TruePCGaming caught up with the fine gentlemen from Final Form Games to discuss their smash hit, Jamestown. They also talk about the origins of Jamestown, how they got their start in the PC gaming business, Valve and more.
How did you get started in PC gaming development?
MIKE: After a childhood of dabbling with several game mod projects, I studied 3D animation in college, and got a job working on the America’s Army FPS in Monterey, CA shortly after graduation. My career eventually shifted over to level design work, overall game design, and production.
TIM: Mike and I are brothers, so we worked together on the same childhood mods and game projects. I ended up pursuing music composition and computer science in college, always looking for ways to direct my studies toward game development. I followed Mike to America’s Army, and then moved on to Planet Moon Studios in San Francisco where I worked as a central technology, lead, and gameplay programmer.
HAL: I took the traditional route of religion degree –> hospital chaplain –> video game developer, with a stopover in educational technology. Before founding Final Form Games with Tim and Mike, I was working on the Learning Team at educational game/hardware company Leapfrog in Emeryville, CA.
In its current form, how close is Jamestown to your initial vision?
Aesthetically, it’s very close indeed. We created a mockup screenshot of the game way back in October of 2009, and we’re very happy with how closely the final game adheres to the aesthetic and milieu of that very first target image.
The gameplay, on the other hand, is very different from the original concept. Believe it or not, we set out to create a “fighting game” shmup, with multiple “stances” that the player could switch into at will by executing various street-fighter-esque direction + button sequences. Each stance was to have very different primary and secondary weapons, and it would be up to the player to select the right stance for the job as they played through the various sections of the game.
Unfortunately, that special-move stance-switching system didn’t mesh particularly well with the dodging requirements of your typical shmup. Even when we mapped the four basic stances to the cardinal directions of the right analog stick for easy debug testing, we found that players simply never bothered to use them. Typically, they would fiddle around with stances for the first 10 seconds of the level, the game would suddenly demand all their attention for them to survive, and they’d just play through the rest of the level in whichever stance had been active at the moment when the challenge ramped up.
The four stances we developed eventually evolved into the four ships that shipped with the final game, but the concept of mating up a shmup with a fighting game was jettisoned entirely.
The game was also originally conceived as a 2-player shmup with a traditional vertical aspect ratio, but after playtesting a rudimentary implementation of 4-player at GDC 2010, we switched gears and expanded to a horizontal aspect ratio to accommodate the real-estate requirements of all those extra ships.
Some indie devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Jamestown and if you faced a similar challenge.
Difficulty tuning consumed a lot of our development time towards the end of Jamestown’s development, and we’re quite proud of how accessible the game is to players of all skill levels. Believe it or not, we actually lost more sleep over the opposite problem: while we have certainly become experts at our own game, we are by no means the best players out there. We actually had to be careful not to make the highest difficulty level (“Judgement”) too easy, because even though our own skills had improved dramatically, we were still a far cry from the skill level of the top-tier shmup audience that we wanted to make sure we served.
Also, even though the advanced players were important to us, we also invested tremendous resources in ensuring that our game was a good “ambassador” of the genre for new players. One way we tackled this problem was by creating a full range of difficulty levels that would challenge everyone, from the true genre initiate all the way up to the die-hard masters. In the case of the first three difficulties, we also took special care in creating as smooth an on-ramp to the “joy of shmups” as we could. Modern action games typically drive the player’s focus towards survival, and reward success by allowing progress through large quantities of content. Our challenge was to design a gradual transition that would guide players from that survival mindset towards the more highscore-driven, improvement-focused gameplay of a classic arcade game.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
The toughest aspect was probably the stress of investing your life savings in something so risky, without knowing what the outcome will be until the game is actually released. Innumerable decisions must be made during a game’s development, and in many cases the wrong call may lead to the outright failure of your game (and therefore your whole enterprise). This is especially true and when you have as few resources as we do. That makes those decisions extremely contentious when there’s disagreement about the right course of action, and the stakes only get higher as development progresses and funds dwindle.
There are plenty of very good days too, when your playtesters turn around and excitedly describe just how much fun they’re having, or when a risky feature works really well right out of the box. And honestly, the day-to-day reality is much less dramatic than the cases I’ve described above. However, if I had to pick a “toughest” thing about being indie, I’d say that making important decisions in a resource-starved context was the most difficult challenge we faced.
Tell us about your relationship with Valve. How did making Jamestown available via Steam come about? Also talk about how you created Steam Achievements.
We were extremely fortunate to receive an honorable mention for audio in the 2010 Independent Games Festival competition. Steam contacted us shortly after that announcement, to see if we were interested in distribution on their platform, and things proceeded predictably from there.
The whole process was exceptionally straightforward and painless. Steam has been a wonderful distribution partner for us, and we are looking forward to the chance to work with them again in the future.
As for achievements, our goal was to strike a good balance between using them to indicate progress, encourage the use of core game mechanics, create replay value, and reward true mastery of the game. And to give them clever names, of course. Gotta have clever achievement names, or what’s the point?
Were there any plans to take Jamestown to retail stores?
We have no particular plans for a retail release at this time, but we’d definitely be open to such a venture if it felt like a good fit for us. There’s definitely a satisfaction to having a physical copy of a game on your shelf.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Jamestown from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Forums provide us with a near-instantaneous feedback loop, and this has been incredibly valuable to us. It’s an essential tool for tracking down the more esoteric hardware bugs. Also, the player feedback we’ve received has helped us to tune the gameplay and UI experience to better meet our users’ needs.
It’s also worth mentioning that those same channels allow our players to simply tell us that they appreciate the game we worked so hard on, which is a big part of what makes the whole enterprise feel like it was worth it. Taking the time to write a thank-you letter to a game developer is extremely thoughtful, and it means the world to us and our fellow indies.
How do you feel about the Humble Indie Bundle and “Pay What You Want Pricing”? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
The games-monetization space feels a lot like the Wild West these days, especially at the indie level, so we keep an open mind about strategies like pay-what-you-want, micro transactions, deep-discount sales, and so forth. We think the Humble Bundles are super-cool, and they’ve played a major role in raising the profile of indie games in general. We’d definitely be interested in being a part of one if the opportunity came along.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
The trite answer is still a good one: make games. No matter your tools, be they pen-and-paper, level editors from games you like, Flash, Unity, or even the Unreal engine, you already have what you need to start strengthening those muscles and exploring the space of game development. You won’t believe how much each project can teach you about the field’s challenges, and if you’re unsure of where to focus your skill development, it will help to inform those sorts of decisions as well.
Once you have a sense of what particular part of the process you want to contribute to, work hard on refining those skills to the point where someone could credibly pay you to use them for making games. Seek out mentors, either privately or via a job in the industry, and glean as much wisdom and experience from those relationships as you can.
If you’re planning to go indie with a team, choose your teammates with extreme care. This is an area where the wrong decision can very easily torpedo your endeavor, and in our experience, the number of poor teammate choices available to you will vastly exceed the number of good ones.
Be honest with yourself about how much money you’re going to need, and have a plan for where that money is going to come from.
Finally: finish your games! Finishing is a skill too, and it’s extremely hard to develop for the procrastinators, obsessives, and perfectionists among us. However, your games will never see the light of day without it, so keep pushing and don’t give up!
We would like to thank everyone from Final Form Games for taking time out of their day to give us some great insight from the minds of a great up-and-coming development studio. You can pick up Jamestown via Steam.
-Conducted by Adam Ames. Make these California kids feel welcome by leaving a comment!
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