Interview: Going Handheld, Living Vicariously
January 7, 2005
You may possibly know Vicarious Visions as one of only two American companies to release a launch title on the Nintendo DS, Spider-Man 2. You may also have seen or played a number of the New York-based company's Game Boy and Game Boy Advance titles over the previous few years, from the well-received Tony Hawk's Pro Skater isometric GBA conversions, through portable iterations of the Crash Bandicoot and Finding Nemo franchises. In fact, the company has diversified somewhat into console titles, and is most recently handling the Xbox conversion of id's Doom 3.
But Vicarious Visions is still most renowned as an independent portable game developer, often working with major licenses. However, these larger ends came from more humble beginnings, since the company began as a non-commercial venture in the early '90s, with the founders still in high school. Vicarious Visions CEO Karthik Bala explains his company's transformation:
"The company was founded by me and my brother, Guha Bala, and we actually started this off as a hobby. I was fifteen and he was fourteen. It became incorporated when we were in college, when we got our first publishing deal, and that was back in '94, so this is actually our 10th anniversary.
We started out doing original titles on the PC, and we were having a very hard time finding publishing deals, you know, the startup garage-band game developer. It started taking off in college, although it was very difficult in the first few years, and we transitioned away from doing PC stuff. Actually one of the things that put us on the map was a game called Terminus, which was a space combat RPG on PC, Mac and Linux that actually won at the Independent Games Festival the first year. We won the best in programming and audio, as I recall, and that got us a lot more visibility amongst publishers and whatnot. And I think at the time there was maybe a dozen of us or so - it was a small crew.
So we went from doing some pretty outlandish titles on the PC, to Game Boy and console development. And we are pretty well known for a lot of our handheld stuff, and also particular things on console as well."
Portable Gaming 101
While Vicarious Visions does develop across the home platforms as well, bringing console games to the pocket gaming market is the company's bread and butter. But for Vicarious Visions, it's important to attempt to maintain originality in the handheld space, says Karthik:
"It's interesting because working on handhelds, it's pretty much all big, bland high-profile licensed titles that succeed commercially. And we've worked on a lot of different top brands; Spider-Man and Tony Hawk, Crash Bandicoot, SpongeBob Squarepants and Finding Nemo, so it's a lot of the really popular brands. The titles themselves are all really original titles designed for the handheld. There are some cases where some assets might be shared, and there's a lot of co-marketing, because of course the handheld title launches at the same time as the console one. But they're different games, and they're on shorter development cycles than your typical console title, and it's a smaller development team than your typical console title as well. So I kind of think as a result of that, we've done quite a few of them."
Even though handheld game development is on a shorter cycle, VV doesn't always get to see builds of the console game it is co-releasing with. In such cases, Vicarious Visions opts for faithfulness to the license, over making the gameplay consistent with the console releases. Karthik describes both cases: "You know, it varies from project to project in terms of how much (we get to see), but our work on Tony Hawk every year is a good example, where Neversoft is working on their project and we get to see regular builds and see where the design is going. Then we can look at the handheld design, and see where we want to take it, and we want to make sure that there's a level of compatibility in terms of the identity of the product, so there's a level of consistency. So there's a link there. On other projects, there may be closer ties, where there's more direct leveraging of assets or content that might be built. Then there are some titles where there's no direct relationship at all, but it's more like understanding the licensor, and the intellectual property that you're working with."
Spider-Man 2 DS
In the case of a launch title, such as Spiderman 2 DS, the water is even muddier. Not even the hardware specs are definite, and the game is released into a largely untested market. Karthik discusses the difficulties: "The hardware is constantly in flux, and it can be somewhat unpredictable when you get the next version of the hardware (although Nintendo was pretty good about hitting their deliveries on the hardware), and there's a fair amount of educated guesswork that goes on. To speak to the DS, we got initial information in February or March, and it was a process of discovery as we went along. It was quite the adventure. But we were finding new things out about the hardware - for example it wasn't until a late stage that we got to actually hold it. That's somewhat important for a handheld! In fact, the first time I was able to hold the system was at E3, when everybody else did. That's because we work off big giant circuit boards with LCDs bolted onto it. That's how it is, because the hardware is in development as you go along. So you have to take some guesses, and also manage a risk.
It's one thing when you're designing a game where you have a lot of interesting technology on the platform and you fully understand what the platform is and isn't, and look towards designing a game and building the technology that pushes the capability of the system. But then, when the foundation isn't even there, it's a whole different set of challenges. So you really have to have a team that's really dedicated to making something work. You also need the flexibility to make changes on the fly, as needed."
To design a game for the DS is, by and large, to design a DS exclusive title. Given the system's unique capabilities, any game that takes advantage of the hardware is bound to it by default. But the temptation is still there to port similar games across multiple platforms, adding DS touch-screen compatibility as an afterthought.
The Future Of The DS?
