I think about it, I think that living simply and being poor has helped me to stay interested in my projects...  probably won't work for everyone, but it suits me fine. I'm the only game developer I know that eats out of the Trader Joe's dumpster, and whose choice mode of travel is freight train

Captain Smackdown: In my olden days, yea…we had to work everyday for 3 weeks straight, weekends, get this done yesterday, Art directors that make statements about making the trees “greenier”??? (I used to be a modeler). The business of games is grueling, with the deadlines, budgets etc… This was a lot more fun because it was for people that were friends. This was a different tack; we were all doing it for the joy of gaming rather then the terror from above! Ivan had a great idea, John had the engine, and I could do the sound... things sometimes can really work out; with the people you have around you. Sound has always been fun! I will coin a phrase from the movies… It is the emotional side to the game…how can that not be fun!?!

Have you looked beyond Creatrix yet? What do you plan to do next?

Ivan: I am really interested in games that the players participate in the creation of. Like I said, I want to make Creatrix scriptable so that people can add to the system and expand the game, with or without my input. Most of my recent ideas have been along these lines... ideas for things that are a system that allows people to participate in the form that their game takes. Specifically, I am thinking about a community-based trivia game... and on the Creatrix front, bringing it into the third dimension. I am also toying with the idea of making a computer version of the card/board game I made in college. I could probably code games forever and never get bored... I just get a big kick out of it for some reason. Now that I am getting proficient with 3D, whole new worlds are opening up for me

Captain Smackdown: There are so many choices when it comes to sound… you can use this there, have this sound do this with that… the mental list is endless… I still think “we could use this” in the game…If it continues I would be happy to continue making those choices for Ivan and John. Great people to work with!!

Well good luck at the IGF, I'll see you on the Expo floor come March

Ivan: Cool...  it was fun, thanks

Captain Smackdown: Get up to get down… Captain Smackdown is coming to your town… www.captainsmackdown.com… W3RD!!!

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora.

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