Conducted By Adam Ames
Fresh off their Grand Prize finish in the 2011 Dream.Build.Play competition, Swing Swing Submarine, the creative force behind Blocks That Matter, spent some time with TGP talking about the PC gaming industry. William David gives his take on the origins of his love for PC gaming, piracy, DRM as well as the successes and failures of Blocks That Matter.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Blocks That Matter.
Hi, my name is William David, game designer. I was responsible of the Level Design and In-game arts of Blocks That Matter, and Guillaume Martin, the other half of Swing Swing Submarine and our programmer, is the one that brought life to the game.
Two other guys helped us to create Blocks That Matter: Yann van der Cruyssen, sound designer and composer, and Géraud Soulié, chara-designer and illustrator. So we were a team of 4, just a like a tetromino.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Guillaume and I met at Ubisoft Montpellier, in France. When we started Swing Swing Submarine we wanted to make our games available on Windows, Mac and Linux. As players, we love to play on both console and computers, but for many well-know reasons PC is where the indie games rise.
During the first year and a half of Swing Swing Submarine, we worked on Seasons after Fall (not yet released) using many open source tools and we also made short flash games with Adam Saltsman’s Flixel library. Then we created Blocks That Matter with XNA tools and we decided to make the Windows, Mac, Linux versions in a single port using JAVA.
Where did the idea for Blocks That Matter come from?
The very first flash game we made was “Tuper Tario Tros.” and it was a mix of Mario and Tetris gameplay. This free game, made in something like one week, has been played by many people and some of them really wanted to see a sequel to this game. But even if we loved the concept and thought we could improve it, we also wanted to make this hypothetical sequel “our own game”, with original musics, graphics and characters. So that’s what we did.
If you play Tuper Tario Tros. today, after having played Blocks That Matter, you’ll understand that these games share many things and that they have been created with the same intention: mixing elements from existing games to create a new one.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Blocks That Matter?
It’s probably too early to make conclusions, but I can see at least one success and one failure
As young developers, we made a common mistake: we announced release dates when the game was not finished. First, we said March, than April and finally the game was released in May on Xbox Live Indie Games channel. And it happened again for the Win/Mac/Linux versions: June, July and finally August. We didn’t anticipate the polish phase and submission process. Well, the good thing is that now we know, so we’ll try not to make the same mistake for our next projects.
What about the success? Well, I’m happy we managed to keep the game simple, consistent and challenging. And we made it in only 4/5 months! When all the pieces started to work together, it was a really magic moment, and I hope players have that feeling of “magic” when they play Blocks That Matter.
In its current form, how close is Blocks That Matter to your initial vision?
It’s hard to say. When we started the development of BTM, our vision was very precise in term of gameplay but it was also very blurry in term of amount of content. We imagined few blocks, enemies and bosses that are not in the final game, but that’s for the best. The game contains all the game mechanics we wanted to put in it and that is more important than anything else.
Some 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 Blocks That Matter and if you faced a similar challenge.
We prototyped a lot of game situations and levels during 3 months, and sometimes playtesters were really disappointed cause there was no possibility to be creative. Not to mention one of the tools of Tetrobot, the line destruction, was pretty hard to use at this moment. We improved this tool many times, trying to find the most simple way to implement it, and we made more and more prototypes. Finally, we made all our final levels in only 2 weeks cause we knew, after all those trials, what the easy and difficult game situations were.
Blocks That Matter is a challenging game that asks the player to think before acting. It’s quite uncommon in video games nowadays cause most of the time action is the basic element to create “fun” and life, but it doesn’t mean that BTM, as a “cerebral” game, is difficult. It is challenging. Believe it or not, but we are less experts in Blocks That Matter than some players are.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Blocks That Matter would run on the various PC system configurations?
Because we really wanted to allow players to play the game on all main platforms (Win, MAc, Linux), we ported the game from C# to Java. According to Guillaume, it was a nice experience but it took a big month of development. We had to remove shaders so it can be run even if a card does not support pixel/vertex shader. We also had to make sure our textures were Power of 2 sized (8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256 pixels, etc) so that older hardware can support the loading. Of course, we encountered some problems after the first release on Steam because of 64bits vs 32bits native DLL linking. So we had to embed a JRE (Java Machine) in the Windows version.
We thought there would be bugs and issues on some configurations, but we didn’t expect to receive this long list of emails. Sometimes it was game related, other times it was related to others software and hardware: no OpenGL driver installed, corrupt files at download, MacOS updates that were waiting forever to be installed (since some people don’t restart their MacBook ]often). Most of the time, we can help.
