'Let's Talk' with MagicalTimeBean about 'Escape Goat'
Following on from my previous talk with the mind behind 'Super Amazing Wagon Adventure' I spoke to the developer of the 'Soulcaster' series of games, Ian Stocker of MagicalTimeBean about his latest release, 'Escape Goat'. I'll be publishing my thoughts of the game next week, hopefully with some gameplay commentary via PaddyStardust who has also contributed a companion video, as well as some questions for this article.
Until then, here's a collection of Ian Stockers' thoughts on history of MagicalTimeBean, the Indie development scene and the future of both the 'Soulcaster' and 'Escape Goat' franchises.
Q: Can I get some history on you such as how you got into games development, education background and your favourite games growing up?
The NES had the greatest impact on me as a kid. My family also had a Commodore 64, and I spent a fair amount of time at the arcades as well, so those three platforms shaped me as a gamer and developer during my formative years. My formal education isn't too relevant to my current career--I have most of the credits toward a political science degree--I dropped out of college ten years ago. I've never been suited to academia. All of my game-creating skills are self-taught, which means I was taught by the authors of many books, online articles, and blogs.
A few games stand out as being the most influential for me. Adventure Construction Set for Commodore 64 was a game where you could make your own adventure/RPG, including the graphics, maps, creatures... I never finished any games, but I loved naming swords and monsters and designing dungeons. I liked any game with a good soundtrack and explorable world, in particular Legend of Zelda, Metroid, The Goonies II, Final Fantasy, and Bionic Commando. when the 16-bit era hit, Super Metroid, ActRaiser and Secret of Mana were a few of my favorites.
Q: I understand that you've previously worked as a composer and sound designer for various Nintendo DS and Gameboy Advance handheld titles before moving into making your own games. You've cited in previous interviews that you consider your work on 007: Everything or Nothing and Robots for GBA as personal career highlights.
What pressures, if any did you feel in handling such an important and iconic IP such as James Bond?
It's strange, because I never felt any anxiety about working with these famous IP's. The people I worked with really boosted my confidence, and we all just focused on making a fun game. For 007 in particular, I drew on my love for Goldeneye N64, still one of the top N64 soundtracks in my book. For Robots, the film hadn't been scored while I was working on it, so I got to do my own thing. The producer, Mike Platteter, had a sound he was looking for based on 80's analog synths and I ran with that. It's pretty common for a movie tie-in game to get an original score, either because the film hasn't been scored yet, or the movie music is too expensive to license.
Q: I noticed that on the credits for EG you list yourself as the primary developer for pretty much all the entire game, save for audio mastering. How difficult have you found the development process working solo (from Soulcaster onwards) after previously working as part of a team in previous ventures?
I've never actually worked in-house on a team, only as a contractor. On a lot of audio projects, I felt like I was part of the team, because everyone was so welcoming and communication was so good. But that can only take you so far when you're working from another state. So, I've been used to the solo work lifestyle, having to set my own hours and milestones, stay motivated, and stuff like that. Transitioning to solo indie development wasn't a huge leap from that lifestyle.
Q: This is your third XBLIG/PC release now after the well received Soulcaster titles. What, if anything, has changed in your development process, including when dealing with the XNA Creators Club/XBLIG since your first release?
My dev cycles keep getting longer. Soulcaster took 5 months to make, the sequel took 8, and Escape Goat took 10. The main thing that's changed, which I think lengthens projects, is that I tend to think about how my game will be received by fans of my previous games. That wasn't an issue with Soulcaster, because I had no fan base, and I was just making a game I found fun to play. The pressure to follow up can be intense. It takes a conscious effort on my part to focus more on what made the Soulcaster dev process fun and smooth.
I'm kind of a bad citizen of the XNA Creator's Club because I don't really stay involved on the forums. I show up to submit my game for peer review, and I do review and playtest other games while I'm in the review process, for karma's sake, but I can't say I'm a very active community member.
Q: Okay, now, Escape Goat. How did the idea come about for this game? I mean, a goat stuck in a prison for theft is a pretty unique one as far as ideas go.
I decided on the goat theme about two months into the project. My wife found a Reddit thread about commonly misused English phrases, and Escape Goat was our favorite. I decided it would be the perfect title for my game, so I built the characters and story around it. Most importantly, it would be very dark and serious in theme, to contrast with the title, more inspired by Castlevania than anything else.
