'Let's Talk' with Sparsevector about their XBLIG hit: 'Super Amazing Wagon Adventure.'

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Last week I spoke to the singular mind behind Sparsevector, via email, about their debut release on the Xbox LIVE Indie Marketplace, 'Super Amazing Wagon Adventure'. I'll be publishing my thoughts of the game tomorrow, so if you feel like contributing a "one line review" feel free to do so by leaving a comment below.

Until then, here's an interesting series of thoughts on the games development, the Xbox LIVE Indie Marketplace and Sparsevectors' thoughts on the games reception amongst the online community.

LET'S TALK

Hi there, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for the Polynauts community about your recently released game 'Super Amazing Wagon Adventure'. Allow me to first of all say that I haven't had this much fun with what I can only describe as a bunch of mini games since 'WarioWare Touched', the game really is that addictive.

Lets start by asking you about how you got found yourself in the world of games development.

Like most people my age, I've been playing video games for as long as I can remember. My earliest gaming interests were NES games, and games on my father's Commodore 64. I loved all the Mario games, and I was a Nintendo fanboy up through the Gamecube. As a kid I also would make awful text games in BASIC and awful action games in Klik 'n' Play.

My more recent interest interest in game development is harder to explain. I come from an academic research background, and my interest in game development arose from some of my frustrations with research.

In research you almost never get direct rewards for your work, with the best case scenario being that it gets published, people cite your work and maybe years down the road your ideas make their way into something useful. Game development appeals to me because like research it involves a mix of creativity and technical problem solving, but unlike research people directly connect to your work right away.

Because of my background I'm also keeping my game development work semi anonymous so far. I already have a web presence attached to my legal name, and I don't want to cross the streams just yet. It's also just fun to work under a pseudonym.

How did the idea come about for ‘Super Amazing Wagon Adventure'? I read on your website that SAWA is partially inspired by Oregon Trail, particularly elements of which were incorporated into your game; the naming of characters and the setting of the piece to start with.

I imagine this is a title which you have fond memories of but did you draw any inspiration from other sources given your visual style similar to the Amstrad era?

As an undergraduate I worked on a group project making a remake of Oregon Trail. One of my responsibilities in the group was making the hunting and rafting mini games, and I went way overboard turning them into little violent arcade games.

I made the hunting game into a Duck Hunt style shooting gallery where you could shoot off the animal's limbs one-by-one, and the rafting game became a vertically scrolling shooter with crazy power ups. When we showed people the finished product they really liked those mini games, so for whatever reason that project stuck with me.

The idea for ‘SAWA ‘was then basically "What if the entire game was really fast, random, violent mini games?"

It seemed like an interesting idea just because the original Oregon Trail was so slow and strategic. Originally there was going to be a bunch of different play styles sort of like WarioWare, but early on I ended up simplifying the concept to the mix of side scrolling and twin stick shooting that's in the final game.

I was also influenced by classic arcade games like Robotron as I think a lot of these games still feel more visceral and fun than many modern games.

You stated that the title of the game is a much better fit than the previously considered ‘Adventure Trail'. Did you have a list of other potential candidates you almost went with? And if so, what were they?

The original name, 'Adventure Trail', was just sort of the simplest name I could think. Later on I decided it was too bland and didn't convey the tone of the game, so I tried to brainstorm new names. I think that I went through just about every combination of the words wagon, adventure, trail, super, Oregon, awesome, amazing, etc.

I like the current title because it's off kilter but also evokes the setting. It sort of sounds like it was poorly translated from another language. I think another early title was Death Race to Oregon.

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How long has the game been in development? Was it developed purely for the 'Dream, Build, Play' competition or had you planned to make/been making this game for some time now?

The game has been in pretty steady development since around January of this year. The project was intended to be a very quick, small project for testing the waters of game development, but it sort of ballooned into something a little bit larger than that. I used the Dream Build Play deadline as a motivating deadline to get something mostly finished.

On your website you state that you are an independent developer. Can I assume from this statement that all of the work from the programming to the visuals and sound is the work of one individual - yourself? If so how did you cope with juggling all of those elements then putting them into a seamless package?

Yes, all of the visuals and sound and code were done by myself. Because the game uses very simple art and is structured around little short snippets of game play, it was actually not too hard to jump back and forth between the art and the code. I'd usually start with an idea for an encounter, then draw some art, then code up the game play.

