A Happy Accident: Waves Developer Interview

Conducted By Adam Ames

Robert Hale from Squid In A Box took time out of his day to discuss his great indie title, Waves.  You will read about how Waves came about, the successes and failures in development and his take on various topics surrounding the PC gaming industry.

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

Hello I’m Rob Hale and I’m the only full-time member of Squid In A Box. This means everything is my fault/idea depending on whether you like it or not.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

I’ve been working as a mainstream console developer since about 2001 and the long and short of it is that I got bored making big budget console games. The games I had ended up making were not the kind of games I had wanted to make or in fact enjoy playing so after I had finished up on Enslaved I decided I was going to take my savings and try to make a game I actually wanted to make.

Where did the idea for Waves come from?

Waves was mostly an accident – I was fiddling around the Unreal Dev Kit one weekend and ended up with a ball rolling around a level collecting glowy balls. I messed around with this a bit more and thought I could maybe make a physics based puzzle game from it. The problem was I got very bored trying to make a physics puzzle game. I don’t enjoy designing hundreds of subtly different levels I like creating systems that will themselves create content and fun. So I decided to throw out the puzzle stuff, gave the ball a gun and made some enemies to shoot.

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

One of the biggest successes has been the graphics. I’m not an artist and Waves is what I call “Coder art with shaders” as nothing in it has required me to do any real modeling or texturing. Most of the effects and look of the game happened as a result of my messing around with some feature of Unreal and seeing what happened. It was an experimental process born of necessity rather than having a vision and working towards it. I had no idea what the game was going to look like when I started it.

The failures fortunately didn’t make it into the game so you don’t get to see them! There were a couple of modes that I liked the idea of but ended up being made completely impossible to make work as the game developed and things like power-ups and upgrades ended up being cut because while they sounded good in a bullet-point list of features in reality they were taking away from the game and making it worse.

The things that still annoy me about the game are things I have no control over though. Steam leaderboards don’t support 64bit integers so the score had to be capped as a result for example.

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

Waves didn’t have an initial vision so that question is pretty hard to answer. I never sat down and designed Waves it was a process of evolution. It started out very generic with just being able to shoot enemies and then one night I added the slow-mo in for fun and it stuck. The same happened with bombs I decided that I didn’t want the traditional Smart bombs because I always forget to use them so I ended up developing a system to give you lots of bombs really often so you used them all the time.

I don’t think I would have ever designed Waves the way it is on purpose I think it would have been much more generic and derivative.

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 Waves and if you faced a similar challenge.

Waves spent a very long time being far too easy and it wasn’t until the last few months that it actually started to come together and start to be challenging. I’d been testing all through development on friends of various skill levels from those who were big Shmup fans to those who didn’t play games at all. Having spent ten years making console games where we have regular playtests and focus groups I was aware that the worst person to judge difficulty was me. As it turns out I am distinctly average at the game based on the leaderboards and I think I got the difficulty just right.

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

This was one of the big advantages of using Unreal. All of the work on making the engine compatible with different configurations had been done by Epic and I didn’t have to worry about compatibility once.

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

Looking back at the art style I can safely say I was heavily inspired by things like Tron and Rez. I’ve also taken a fair bit of inspiration from Kenta Cho – in particular GunRoar and Titanion which are my two favorite games of his. The game started out much more 2-dimensional with mor eline art than polygons but after a while I decided that it looked unpolished like that and I decided to take everything 3D. The ball was actually just a 2D circle for a long time. I’m glad I didn’t leave it that way.

The different modes were actually quite hard to come up with. Crunch Time and Survival are there essentially because you must have those modes if you’re making a shmup. It’s expected as they are the most obvious variants and if you don’t have them people ask you why. Bombing Run is my take on pacifism  in that I wanted a mode that would put the focus on movement – playing Bombing Run makes you better at the other modes because you’re exercising a set of skills that you might not focus on as much. Rush is inspired by Every Extend and Torus Trooper and is my personal favourite because it gets incredibly tense at times.

I left Challenge mode until the very end of development because as I mentioned before – I don’t enjoy making puzzles. Challenge mode is essentially a puzzle game and there is at least one way to 5-star each challenge (although nobody has managed it in a single run yet). After banging my head off this mode for weeks I ended up getting in touch with Rob Fearon (he of Squid Yes Not So Octopuss fame) and asked him to help out as he is much better at this stuff than I am. He’s done a great job on them and he ended up using lots of things in ways I would have never considered which was awesome.

I found out about SMILETRON from 8-bit Collective while I was on a big chiptunes bender. I ran across his track “Disco Just Won’t Cut It This Time” and instantly I knew that it was perfect for the game. I got in touch with him about using it in a trailer, he said yes. That trailer had a great reception and people commented on the music so I ended up asking him if he could make some new tracks for the game and the rest is history.

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

Marketing. I think every indie out there will be with me on this one but getting your game in front of people who want to buy it is harder than anything you’ll have to do in developing it. Especially when you don’t have any money. It’s not quite as hard for established indies with a few games and a fanbase but for your very first game it’s incredibly difficult.

How did you go about funding Waves and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?

Waves has been funded from my meagre savings. I had to move back in with my parents to save money and they’ve been very supportive – if I’d not been able to do that then I wouldn’t have been able to work on the game full-time and it probably wouldn’t be released for another year as a result.

Tell us about the process of submitting Waves to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.

Getting Waves on Steam was actually very easy. I put this down to only submitting the game when it was nearly finished and that it was very polished. Having something that is polished and fun to play will get you on those services as well as being professional. It’s business after all and they want to know that you’re taking it all as seriously as it demands.

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?

