Based On A True Story: Smuggle Truck Interview

Conducted by Adam Ames

TPG was able to secure an e-mail interview with the creators of Smuggle Truck developed by Owlchemy Labs.  Based on a real-life events, Alex Schwartz talks about why the game was created and the reception it has garnered.  Alex also speaks on other aspects of the PC gaming industry such as piracy, DRM, PWYW pricing and modding.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Smuggle Truck.

I’m Alex Schwartz and I co-founded Owlchemy Labs with Yilmaz Kiymaz. We’re an independent game development studio currently comprised of a core team of just the two of us, developing polished and silly titles for downloadable platforms. We are the scientists that operate the lab and our first title as a company is Smuggle Truck and Snuggle Truck.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

Both Yilmaz and myself attended college at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, specifically going through the Game Development major. We ended up working on the same teams many times throughout our schooling and found that we were able to kick ass together, so thought it only fitting to start a company to continue kicking ass out of school. This dream didn’t become a reality until 2 years after graduation. I had been working at a AAA game studio while Yilmaz worked doing contract iOS development, and finally the stars aligned so we bit the bullet, bought some ramen, and began our journey.

Where did the idea for Smuggle Truck come from?

The idea for the game was generated at a game developer gathering called the “Immigration Game Jam”, which I helped organize along with another Boston game developer named Darren Torpey. The idea was to rally support for our friend who was having major issues while trying to immigrate to the United States to come and develop games. He had spent over a year trying to find a simple and legal method to come to the US but found no visas that would support his endeavors. We brainstormed ideas for games at this event and then prototyped them throughout that weekend. Most of the games created were serious in nature, and we felt that if we could do something that would spark some attention, we could do a better job of getting people to talk about the shoddy systems in place for legal immigration. We were sure to include multiple forms of blatant satire throughout the game, such as the ‘Legal Immigration’ mode, which is available from the main menu. The legal mode (as opposed to the main, illegal driving mode) puts the player in a waiting room with a timer counting down from 20 years while you wait for your green card to be approved.

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Smuggle Truck?

One big win for us was the level editor release before the actual game release, which allowed us to create a pseudo-demo and get people making awesome content before we had finished making all of the content ourselves! See Question #13 for more on this.

In its current form, how close is Smuggle Truck to your initial vision?

Smuggle Truck is actually pretty close to how we envisioned it from the start. Of course we had to cut some features which were out of scope, but we achieved the majority of what we wanted, especially with the recent addition of the level editor and online level community. The game is definitely a lot more vibrant now that players can contribute content directly to the game, and it’s a wonderful feeling to see new levels pop in when you wake up in the morning. 🙂

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 Smuggle Truck and if you faced a similar challenge.

We definitely saw this in effect during development. Naturally, you become good at your game while testing for hours on end, but thankfully we had other people around to set us straight. We relied heavily on the community to help with that. We knew we couldn’t trust ourselves to judge difficulty, so one tactic we employed was to bring builds of the game to our local Starbucks and ask people to try it out. We would stand behind them (with their permission) and take notes on their gameplay session. Surprisingly not many people were creeped out and we received valuable feedback throughout development. We also had lots of help from the Boston Indie community in the form of sending builds out to the group and gathering feedback on difficulty, flow, and of course glaring bugs.

Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Smuggle Truck would run on the various PC system configurations?

We are admittedly Unity fanboys, and so we chose this game engine to do all of our development. We didn’t come across any serious PC configuration-related difficulties since Unity took care of most of the low-level architecture that would impact that kind of thing. One issue regarding Zone Alarm cropped up, but that could probably deter any game that uses an internet connection.

Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?

Being a part of a large group definitely diffuses responsibility across a broad team structure, but when it’s just you, when things go to hell, it’s pretty much your fault exclusively. It’s a blessing and a curse, but it definitely made for a lot of stress, uncertainty, and did I mention stress? That being said, it’s an amazing ride and we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t love it.

Was Snuggle Truck a response to those who questioned Smuggle Truck for having racial overtones?

Snuggle Truck was actually not something we had planned in advance but in fact was a quick pivot on our parts after receiving news of the App Store rejection. The idea came to us immediately and the art, audio, and programming necessary to make the switch were done in record time, which ended up being just under a week.

How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels? Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?