With some luck I could go through that entire process and create a new 30 second playable scene in one sitting. The game was then created adding these little bits of piecemeal content together.

Your audio and visual design for the game is very impressive, especially since it's game is designed to evoke the appearance of a genuine product of the 1980's. The screen effect (CRT banding) is probably the most important part of making me feel immersed in the feel of an 80's adventure. Did you have any issues bringing all the strands together and making sure that it performed as intended on different types of screens (CRT/LCD) of varying size?

Thanks! I picked the art style because it went well with the game idea and also because I am not a visual artist of any caliber, so I needed an art design I could pull off. T he game is mostly at a 160x90 resolution, so the hardest part was making sprites that were recognizable without being too huge. That's part of why there are so many giant animals in the game. It's also pretty tricky to make menus that fit on the screen at such a low resolution. The CRT screen effect was really fun to put together.

Originally I wanted to also have color bleeding and possibly static, but I didn't have enough time. I also found that color bleeding gave me eyestrain, and I wanted to be sure the effect wasn't so extreme that people turned it off.

QA testing is an important part of balancing any game. Did you do extensive testing through focus groups prior to submission and release?

Almost all of the testing was courtesy of my very supportive girlfriend. She played the game constantly throughout it's development, and a lot of my motivation for adding new content was to try and frustrate and surprise her. The game likely would have been very different if not for her involvement.

I'm curious to ask that even though the game is pseudo-linear in that some events occur as set pieces (such as the wagon jump over the river), others depending on players choice and some being completely random; how much of a pain was it to test for bugs in this situation? Were there any humorous ones which popped up along the way?

I didn't have too many problems with bugs, but I did worry a lot about balancing the difficulty of the game. I wanted the game to be hard enough that it'd take many tries to beat it--if you could beat it on the first play through, you'd lose motivation to keep playing the game, and then you'd miss out on all the random events and surprises. However, it also couldn't be so hard that players kept dying at the same spot and got frustrated and quit before having fun. I'm still not entirely sure how successful I was at achieving this balance. People seem to be enjoying the game over all though, so that's great. I hope that people find the game fun even when you die.

One funny bug (also a minor spoiler) involves a special weapon in the game which is a sword. The sword has a very short range but can reflect back bullets and other projectiles as in Zelda. I added the weapon late in the game's development, and on playing the game with it. I was surprised to suddenly see a skunk corpse fly across the screen. I had forgotten that skunk corpses are categorized as projectiles and therefore could be thrown at enemies with the sword. I left that bug in the game.

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The online reaction to your first trailer was outstanding, coverage in Rock, Paper, Shotgun, IndieGamesMag and even Reddit show there is great interest in your game. Are you surprised by the feedback you've received from various outlets and Xbox gamers who have purchased your game?

I've been really blown away by the reaction to the game. Even more humbling than the press coverage has been feedback I've gotten from individual gamers. It's been extremely rewarding to get tweets and comments from people telling me they're enjoying the game. Some of the responses have been *really* enthusiastic. It's too early to tell how well the game will end up selling, but no matter what I'll consider it a success just based on the personal responses I've gotten.

Have you been in touch with Microsoft beyond your entry in DBP about bringing the game to other Xbox enabled platforms such as Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8?

I ask this because I was at the Develop conference this past July speaking to the OS development team about how they designed WP8 and W8 to have a 90% code-share, enabling easy porting between devices. Not only that they claim that any app which works for Windows 7 will 100% guaranteed work in the newest OS coming this fall.

I've not been in touch with Microsoft about putting the game on any of their new platforms. I think it could be neat to have the game on phones or tablets, but at this point my plan is to just wait and see if there's demand / how these new platforms do.

Given that you have announced a PC version for a future release are you:

  • Holding off until Windows 8 launches or still targeting current platforms?
  • Planning to release the game on Windows Phone to capitalise on the code-sharing aspect/easy deployment feature of the Windows 8 platform?
  • Prevented from releasing on other platforms until the conclusion of DBP?
  • Planning to release a Mac or Linux port?

I'm hoping to get the Windows PC version out very soon--within the next two months. I'm not planning on waiting for the end of DBP. It'd be awesome if I win something or am selected as a finalist, but the chances of that are not huge, and besides that I'm impatient.

I don't currently have plans for porting to any other platforms, but if there's enough demand I'll definitely consider it. I want everyone that wants to play the game to get a chance to.

