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Interview with Super X Studios

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 yearĻs Seumas McNally grand prize is $15,000.

I sat down with the lone developer behind the IGF finalist Wild Earth to talk about the game and life as a single developer. Wild Earth is a photography game along the lines of Pokemon Snap - you are placed in the African Serengeti and armed with a single camera to go out and take photos of animals in their natural habitat, share them with others, learn about nature, compete for rare photos, and more.

who are you and what do you do?
James: I'm James Thrush, owner and development lead of Super X Studios, the independent game developer developing Wild Earth. Currently, Iím also the only employee. My company has fluctuated over the years, from a minimum of 1 (just me), up to a high of 10 people when we were finished with Far Gate (our first title, which was also in the Independent Games Festival in 2000 under the name The Rift). Being a small company, I tend to do a lot of different areas (production, sound effect design), but my main focus is game engine programming.

Where are you located?
James: At the moment I'm transitioning to Southern California. I'm teaching at a small game development institute in Hollywood right now called the Academy of Game Entertainment Technology. Sometime in the next few months I'll be "officially" moving Super X Studios down here.

how many people did you have to work with on Wild Earth?
James: Just myself so far. I'm negotiating right now with a label who's music I'm going to license for the game - Talking Drum Records in Santa Monica. They're a small label that produces mainly world music, a lot of tribal themed stuff with light electronica. It suits Wild Earth perfectly. I'm doing the terrain modeling and character animation myself for now as well. Being a developer is giving me a lot of freedom to push the technology in ways that a traditional 3D artist wouldn't be able to. I can use both art and programming tools that I have at my disposal and get things done a lot quicker than either individually. For instance, to handle ground cover (rocks and twigs and stuff like that), I developed a dynamic grid-based technology that lets me pseudo-randomly generate an entire level very quickly. A pure artist wouldn't have that ability. Of course, a good team will have a lot of interaction between programmers and artists and can be as efficient if done correctly. Itís been nice working on my own for the past year as I've been able to focus on developing a good production pipeline and technology that will scale up once I hire on people again.

so most of what you've been able to accomplish has been built upon previous games? Or did you start from scratch with Wild Earth?
James: Yes to the first one. Our first title, Far Gate, was my first full game from the ground up, so I coded the engine specifically around that game. The first thing we did after that title shipped, however, was to separate out all of the generic "engine" code from the game-specific code. Now we have the "Super X" engine which we use in all our titles. nvChess was our first game to use the new architecture, now Wild Earth is using it. It is really nice because it lets us get up and running very quickly. I did the first playable prototype for Wild Earth in a single weekend. Itís essential for cranking out games in a reasonable time. It also has let me package up components and license them to other game developers. I have licensed my particle system library for one of the Lord of the Rings titles and to Sierra for an upcoming SWAT game.

and whatís the deal behind your technology licensing?
James: For licensing, we have several technologies that game developers have been interested in the past - a particle system, a font rendering library (very fully functioned), and of course our core rendering engine. Itís a little different from licensing from a large engine provider - with us you get me to integrate it all on site. Most times I've ended up integrating the code in just a day or two then spent a few weeks helping with other development tasks that are needed. With Sierra I ended up writing some I.K. and mirror rendering code as well. I should mention I do contract programming as well even if the client isn't interested in any of our existing components. I can always be contacted at jthrush@superxstudios.com and more information is on out website at www.superxstudios.com

moving more towards the game itself, the website gives some basic info but could you comment more on the gameplay?
James: Right - we haven't "formally" announced the game just because I want to wait until I have screenshots that will represent the final quality (hopefully in the next month). Wild Earth is an exploration game, simply put - an interactive Discovery channel-like experience. The goal is to create a game, accessible to everyone (ages 8+), with an immersive level rarely seen in such broad-market games. The interface is a simple FPS-style, but instead of shooting with a gun, your arsenal is a camera. The player takes the role of a photo-journalist, and travels through the Serengeti with the goal of capturing on film the local wildlife in their natural habitat. As the game progresses, the player builds up a portfolio of shots, which are woven into web-based articles after each mission. These articles give more in-depth information about the experience, and can be posted to a personal web page on the Wild Earth server for sharing with friends and family. We also plan to have contests for the best photos.

so does the game itself reward the player for shots taken like capturing a sleeping lion or a cheetah chasing down prey?
James: Yes - we are planning two gameplay modes. The first is guided, with the player receiving a series of "goals" - particular animals and actions that they must capture on film. The player is scored on the quality of their photo (in frame, no obstructions, good composition, etc.). The other mode will be more free-form exploration, so the player can go back to any location and take pictures for their online portfolio. There will also be "rare" photos that will play a part in the contests.

cool - so will there also be an educational side like a built-in encyclopedia of the various game animals?
James: The great part is that the game is informative without be heavy handed about it. Wild Earth is a true game, not an edutainment title, but the nature of the game conveys a lot of real world information to the player. We are taking great pains to make everything accurate, both visually and narratively. The great part about having a state-of-the-art engine is that we are finally becoming able to make real-world environments that faithfully replicate the actual experience. To further the educational benefit, the web articles that are generated after each mission give more in-depth information for the inquisitive (of course the player is free to skip over them).

so what gave you the idea for Wild Earth? Was it based upon your goal of creating a game that could reach the masses?
James: The original concept came six years ago while driving from Seattle to Alaska. This was right before I started developing games and was focusing more on interactive virtual environments (not specifically game related). The original concept was to develop a realistic ecosystem, based on A-life (artificial life) principals. The participant would then become one of the animals and participate in the ecosystem. After Far Gate (years later), when brainstorming for our next game, we revisited the idea, but combined it with another gameplay mechanism we had seen in the game "Pokemon Snap", in which the goal is to take pictures of Pokemon. We felt that it would make the game easier to play and more accessible. We weren't sure how easy it would be to teach a player to "be" a lion or cheetah, etc. In addition, the picture taking gives a nice reward to the player, something tangible that they can print or publish on the web.

how does it feel to be back at the IGF?
James: Awesome - I've been watching it grow over the last couple years in terms of exposure and I'm really excited to be back in now that the potential is even greater. The 2000 IGF was instrumental in landing us a publisher for Far Gate (which was called "The Rift" in the festival), so I'm hoping for good things... :)

how much longer do you think you'll be working on Wild Earth? What do you have in mind for the future?
James: I hope to have Wild Earth out this fall. After that, I'm working on a sequel for Far Gate (got some exciting stuff prototyped for that already), as well as another space-themed game in a different genre. The big goal, however, is to make a franchise out of Wild Earth and do a series of games set all around the world. Some of the other ecosystems we're planning are rain forest (South America maybe), North American evergreen forest, definitely an Asian setting, arctic, and possibly even underwater.

ah, the magic word: Franchise. Sounds great. James thanks a lot for doing the interview and I'll see you at the IGF!
James: Definitely. Please come up and introduce yourself. I'll be happy to chat with you more then.

Interview conducted by Drew "Gaiiden" Sikora.

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