Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2008 entrants, today’s interview is with Hermit Games and Studio Work3's Matt Verran and Brian Flanagan, developers of music-oriented action-puzzle game OokiBloks, which pits Ooki the monkey against a crab in a colorful, cartoonish environment.
Verran has worked on a variety of platforms, from Amiga to PlayStation, GameBoy Advance and PC. He's got a day job in the commercial game industry, but keeps up the indie work in his spare time "because I love it," and Flanagan, who has experience with the C64, GameBoy, GBA, PlayStation, Dreamcast, PC and mobile platforms, feels the same way.
What motivated you to make OokiBloks?
Flanagan: I've had nearly every original game concept I came up with rejected in my varying dev jobs, and decided to get off my ass and do it myself after being inspired by how the Japanese 'doujin' scene has really come into its own over the last five years.
The main reason is mainly just to make a game that I could call my own, that wasn't diluted by marketing, external art direction, producers or publishers, and also to prove to myself that my ideas actually could work in a finished game.
Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?
Flanagan: I suppose the whole feel of the game is inspired in some way by Taito's games - such as Rainbow Islands, Bubble Bobble and Parasol Stars -- each of these games takes a similar approach in their design.
The idea of hundreds of homing collectibles and chaining comes from modern arcade shooters such as Ikaruga and Espgaluda - the visual effect of the screen filling with bonus items from skilled gameplay is something I've always felt to be spectacular for the viewer and rewarding for the player.
The graphical style is inspired by Japanese character goods such as Hello Kitty fused with stylings of modern designer toys. The story is my own modern continuation/twist of the Japanese folk tale "Saru Kani Gassen,", or "Tale of the Monkey and the Crab."
The audio system, I feel, is a whole new take on quantized audio. The idea of quantizing sound effects is well established, thanks to Tetsuya Mizuguchi, but the technique of also making the sound effects match the key of the background song, and also change dynamically according to key changes is something nobody has done before, as far as I know.
The musical influences come from all over. I could cite "real" bands such as Dee-Lite, Daft Punk, Betty Boo, Fantastic Plastic Machine, and the sound of the Japanese "Shibuya Kei" music scene, but also game music composers such as Nintendo's Koji Kondo and Cave's Manabu Namiki. All these external influences get churned up in my head and then reconstituted in my own music. It's my first time attempting these musical styles -- I'm more a techno kind of musician, usually!
What sort of development tools have you been using in the production of OokiBloks?
Verran: Ooki is coded in C++, compiled with Visual Studio. I wrote the audio designer and audio editor tools myself; they're actually built into every Ooki executable and disabled on non-dev versions, so I only have to maintain one codebase. The audio editor lets us sync up all the sounds in a musical key that matches the varying parts of the music. We can do loads of cool grouping and playback gubbins for multiple stereo channels, and there are effects, like delay and reverb, that we can add dynamically as well. It really had to be custom to let us do what we want.
Flanagan: The animated graphics have been created with 3DSMax with a toonshader plug-in, and the backgrounds are a combination of vector artwork, 3D models, and a lot of retouching.
The music is all composed in Cubase VST via synthesizers, plug-ins and a little bit of live guitar, the musical FX are all handled by the custom audio editor, and levels are all created in-game with the custom level designer.
What do you think the most interesting element of the game is?
Verran: Getting to spin a monkey around a pole.
Flanagan: For me, probably the audio system, because the sound FX are played in context from whichever part of the song is playing at the time. The player is truly jamming their own unique melody over the song, and you'll never hear the same melody twice.
For the player, probably the opportunity to be able to be able to explore the options of clearing the stage with the highest chain. I think it will entice the more obsessively-inclined hardcore player to really go all-out trying to get that all elusive MAX CHAIN, while less experienced players can just concentrate on solving the puzzle and playing with the toys provided in each stage.
How long have Hermit Games and Studio Work3 been developing OokiBloks, and what has the process been like?
Verran: About a year. The process has been great, Brian knows what he's doing. I only came to be coding the game because I randomly saw some Ooki art Brian had posted on a forum. I signed up to code it before I had any idea how it played, just based on a picture of Ooki and the hermit crab enemy animation.
Flanagan: Work3's been working with this bloody chimp over 3 years now! I started the prototype by myself, and made my own playable version of the game before teaming up with Matt.
The process has definitely become more fun for me now that I don't have to do any programming. It's not my strong point, but the prototype was incredibly useful for showing how everything worked to Matt, and I'm still awestruck by how quickly Matt understood my ideas for the audio system. I genuinely doubt it would work so well with any other programmer, and what makes it more amazing is that we're on either side of the Atlantic!
If you had to rewind to the start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently?
Verran: Start putting the IGF demo together more than a week before the deadline.
Flanagan: Teaming up with Matt 3 years earlier!!
What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development, and are any other independent games out now that you admire?
Verran: I think it's early days for indie games. They are slowly starting to seep into the average gamer's consciousness through things like XBLA, PSN and WiiWare, which is great. I can't wait until games as an entertainment form is as fractious, niche-serving and fast-moving as the music scene.
Flanagan: Because I'm also a musician, I always compare an "independent" scene to that of "indie" music - and it always puzzles me why the independent music scene is celebrated for being so incredibly diverse, yet the "indie" game scene is not so as a whole... I mean, you can do whatever the hell you want, so why would you want to clone mainstream ideas?
In indie music, you get everything from hardcore techno to death metal, then all the way to folk and ambient styles of music, yet the majority of established "indie" developers seem to aspire to be Vanilla Ice, which seems to completely go against the very ethos of how I see the term "independent". There are exceptions, but I'd like to see the exceptions become more prevalent.
The majority of independent games that have really stuck a chord in me are that from the Japanese 'doujin' scene, mainly because they still appreciate the virtues of 2D and see it as a genuine art style instead of some "retro" gimmick.
Games like, Air Rade, Melty Blood, Trouble Witches and Big Bang Beat have levels of professionalism and loving attention to detail that really makes my jaw drop. I also admire the developers Kenta Cho, Platine Dispositif, Hikoza and Studio Siesta.
You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the game business something very important. What is it?
Verran: F**k business. I'd like to tell gamers to search out games they really believe in, that they can relate to, that they love. Try and find something to play that isn't on the supermarket shelves, and then tell everyone you can about it. Demand games that represent what they want. The business people will sell whatever the gamers ask for.
Flanagan: For the love of god, STOP CLONING GAMES! Puzzloop's been cloned to oblivion along with Lumines, Diner Dash, Puzzle Bobble, Picross, etcetera, etcetera... We don't need any more!
The "game designers" that churn out these clones have as much right to term themselves so, as much as someone who calls themselves a "musician" after dubbing some cowbell over Beethoven's 9th.