Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Developer Interview: Craig Forrester (Johnny Platform's Biscuit Romp)

This is the third in a series of interviews I am doing with video game developers. The first interview, with Japanese game developer Shuichi Ishikawa, can be found here. The second interview, with The Game Equation's Brian Meidell Andersen, can be found here.

In this interview, I had the opportunity to talk (through email) with Craig Forrester. Craig is an indie developer from England. In this interview, we focused on his new game, Johnny Platform's Biscuit Romp. It is a fantastic puzzle/platform game for the Xbox 360. We also discussed using Microsoft's XNA to develop Community Games. I hope you enjoy the interview:

Craig, let's start off by having you tell us about yourself. Where from? Where do you go to school? Currently employed working on games?

I'm originally from a town called Leek in England, and am currently in Middlesbrough, at the University of Teesside. I had a year's work placement in the industry last year but don't start properly until later this year, which I'm looking forward to a lot. I'm enjoying university but after four years it'll be nice to see it finished. There are no concrete plans for what I'll do post graduation, but there are a few possibilities.

Your game, Johnny Platform's Biscuit Romp (JPBR), is a terrific puzzle/platform game. Tell us about the making of this game...

It's mostly inspired by the PDA Games minigame that came with Alien Hominid. I wanted to try making a quick DS game and it seemed like the perfect type of game to make, since once the mechanics are finished it's basically about putting together as many levels as possible. I tried to add my own ideas to it of course, but I think the similarities are quite obvious too.

How long did it take you to finish the game (from first idea to final product)?

It was originally supposed to be a five day game but ended up taking about a week or so. That was a fun week, the second year of uni had finished so I almost literally just sat and worked on the game for the entire week.

Was it intended as a DS game from the very beginning?

Yeah, the ideas behind the game only began after I had decided to work on a DS game. I think the screen-wrapping mechanic mainly existed because of the small resolution on the DS. I didn't want to make the graphics smaller so it seemed like the next best way to get more gameplay out of a single-screen level. I didn't really have any ideas for using it at the time but it ended up creating some quite intricate puzzles.

Are there any differences between the DS version and the 360 version?

The main thing I added for the 360 was 5 extra levels. Since the game was going commercial I really felt the need to add at least a bit of new content to justify charging for it. I also tweaked the difficulty curve and added a bit of tutorial stuff, though that could still have been a lot better.

I haven't had an opportunity to play the DS version. But, is the reason the game has such a unique, vertical playing area on the 360 a direct result of having it been on the DS first?

Yeah that's completely dictated by the DS' screens. Graphically the game is pretty much identical to the DS version, simply scaled up to fit HD resolution. It feels a bit strange on a TV, especially a widescreen one, but I didn't have the time to invest in remaking all the levels for a different screen size. At least the Ikaruga-inspired TATE mode means people with rotateable monitors can play it fullscreen.

What are some of your favorite games that may have influenced you while making JPBR?

Hmm this is a tough one. There's the aforementioned PDA Games, but I can't think of any more direct influences. I think there are some hints of Yoshi's Island and Wario Land in some of the graphics. I enjoy lots of platformers in general, especially some indie ones like Stargirl, Cave Story and Mini Falafel Adventure off the top of my head.

What made you decide to publish the game on Xbox 360?

I toyed around with XNA last year and began a shooter project, but then university work got in the way. In December I had a week between the end of the semester and going back home, and when my housemate suggested that I should port JP to the 360, I couldn't really refuse.

What was your experience like using Microsoft XNA to develop a Community Game?

Definitely a good one, turning your console into a devkit is just fun. XNA is nice and easy to set up and work with, and there's plenty of documentation, tutorials and examples to help that. The fact I managed to port a DS game to XNA so quickly shows how easy it is to use, although you have to bear in mind I did steal some code from the XNA project I started previously.

What were the best and worst parts of developing a Community Game?

The best part has to be the end result, getting to see your game on the marketplace is very rewarding. I didn't really have any worst moments as far as I can remember. I had to do a lot of polishing stuff, which extended the port to a week from the originally intended two days, thanks to the 360-specific stuff I hadn't considered like handling storage devices and getting the 'purchase game' option in. It's all pretty straightforward when you get into it though.

Did Microsoft have input into JPBR? If so, what kind?

None at all, the game really is just whatever the developer wants to do. I think the restrictions that do exist are basically on stuff that's actually illegal, like including stolen or copyrighted material in the game.

I'm curious as to who is responsible for making sure that Community Games submitted to Microsoft aren't broken in some manner. Is anyone besides the developers themselves checking for any bugs in a game or even the overall content?

The game goes through peer review before being released, where other developers play the game and pass or fail it based on if it crashes or violates copyright. The game can also be optionally put into testing, which works in a similar way with peers downloading and playing the game. This leaves plenty of oppurtunity for bugs to slip through the net, but it's the only way to keep the publishing step quick and hassle free.

How is the pricing decided for Community Games? I was surprised JPBR was priced at 200 points. It seems to me, it could have easily been a 400 point game.

