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Interview with Veggie Games

Steer MadnessThe 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 snag the man behind Steer Madness, a non-violent game promoting animal rights awareness, to answer a few questions about his game. It's always nice to see a truly innovative product picked for the IGF finals, and Steer Madness certainly exists beyond the normal boundaries of action adventure gaming. In a good way, of course.

Who are you and what was your role on Steer Madness?

Johnathan: My name is Johnathan Skinner, and I'm the creative force behind Steer Madness. The game was primarily done by me so I did all the programming, design, writing, most of the art, marketing, etc.

Congrats on making the IGF finals. How's it feel?

Johnathan: Thanks. It feels great that something I've put so much effort into is also appreciated by others. It's also very motivating to see that an alternative-themed game such as Steer Madness has a place with all the other games.

What made you decide to enter Steer Madness into the IGF?

Johnathan: It was kind of a last minute thing... literally. I was so wrapped up in development that I completely forgot about pretty much everything other than the game, until I got an e-mail saying that the IGF deadline was pushed back by a few days (this was after the original deadline), so I had about 2 days to take the version I was working on and make it into a playable entry. I had heard about the IGF in previous years and thought it would be a really great opportunity for publicizing the game.

How did you get involved in game development?

Johnathan: I've been making games ever since I started programming. Games are a great outlet for creativity. I started working on games professionally in 1996 when I found out that a local company was making a Nintendo game (Tetrisphere for N64) and I got a job there as a junior programmer.

Where did you come up with the idea for Steer Madness?

Johnathan: I've been an activist for many years, and as an activist you get to do a lot of really fun & cool stuff. I figured it would make a neat video game while at the same time raising a little awareness about socially conscience issues.

What made you choose this type of game (action adventure) to carry your message?

Johnathan: Steer Madness is a very story-driven game. I find that action adventure games lend themselves well to telling a story and allowing a player to become part of that story.

Most action adventure games these days have even a little bit of violence - how hard/easy was it to keep violence out of the game and yet still make it attractive to both adults and kids? What sort of design decisions were made because of this?

Johnathan: Making the game non-violent was a bit of a challenge because it required completely re-thinking how the win/lose structure of the game would work. In most games the challenge is to stay alive... even in kids games you have "lives" and try not to "die". To be completely non-violent meant that there could no longer be the concept of "lives", so passing the game was based on different things, such as finishing a task in the allotted time or figuring out how to accomplish something without getting caught. When you are caught or run out of time you may be tossed out of the building and need to try again, but are not harmed in any way. The excitement comes from the risk of being caught doing something you're not supposed to be doing.

Besides the non-violence issue, what was the biggest problem during development and how was it solved?

Johnathan: The most difficult thing was creating all the content that was required to build the full city environment that the game is based in. The city comprises of about a hundred buildings, many with interiors and interactive parts. To accomplish this task I focused much energy on making our tools and art pipeline as simple and straight forward as possible so we could very quickly make content changes and additions.

How well do you think the game served its original purpose based on player's responses so far?

Johnathan: I would say it has done very well. People love the characters, find the gameplay exciting and challenging, and appreciate the animal-friendly and environmentally-friendly messages that the game portrays.

What tools were used to create Steer Madness?

Johnathan: Lightwave 3D was used for modeling and character animation, Photoshop for textures, and we have several in-house tools: a level editor (for building the city & doing camera animation), FX editor, object viewer (for previewing textures & materials on the objects without having to load the whole game), lip-sync envelope generator, and some real-time editing functions in the game for cinematics.

Was the team all centrally located or spread out virtually?

Johnathan: When I started the project (about 2 years ago) I had a few people work remotely but that didn't work out... people would keep putting things off and nothing got done that way. I decided to contact local art schools and offer internships to the students. That got a fair bit of response and the students would come in to work, which proved to be much more fruitful. Having everyone in the same place is very important in a team effort because it keeps communication lines open.

What production techniques would you highlight as helping the game's development progress smoothly?

Johnathan: I would say the art pipeline contributed the most benefit to the game's development. I took a different direction in implementing the art pipeline than I've seen in most games. The focus was on being able to update the art content quickly and frequently. I did this by writing an "import" pipeline instead of an "export" pipeline... the game would load & interpret the files that were saved directly from the modeling program so all the artist had to do was save and it would automatically update in the game.

Were there any serious crunches during development that you think could have been avoided with better planning?

Johnathan: The final month or so was the only real crunch time we had, which is pretty normal. But it could have been lessened if the missions were fully planned out earlier in the project. The overall storyline/mission structure was planned early on, but some of the mission scripts didn't even get written until the last couple weeks, which of course creates dependencies, i.e. adding new models and characters to fit the missions.

Quality of life is the new hot topic in the industry. What's your take on QoL in the industry and what do you do to keep it fun?

Johnathan: I've been working independently for a while now so I'm a little out of the loop on how the mainstream of the industry functions. I would say that the quality of life issues for an independent developer are quite different from the rest of the industry. The hours I work are the hours I want to work... I don't have a manager or publisher pushing me to do overtime. I also don't have someone paying me for the work I'm doing so money is really tight, but that's also my choice.

What advice would you give to others looking to promote their own views (whether it be animal activism, religion, etc)?

Johnathan: Every social issue is very different, so the way of promoting each one could vary drastically.  All I can say is to always remember your target audience and evaluate the way you are portraying your message based on how your audience would react.

What's next for Veggie Games?

Johnathan: We'd like to make a block-buster movie based on Steer Madness. The characters and the concepts of the game would translate very well to a movie. We've started working on a script and are exploring different options for taking it to the big screen.

Best of luck at IGF, see you there in March!

Johnathan: Thanks!  I look forward to it!  =)

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora

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