The theme of imprisonment and witchcraft predated the goat theme though, since I had been reading about the history of the Bastille and also about the witch hunts of a couple centuries ago. So it all got rolled together.
Q: The title 'Escape Goat' sounds very much like a play on the term 'scapegoat', which given the circumstances in which our hoofed friend finds himself I feel is quite appropriate. Did you have any other names in mind before settling on your chosen one?
Before stumbling on this title, the working title was Bastille. This sounded too close to Bastion, so I knew it needed to change. I have a nice list of subtitles for bonus levels, or maybe sequels. The bonus campaign for the PC version was titled All Intensive Purposes, and I'm working on a level pack called Taken for Granite.
Q: In one of your early blog entries you displayed some early footage from EG which had more of a Metroidvania feel to the level design. Were there specific reasons you shied away from this formula towards a single screen experience?
I really wanted it to be an adventure game at first. I even built all the systems for it: inventory, persistent items, and like those early videos showed, moving laterally between screens. I built several prototype worlds with this style. There was just one thing that I wasn't able to overcome, and that's the problem of backtracking through a puzzle game. The physics system lent itself to really cool, crazy machinery and complex puzzles, but it was lame to trudge back through them after you'd already solved them.
I experimented with persistent blocks that would create shortcuts for already-solved puzzles, and stuff like that, but ultimately the backtracking didn't add anything to the game, it just wasted time. Adventure and exploration games like Symphony of the Night and Dark Souls rely on a great combat system to make backtracking exciting, because you keep getting more powerful. But Escape Goat doesn't have combat. It made me sad to take out the adventuring stuff, but it was the right decision. The design was streamlined and now there's this feeling of always moving forward. Some day I'll take up the challenge of making an adventure game again.
Q: I get a slight 'Solomons Key' vibe from EG. Was this classic title an influence on the design at all? With that in mind, did any other games help inspire elements of Escape Goats design, if so what were they?
This is the most common game people think of when they see EG, especially in Japan. I didn't play much of it though, because it was too hard. I think it had a subconscious influence on me though, for example with the keys flying at the doors to unlock them.
There was a C64 game called The Castles of Doctor Creep which I drew from a bit. Stuff like the lightning machines and conveyor belts are straight out of that game. For the controls, I took my favorite elements of Alucard, Mega Man, and Robot Unicorn Attack. The Incredible Machine was also an influence for some of the more Rube Goldberg-esque rooms.
Q: Did you pick the retro styling for any specific reason? It's great, suits the theme really well, but did you ever envisage the game with HD graphics in mind at any point?
Art takes me forever, even low-res sprite art, so to do assets for a high-res game is outside of what I could tackle as a solo developer. On future games, if I go for a higher resolution style, I'll definitely work with an artist. As for this game, I'm not sure if it would add anything to upscale it to HD. There is something lost when you move to high fidelity, kind of like colorizing black and white movies. For example, I would have to resolve the characters' facial expressions. When things are more abstract, I think it can spark the imagination in a different way.
Q: How long had the game been in development before the initial Xbox 360 release?
I started from a blank project on January 1st, 2011, and finished around October of that year.
Q: Were any major changes implemented for the PC version since the initial Xbox 360 release or was it a direct port?
PC users love settings, so I added a settings menu with display modes, volume controls and key mapping. This meant an overhaul of my input code so it could handle the Xbox controller via USB, the keyboard, and the mouse for the editor. The in-game editor also underwent a serious rewrite to allow for building entire multi-stage worlds (as big or bigger than the main campaign) and for saving and loading custom worlds. EG PC also has a 50-level bonus campaign by a guest level designer, Zach Wadlin.
Q: Was the level editor feature something you decided to implement from the start? Or did that come later in the development process?
I intended to include it from the very beginning. I remember using the Lode Runner editor to make my own levels. For single-screen games without scrolling, it's possible to make the editor built into the product. I made the whole game using the included editor--there were no extra Windows tools created.
Q: You mentioned that your first full run-through took three hours and there were too many rooms. Was anything else cut from the game that you would have liked to include?
