A WDesm exclusive for XBoxHornet
Well, once again we’ve managed to snag an interview with an up-and-coming XBLIG all-star, so stay in your seats as we sit down with DrMistry of MStar Games to talk about their upcoming XBLIG release, Blazin Balls! The company name might be familiar to you; MStar Games has already released Carrum and Space Pirates from Tomorrow, and it was only a month or so ago that we gave away a copy of Space Pirates from Tomorrow in one of our reviews. So let’s find out what the good Doctor has in store for us today!
WD: MStar Games has already put out Space Pirates from Tomorrow, a game that received a ton of press talk-time, but only received average reviews from gamers, and Carrum, a more-favourably received and much smaller-in-scope game. While you have posted a much more in-depth reflection on your website, what lessons have you taken away from both these games in making Blazin Balls?
DM: The biggest things I’ve learned are “do it properly first time” and “trust your testers”. It’s all too easy to get totally consumed by your own private idea of what a game should be like, and that way madness lies because you can start saying “no that’s OK, I can forgive that ugly glitch because it means I get to shoot this really cool weapon” if you’re not careful. Tester feedback is by far the best indication of exactly how you’re doing and it’s hard – heartbreaking even – when a tester says “look, this isn’t as good as it should be, go back and try again”. I’m just learning that this isn’t a personal attack, it’s honest advice. No-one can manage to do everything perfectly, but you can do a pretty good impression of someone who can do everything if you hunt out and listen to any and all feedback. Feedback feedback feedback. I still think Space Pirates is a good game, but it would have been a great game if I’d have swallowed my pride, waited another month before releasing and improved the control model and graphics. A hard lesson, but a well-learned one now! Looking back at Carrum I’d say it’s an OK game which is poorly presented, but some friends of mine get really angry with me when I say that. The menus are horrible and the distribution is too big but it’s a very playable game and I’m really proud of the music which is something I work very hard on for all our games. BB really is the synthesis of those experiences and the menus are the best we’ve done, the gameplay is the tightest we’ve done, and the music is the most “in keeping” with the game I’ve written. The post-mortem for Space Pirates reads like a coroner’s report in which some tortured death is examined in exquisite, horrific detail and I’m pretty keen to avoid feeling that way again. The best way to do that is to write a better game.
WD: Blazin Balls seems to be a complete 180 from the gameplay of Space Pirates from Tomorrow – what thought process brought you to this game?
Yea, I kind of chose it because it is just so stripped down. The best indie games tend to focus on what they do best – The Impossible Game is a good example of that. From a gamers point of view it appeals to me in, and I think this is why “retro” games never really stop being made. The classic 8-bit genres keep getting revisited because people like simple, rewarding games. As a programmer I wanted something short, sweet and simple to regain my self belief. As I’ve said I am proud of Space Pirates but we took one hell of a beating over it. My wife worked out the other day that we earned about one tenth of a cent per day of dev time and although making indie games is usually a labor of love, there are limits! BB seemed ideal because of the simplicity of the idea. Trials HD is basically a 3D remake of an old game called Kickstart on the Commodore 64 and it was a massive hit so I thought, I’ll have some of that!
WD: The trailer fairly clearly shows the basic gameplay for Blazin Balls – how complicated can we expect the gameplay to get / can we get a rundown on the intricacies of the game?
There are no intricacies! No, that’s not entirely true – some of the levels are quite subtle. You’ve really just got to get to the end of the level as fast as you can, collecting as many coins as you can. That’s it. When I started on the game I was trying to explain it to a friend over a drunken game of poker, and it hit me that when you try and explain a game like Tetris it kind of sound lame – you make complete rows out of these irregular falling blocks – but it’s one of the best games ever devised. Everyone understands Tetris. It’s the old maxim of “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. Simple games are fun to play, fun to write, and are very well suited to the indie games channel and what gamers expect from it.But the basic idea is that you have to steer your ball from the start to the end of each level without falling in to any holes as fast as you can, using the different coloured blocks on the level to your advantage where you can. Some blocks make you bounce, some speed you up, some reverse your controls, and the faster your time the more you score. More points mean more lives, and you’ll need them to complete the game! The early levels are easy, but the later levels you have to learn. That only takes a couple of runs through and you can start a new game on any level you’ve already completed. Just score as many points as you can, like games used to be ;0)
WD: Speaking of the gameplay, what game(s) did you take inspiration from in designing Blazin Balls?