For iOS, it’s 100% up to the developer what to charge. There’s been a lot of controversy surrounding App Store pricing and the ‘race to the bottom’, referring to the trend of games moving to $0.99 to fit to market trends. On other platforms like Steam, it’s quite different, but with iOS, it’s entirely your own fault if you price yourself out of the market, so devs need to think long and hard about pricing to try to satisfy their players. Some games do pretty well pricing themselves at a premium, but we opted to try to compete with the big boys and attempt to chart on the paid lists (with mediocre success, but that’s a different story). As for competitive product research, we didn’t do too much research on games about smuggling humans over borders or bringing wild animals into zoos, but we definitely took a look at other physics-based racers out there to inform some development decisions on the project.

How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?

Without digital distribution, we wouldn’t be here as an independent company. It’s about as simple as that. It’s the future, blah blah, flying cars, a series of tubes, and all of that.

Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Smuggle Truck.

The art style was spearheaded by Bill Tiller, our art director and sole artist for the game. Bill is a game industry veteran (background artist for Curse of Monkey Island among other LucasArts titles) so we left a lot of the artistic decisions to him. He actually joined the team after hearing about the project and demanded to work with us. We were floored and couldn’t believe it, so naturally we accepted and it was a great decision, as we think the art looks stunning due to his great artistic eye.

For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost ever indie developer does. Why do you think this trend is occurring? Tell us why released a demo for Smuggle Truck and the difficulties in doing so.

We didn’t release a traditional demo, but instead opted to release a level editor *before* the game came out. The level editor allowed people to muck around in the game, create levels, and test them out, getting a chance to digest a small nugget of the overall game. This led us to run our first level design competition which awarded prizes to players for making awesome content, one prize being the inclusion of their level in the final game. We received valuable level content (and ideas!) from the community and learned a lot through this process. This was one of the major successes throughout development. I don’t think this is anything a AAA studio would dream of doing, probably due to the risk.. and it’s too cool for them? I’m not sure, but it paid off for us.

How important is it to get instant feedback about Smuggle Truck from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

We had a very open development process which allowed players to get an inside look at the individual components of the game before they came out. This helped us steer development instead of releasing what we thought would be wonderful into a black box and then realizing we had fucked up and it wasn’t what the players wanted. We do our best to listen to feedback through Twitter and on our Facebook page but we find that the best feedback is not particularly voiced to us. Instead it’s what we observe while people play the game in front of us… during development, at least. For update/future suggestions email works just fine.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Smuggle Truck professionally?

Reviews matter whether we want them to or not. We’ve taken many suggestions put forth in reviews of our game and implemented them in an update, so that’s definitely something we look at. One thing we strive to do is form personal relationships with our PR contacts because we empathize with their pain of receiving hundreds of blasted form-letter press releases. We want to show them that we’re just two guys trying to make a living doing what we love, and that we’re not a nameless faceless corporation pumping out clones.

How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

PWYW pricing is pretty awesome, I must say. We haven’t tried that yet, but it’s something we would want to try down the line. I do think you need something compelling that people really want before you can pull off a move like that, though. Also, we wouldn’t want to try Pay What You Want as a ‘me too!’ move. Most likely, we’d try to do something new and different. As for how to do that, I’m not quite sure yet.

What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

We released our PC/Mac version of the game without DRM. Personally we don’t believe in it and we feel that things will take their natural course, and there’s not much we can do to affect that. DRM only provides more incentive for pirates to break it.

How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

We haven’t touched DLC as of yet, but I think it’s an important part of downloadable games now. If a player is really excited about your game, giving them opportunities to get more out of it is a win-win for everyone.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders. How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Smuggle Truck?

We built a level editor into the game so it’s suffice to say that we love people to take what we’ve created and make things bigger and better. Some of the levels created so far have been absurdly awesome, even more imaginative than we thought. For example, try out ‘roller coaster’ in the Smuggle Truck level lobby. Amazing!

What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

Make something different, compelling, remarkable, and absurd. That describes most of my favorite games 🙂 – End

We would like to thank Alex for offering such detailed and informative responses.  You can check out Smuggle/Snuggle Truck from the official site.

What do you think about this issue and how Owlchemy Labs created a game from it?  Have you or anyone you know had difficulties trying to legally enter the United States?  

4 thoughts on “Based On A True Story: Smuggle Truck Interview

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