The most annoying issue is on Steam Mac Lion, where the user has to launch the game from their Finder (equivalent of Explorer on Windows), cause for some reasons the game does not launch from the Steam client. We had to get those systems, use virtual machines to reproduce issues. This is a long process but that’s how PC development works. And we are not finished, since we have to release the game on Linux now!
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Probably staying alive: having a home, eat and drink.
How did you create funding for the development of Blocks That Matter and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?
We created no funding at all. We lived thanks to Social help and when I had no more help from my country my family helped me. That simple. Fortunately, we will be able to start living on our own soon, thanks to the sales of Blocks That Matter and the Dream.Build.Play Grand Prize. We’ll see.
Tell us about the process of submitting Blocks That Matter to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
It has been pretty smooth for us but it’s always difficult to know why your game is approved or rejected from these kind of services. We encountered no special resistance, but you have to know that it can be a quite slow process sometimes, especially when you don’t live in the same time zone than the digital distribution platform you talk to.
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?
Not really, it was more a personal feeling. We always thought, as players, that Blocks That Matter was a 5 euros game because of its content and look. And we had to make it 5 dollars too because we wanted it to be in the $5 games Steam section.
How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
Without digital distribution platform, there would be no Blocks That Matter. This is a chance for indie game developers to be able to make their games available to many players easily. Like I use to say, it’s sad not to have game boxes like in the good old times. But I prefer to have no boxes than no games.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Blocks That Matter.
Because I’m not a real artist, the art style is a “I do what I can, not exactly what I want” art style. As always, we tried to keep the style simple but effective, consistent with our gameplay intention. And we tried to be clever to give the game some depth in graphics with very little means, just like when we were children and we drew cubes in math class.
Géraud helped us make Tetrobot a cute little robot, with more personality than the one I made in the first prototypes, and he also created nice dialog portraits and cinematics. And Yann brought us its talent in sound and music composition. Our team of 4 passionate guys worked really well cause we all wanted to make Blocks That Matter the best possible game, and because we shared the same vision. It has been a really great collaboration and I hope we will be able to work together again.
Are there plans to release a demo for Blocks That Matter?
There’s already a technical demo available on IndieDB but yes, we plan to release a real demo later on our website, on Steam and on other digital distribution platforms.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Blocks That Matter from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
This is the fuel that allows our submarine to keep going. It’s always a pleasure to speak to players and to know why they love or hate what we do. Before being developers, we are players, and I’m happy to talk with developers I love. When I have no answer from them, I feel a little bit sad. So as a developer, I do everything I can to answer our players feedback.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Blocks That Matter professionally?
Of course, the opinion of reviewers is important. That’s why, in addition to playstests with players, we invited some journalists to playtest Blocks That Matter during its development. It’s good to receive feedback from many different people, players and non-players, journalists and other developers, cause they all have different ways to play games and to approach them.
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?
We’d like to be part of a bundle and maybe create some too (if we have the time and energy to do this). Bundles in PWYW is a smart way to promote indie games and to bring them to players that have not a lot of many to spend into games.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
The only solution to solve those problems (even if I think piracy is not really a problem) is to be respectful with others. We respect players, that’s why we have no DRM and try to make demos. And players respect developers when they participate to events like “Pay What Your Want”. If someone has no money to play our games or if they just want to test them, piracy is ok. But when someone who pirated our game send us a mail full of insults, I don’t really appreciate that. Fortunately, it happened only once.
Bill S.978 was introduced to the Untied States Senate earlier this year which could make it illegal to post unauthorized copyrighted content on YouTube and other video sharing sites. How do you feel about individuals outside of Swing Swing Submarine posting videos of Blocks That Matter?
Seriously, I’m surprised when people ask us if they can record our game and post some videos on YouTube. Of course you’re free to do that. Why not? I don’t know who made this proposition, but it is totally absurd.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
DLC is a great way to add features to games and to continue making these games alive. I appreciate that. But once again, some developers or editors should be more respectful with players, specially about pricing.
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 Blocks That Matter?
We provide a level editor with Blocks That Matter and a way for players to share levels, so as you can see we are pretty open with players having powers over our game. If someone makes a level or a mod of any games, it means that he likes this game enough to create something around it, right? I don’t understand why some developers want to prevent players to love their games. Maybe they are afraid that talented players can make their games better than they are already.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Do what you want, keep it simple, communicate with players and other developers. And please, have fun. – End
We would like to thanks all of the kind gents at Swing Swing Submarine for allowing us to be given a glimpse into the love and passion they have for the PC gaming industry. You can pick up Blocks That Matter via Steam.