Unplugged: 1000 Amps Developer Interview

Conducted By Adam Ames

TPG caught up with Brandon Brizzi, developer on the indie title, 1000 Amps.  You will read about how 1000 Amps was created, DRM, piracy, challenges he faced in setting the difficult levels and much more.  Here is a preview:

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

There’s a lot of things I could say. I think it’s most important to realize your limits. What’s a reasonable amount of time to spend on something, what kind of game design is feasible with the manpower you have. If you’re just one person, or even two people, a big 3D game is not something you should be spending your time on. No matter how awesome the idea is, it doesn’t matter unless you can follow through on the idea.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of 1000 Amps.

I’m Brandon Brizzi. I made the entire game. The other people who appear in the credits were all playtesters! So I did all the art, all the design, and all of the code. Currently I’m a college student, so I made this game mostly in my free time.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

Well, I’d say in highschool. There was a wonderful little class that taught me how to code in a bunch of basic languages, and ever since I’ve been building on that knowledge base.

Where did the idea for 1000 Amps come from?

1000 Amps started as a college assignment. I was doing some collision detection code, testing whether or not a character player was touching a block or not. To visualize this, I had the block turn visible and invisible when it was touched and when it wasn’t. This wound up being a lot of fun! So over a couple of iterations I developed more ideas around it, along with an art style.

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing 1000 Amps?

There was a lot of trial and error just in the making of the game. Probably too much to really get into. Things that have to do with how best to visually represent things, or how to tackle some design issue. I think the biggest thing I’ve taken away from the release of the game is that issues, no matter how small, will be magnified in front of a large audience. There were a couple of things that I overlooked the importance of, like map scrolling and auto-saving, that weren’t in the original release. I’ve since updated the game to include these since people really wanted them.

In its current form, how close is 1000 Amps to your initial vision?

The final 1000 Amps is very different from what I had originally envisioned, but in a good way! With my original prototype, the game was much more linear, you tackled it level by level. You couldn’t die, and key mechanics like the teleport hadn’t even popped into my head yet. It wasn’t until I had people playtest it that I realized they wanted something more expansive and significant.

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 1000 Amps and if you faced a similar challenge.

This was a huge challenge! As a one man team, it was very easy for me to lose track of what was hard and easy for a player that isn’t familiar with the game. Not only did I know the solutions to all the puzzles, but I could execute them expertly. Additionally, I knew exactly how the game systems worked.

These are things I had to keep in mind when designing the game. I planned for the start of the game to function as a tutorial before letting the player be able to explore. And even when the game opens up, there are easy areas designed to allow the player to ease into the game. This was fairly straightforward. As long as players played through the tutorial, easy puzzles weren’t much of an issue.

However, for the later segments of the game, the hard puzzles presented many challenges. It was hard to tell just how hard was too hard. Playtesting these sections was the obvious solution, but even then not everything was caught. The game launched with one puzzle in particular that I later had to tone down because tons of people were voicing frustration with it!

Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring 1000 Amps would run on the various PC system configurations?

Since I made the game in Flash, I only had so much control over the finer systems that made the game run well. Because of this, some areas had to be limited in size, scope, and amount of animated parts. Too much meant the game would run quite slowly, so I had to tailor my game design to it.

Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for 1000 Amps.

When I conceived of the core ‘turning things on’ mechanic, the art direction to take seemed obvious. On-off states are typically associated with electronics, so that seemed like the direction to go. Among the first things I came up with were the big power button on the title screen, and the character design of Plug.

Plug is an amalgamation of electronic symbols. His face, the eyes and mouth, are based on electrical socket faces. The lines that make up his body were taken from bars that represent cell phone reception. The dome that covers his head was added because it made him seem more like a light bulb in overall structure. Originally, he had small arms, but I eventually dropped those since they never really had any purpose.

Music probably had the most changes throughout. Originally, there were ambient synth tracks that played as you completed a room. Eventually, though, I came up with the idea of having light blocks make noise when you touched them as positive feedback. This didn’t really mesh with the synth tracks, so I ditched the tracks. But that became too quiet! So I put two and two together and had touching the blocks play the music, with the entire track unlocking when you completed the room.

The only problem with that was that there were hundreds of rooms, each room begging to have its own track. Making hundreds of unique tracks was impractical. So I compromised and had some have unique tracks, say less than 30, and the rest have procedurally generated tracks. The most frequented areas in the game have ‘composed’ music, while much of the in-between areas have their tracks generated on the fly.

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

Time constraints! I constantly find myself wanting more time with which to do things. College takes the most time out of my week. On top of that is my part-time job, eating up a lot of additional time. What’s left over is a scant amount with which I can devote to making a game. A contributing issue is budget constraints, but with the release of 1000 Amps that isn’t as big an issue as it was before.

How did you go about funding 1000 Amps and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?

