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Road To The IGF: Ratloop Asia's  Rocketbirds: Revolution!

Road To The IGF: Ratloop Asia's Rocketbirds: Revolution!

January 14, 2010 | By Kris Graft

January 14, 2010 | By Kris Graft
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[Gamasutra is talking to this year's IGF finalists, this time interviewing Ratloop's Sian Yue Tan about Rocketbirds: Revolution--a browser-based puzzle/action game that's up for three IGF awards, including the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. Previously: Enviro-Bear 2000.]

Sian Yue Tan says he's been drawing "angry birds" since he was a kid. Good thing too--it's that ability to inject poultry with a large amount of attitude that helped Ratloop Asia's Rocketbirds: Revolution! make it to the 2010 Independent Games Festival finals in three different categories: visual art, audio, and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize.

If Ratloop sounds familiar, perhaps it's because the company is responsible for the 2009 IGF finalist Mightier from Ratloop co-founder Lucas Pope.

With Rocketbirds, the core team of Tan (art/animation/programming/game design), James Anderson (sound/music/programming/game design), and Teck Lee Tan (background art) drew upon inspirations such as the Oddworld games and Shepard Fairey's pop-art to create a title that is doing its part in changing the perception of Flash-based games.

Here, Sian Yue Tan explains the origins of Rocketbirds: Revolution and why his team chose the Flash format, as Teck Lee Tan offers comments on the state of the indie scene today.

What kind of background does your team have making games?

SYT: Back in 1997 James Anderson and I started a small game company together with Lucas Pope (Mightier, IGF 2009 finalist) and Pete Gonzalez called Ratloop Inc. We had some success and produced a bunch of published titles, but for various reasons we decided to put Ratloop on the back burner for a bit and pursue our careers elsewhere.

Since then, James has been working as a professional games programmer at various studios in Australia and I went back to school to complete my education in finance and law. I worked on some Flash movies and game stuff for myself in my spare time, but got a job, saved up, applied for a grant with the Media Development Authority of Singapore and set up Ratloop Asia to start full-time work on Rocketbirds: Revolution! in July 2008. The game is self-funded, but with MDA's help I could offset some of the development costs and pay for an artist to help out with the assets.

Teck Lee Tan was doing freelance work prior to joining us, but also feels fortunate enough to have been able to spend a great deal of his time working on personal projects, honing his craft, and expanding his skillset in just about any and every discipline he could get his head wrapped around.

What development tools did you use?

SYT: We used Adobe Flash to make almost everything.

How long has your team been working on Rocketbirds?

SYT: The basic engine, tools, animation system, event triggers and basic AI took about three months to write. The vibe of the game was important to me from the start, so there was quite a bit of drawing, sketching, testing and redoing going on at the same time to get things looking right. When I showed the Ratloop guys what I'd made, James offered to take care of the sounds and write the sound engine in his spare time. Together, we spent the next three months fleshing out, discussing and writing the rest of the game.

I hired Teck in January 2009 to make the background art and the three of us spent the next six months working on content, features and assets for the game. Fredrik Lindner did a six-week internship with us to help out with some of the backgrounds.

At this point James came down to Singapore and started working full-time on the project and helped shepherd the game through to alpha. The last three months were spent optimizing, play-testing, getting all the online stuff working, making all the in-game movies and lots and lots of polishing. Herwig Maurer ("New World Revolution") is a friend of mine and I'm glad he let us use various songs from his Karmakaze album for the in-game movies and some of the in-game music.

So all-in we spent one year and three months working on this game and submitted it to IGF the next morning.

How did you come up with the concept for the game?

SYT: Ten years ago I spent a week making a short, four minute Flash clip in which Penguins battled Chickens called "Pilot." Back then Flash was still kind of new and not many people used it as a story telling medium. I put it onto my web site and received a lot of great feedback and even a few job offers. Someone had even tried to pass it off as their own creation in some Flash competition (but someone else found out and wrote in to tell me about it) - I knew I had something special there. You can still see part of the clip running on one of the tele-screens inside the game.