Even so, Karthik remains optimistic about the console and those who develop for it: "We kind of expected to see some of that, because with such a short development cycle that developers had, including ourselves, we all tried to do as much as we could. I think Spidey did a good job of utilizing the touch-screen in an innovative way with its combat system. And it was more integrated into the gameplay than just tacked-on, which was one of our original goals. Towards the end of the project we realized that the touch-screen potential was much, much bigger, because at the beginning we thought - is this going to be really gimmicky? Are we going to have a tough time trying to come up with good, meaningful ways of using this? If those questions still remained in our heads, I would seriously question the viability of the platform. But they're not. Those questions have all gone away, and we really see a lot of cool, meaningful things that we can do on the platform.
We see this with other developers who are working on the DS right now, because I think we're finally getting a feel for it, and we're going to see quite a bit of radical innovation on the platform, that's my guess."
As for who's driving this innovation, it's mostly the developer's responsibility. The publisher or licensor may suggest themes, but it's up to the coders and designers to make sure any DS functionality isn't a mere gimmick. Karthik extrapolates: "We do have publishers who ask - 'hey, we'd like to bring this title to the DS - do you have ideas about what you could do?' So we certainly look at it from that point of view, and see what kind of creative things we could do on the platform with that property. At the same time, there are also just raw ideas. Like - here's a cool mechanic; it'd be really fun - let's prototype up that mechanic, with really simple art. Or, you know: 'Hey, what if instead of using buttons and combos, we used this kind of system, that used the touch-screen, and could be more intuitive?'"
Now that the DS is on the scene, though it's not considered the true successor to the Game Boy Advance, many have been wondering if the GBA is still a viable platform on which to release games, including Vicarious Visions: "We asked Nintendo that question. And they firmly believe that the GBA SP is going to be around for some time, and when I saw their numbers, I was impressed. The week that the DS sold half a million units, which I thought was very impressive, the GBA SP did 800,000. So I think that the SPs do have a long life, and we're going to continue to develop for GBA. We certainly have some titles in the works for '05, and quite frankly I hope that '06 will also be healthy with the GBA market.
Being platform-agnostic, Vicarious Visions also plans to support Sony's PSP, which was recently released in Japan. Karthik shares his thoughts on Sony's new venture: "It's a challenging thing, I mean, Sony is entering the handheld game market for the first time, and I think that they certainly have their share of challenges. I think what they're doing is really ambitious, and if done well, could see growth in the overall handheld market, along with Nintendo. The way we view it is that Nintendo is pushing in one direction, pushing the market out and trying to expand it in one direction, and Sony is trying to push and expand in another direction, and our hope is that they're both going to be really successful. That's going to make the market a lot bigger overall, and a lot more opportunities for developers, and a great deal for consumers as well. But I think it's going to be challenging for both of them, for different reasons."
The PSP, while largely well received for its high-end graphics and sleek design, has also seen quite a bit of criticism for its long load times and short battery life. Karthik maintains that there will eventually be ways to circumvent these problems:
"I think that to some extent there is something we can do about it, but I think it's going to take some time for folks to figure that out. You know initially, we're going to see the results of a lot of work just getting a game done on the PSP. Much like the PlayStation 2, if you look at the first titles that came out on the PS2, things are leaps and bounds different from how they were at launch. So I think that with things like the load time and battery life, given some more time, developers are going to find ways of working around those kinds of issues.
SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom
I mean, this is in effect the first disc-based portable system, and a disc-based system is inherently going to have longer load times than a cartridge-based system. So the question is - how do you work with that? How can you optimize it in terms of laying out data correctly on the disc, designing for that up front, and also figure out ways of hitting the disc when you need it, so that you minimize the battery use even for that? You've got mechanical parts in there, and that sucks up the battery. Those are all things that need to be figured out, but the hardware is, again, evolving. It's not like any of us had hardware from day one when we started the project, so we couldn't really design the products around these kinds of issues that you discover so late in development."
A Multitude Of Portable Choice
With three major handheld choices on the market, all with vastly different abilities, even a platform-agnostic company has to choose what game goes where. For Vicarious Visions, the choice is determined by multiple factors. Karthik explains: "I think that first of all, we look at the project opportunities that are available to us, and work out if: "Hey, are we really excited to work on this brand?" We're really excited to work on Spider-Man, and folks at VV say 'yeah, I'd love to work on that, it sounds really exciting,' or 'no, we don't want to do it.' So we look at the property, and how that game could be unique on a particular platform, whether it makes sense for that platform. We're hearing from Sony that they're skewing older, and with the DS, although it'll capture some of that older audience, it's also going to capture the traditional Nintendo audience as well. And that has an impact on what kind of properties can go on what platform. Some properties, I think, can span the multiple platforms, although you'd have to design differently for it. And then there are other properties where it just makes sense to be on one handheld or the other."
With so many choices for pocket gaming on the horizon, Vicarious Visions remains very positive about their handheld-centric stance, despite many other developers trying to center themselves over high-budget console development. Karthik claims: "With handheld development, the teams are smaller than big console production, and that inherently has appeal for us. This is just because we can focus more on the creative effort, and fun factor, and also working within a small team environment, for each one of our projects. I think that's a good thing. I think that multi-year projects are a difficult thing. Console titles that are multiple years in development can be very big, and the smaller dev cycles also have an appeal, because you can learn and improve your skills, and I think there's a lot to be gained there. Also, it's a good business model for smaller developers."