Funding feels like it isn’t the right word to put to it. If anything was funded it was simply my ability to live. There was the one time fee of purchasing Flash CS5 to make the game in, my computer being a hold over from high school, but other than that there was just typical costs of living as a college student. Rent, gas money, tuition. My part-time job ‘funded’ my ability to maintain that lifestyle. Then, of course, I had my family and friends supporting me in the background. I really can’t thank them enough.

Tell us about the process of submitting 1000 Amps to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.

My first digital distribution choice was Steam. And now the game is out on Steam! The guys at Valve were immediately interested in my game after I submitted it to them, so that process was smooth and easy. Since 1000 Amps was released on Steam, I’ve had other parties contacting me to distribute elsewhere and I’m currently investigating the possibilities.

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?

Price ranges were suggested, but the price was ultimately left up to me. To make that decision I had to weigh what similar products cost, and what the consumer would perceive the value of my game as. I looked at games like Limbo, which is a comparable game, and what merited its price. It wasn’t that long and didn’t have much replay value, but the high-definition art and overall presentation makes it worth what it costs. 1000 Amps is not a high-definition game, so I didn’t think it would have as much ‘perceived value’. It was hard for me to justify anything over $10, and eventually I settled on $5. A 5+ hour game for $5 seemed like a good offer to me.

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 1000 Amps and the difficulties in doing so.

I’d assume with a bigger developer they’re looking at it in terms of cost and time. Time spent working on a demo is time taken away from working on the game, especially on a deadline. Most often a demo will get shown at a big show or get a lot of coverage anyways, so they don’t have much incentive to release the demo. For an indie developer, spreading word of mouth is key. There isn’t an advertising budget devoted to making sure everyone knows about it. So whats an easy way to get people interested? Get the game in their hands! A free demo is just good advertising for people who can’t otherwise advertise, and without a hard deadline I don’t have to worry about it taking away from time spent making the game.

How important is it to get instant feedback about 1000 Amps from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

Indispensably important, I’d say! Being able to immediately respond to issues was very important during the release, and continues to be afterwards. Without instant feedback I wouldn’t be aware of design issues that I overlooked, or features that people wanted me to add. Most of the recently released 1.3 update to 1000 Amps consisted of things added because users requested them. I think it’s very important to not leave my user base out to dry since they’re the ones who will champion my game. I’d rather them be enthusiastic about it, then down on it because of some easily addressed issue. Making myself available to talk, I think, has helped people like my game even more than they already did.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review 1000 Amps professionally?

Well, at present it’s hard to care too much. There just aren’t that many professional reviews of it out there. The ones that have come out are generally positive, so that’s great! I’d probably care more if suddenly there was a glut of bad highly trafficked reviews, but there haven’t been. I’ve been more concerned with addressing the few complaints people have had that won’t affect the greater design of 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?

I’ve actually been approached by some such groups, and others are considering me for future bundles. I think these kind of bundles are a big opportunity for indie devs to spread the word about their games. Together we are more powerful than we are separately kind of thing. I think that the attention garnered is more valuable than the money not gained in such a deal.

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

I think there is a general consensus among non-publishers in regards to how to handle DRM and piracy. The understanding seems to be that piracy doesn’t curb game sales at all, and in some cases can increase sales. DRM then becomes almost a non-issue. DRM and piracy is something big publishers tend to get their panties in a bunch over, but somehow doesn’t seem to be much of a concern to developers who are distributing things online by themselves. With 1000 Amps I have no DRM and it doesn’t seem to have had any detrimental effects on sales.

How do you feel about individuals posting videos of 1000 Amps?

Being pretty small time, I feel like videos on YouTube help me get the word out about the game. I particularly enjoy watching narrated quick looks of my game, since it allows me to vicariously experience my game for the first time. That’s something I can’t ever feel because I’ve been with it since conception.

If a video posted online somehow adversely effected me, then I think I’ve done something wrong. If a video revealed a startling plot point, and that completely undoes any interest in my game someone might have had, then I’ve clearly done something wrong. A video should not be able to replace the experience of the game.

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

It seems like very often DLC is something the user is wary of. A lot of games lock away content that would normally have been free as DLC, and people don’t like that. I think PC games have a better track record in this regard than console games, but bad DLC is still there.

I think the most interesting DLC implementation comes from free-to-play games. By being free-to-play the game is almost forced to do DLC right. Otherwise people just won’t play it! Team Fortress 2 is a pretty strong example of how lucrative doing it right can be. I’ll be interested to see how a different kind of free-to-play game like Hawken might handle DLC.

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 1000 Amps?

Mods for 1000 Amps is something I’ve considered supporting by providing tools that allow for it. Allowing for and supporting modding would be adding value to my game in a lot of ways. It lets the creative user have a new outlet for their creativity, and it allows the uncreative user to have more of the game itself to fiddle with. And there would be no extra effort put into it on my part, aside from the initial tools. I think that games like Fallout and Skyrim show the value that a modding community can add to a game. -End

We would like to thank Brandon for his thoughtful and detailed view of indie game development.  A demo is available on the official site.  Afterwards, you can pick up 1000 Amps on Steam for the asking price of $4.99. 

Follow Brandon on Twitter.

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