I wanted to have a few more creature types, for example a cat that chased the mouse when he's on screen and sleeps when the mouse is hidden. You could lure him onto switches, or would need to find a special way past him... also, different types of magic hats would have been great. Maybe the mouse could have been used to build and destroy blocks, and I could draw from some ideas from Lemmings. There are always stacks of ideas that have to be put off until the sequel, or the game will never be done.
Q: When making the game did you ever consider a co-operative mode? Having played through the game I feel it would be a perfect evolution if you decided to make a sequel, allowing for couples to play together.
I actually built a multiplayer mode where Player 2 could take control of the mouse. This was the most difficult thing for me to cut, because when friends tested it, they loved it. The mouse player could harass Player 1 by moving off a switch at the right moment, electrocuting the goat, and stuff like that. Then they would reel it all in and work together to beat the level once player 1 reached the brink of frustration. It was the perfect combination of trolling and cooperation that I love to see in local multiplayer. The fatal problem was that, being a puzzle game, the levels would need to be designed for either one or two players. That's why the Portal 2 co-op levels are completely different from the single player levels. Something that's a challenge for one player with a mouse on auto-pilot would become trivial for two players.
I'd love to do something like this though, maybe in a sequel. I haven't given up--I just knew it would be a big challenge, and didn't want to spend another few months on a new game mode.
Q: I notice that you've set up a forum at 'Magicaltimebean.com' for sharing user generated levels on the PC version of the game. A standout series of levels for which you've done a blind play through of on YouTube would be the 'Misbegotten Mendelevium Mine' by MagiMaster. Have you any plans to push some of those to the Xbox 360 release by way of an update?
I'd love to do something like this, also for Zach's torture platformer campaign "All Intensive Purposes." The biggest issue is that I changed so much code for the PC port that getting it working on the Xbox again will take a couple weeks at least. So it's been put on the backburner.
The Xbox versions don't make a lot of money, and considering that I'd be sharing profits in some form with the level creators, it's not as important of a business move right now. It makes me sad, because I love the console so much, but that's the current landscape.
Q: It must be pointed out that the general consensus around Polynauts on IRC is that your soundtrack for the game is awesome? Equally as awesome is that you offer it for free via Bandcamp.
What were your goals when designing the soundscape of EG? Did you have any preexisting influences for the audio design in mind?
The biggest influences were Castlevania and the Falcom games from the 90's, such as Ys and Sorcerian. I restricted myself to 80's era synths and samples. I just wanted it to sound very energetic, dark, and serious, with a steady groove. I'm not really good at making cute, happy music like you'd expect for a goat-themed game.
Q: Have you any plans to port the game to PlayStation or Nintendo platforms? Popular opinion from the Polynauts who have played Escape Goat is that the game would be a perfect fit for the PlayStation Vita and/or 3DS.
I'd love to do this. The main issue is that my games are written in C#, so I would need a way to translate all the code to C or C++. Not impossible, but outside of what I could do myself in a reasonable amount of time. So I would need help to achieve this. Fortunately I'm making some great contacts in the indie gaming world, and who knows, this might become a reality.
Q: I was at the Develop conference earlier this month speaking to the OS team about how they designed WP8 and W8 to have a 90% code-share, enabling easy porting between devices. Have you been in touch with anyone at Microsoft about bringing the game to other Xbox enabled tablet platforms such as Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8?
I haven't had any discussions with Microsoft, and my impression is that XNA is being phased out for W8. It's strange, I'm in this position where I could spend time building relationships with distributors, learning platforms, porting my code... I could do that for the next few years and not make another new game in that time! I'd much rather be prototyping new ideas, so it's a struggle. Distribution deals make money, prototyping ideas does not (at least in the short term).
Q: 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?
It's a tough situation because the most popular platforms are also difficult to get distribution deals with. There are lots of open marketplaces on the PC, but nothing comes close to a Steam contract. I think consoles are opening up more to indies, but it's going to take time. I've only had direct experience on Xbox Live Indie Games, and my suggestion for that would be to make it easier to find the indie games marketplace, and have an easier way to find the top rated games, especially recent top rated games.
Q: Do you agree with the widespread opinion on the inherent value of the XBLIG marketplace; that it is a poor place for indie devs to release a product taking into account the somewhat buried location of the Indie Hub?
