Road To The IGF: Sidhe's Shatter
In its gameplay, concept, and audio, Sidhe Interactive's brick-breaking PlayStation Network game Shatter for PlayStation 3 is a nostalgic throwback, albeit injected with a thoroughly modern vibe.
The audio work for the downloadable PSN game, highlighted by an outstanding soundtrack by Jeramiah "Module" Ross, was enough to earn an audio nomination for the 2010 Independent Games Festival Awards.
Here, Mario Wynands, managing director for New Zealand-based Sidhe, offers some background behind the making of Shatter's audio, describes his excitement for the evolution of the indie game development scene, and why nostalgia isn't necessarily the "driving force" behind the popularity of retro-inspired games.
What kind of background do you have making games?
Sidhe has been around for over a decade now, and was personally my first foray into formal game development aside from a few stop-start efforts when growing up. Over that time the studio has developed a number of titles across many different platforms and genres.
In recent years, we have put much more focus onto creating new and original titles that we can self publish via digital distribution, which has generated titles such as GripShift and more recently, Shatter.
What development tools did you use?
The primary tools we used were Adobe Photoshop, Maya, and Visual Studio. We also built a custom level editor for the game.
How long had your team been working on Shatter?
Development of the game took around 18 months from start to finish, with a team size of around five for most of that time. We had originally planned development to be around a year, but we allowed the extra time to take meaningful advantage of some of the gameplay discoveries along the way and to apply as much polish as possible.
How did you come up with the concept for the game? Why explore the brick-breaking genre?
We were inspired by games like Geometry Wars and Pacman Championship Edition in the way those games had modernized retro games in ways people initially wouldn't have thought of. We actively sought a concept where we could attempt something similar, and looked to retro games that we played growing up that we were still playing in the studio.
Brick-breaking games were something that had stood the test of time but recent iterations had generally been hampered by legacy issues such as intermittent interaction, slow pacing, uninspired presentation and the "last brick" problem. It seemed like a great creative challenge to try to bring the genre into the modern era, and so Shatter was born.
What do you think is the appeal of retro-styled games--does it go beyond nostalgia?
The success of many retro style games is certainly contributed to by nostalgia. But if nostalgia were the driving force, then when wouldn't be seeing a younger audience responding to those types of games.
The core appeal of such games is a return to simplicity and unique presentation, which can be refreshing in the face of many complex modern titles which exist along a barely distinguishable continuum. When you have something that is elegantly simple, and package it in a compelling way, you have the opportunity to engage your audience with unique experiences.
The game was nominated for best audio. What rules did you try to stick with when designing the audio?
We wanted the audio to really gel with the gameplay and visuals of Shatter and be a seamless fit to the game. It had to be a significant part of the experience that helped draw the player in and immerse them in the world.
In particular we wanted it to add to the game at an emotional level and help carry a very light story element that was present in Shatter, from the BAT1138's initial escape, through to ultimate triumph over his captors. It had to bring up memories of classic arcade games and tip the hat to the retro roots that inspired Shatter. The artist, Jeramiah "Module" Ross, was the perfect fit for that approach and on board from day one.
We decided early on to take some risks and use style references that seemed completely over the top at the time. Long lead guitar solos, 80s electro build ups and tunes that were definitely not run of the mill, background game music. As a result we have tracks varying from three to almost nine minutes in length. We let the music guide how long it should be.
The music also benefited from having a very long period of development. From initial discussions and sketches through to gold master, the music and sound effects took over 12 months of semi-continuous work with the music taking inspiration from the game and vice versa. All in we created over 90 minutes of original music, and countless sound effects that were professionally mixed and mastered in post.
The audio has become a major part of the experience for a number of fans, and has been successful in its own right, with over 250,000 online streams of the soundtrack via http://sidhe.bandcamp.com. We've had a such a positive response to the music that we now have it available on iTunes and are working towards a physical release.
If you could start the project over again, what would you do differently?
It is difficult to think of what we would change. The development of Shatter was a very organic process, and while we took some wrong turns along the way, it would have been very hard to plan from the start to get to the point where the game ended up.
We have certainly learned a lot along the way, and will apply those lessons to our process and future titles.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you particularly enjoyed?
I think the finalist I have most enjoyed is Rocketbirds: Revolution! The game is such a great all around package.
I have also been taunted by the Limbo video teaser for well over a year. The taste we have been given is very tantalizing, and I can't wait to try it out.
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?
The massive growth in the indie scene in recent years has been a refreshing counter to the direction of the traditional retail-based industry. As a developer across multiple markets, it is inspiring to see the plethora of engaging ideas emerging from the indie community. The burst of indie spirit and content and the positive response and open-mindedness of gamers is really having an impact on shaping the future of the game industry right now.
One thing that is really great to see is indie developers actually able to capitalize on their art and make their development sustainable via new commercial opportunities beyond PC offered by iPhone, WiiWare, XBLA, PSN, and PSP. However, there are huge disparities between the ability of individual indies to reach larger audiences successfully. Everybody needs to get better at telling the world about our games.
[Previous 'Road To The IGF' interview subjects have included Enviro-Bear 2000 developer Justin Smith, Rocketbirds: Revolution's co-creators Sian Yue Tan and Teck Lee Tan, Vessel co-creator John Krajewski, Trauma creator Krystian Majewski, and Super Meat Boy co-creators Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes.]