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Interview: Flashbang Studios, Blursting Through?
Interview: Flashbang Studios, Blursting Through? Exclusive
March 13, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander




Flashbang Studios are an independent studio focusing on making browser based games using the Unity engine, hosted on Blurst.com. While for the most part they've focused on bringing us Dinosaur-based fantasies - for example, allowing you to kill dozens of velociraptors with a jeep in Velociraptor Offroad Safari.

Heck, that's not all. They also let you peek voyeuristically into the sleeping mind of an Aptosaurus as it dreams of a Jetpack Brontasaurus that sails lackadaisically through the air collecting various fruits, and they've begun to branch out a little more recently.

For example, they also made the absolutely brilliant Minotaur China Shop, where you played a mythical Bull-Man with an anger management problem trying to run a pottery shop, and they very recently released Blush, where you play a neon attack squid.

And that's just the first of this year. There are five more games that will be with us by Christmas. We talked to Flashbang - led by Matthew Wegner and Steve Swink [who also help to organize the Independent Games Festival for Gamasutra parent company Think Services] - about their background, ideas, and crazy concepts, and this was the result:

Can you tell us a little bit about Flashbang Studios and what you do?

Flashbang Studios: Flashbang's been around for awhile--the company turns 6 years old next month! We started out targeting the casual market (think Bejeweled-casual, not Madden-casual), making games like Beesly's Buzzwords and Glow Worm.

Both games were IGF finalists, in 2004 and 2006, respectively. The plan was always to:

1) Make piles of money off the casual market
2) Giggle as we jumped into these piles
3) Fund our own games

#1 never materialized, and we actually canceled our final casual game. Then we did a bunch of random stuff, like corporate training games, affiliate websites, and who knows what else, before growing again and focusing anew on our own ideas. We're on step #3 now, despite skipping the prerequisites. Don't ask us how (hint: The Internet)!

We've always been self-funded; today we're supporting a staff of six developers, all working on Blurst. Blurst is a catch-all site for our random ideas, with leaderboards/achievements/magical-announced-things tying them all together. We're tired of playing the same games found on store shelves, and we think other players might be too!

We're also quite active in and around the indie games community. Matthew and Steve help coordinate the Independent Games Festival and Independent Games Summit, and Flashbang hosted the first TIGJam. We have other super-cool indie events bubbling around our mind grapes.

Apart from the work you do with Blurst, you’ve taken on quite a bit of contract work. Is this merely out of necessity, or do you use it as a way to try new things which are then fed back into your other projects?

FS: The type of contract work we do does not exactly accommodate experimentation, at least in terms of 3D tech and game design ideas. We did accept our first Flash-based contract job before any of us had ever touched Flash, though (quickly followed by a trip to a nearby bookstore, and quite a lot of experimentation). But contract jobs are basically there to funnel sweet, beautiful, cash money into other projects.

Specializing in browser-based games seems to grant you the largest audience for your games. How has the Unity engine in particular helped you to keep some quite system taxing games within the browser?

FS: Simply put: If it weren't for Unity, we'd have to be pursuing a completely different business model or making vastly simpler games. It's the only technology out there that lets us make complex, 3D, physics-based games in-browser, plus facilitates our rapid development cycles. If that sounded like a junior high-schooler gushing over their big crush, well, that's pretty accurate.

Your previous efforts with Blurst have mainly revolved around some sort of anthropomorphic hero in an often ludicrous situation, but Blush, the game you’re currently working on, seems to be quite a departure from that. What made you decide to take such a different path?

FS: We didn't necessarily decide to go in any kind of an aesthetic direction. As with most things we've made it just sort of "happens". With Blush, it started as a prototype where the only recognizable element was a squid-like creature in a world of empty blackness, and wrapping an aesthetic around it was very organic.

All we provided ourselves with were high level concepts like bio luminescence and deep sea darkness. In fact, we just posted about the visual history of the game over on our blog!

There always seems to be a little set up before each of your games starts, explaining the situation, be it a dreaming dinosaur, or a Minotaur with an anger management problem. Are these just loading screen filler, or do you feel there’s a need to establish a story?

FS: We do those things because we think they're funny. We realize a little bit of context does grease the player experience (especially with ideas as unconventional as ours), which is why we bother to include them in the final product.

It's not that we think of a premise for our games after the fact, though; the premise is usually what drives us to make the game in the first place.

You’ve stated that you want to create six entirely different games this year. Are you crazy? Is that even possible? Why?

FS: Can't it be both? Last year, including our contract work, we actually launched 12 products, depending on how and what you count. So if we forgo contract work this year, it should be possible to release six games with a scope comparable to what we have been doing.