I could charge £1000 for Waves if I wanted to but I think it would seriously hurt sales. What I did was look at what the other games like mine launched at and charged a similar amount. I wish I could say that it was much cleverer than that but it’s not.

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

Big studios have marketing budgets. They have TV ads and launch events. They get celebrity endorsements and spend months before release schmoozing journalists and previewing the game on Submarines. Indies have squat. Unless you’re Notch then nobody in the media will pay you any attention unless you have something for them to play so naturally a demo is the easiest way to do that.

Demos’ have the power of Free on their side. Free always gets press coverage even if it’s rubbish so releasing a demo (and of course telling people about it) is the best way a developer with no marketing budget can get press.

The more cynical answer is that big budget studios are terrified that if people find out their game sucks by playing a demo then they won’t buy the game. Indies are not terrified of this because if we sell 0.1% of Call of Duties numbers then we’re still rich.

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

Feedback is great. Less than  week after I released the game I had already gotten a patch out to address the most common niggles people had with the game and fix a few bugs. The fact is that even with a big beta test no game gets played as much as it does when it’s been released so those bugs that show up one time out of a million only start to show up when you release. I’ve found that as long as people see that I’m on top of any issues that crop up then nobody complains too much. It’s a big advantage of being an indie developer – you can send me an email about a bug or a feature you’d like to see and get direct contact with the developer rather than a marketing drone who may never pass on your feedback.

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

I put the most value on the opinions of people who actually buy the game. Reviewers are important but when I get an email from somebody who bought my game saying that they love it then I walk around with  big grin all day. The best response I’ve had so far is from somebody who was suffering from intense depression saying that my game inspired them to make more of life. I’m not sure any reviewer is going to top that.

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?

Bundles get press and that is the most valuable commodity to an indie developer. I wouldn’t be surprised if after your game is in a bundle that sells 50k copies that your normal sales will go up as a result of increased word of mouth. If you can generate that same word of mouth without bundling your game then I think you’re just doing yourself out of revenue. Minecraft didn’t need to bundle for example and I doubt we’ll see Cliffskis games getting bundled much because Cliffski has reached a point where he doesn’t need a bundle to get people to hear about his games.

If for some reason I’m not sitting on a big pile of money, wearing a money hat and eating money sandwiches in the next year then I’ll definitely be considering bundles.

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

As a whole I think we’re doing quite well. With more indie games being released than Big Budget ones I suspect there are more games released each year without horrible DRM than with. Waves has no DRM and was being downloaded by China and Russia within 24 hours of release. I’m not worried about them though because they were never going to buy it. It’s not show up so much in the West and I think that is related to the game being easily available online. The same way that Netflix reduces piracy of movies and TV I think services like Steam have reduced piracy for games just by creating a service that is more convenient. Anybody that is left pirating your game wasn’t going to buy it so why worry? I think the biggest thing big studios on PC can do to reduce piracy is take out the DRM and charge less for their games.

Bill S.978 was introduced to the United 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 posting videos of Waves?

I encourage it! People making videos of my game on YouTube is basically free advertising for my game so everybody has my absolute consent to post videos of the game online. If I was working in a non-interactive medium though then I would be of a completely different opinion. Games cannot be fully experienced by watching a video of somebody else playing it so we’re largely immune to “theft” in that way. Music and tv/films however aren’t and I support the bill for that. It should be up to the individual creator whether they want to give away their work for free.

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

I like DLC. I’ve worked on DLC in the past and it is not easy or cheap to create. I’ve bought all of the Last Stand DLC for Dawn of War 2 for example because it adds value to the game and I want to support that game. There was that mount in World oF Warcraft that made a ridiculous amount of money a while back and while I wouldn’t pay for it I can absolutely understand that there are fans out there that will. I see it a bit like merch for a band. To get the core experience of the band I can buy their album. I’ll buy their t-shirt and mouse mats if I like them so much I want to find new ways to give them money in support.

I think the biggest problem is when it’s clear that something has been removed from a game that was essential to the experience in order to sell it as DLC later. DLC should always be added value that is not required to enjoy the game.

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 Waves?

I got my start by modding Deus Ex so I am very in favour of the modding communities out there. When it comes to Waves though if I release the tools to mod it then it would inevitably break the leaderboards and that would piss off a lot of the competitive players. Unfortunately with Unreal the way it is I can’t actually do anything to safeguard against that so I won’t be releasing the tools for it. Games with a competitive online element (even if that’s just leaderboards) need to design in a safe way to mod the game that doesn’t affect other players or they run the risk of rampant cheating.

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

Make your keys rebindable! Seriously people give a shit about that and so many indie games don’t do it. It’s one of my pet peeves.

I’m not really sure what advice I can give as it’s still too early to say if I’ve actually been a success yet! I will recommend that you try not to burn out on your own game. I had to make sure I took time off away from Waves during development so I could get things straight in my head. It always resulted in the game getting better afterwards and often helped me through a creative block. -End

We would like to thank Rob for making this a great and detailed interview.  You can pick up Waves via Steam.

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Follow Squid In A Box on Twitter.

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9 thoughts on “A Happy Accident: Waves Developer Interview

      • Hi Rob,
        Thanks to your page down pressing skills but… 1000 players is not much at all, right ? Why do you reckon the game sells so poorly ? I would have thought that appearing on the Steam front page was enough to get a good 10k sales out of sheer curiosity. I don’t suppose Scoregasm is doing very well either 😦 Could arena shooters be fading away ?

      • On the contrary these are good sales for a game that has appeared on Steams front page that has had little to no press coverage. Waves spent the week of it’s release at the top of the Casual charts on Steam and above all the other indie games that had been released that week.

        Being on Steam is not a golden ticket to success as some would have you believe but the game did get the majority of it’s sales via Steam compared to direct from my site.

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