Prices are set purely by the developer. The options are 200, 400 or 800, but games above 50MB have to be at least 400. I spent a lot of time thinking about whether to charge 200 or 400 points. In the end I went for 200, since the DS version is available for free so I felt it would be cheeky to not charge as little as possible for it. Another factor was that the aim of the project was never to make money, just to get my game out there to a new audience and get my name out there. It also hopefully shows that paying twice as much for a fireplace screensaver is a bit of a rip off.

Apparently, no achievements are allowed in Community Games. But what about downloadable content? Could you add more levels to the game if you wished?

Yeah achievements aren't supported, I imagine to stop them from getting abused. Paid DLC isn't supported either, probably just to keep everything simple. I think in theory you could code the downloading of free levels into the game if you hosted them somewhere, but I don't know a lot about the network capabilities in XNA. Another option would be to do a patch for the game with more levels in it, but unfortunately players who already downloaded the game aren't notified when a new version is released, unlike when professional 360 games get patched. That's something it would be nice to see fixed, although I guess the releasing of continuous patches should be discouraged.

How is it decided which games submitted for Community Games, will eventually get published?

Basically anything that passes the peer review system will get published, there's no one at Microsoft deciding which ones get through. It's a great thing as it means no restrictions on new ideas and game styles that would normally never get published, but on the other hand it does inevitably cause an avalanche of pong clones. Swings and roundabouts really.

Would you recommend the XNA Game Studio to other people who are interested in creating their own games?

I certainly would, it's a great way to get way to get your game out there, as if it's good enough it will potentially get a nice bit of attention from the indie games community. Another nice bonus compared to releasing a game on PC is the great piracy protection. Once we eventually get sales figures at the end of March it will be a much better platform for actual full time indie developers too.

Do you plan on continuing with any more Johnny Platform games?

I might do a sequel in the future, as long as I can give it enough new content. The last thing I want is to appear to be whoring the "franchise" out by making a cheap sequel. I do know if there is a sequel it won't involve biscuits, but the coffee will still be abundant, of course. The evil robots are probably plotting another scheme after their failed attempt to take biscuit land.

Did anyone else work with you on JPBR? If so, who? And what were their roles in the game?

Two of my university housemates helped out on it. James O'Hare actually did the sprites for Johnny and the robots, which is why Johnny is a bit more twisted that the usual kind of sprites I do. I saw a great fanart of him recently, which portrays him as a freaky green thing shaking from caffeine with coffee dribbling from his mouth, which I think is pretty accurate. James also did the robot's Scottish voices, and Johnny's Yorkshireish voice was done by Tom Chambers.

Was developing for the 360 possible only because of the XNA Game Studio? Is developing for PSN or WiiWare out of the question right now?

Yeah, it provides pretty much the only (official) avenue for creating a game on one of the home consoles. Creating an XBLA, PSN or WiiWare game is possible in theory but it needs a hell of a lot of money behind it, and even then Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo might not be interested in publishing it. I think a good amount of success in the Community Games market would certainly help any quest to get a game onto one of the "proper" markets though.

Have you heard from Microsoft how well Johnny Platform's Biscuit Romp is selling?

Nothing yet other than the weekly top ten sales list on Major Nelson's blog, so you get an idea how you're doing relative to the other Community Games but that's about it. As I mentioned previously at the end of March, which is around the time the first paycheques will be going out, a sales figure system is being released which will be really interesting to see.

Are you currently working on any other 360 games?

I have my unfinished vertical shooter that I started a while ago, which I'd like to come back to eventually. I've also been starting to put together a general 2D game engine in XNA which I can hopefully put to good use in the future.

Besides the 360, are there any other projects you are working on that you could talk about?

University work takes up the majority of my time, but part of that involves making a small game demo in a team, which is going to be a music-based RPG called Twilight of the Tieran. I'm also doing a bit of pixelart work towards Erin Robinson's game, Puzzle Bots, which is looking really cool.

Where did the name IshiSoft come from?

The nickname Ishi was borne from a general obsession with Japanese things. Craig comes from crag, which means stone, which is what ishi translates as. I then just stuck 'soft' on the end in classic lazy fashion, but I really like the name now.

What are your plans for the future? What are your goals in the gaming industry?

I graduate from university soon, but I haven't really decided yet what path into the industry I want to take. Joining a larger scale studio making the big titles is a possibility, or alternatively I could go for somewhere doing smaller projects like downloadable games. Of course another option is to just go for full on indie development myself, which I might consider more depending on how well Johnny Platform is doing. Time will tell!

Thanks a lot for the interview.

End Interview.

I hope you enjoyed this interview. I want to thank Craig Forrester for his time. I loaded him up with quite a few questions and he gladly answered them all. I'd like to encourage everyone to at least download the trial version of Johnny Platform's Biscuit Romp. You won't be disappointed. Just a note, this entire interview was done through an email Q&A system. It was printed here in complete form with no editing to preserve the original spirit of both the questions and the answers. Thanks again to Craig, for his participation.