You voiced your opinion recently on Reddit that you thought of XBLIG as an "easy low stakes way to make my first game". Has the success you've had so far with the title inspired you to stick with the platform?

I think that the XBLIG marketplace is a good place for certain kinds of games, namely smaller games that are meant to be played on a TV. It's also I think a good place for first time developers. XNA is very easy to work with and the XBLIG community is very helpful to newcomers. It's also a good marketplace for first time developers because the marketplace is sort of isolated from the larger gaming community.

It's widely believe that marketing has little effect on XBLIG sales. Basically everything boils down to your box art, your screenshots, and your game's trial. Because of this, everyone's game is on equal footing. That said, I'm also interested in working on larger scale projects so I'm not sure that my next game will be an XBLIG.

Are you interested in looking at other platforms such as Steam who recently unveiled the latest evolution of their service, Steam Greenlight. What are your thoughts on the unique service which they intend to offer?

I'm definitely keeping a close eye on Steam Greenlight. If Steam Greenlight goes according to plan it could be a really great thing for indie developers and gamers.

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Do you feel that platform holders should try more to get indie developers on board given the success of games like Braid, Minecraft, Super Meat Boy, Terraria et. all? If so what would you like them to change about their practices?

One user on Reddit stated:

"This is f*****g awesome, and it is going to make you NO MONEY on XBLIG. Not because it's not awesome, but because XBLIG is a wasteland of failure thanks to Microsoft giving zero shits about helping developers out."

Do you agree with his estimation of the inherent value of the XBLIG marketplace?

I think that in general the trend is towards more independent games on more platforms, and I think that's great. There are a lot of problems with the XBLIG marketplace, however, and I think that it's fair to say it's not a top priority for Microsoft right now.

The XBLIG channel is sort of hard to find on the dashboard, and there are a lot of little things I would change about it. For example, the most popular games list is sorted by number of sales, not by revenue. This is widely thought to be the reason why games costing more than $1 tend not to sell well.

That said, I think the XBLIG developer community is pretty great. They are generally a very helpful and welcoming group of developers. Also, for the reasons I discussed above, it's not a bad place to make a first game.

Did I mention your soundtrack is awesome? What were your musical influences when composing the music for your game?

Thank you! I wanted the title screen song and the music in the early levels to sound like an 80s TV show without being too grating. Later in the game the music starts to get more modern and tense as the difficultly ramps up. I like a lot of bass oriented electronic music (UK funky, dubstep, footwork), and some particular influences on the music later in the game are Zomby and Sepalcure.

Okay, disregarding any previous statements you've made about your game try and put yourself in the shoes of Peter Molyneux. How would he pitch your game to a paying audience?

This is a hard question.

"I want this game to convey the true freedom and unpredictability of the natural world. The animals in front of the player could be their friend, their lifelong companion. They could be a resource, bartered for laser pistols. They could be their death. That is the truth of nature, and with ‘Super Amazing Wagon Adventure' it's in a video game for the first time."

I'm bad at this, sorry.

What's next for the one-man band at Sparsevector? In terms of the post-PC release of 'SAWA', have you made any concrete plans you're able to talk about?

I don't have any concrete plans yet. My original plan was to do a much bigger game after this, but I've had so much fun with this game I'm also considering doing another small game with a short development cycle. Maybe I'll do both?

Finally, what other games in your opinion stand out on XBLIG? Has anything caught your eye and made you think "I wish I had thought of that"

Also, have you anything you would like to say to the gaming community at large?

I'll try to list some slightly lesser known titles since I'm assuming everyone has heard of Dead Pixels, Escape Goat, etc. Cursed Loot by Eyehook Games is one of the most accessible and fun dungeon crawlers on any platform. Aban Hawkins & the 1000 Spikes as really immaculate pixel art and is a great game idea. Quiet, Please! is a really charming little adventure game I liked.

CLOSE-OUT

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I would like to thank Sparsevector for taking the time to talk with the Polynauts community here on Polygon. You should all take time to go check out 'Super Amazing Wagon Adventure' on the Xbox LIVE Indie Marketplace. Whilst it only costs 80 Microsoft Points, the demo costs nothing! Follow Sparsevector via Twitter for future updates regarding the PC release, or if you just want to chat.

Have fun, and remember keep an eye out for the review tomorrow right here on Polynauts.