Conducted By Adam Ames
Reece Millidge, head honcho at Damp Gnat, was nice enough to speak to TPG about his fantastic free flash game, Wonderputt. Reece also talks about how Wonderputt was created, the success and failures in doing so and various topics on the PC gaming industry.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Wonderputt.
I’m a freelance Animator & Compositor by trade. Worked mainly in commercials, promos and feature film intros in London for animation studios such as Nexus Productions. I had quite a flexible role that allowed me to move across all areas of pre-production through to post-production so I had a good grounding in each aspect of Wonderputt. The hardest and slowest part for me is always the coding as I’ve no training. My brother Dan did all the sound design.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I co-developed a game with a school friend on the commodore Amiga called Odyssey, which got published in 1995 just as the market died and made way for the rise of the PC. After a long break from the games industry I dabbled in an online portfolio using Flash which got me thinking about its potential for making games. Icycle was the first project. It took 4 months over a 4 year period whenever I had a bit of spare time. The release was a disaster, tripping my server within days. I was oblivious of the whole online games industry and made every mistake in the book. Good lessons learnt though, a real crash course!
Where did the idea for Wonderputt come from?
Brief: After the positive response to Adverputt and many requests to host the game it made sense to reuse the game engine to make a version for a wider audience with a rich and animated environment, free of integrated brands.
Inspiration: Since the framework had to be a full static isometric screen, I naturally looked towards styles and illustrators that use this perspective to full effect. Everything from old encyclopedia illustrations and their geographic cross sections, to bar chart statistics and air fix kit assembly info graphics. Isometric view also allows for playful illusions with space and structure, so M.C.Escher was an obvious influence there. The final look ended up like a fusion between the rich bustling cityscapes of Eboy and the sublime light & airy landscapes of Josh Keyes.
The real challenge in making Wonderputt was balancing playability with aesthetics. Those two aspects of game design are constantly at war with each other. It was very important to me that the game held together as an illustration at any one point during play.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Wonderputt?
Most of the failures were learnt from doing Adverputt. Mainly on a financial front. But it was a good precursor to attempting wonderputt, rather than having done it from scratch. Success seems to have been down to its accessibility and novel appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike. The animated transitions were not even planned from the start, so luckily I got really carried away with them as they turned out to be the main hook.
In its current form, how close is Wonderputt to your initial vision?
Rejected: The initial intention was to create something which revealed written details or images, acting as a tour of a website and its products but this soon gave way to what looked best in the end.
The game was a much bigger size on-screen, but for financial reasons it was decided it should be smaller to maximize its value and viral potential by complying with most games portal specifications.
A topiary maze was scrapped because the many ball bounces naturally accumulated tiny inaccuracies in the physics beyond any practical use of skill.
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 Wonderputt and if you faced a similar challenge.
This is a very good question. It’s so true, you very quickly become unqualified to playtest your own game. So this time I staggered my play testers, so after each milestone build I was able to test the game fresh with a new play tester who hadn’t seen it at all. I was keen to make sure everyone could complete the game and then rise to the challenge of a collectables mode. Novelty may be important for viral potential, but games are also valued by sponsors for the length of time players spend on them.
If there’s a noticeable drop in players, it’s around the lily pad levels. People either find the unique challenge of skimming water in mini-golf VERY novel and appealing, or… VERY hard to grasp indeed. Interestingly the average par score for these is quite healthy, but the maximum strokes statistics proves it’s too hard for those who don’t want to stop and think logistically. Perhaps people don’t expect the puzzle element, but that’s quite a fundamental part of Wonderputt.
How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
The free distribution and free to play aspects of internet games actually support the flash games business model well, even relies on them. Having said that, it’s a HUGE gamble for developers and sponsors alike. Unfortunately this tends to support quantity over quality, with smaller projects and schedules being much safer to commit to.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Wonderputt.
Tools used: 3DStudioMax (for small objects) but mainly Adobe Photoshop, Flash and cheap WHSmith note pads.
