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Road to the Student IGF: Black Pants' Symmetrain Exclusive

March 10, 2014 | By John Polson

March 10, 2014 | By John Polson
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More: Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design, Exclusive, Video, IGF

Travelers on highways and rails often play visual games to pass the time. Black Pants' Symmetrain for iOS seems to take the essence of these pastimes and refits it as a spot-the-differences game, played from a bird's eye view of a moving train which divides images that scroll vertically at increasingly high speeds.

Two students from the University of Amsterdam and University Kassel paired up to create Symmetrain, which is actually Blank Pants' third published game and its second appearance in the IGF Student Showcase.

The studio returns after submitting Tiny & Big to IGF 2012. That game went on to receive over 10 awards and nominations during its production. The newest game was actually created by just two of the core team of eight, but its quality is no less striking.

Continuing the Road to the IGF series, we speak with co-creators Daniel Goffin and Philipp Beau about the game's art influences, playtest and teamwork lessons, and a "beautiful setup" of carefully selected development tools.

How did you come up with the concept?

Daniel: The first ideas had little conceptual structure. I wanted to make a game about traveling and the odd feeling I have when looking out the window while doing so. Everything just passes by. The landscape is there, but obviously it has no intention of a narrative. And yet, you can not help making all sorts of weird connections and stories between those things you see. That is what I wanted to replicate by randomly placing the assets.

Then there are the little games me and my brother played when we were children. Games like: "I see something that you don't see". That is a game that becomes a lot more thrilling once you sit in a car and look out of the window and the other one has to name the thing that you saw.

All that is a big part of Symmetrain. On a rather mechanical side, my main concern was with the spot-the-difference genre. There is an immense amount of these games but very, very few integrate the core mechanic into the game aesthetic. I wanted to do that. And after spinning several ideas around it suddenly hit me that train tracks are a very good mirroring axis.

Philipp: I met a small game designer with a big idea!

How would you describe the artstyle and how did you arrive at it?

Daniel: I think "Ligne Claire" is a good description - a style very prominent in "The Adventures of Tintin" comics. I really loved those stories as a child and there are some references to those in the game. However, I did not consciously decide that this would be the most fitting visualisation for the game. It evolved very organically. There are a few little tricks that I employed there that really helped us minimize the byte size of the assets. Using only flat colors we were able to crunch everything down quite a bit. And mirroring helps too.

The images move vertically. Did you try playtesting horizontally, and if so, what were your reasons for deciding against it?

Daniel: We did not test horizontal movement. It was clear that with the isometric aesthetic it would not have been possible to properly judge the position of the objects in the passing landscape. Aside from that, it would have completely changed the look of the game. I considered it at the beginning of the development phase but I could not come up with enough reflective surfaces to mirror the train in...

What development tools did you use?

Daniel: Nothing special: Cocos2D & Texturepacker, CocosBuilder2, Photoshop & Wacom Tablet, Paper & Pens, Coffee...

Philipp: I love how Daniel writes novels on the artstyle and the concept but says "Nothing special" about the development tools. In my opinion we did use a beautiful setup. Each piece was carefully chosen and looked after with the care of a loving father!

We first started off using Unity3D, the possibility of developing for all those different platforms at once was very compelling, plus I used Unity3D for my previous project. The problem with unity back then was the lack of support for orthographic tiles which we used quite heavily in Symmetrain and the sheer amount of 3D features we just had no use for (back then Unity3d did not have 2D support which they now added).

We ended up using Cocos2D with the Texturepacker and CocosBuilder2 for the menu. This combination worked very well. Every time Daniel updated textures, the Texturepacker would generate new spritesheets and automatically include them into xcode. This made it very easy to try out new objects in-game and kept the general overhead of exporting and including to a minimum.

How long did you work on your game, and why did you choose your target platforms?

Daniel: Development of the game took about one year. I thought about other platforms, but devices with touch screens are the best option. While it is possible to play the game with a mouse it simply does not feel as responsive and rewarding.

How many people were on your team, and what lessons did you learn in working as a team?

Daniel: The core team was just Philipp Beau and me. Most of the time we worked side by side in my atelier. That was good in as far as it was possible to talk immediately about the various problems regarding design, asset implementation and such. It was also hindering sometimes when one would distract the other with unnecessary or trivial details.

Effective communication (or shutting up, if required) is the most important aspect of team work. While Symmetrain is mostly my idea, Philipp was in many aspects my equal. He had a big influence on the design. He was the one that pushed for the twitchy and fast paced aspects of the game. I really enjoyed the push and pull aspect of this part.

Philipp: Never call an (game, concept, whatever) artist an artist, only if he is an artist in that moment and that context.

What indie games have you played in the past 12 months that impressed you and why?

Daniel: Kentucky Route Zero - There is a dreamlike quality to the game that really sticks.
Papers, Please - Probably the only game that made me feel like helpless drone in an oppressive system. Like one of those poor chaps that gets killed very early in every dystopian FPS.
Mainichi - It is one of the few RPGs that made me feel the role the author intended.
Proteus - It is like meditation. The first time I played the game it was in a crowded noisy lobby of a cinema and I had a very calming effect on me.

I played more but it's the emotional aspects of games that keep sticking with me.

Philipp: Prison Architect - This game really is fun. I am currently studying artificial intelligence and the way the AI works is pretty neat.

How do you feel your school prepares students for independent game development?

Daniel: There is very little that our universities do to prepare students for the realities of game development in general. Neither the School of Art and Design Kassel (where I come from) nor the University of Kassel (where Philipp Beau started) have an official program or curriculum regarding games. However, there are workshops where interested students can get to know each other and start projects. I can not speak much about the coding part but the art school does have a big focus on authorship and self-motivation. It is very important to find your own voice, and I am sure that this is one of the reasons why so many games from Kassel have received honors at the IGF and other festivals.

Philipp: I studied computer science, so we did not have a big focus on games in particular. But it taught me a good piece of how to write high quality code. So I guess my study program does not particularly prepare one for either worlds but gave me a good foundation. I learned the rest from the famous guys of Black Pants Game Studio.

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