Conducted By Adam Ames
David Johnston and Bennet Aldous from Smudged Cat Games spoke to TPG about their 2D platforming puzzle title, Gateways. David talks about the development of Gateways, and his thoughts on the PC gaming industry, while Bennet goes into how the art style was created. Here is a teaser:
In its current form, how close is Gateways to your initial vision?
Pretty close really! I came across my initial notes on the game just recently actually and found that I’d implemented most of what I’d scribbled down. There were a couple of ideas that never made it but I’ll keep those to myself at the moment in case there is ever a sequel to Gateways!
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Gateways.
Hey, I’m David Johnston, I came up with the idea for Gateways and have done all the coding and level design for the game. There are currently only 2 of us working on Gateways, myself and Bennet Aldous from Fat Cat Comics who has created the graphics for the game.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I’ve been developing games as a hobby for around 20 years (I’m 33 now). I started writing games for the BBC Micro which seems like a very long time ago now, I also had a Yaroze development kit for the Playstation One but more recently I’ve been using Microsoft’s XNA framework which makes cross-platform development on Xbox and PC much easier. That’s what’s really opened up PC development for me, previously I was focused on consoles.
Where did the idea for Gateways come from?
Errrmm, well I can’t deny it’s been influenced by a certain Valve game! The comparisons with Portal are going to be fairly obvious but there are some very different ideas in there as well. The scaling up and down, map rotation and time travel ideas are all things I’ve worked with myself in the past. I wrote a game which appeared on an Official UK Playstation Magazine cover disk back in 1999 which featured a time traveling snail called Timeslip. You continually travel back in time to encounter past versions of yourself and whilst you need to avoid them you need to work with them as they stand on switches which open doors. More recently I released an Xbox Live Arcade game called The Adventures of Shuggy which also features some time travel levels in addition to levels where you rotate the screen around and change size. I initially wondered how a 2D version of Portal would look with being able to look through the portals and I thought it worked pretty well once I tried implementing it. Once I had that in place I wondered if making the 2 portals connect to different points in time would work. After I had implemented that I knew the game would be awesome. The changing size gateways and map rotation gateways got added after that.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Gateways?
I think one of the things I had to learn in Gateways was how to make the game as accessible as possible. One of the things that became obvious when showing people the game is that it can get very confusing with all the different Gateway guns. Because of that you acquire the different gun types gradually throughout the game and have to use each type to solve several problems before you’re introduced to a new one. I’ve also implemented a help system as I don’t want people to get completely stumped and just give up on the game. I’m really pleased with the way all that has turned out.
Gateways has some really interesting mechanics but sometimes my ideas for mechanics were a little bit too inventive. I tried out a few ideas that were just too complicated and didn’t really go anywhere. Hopefully I’ve kept the ideas that work and got rid of the complex ones. I’ve now learned to focus on the key mechanics that make the unique and make sure the puzzles based around them are interesting and build up in a way that lets people solve them.
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 Gateways and if you faced a similar challenge.
It does tend to be quite a common problem. Gateways is very much focused on puzzle solving rather than platforming ability and dodging lots of enemies which makes it slightly different,… think more Braid than Super Meat Boy. The help system really comes into its own here. You collect power orbs as you explore the map and every puzzle has a help point next to it. You can spend a small number of orbs at a help point to discover if the puzzle is solvable using your current items and abilities. If it is solvable then you can spend more orbs and the game will actually just show you the solution. The map also highlights where you should go next in order to advance and all the puzzles that haven’t yet been solved in the game.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Gateways would run on the various PC system configurations?
Not really, one advantage of using XNA is the way it handles all that stuff for you. So long as a PC can support the XNA HiDef profile then it will run Gateways. It’s an interesting approach they’ve taken with XNA 4.0, you either support the Reach or the HiDef profile with the Reach profile roughly corresponding to features available on a Windows Mobie and the HiDef profile roughly corresponding to features available on an Xbox. They actually removed a few features from XNA 3.1 because they weren’t supported by some graphics cards you can get. It means as an Indie developer who doesn’t want to spend time trying out loads of different PC setups I can say I want the features available in the HiDef profile and XNA checks if the appropriate features are available on the target PC. Of course the downside is that there are some features available in the HiDef profile I’m not using but Gateways still won’t run on PCs if they don’t have support for those features. I think it’s a good trade-off though, it lets me focus more on the game than spec checking.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Gateways.
Bennet: For the art style I was going for a clean look using flat colours with no black outlines. It was really just a question of what I thought fitted the subject matter, along with trying new styles to see what works and what doesn’t. This goes hand in hand with the computer side of things, with each project I try to refine my work and speed the process up. It’s all about have fun with it in the end though, who doesn’t want to see a monkey in a bubble octopus machine!
