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In-Depth: Behind The Scenes Of Twisted Pixel's  The Maw

In-Depth: Behind The Scenes Of Twisted Pixel's The Maw Exclusive

January 6, 2009 | By Chris Remo

January 6, 2009 | By Chris Remo
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive

The latest issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a creator-written postmortem on the making of Twisted Pixel's The Maw, the imminently released extraterrestrial action-adventure game planned for PC and Xbox Live Arcade.

These extracts reveal how the Austin-based start-up behind the game faced the obstacles of succeeding as an independent development house, while setting up a decent physical space and dealing with difficult time constraints.

Twisted Pixel co-founder and CTO Frank Wilson crafted the postmortem of the self-published game, which was introduced in Game Developer as follows:

"Twisted Pixel went from an under-construction warehouse to a urologist's office during the development of The Maw, and lived to tell the tale. Here, the author discusses the difficulty of Lua and Luabind memory allocations and XML load times, not to mention the difficulty of greenlighting a new project to begin with."

Getting a Nice Office Space

A comfortable, functional office space is crucial for day-to-day operations of a development studio. Wilson explains:

"While it may be a given to most that any company should have a nice office space, sometimes as a very small startup there are costs that just aren't worth it quite yet.

When we started the company, there were only 3 of us, and we started out using half of a warehouse as a temporary office space. This building had a concrete floor, cinder block walls, and a minimal amount of heating and air conditioning. The other half of the building was occupied by craftsmen who were working on the space so most days we worked to the tune of circular saws.

There were many days where we had to pray that the saws didn't start up during some of our most important phone calls. We had to wade through piles of sawdust to get to the rest room which was inconveniently located in the other half of the warehouse.

We started looking around for office space, and it turned out that our lawyer had some space available in the basement of his building that was formerly occupied by a urologist's office.

Due to the office's history we certainly had some modifications to make like removing sinks from every room, but it also had some things that worked out very well for us as we started hiring people over the next several months. The former patient waiting area was perfectly suited for a conference room and lounging area. After removing the glass window and built in desk, the receptionist area was perfect for fitting the gameplay team together in one room.

"We learned very early on that we shouldn't underestimate the positive effects of working in a nice environment and having multiple bathrooms."

Fitting the Game into the Required Space

Since one of the game's versions is for Xbox Live Arcade, Twisted Pixel had to contend with a strict download size limit, which was facilitated by various develompent decisions:

"Coming from our background in retail development, we typically didn't need to worry about reducing the amount of disk space used by the game. It was more often the case that we would have so much disk space available that we would duplicate the same data multiple times on a disk in order to decrease load times.

The final game ended up having over 850 animations, 25 music tracks, over 1000 sound effects, over 200 visual effects, and over 150 character and object models as well as lots of other data that contributes to the disk space used. So, our efforts for reducing disk space usage were certainly needed and definitely paid off.

The biggest boon to accomplishing this was Granny 3D, our middleware choice for animation and mesh compression, and animation playback. Granny uses some very clever methods to reduce the amount of disk space and memory used by animations. The extensive set of export settings that Granny provides allowed us to set the compression level on a per-animation basis or even on a per-bone basis.

From the beginning of our engine, we built all of our data driven components so that they could load data from both an easy to read XML format and from a binary format that would allow superfast load times. With the help of the Granny preprocessor toolkit, we were easily able to convert this data from XML to binary with minimal effort and get the benefit of using compressed Granny files."

Too Little Time

The studio planned for a compressed development schedule from the start but, as is so often the case in game creation, more time could have allowed for less stress:

"We knew that in order to make The Maw be the game that we wanted it to be in the budget that we could afford, we would have to work some pretty crazy hours to make that happen. We were very aware of this from the very beginning.

We basically just had too much work to do in too little time. We were developing our own engine and game editor while also trying to develop the game, so there were many dependencies on the order in which specific tasks could get done. Several tasks that we would have liked to have completed earlier in development had to wait until the feature was implemented in the engine before they could be completed.

Luckily, we were able to get enough of the engine up and running early enough that designers could set up many aspects of levels without too many issues. We worked very hard to get the first level up, running, and to a somewhat polished state pretty quickly. This gave us a pretty good test of the features of the engine. For most features, we implemented support in the engine for the data files early on with support being added to the editor later so that designers could still use those features by hand-editing files without being blocked by editor development.

We were diligent throughout the project about cutting features that just weren't working or that wouldn't add much value to the game. But we were careful to not strip the game of things that make it fun and give it the personality that we wanted it to have. Despite all of this, by the end of the project, everyone was working some pretty crazy hours in order to polish up all of the features that we had.

As a company, we need to make sure that this timeline is not the norm. Moving forward, it's looking like it won't be.

Additional Info

The full postmortem, including a great deal more insight into The Maw's development, with "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" reasoning, is now available in the December 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes a compilation of Game Developer-exclusive postmortem excerpts from throughout the current generation, highlighting common development stumbling blocks. Plus, Sega design legend Yuji Naka speaks about his upcoming Wii games.

As usual, there is Matthew Wasteland's humor column, as well as development columns from Power of Two's Noel Llopis, Bungie's Steve Theodore, LucasArts' Jesse Harlin, and BioWare's Damion Schubert.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of December 2008's edition as a single issue.

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