The trick, as we're already discovering, is that "production time" and "calendar time" are two very different things. Increasing the shelf life of a project has benefits, even if you aren't spending much production time on it.

There are more opportunities to think about the game in the shower, more nights to sleep on it, and new solutions to long-standing problems might suddenly solve themselves. Having a 1-to-1 relationship between production time and calendar time is much more stressful. Canned game ideas rarely go bad, unlike pumpkin.

As for why, part of what we are trying to accomplish is putting more content into the hands of users more quickly. If we give our players more products that focus on instant fun, we get more feedback and are able to refine our processes much quicker. What happens if 14 months into a 2-year game we find out it's not fun?

That's a bad situation to be in, and one some of us have experienced at larger studios. If we put out a game in a couple months and users didn't like some parts of it, the cost is far easier to absorb and we can more quickly integrate the players' ideas and expectations into our next game.

Have you already decided what the other 5 games of this year are going to be?

FS: No way! The concepts for those games will most likely be born randomly from the unprotected idea sex that constantly happens here.

With such quick development cycles for each of your games, are there a lot of ideas that don’t make it? Or are they all used eventually?

FS: There are tons of ideas that don't make it. Our policy here is to spew out whatever coagulates in our brain soup. Naturally, most things are not going to make the cut. Part of this is because there isn't enough time in the day or an idea is too complex, part of it is that some ideas aren't any good, and part of it is that some ideas are just too genocidal, demeaning, horrible, abusive, disrespectful, and hideously irreverent to thrust upon the world.

A variation of Off Road Raptor Safari is now on the iPhone. What’s the response been like?

FS: Meh, with a side of "who cares". A few people like it, though! Mostly our friends. And our moms.

It's easy to get lost in the shuffle. The last numbers we heard were something like 15,000 applications--6,000 of them games--available on the App Store. None of our games have had a tremendous amount of traction. The sales curve is horribly nonlinear; the response has been pretty lackluster.

Presumably the ease with which your games run in a browser makes them ideal for mobile use. Are you looking to port more onto the iPhone?

FS: While it's a damned powerful mobile device, most of our games won't actually run on the iPhone without a bunch of reworking. Physics and graphics are the big bottlenecks, and we tend to push both of those in our web games.

Not to mention the different control paradigm. We're more likely to do "spiritual successors" like Raptor Copter, or whatever irresistible idea succubi invade our dreams, like Rebolt. Blurst is our main priority now, though, so anything for iPhone will be a side project.

You’ve cited Flight404’s Relentless, the REV as inspiration for Blush. Were there similar inspirations for your other games?

FS: Interestingly enough, thatgamecompany's flOw was sort of an anti-inspiration for Blush. And not because we don't like it; it was because we do like it! Very much so. Early on there was a company-wide fear that Blush might end up looking too much like flOw, and we wanted to make sure we were doing our own thing. We figured we'd give it an honorable mention since the concern pervaded us for a few days early on in the cycle.

Our other games haven't been directly inspired by any particular media or work, other than our obvious love of dinosaurs and physical-based gameplay.

You recently started to broadcast a webcam from your offices every Friday. What’s the reason for this, apart from letting your rabid fans pore over your every move?

FS: It's also to let the people that hate us and want to see us fail pore over our every move. That, and to build a connection with our fans. They say you only need 1,000 True Fans in order to succeed. We have at least two, now, and sometimes they argue about who is the bigger fan. So we're getting there.

We're also posting more video snippets from the studio (like this Minotaur China Shop postmortem).

Are you finding that, with the ‘indie’ scene on the rise, your games are getting more attention?

FS: Yes!

Longer answer: The rising tide of indie awesomeness, what Jenova of thatgamecompany calls the current Videogame Renaissance, floats all boats. The indie movement is creeping into mass consciousness. As it does, player expectations are changing, and that change benefits us.

Instead of expecting all games to be Gears of War 3 or Madden 2010, a game might be about a little white guy with a hat who discovers the third dimension, or a minotaur with anger issues. That broadening perception can only benefit fringe developers like us and all our like-minded friends.

Are there any particular indie developers that you pay particular attention to? Is there anything on the horizon you’re particularly looking forward to being released?

FS: We've got a soft spot for local friends, Coin App. Their game Max Blastronaut is looking like some damned excellent arcade-style action! We're keen on what we've seen in progress from Infinite Ammo, as well -- Heroes and Villains is looking sweet, and the concepts for Marian are lovely.

We'll actually be announcing a Blurst-related deal with Infinite Ammo soon! Our new favorite hobby is driving out to LA and partying with thatgamecompany. They know where to find the best breakfast spots and hedonistic drug orgies in Venice.


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