A couple of games. Mainly a game called Trailblazer which was written for the Commodore 8-bit platforms in the mid 1980s. There were other incarnations on other platforms (Fervour for the Acorn Electron, and quite a few variants on the Amiga and Atari ST). It’s one of those games where, when people see the trailer they say “hey I remember that! What was it called…?” Sometimes it’s like being in a covers band I guess, and I wish I could come up with something entirely new an unique, but this way of working did OK for Led Zeppelin so who am I to complain?
WD: Does Blazin Balls have a lot of replayability/bonus features, or is the emphasis more on a lighter, casual, pick-up-and-play game?
Light and unashamedly fluffy. In the original design brief I had included unlockable ball designs, a huge soundtrack, more than 50 levels, and a whole load of complex graphic effects but it soon became apparent that those ideas were really pretty pointless. The challenge presents it’s self in the core game play and that is where you should focus as a developer. Carrum had a lot of unlockables and while it was nice, looking back I don’t think it made for a better game. It’s not like there’s a lot of use for weapons in BB and testers just wanted more lives and longer levels so that’s what I gave them. It’s not like this will be the last game I ever write and there are lots of avenues to explore later if there’s an appetite for the game. We think the drive of beating your previous best is the best way to generate replay value. If you have scope to add unlockables or whatever and that makes for a better game then go for it but I really wanted to focus on the guts of the game.
WD: What sort of gamer are you hoping to ‘hook’ with Blazin Balls?
That’s another question I’m just learning to ask myself. It’s really for the puzzle fans I suppose, which is why we’ve billed it as a “racing puzzler” but it’s a bit more of a visceral experience than wordplay. Just your average gamer looking for something a little different. There’re a lot of big BIG games around at the moment, with huge worlds to explore and lots of weapons and lots of objectives. BB is a remedy to that kind of overload.
WD: How long was the development cycle for Blazin Balls?
Ooh I’m going to say about a month of solid work, but I had some time off during the development. It was like a day at the beach compared to Space Pirates, which more of a trek to the South Pole. And I lost a couple of toes while doing it!
WD: Can we expect any sort of online leaderboards or connectivity in Blazin Balls?
No, we have no connectivity in this title. For some games it just seems to be more trouble than it’s worth and I’m a little wary of adding potential bugs! Network components are notoriously hard to code reliably and very hard to test in the XNA environment.
WD: Was Blazin Balls, being your third game on XBLIG, relatively easy to plan and put together, or did you run into any unique challenges?
It gets easier every time in terms of raw code, which in turn makes it easier to implement design choices rather than having to make compromises. One challenge was getting the collision engine working both accurately and pleasantly, but I’m a physicist by trade so it wasn’t too bad. The hardest part really was designing the levels and making them challenging but achievable. That and ripping the controllers out of the hands of our local testers!
WD: As a more seasoned XBLIG developer, what do you think of the current state of XBLIG, the development of the XBLIG platform, and the future challenges of the service?
I think too much is made of “the service”. The top 10 selling Indies last year did a lot better than many expected, but the “just bumping along” titles still did pretty badly. There’s not a problem with the service, or the testing, or the framework but there are problems with most of the games – including ours. That’s the problem we need to overcome as developers. We should be putting our own houses in order before berating Microsoft for our games not selling. It’s like blaming the general manager of the Indianapolis Raceway is you come last in a race. Your car was crap! Look at the sheer class of Your Doodles Are Bugged for example – no problems there, because it’s a great game which is perfect for the service. Look at The Impossible Game. Look at any of the Milkstone titles. The poor Creator’s Club MVPs have been trying to tell us all this from the get-go and people are still blaming someone else for their own problems and shortcomings. The biggest challenge we face is making games which are good enough for Microsoft to allow us access to achievements, LIVE leader boards, and eventually Natal. We got Avatars and there are some good titles now – like Avatar Showdown – but we as individual devs or teams need to raise our game and make out case to gamers, reviewers, and to Microsoft.
WD: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming XBLIG/XNA developers?
You can’t really control if your game is going to be a hit – nobody can. But you can decide if it’s going to flop. Every glitch or bug you let through to release increases your chance of flopping. Every bit of feedback you write of as coming from someone who “doesn’t understand the game” increases your chance of flopping. Also, play your part and review other developers games because you’ll learn a lot and keep the system working.
Well, that’s enough jabbering to get you thinking about gamedev logic and get you psyched up about Blazin Balls! Blazin Balls is expected to hit Peer Review early this week, and be available on XBLIG the second it clears that hurdle!
Learn more about MStar Games at their website.
Watch the trailer for Blazin Balls here.
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