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Road To The IGF: Strange Loop's  Vessel

Road To The IGF: Strange Loop's Vessel Exclusive

January 19, 2010 | By Kris Graft

January 19, 2010 | By Kris Graft
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Exclusive

[In its latest IGF finalist interview, Gamasutra speaks with Strange Loop's John Krajewski about Vessel, the fluid physics-based game nominated for technical achievement. Previously: Enviro-Bear 2000, Rocketbirds! Revolution.]

Not all finalists in the 2010 Independent Games Festival are born and bred indies. Nominated in the Technical Achievement category is Vessel, a physics-based game from former Electronic Arts programmers John Krajewski and Martin Farren of Seattle-based Strange Loop Games.

Although Strange Loop is new to the indie community, Krajewski doubts that he'll ever go back to the corporate scene -- he believes that "the most important stuff" is coming out of indie video game development, and he wants to remain aligned with that.

Here, Krajewski talks about the jump from corporate to indie, the making of the fluid physics-based Vessel, and why physics-centric games seem to remain mainly in the realm of indie game developers.

What kind of background do you have making games?

Both Martin and I worked in the industry at larger studios like EA and Midway for about seven years before deciding to try the indie approach full-time.

What development tools did you use?

Microsoft Visual C++, Direct X, boost libraries. On the art side, XSI, photoshop, and ZBrush. Our level editor and engine is custom.

How long has your team been working on Vessel?

The full team worked for about four months before the IGF deadline. Before that, Martin and I for a year. Before that, I was developing the engine in my spare time here and there for a few more years.

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

It grew out of the physics and fluid technology we had been developing. We wanted to tie our story deeply into our mechanics and visuals, and the physics engine was the foundation for that.

Vessel does a lot of intersting things with liquid physics. Tell us a bit about your exploration into new techniques of rendering fluid. What sparked that interest?

One of the major advantages video games have over other types of media and other types of games if their ability to have deep, complex simulations. You can create an interaction at a really high fidelity, creating whole simulated worlds, especially with today's hardware. You do see a lot of that in games, but usually it's for cosmetic affect, you see fewer games that make a simulation the focus of gameplay.

That's what got me interested in physics and fluid, seeing what can we really do with the power of hardware these days. I think the moment it clicked for me was years ago when I was playing with a physics engine demo from Havok I think, knocking over building of bricks with catapults, stuff like that, and thinking wow, this little test app is way more fun than most actual games. I knew what kind of games I wanted to make after that.

So I got started with a physics engine, and added new techniques here and there, eventually deciding to try out fluid, which worked really well and fit nicely into the existing physics engine. So we were getting the complete experience, physics objects, plus fluid. Around that time Martin came on board and he's taken off on the rendering side of things, turning it from a bunch of points into a lit body of fluid with shading and flowing textures.

We've taken a lot of the internals of the simulation that would otherwise be invisible, like pressure, density, viscosity, and found ways to make them affect the rendering, giving us a lot of variety in the types of fluid we can make, and communicating the depth of the simulation visually.

Aside from the occasional big-budget title like LittleBigPlanet, physics-centric games seem to be primarily in the realm of smaller developers. Why do you think that is?

It's unfortunate that's the case! I think it's an issue of predictability. As soon as you give up part of the game design to a simulation, especially a complex one like physics and fluid, you lose a lot of the direct control you would otherwise have. You get a lot of emergent behavior, which often times just means bugs.

There's also the issue of creating a narrative out of an experience that is dynamically driven. How do you tell a story when all the events in your game are guided by a simulation? I think there are ways to do it though, but they're experimental and not really proven, and if you're going to make a game that costs many millions of dollars, you want something proven before you go.

Indie games and smaller developers have a lot more flexibility there; they're agile, and they can experiment and take risks.

What are the next steps in the development of Vessel?

We still have a lot of work we want to put into the game before we release it. New art pass, more fluid and fluid-creature types, port the engine to console and optimize. It's going to be a busy year!

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you particularly enjoyed?

I've seen all the videos online but only got to play a couple. Miegakure hurts my brain in a good way. Monaco looks like way too much fun and I love the neo-retro look of it, like an ASCII game with 'fog of war' and lighting (I'm hoping if I keep saying how awesome it looks I'll get an early build).

A friend of mine I used to work with at Pandemic Studios worked on Rocketbirds!, another one thats a lot of fun. I'm really looking forward to GDC and trying out these games and meeting the other devs behind them.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

I'm still fairly new to it, but I dont think I ever want to go back. I think what's coming out of the indie scene is the most interesting stuff in the whole realm of video games, and not only that but the most important stuff.

This medium of games is starting to grow up, it's starting to take its place as an important part of culture, and the group most pushing the boundaries and exploring what kind of meaning it can add is the indie scene. I'm thrilled to be a part of it.

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