I wanted to make a fun, pick-up-and play game that showcased these birds and I guess the Rocketbirds concept was born from that premise.

The artwork is especially striking. What were your influences?

SYT: I've been drawing these angry birds since I was 14. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Cerebus the Aardvark, Usagi Yojimbo were really popular comics at the time. But unlike those comics, there are no humans or other anthropomorphic animals that share the Rocketbirds universe, which gives it a satirical edge that we could play with.

In terms of visual treatment for the characters and backgrounds, I was influenced by urban grunge style art pioneered by the likes of Jamie Hewlitt ("Gorillaz") and Shepard Fairey's propaganda pop-art.

A lot of judges were impressed with what you did within a browser. Why did you choose to make it browser-based, and what's the future of browser-based gaming, in your eyes?

SYT: With a virtually non-existent marketing budget, we wanted to make "trying" the game as painless as possible. If you can watch YouTube from your computer, chances are, you can try our game without needing to install anything. If you set up an account, we can also store your progress on our servers, so you can carry on playing when you get home from work. The game downloads in discrete chunks, so you'd be buffering the next set of assets as you're playing the current set. From an administrative point of view, we only need to update content and fix things in one place and have the latest version of the game automatically propagate to all our users the next time they play.

Bandwidth is also becoming increasingly faster and cheaper - most of the game is run through Amazon's Cloudfront servers, so our users would be downloading the game from an edge server inside their own country. Cloudfront also scales with demand for bandwidth, so we should always be able to supply our visitors with the game and not have our server crash or shut down when demand is too high (or overpay if there was no demand).

In terms of browser based games though, Flash games aren't exactly known for providing people with asset rich, immersive full length game experiences yet, but I hope that with games like Machinarium (IGF 2009 Winner, Excellence in Visual Art) and hopefully Rocketbirds, these perceptions can change and we'd see more "games made in Flash" instead of "Flash games."

You call this a "cinematic" 2D action/puzzler. How do you define "cinematic" when it comes to game direction?

SYT: The game is heavily influenced by games of the cinematic platformer genre (games like the original Prince of Persia, the first two Oddworld titles, Flashback and Blackthorne), so in terms of game design, the challenge was to identify and highlight the elements that made those games great and update them for our own game.

There's no agreed name for the genre, but I like the "cinematic" tag given to it. I think it stems from the inability to control the camera, which makes you feel more like the observer guiding your character, as opposed to actually being the character. Decisions are based on what the player can see, as opposed to what his character can see. Since we control what the player can see at all times, it made for a very good story telling medium, and we really played with that and spent quite a bit of time designing and scripting the levels to try and provide a tightly weaved game play and story telling experience.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you particularly enjoyed? What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

SYT: From the finalists, I really liked playing Star Guard and I can't wait to play the others at IGF.

TLT: The independent gaming scene is pretty amazing right now. I've seen it likened to a throwback to the good old days of bedroom and garage developers, but we have it so much better than them in so many ways, not least of which being the vast array of tools and resources, from free and low-cost engines (Unity, Flixel, FlashPunk, to name just a few), to the dizzying amount of information merely a quick Google search away.

Community is another thing. I've watched the indie community grow and mature over the years, and it's simply fantastic to know there's a strong, vocal, and ultimately supportive community of like-minded people out there whom a developer can turn to, be it for feedback and critique, or help with a programming, design or art issue. The community has become a pretty great enabler, especially with people like Adam Saltsman giving away his Flixel engine and opening up its source, or Flashbang giving away useful Unity scripts, among other things.

Ultimately, of course, there are the actual games. There's so much experimentation on display, so much innovation, so much sheer variety, it continues to astound me. It feels like almost everyday, there's some cool new little indie project being developed or released.

So yeah, the state of the independent gaming scene? I'd say it's pretty awesome.


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