Development: Lots of rough sketches of ideas for landscape transitions from one state to another. Then seeing which ones linked and logistically supported each other. Like working out a puzzle of intersecting locations to make the best use of the space. So the process was a constant shifting and re-shifting of structure, using everything from thumbnail drawings to building up hundreds of layers in Photoshop. Occasionally throwing in Google images of content I needed to react to visually before committing my own design. Diary WIP.
Techniques: Top down level design is assembled from nine height layers in Flash to be used for ball collision detection. These layers are skewed to create the illusion of 3D space and the ball simulated using basic physics. After the level is playtested in this skeleton form, a screen grab is captured and painted over in Photoshop to build the illusion of a fully realised 3D world. Animated transitions between each hole are done directly in Flash using a mixture of bitmaps and 2D vector graphics.
Music: The music was designed to be unobtrusive and to discretely set the mood. References were from 70’s educational tv and nostalgic tracks that evoke the wonder of science. Perhaps there’s a little homage/spoof in there too.
Dan Millidge (Composer): The music was inspired by Philip Glass. I grew up watching ‘koyaanisqatsi’ in which the soundtrack was wonderfully hypnotic, so I set out to create the same feeling. Secondly the instrumentation and sound effects were inspired by programs such as ‘Tomorrows World’ and educational films to give it a familiar and nostalgic feel.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Wonderputt from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Although generally quite positive, some extreme views & comments have to be taken lightly. Soooo many contradictions and clashes of interest often leave you with only your best judgement to go on. Some suggestions would break other elements that have been carefully balanced. Some alterations can easily have a domino effect and get you chasing your tail.
Bug reports luckily have been few, some vital for ironing out hot spots for stuck balls. Although extremely rare, its hard to accept that the game doesn’t work for some. Developers just cannot test every combination of OS, browser and flash player version.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Wonderputt professionally?
I do read them actually. I crave constructive criticism in general. It’s the only way to really grow, but it ASTOUNDS me how most professionals don’t embrace it! You’ve got to absorb those blows to the stomach and have the courage to accept you don’t know best. It is hard letting your pride take a battering, so expecting the worst and pinching salt with the best is the most healthy attitude for me.
Are there any plans to make Wonderputt into a full-blown indie development project?
I’m thrilled at the prospect of never having to make another! 🙂 There were times during development when I really resented the level design process, partly because of the convoluted methods I used. Level designing for Icycle was a breeze in comparison! That said, who knows what I might be persuaded to do in future.
To be honest I’m finding it hard to contain my excitement for a dozen other projects I have in mind. There’s so much opportunity for innovation, the time its taking me to get things done feels criminal. I need to expand with a crew, but I’m not sure how feasible that is in order to continue taking such risks.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology?
I really know little to nothing about the downloadable games industry. I really should though. I’ve heard about these bundles. They sound like a great marketing strategy more than anything. A great way to launch new games.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
This is perhaps an odd answer, but it’s really not my industry. If this was effecting animation and commercials it may have been something that affected me. But as it stands with my overlap with games, piracy doesn’t really come into it as free distribution is anything but prohibited. The blocking of outbound links and overlapped advertising is obviously a problem, but I feel that sort of thing isn’t quite big enough to be a real concern.
What advice would you give up-and-coming PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Gold mines feel like myth to me, and those that have struck oil always claim to have never expected it.
If you’re gong to go it alone, be prepared for long hours, escalating schedules, diminishing motivation and creative isolation. With perseverance you’ll actually finish something, with a little luck you’ll make ends meet and raise some smiles. If like me, you find it still worth it after all that, there’s nothing you’d rather be doing 🙂
From a creative point of view, if I had one plea to new developers, that would be to look for inspiration OUTSIDE of games, to actually MAKE games. You can’t ignore the fact that gamers are actually only a small percentage of internet users. Your most valuable play tester might even be your mum 🙂 -End
TPG would like to extend thanks to Reece and Dan for taking the time to offer us a detailed interview. We wish them continued success in the PC gaming business. You can play Wonderputt on the official site or via Kongregate. You can also follow on Twitter and Facebook.
Follow TPG on Twitter.