David: We decided quite late on to go for more of an 8-bit look for the graphics. It seems to add a certain amount of charm seeing those chunky pixels.
David: As far as the level design goes, Gateways has one single large map so I knew it was going to be a challenge getting it right. I had to take a much more structured approach than I had with previous games which were level based so some levels could simply be removed or completely changed. I wrote down all the main puzzles on little bits of paper and then stuck them up on my wall. I used bits of string to show what connected up to where and shuffled them round until I was happy with the overall layout and what puzzles were available and would unlock as you progressed through the game. I implemented that overall structure and then fine tuned it from there.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
The uncertainty! I don’t have anyone paying me to do this so I’ve no idea if it’ll pay off or not. Sometimes I struggle working from home as well. I miss interacting with people on a daily basis and talking about what I’m working on.
How did you go about funding Gateways and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
It’s self-funded really! I’ve been doing contract work as a software engineer to make money and then been working on the game. When the money is running out I look for contract work again. I’ve got a very supportive wife which helps a lot.
Are there plans to release a demo for Gateways?
Well, I’m hoping to release a demo of Gateways sometime next month. I think it’s important for an Indie developer because we just don’t get the coverage that bigger studios do. The best way to generate interest in a game if you don’t have a PR budget is to get a demo out there and into the hands of players. If the game is good then people will recognize that and word will spread building up anticipation for the finished product.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Gateways from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Very important! I don’t have a team of people playtesting the game or giving their opinion on it so I have to rely on the game playing public to give their opinion. I’ll be interested to see how people find the demo of the game when that’s released next month. Depending on the feedback I could change the game dramatically because I want to make a game that people will enjoy a get the most from.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Gateways professionally?
It’s obviously important to get good coverage of the game once it’s released. A metacritic score can destroy a big budget title or bring a smaller game to a much larger audience. Aside from the impact it can have on sales it’s interesting to see what critics pick up on about the game.
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?
The “Pay What You Want” pricing idea seems like such a risky strategy but it certainly raises the profile of some games. I think I’d be more likely to go for a bundle promotion with other titles, they seem to do really well. Of course, everyone’s talking about Kickstarter now after Double Fine ventured into that market. Gateways is too close to completion now for crowd funding but I think I might be looking into that for a future project.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I saw recently that Ubisoft were moving servers and people wouldn’t be able to play games they’d legitimately purchased because they needed to verify with the servers, anyone with a cracked copy would be fine of course. I think that highlighted how ridiculous some DRM can be. Being a one-man outfit I know that any copy protection I implement will quickly be blown out of the water so I’m not even going to bother to be honest. I can understand why bigger studios who’ve invested a lot of money in a game and expect it to be played by a large number of people would be more worried about piracy than an indie developer but when it starts punishing people with legitimate copies of a game something’s gone very wrong. I’m hopeful that it will go the same way as DRM on music tracks did. Record labels seemed to wise up to the fact that people weren’t buying legal music downloads because of the clunky DRM and were instead downloading illegally so they agreed to let stores sell without DRM. I would love to see that happen in the game industry.
How do you feel about individuals posting gameplay videos of Gateways?
I’m fine with people posting Gateways videos on YouTube. As far as I’m concerned that would be an indication people are enjoying the game and only serves to help the game gain a wider audience. The two Gateways videos I uploaded to YouTube have the Creative Commons license if people want to reuse them, doesn’t bother me!
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I tend to play more console games really because I like flopping out on the sofa when I’m playing games. As a result I don’t think I’ve ever downloaded any DLC for a PC game so can’t really comment on its implementation. I like the idea of DLC so long as it’s genuine DLC and not something that was ripped out of the original game. It’s easy to feel cheated when you buy some DLC and feel like it should really have been included the actual game. I probably enjoyed the Fallout 3 DLC best, Point Lookout was a great example of DLC done well.
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 Gateways?
One of the great things about PC games as opposed to consoles is that people can mod a game after its release and produce some really cool stuff. It’s probably not that easy to mod Gateways because I haven’t really written it with that in mind but I think it would be great to see someone come up with a mod for the game. I’d be very curious to see what people came up with.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
My main bit of advice would be to try to promote your game as best you can. I released The Adventures of Shuggy on Xbox and didn’t focus enough on promoting the game before its release. As such it didn’t sell as well as expected. As soon as you’ve got something playable which you think shows off the core of the game and any unique features then get it out there and see what people think of it. The feedback you receive will probably help shape the way the game turns out and you’ll generate interest in the game so people will be waiting for it when it’s released. -End
We would like to thank David for allowing us to enter the mind of a talented PC game developer. You can read up on more from Smudged Cat Games on their official site.