I think it's a great place to release your game, once you accept that it's not a business platform, it's a hobbyist platform. For reference, Escape Goat is the #21 top rated game on XBLIG right now, and in its nine months on the marketplace has sold 3000 copies, mostly at $1. I think my only source of traffic is that I'm on the Related Games list to a few big hit titles on the marketplace like Cthulhu Saves The World.
Q: I noticed also that you dropped the price from 240MSP down to 80MSP. Can you elaborate on the reasoning behind that?
Do you feel that there are problems facing developers who target a higher price point for games, much in the same way that higher priced games on iOS rarely sell more than those which cost $0.99?
I don't have any experience with the iOS store, but I think it's the same effect. The average price gets normalized in the buyer's mind. I wrote a long article on this for Indie Gamer Chick, also on Gamasutra, and the analogy I used was in the arcade in the 90's, you had the normalized price of 25 cents. A game demanding 50 cents up front was almost offensive. It had better have a fighter jet cockpit you sit in that moves around, and 3D graphics, for that exorbitant price.
Following my price drop, revenue has doubled. Players generally aren't willing to risk more than $1 on a new XBLIG. However, once they bond with a game, they're willing to spend a fortune on it. If XBLIG allowed in-app purchases for level packs, I think I would be telling a very different story right now.
Q: What are your thoughts on the recent unveiling of Valves newest offering for indie developers, Steam Greenlight. Do you feel this could be a gamechanger for developers such as yourself? With the audience and marketshare that Steam enjoys it would certainly offer a net for which you could catch a larger audience for your products.
Like just about every PC developer trying to make a living, getting a Steam contract is my main objective. So I welcome anything that makes this more possible. Greenlight does sound promising and I like the spirit of it.
Q: The online reaction to the game has been outstanding, coverage in RPS, GamesRadar and Destructoid afforded you much critical acclaim. Are you encouraged by the feedback you've received from various outlets as well as PC/Xbox gamers who have purchased your game?
I was really surprised by Escape Goat's reception, actually. When I was finishing it up, I had no idea if it would be well-received... it was just this weird goat game without attacking, gold, upgrades, swords, or anything like that. My brother, a designer at Cryptic, told me he thought it was better than Soulcaster, which I thought was absurd at the time. He was right though. Fan mail, forum posts, tweets, even the dreaded YouTube comments have been positive. Maybe it's something about animals that melts the heart of even the most ardent internet troll.
Q: Okay, this one is a regular featured question. Disregarding any previous statements you've made about your game, try and put yourself in the shoes of Peter Molyneux. How would he pitch 'Escape Goat' to a paying audience?
When you start the game, you're told that you've been imprisoned for witchcraft, and you assume you're innocent and were wrongly convicted. But as you play you discover that you have some command over magic. You're immortal and can die over and over in the same room. You start rescuing these sleeping sheep, who suggest that if you stay in the prison long enough, you end up like one of the condemned Reapers and no longer want to leave. But they also warn you that leaving the prison will destroy it, and maybe take the Reapers with it. How do you feel ultimately about saving yourself and the sheep, but leaving dozens of tormented souls behind?
Also, there's this mouse who crawls around on walls and ceilings to help you, and you can teleport to him if you find him a magic hat!
I've just started prototyping some new ideas for Soulcaster III, and I'm really excited to get back into that universe after spending a year and a half in goat land. My time is being split among many side projects, including a collaboration for an upcoming XBLIG, localization for Escape Goat on PC, building a user-made level community, and the ongoing, endless task of marketing, which absorbs as much time as I am willing to throw at it.
Q: 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"?
Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is the essence of what XBLIG was meant to be. Explosionade is a great co-op game, though the grand champion local co-op game is Hidden in Plain Sight. Coral's Curse has a movement mechanic I've never seen before, where you control a snake woman with the analog sticks, and I've been waiting for a follow-up on that game. These are all worth checking out.
I would like to thank Ian for taking the time to answer our questions here at Polynauts on Polygon. You should all take time to go check out 'Escape Goat' on the Xbox LIVE Indie Marketplace, or on Desura where it costs $4.99/£2.99. Whilst an Xbox version only costs 80 Microsoft Points, the demo costs nothing!
Be sure to follow MagicalTimebean via Twitter for future updates regarding both Soulcaster III and Escape Goat.
Have fun, and remember keep an eye out for the review next week, right here on Polynauts.