Simon of Voxel Agents talks about their game, Train Conductor
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Interviewer: I’m at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Simon: Hi, I’m Simon Joslin. I’m the game designer of the Voxel Agents. We’re a small indie studio in Melbourne, Australia.
Interviewer: What game have you done right now?
Simon: The game that we’ve released most recently is Train Conductor. It’s out on the iPhone Apps Store. It’s been out since December, and we’re about to do a big update for it. We’re going to include some more American content into the game. So the game originally was Australian specific content, and I had four Australian cities in it. Now, we’re going to add the Grand Canyon and New York City subway.
Interviewer: What was the response when you released the game?
Simon: It was good. It was really good because we worked so long on it that we really weren’t sure. We were kind of at this point in our studio where it was sort of make or break. We actually had about a hundred bucks left in the bank. It was after a year of making iPhone games. Oh, we had one out previous to that.
Yeah, basically, we were like, fingers crossed and submit. And then, it did well. It did really well. We sold about 24,000 units in six weeks, so at $2.00 a pop it did pretty well. We’re happy. It’s basically enabled us to keep going and people loving it.
Interviewer: The train theme seems to work really well.
Simon: Yeah. It’s interesting how some places really love it. Like, Germany, Italy and Japan, they’re all train freaks. They love it. It’s been great to hear, so that’s been really good.
Interviewer: What’s been the audience? Is it mainly men, women, kids?
Simon: Well, I don’t have specific figures, but from what I’m seeing on the net, we’re really active on Touch Arcade and a couple of the forums and stuff, it seems to be people who like the really mechanic driven stuff, like the game play center kind of stuff, also really casual, simple but has a nice kind of level of complexity and depth to it. So, it starts easy but then builds up. Yeah, I don’t have specifics.
Interviewer: What were some of the design challenges as you were developing the game?
Simon: Well, there’s been a couple of things, like whether or not to include our patches and whether to go down the free mode. Initially, we were thinking to make it a free game, basically let out a couple levels free, release it earlier and then build on it as we got interest.
But I think we ultimately stepped away from that just because we kind of really liked the game and we wanted to keep working on it to really get it to a more complete state, like rather than releasing it and then it being really short and only having one or two levels. We just wanted to keep going and give it a bit more meat. We felt like it was strong enough that it could stand on its own merits as a whole, like a complete game. So, I guess we just kind of kept going, yeah, and spent about four months on it.
Interviewer: Were you doing play testing while you were developing the game?
Simon: Yeah. Yeah. We always do, obviously, amongst friends and stuff. We actually have this kind of relatively unique way of play testing because we go out on the streets where – initially we’re in the city – we go out on the streets with the game and then just approach people on the side of the street and, you know, try and take them aside and then show them the game and see what they thought and stuff. It’s kind of interesting.
Interviewer: How does that work?
Simon: Well, we sort of stop doing that after a while because we figure there’s actually some interesting differences in the kind of attitudes they have, just purely because they’re on their way to do something, right? And then you stop them and they’re like, oh OK, yeah, I’ll play the game. That sounds OK, but ultimately they’re trying to get on with their thing.
So now, we try and put out notices and we’ve been posting on forums and stuff, saying anyone who is interested we’re looking for, like not specifically hard core gamers because they just know too much because they’re always way too good. So, we try and get people in now and test them that way. It’s a bit more relaxed.
Interviewer: Your game, though, it still has a sense of speed and timing in it. Are you thinking about removing that or adjusting it so that casual players can access it more? I know you have a special motive but…
Simon: Yeah, well we have a couple things. As you said, we have a special motive, the ghost trains, but we also have – I guess you might have a bit of this skewed because you’re watching me play and I’ve been playing way too long. But definitely when you start playing, like the Alice Springs level is kind of like a tutorial level like it only has three tracks, pretty simple, nice easy entry into the game.
And then, as you go through, we only incrementally add stuff to make it a bit more complicated. So, you can play through the Cannes level quite simply without, say, adding on fast forward because then you’re working at double speed. We also scale the number of trains. We scale the speed. We scale the difficulty of how they spawn and stuff like that and where they want to go. There’s quite a lot of intricate stuff in the way it chooses where to spawn the train and where it wants to go and the timing and the order.
So, we have like a dynamic scale in there in place for, depending on how the player is playing in that particular level. As you play really well, it ramps up with you, and then if you make a couple of mistakes, it scales back down a bit.
Interviewer: Did you use any engine to accelerate the development of this game?
Simon: I probably should have. Looking back now, I would definitely go with Unity. It looks like it’s really strong. I was speaking to the guys on the floor. They’ve got some great stuff. Ultimately, we didn’t because back when we started the company Unity didn’t have an iPhone version and torque was a bit – it was good but probably not where we wanted to go. So, we just made our own and then we continued on with our Train Conductor. We will be checking out torque if we move on to bigger stuff, like really 3D intensive games, multiple levels and stuff like that.
The other big thing is that it’s very hard or, maybe, even impossible to get your Unity game on the 10 meg and that previously was a concern because you could only download up to 10 meg over the air on the iPhone. Now, they upped it to 20 megs so, maybe, that’s different. I don’t know but that was a consideration for us.
Interviewer: I guess, anything else? Are you going to follow this theme and, maybe, make other types of games with different game genres but just the train theme, which seems to work really well. Or are you going to focus on this type of game player?
Simon: Well, we’re going to do other titles that aren’t related to trains, and we’re going to do them on other platforms as well. We’re going to have a couple more iPhone games coming out this year that won’t be trains. They’ll be something else. But we also are looking at taking trains elsewhere. Obviously, it works really well with the Touch, and so Windows Phone and Android are very good candidates for that. Yeah, we’ll consider it. I think it could possibly work on Mouse. That’s how we prototyped it initially, so we could do that. It could work very well with Steam, but beyond that I’m not sure.
Interviewer: Can you talk about the prototype process some more? How did you prototype this, and when did you realize you had something potentially interesting?
Simon: Sure. Well, initially what we kind of do is after we finished off we went and spent about two to three days just dedicated to sitting around brain storming. Sometimes, you’ll have good periods. Sometimes, you’ll have bad. Like, you can’t really force creativity and actually what happened with Train Conductor is we came up with 80 ideas and tossing things back and forth.
We do lots of things because we have a history of competing in a competition where basically you’re given three key words and you have to create a game out of those key words. So, that’s really, really useful for us. We used that. We just pick three random words and then try and make a game. If nothing comes out in 10 minutes, then we move on and do other ones.
We did a whole bunch of these, and we came up with all of these ideas, but in the end it was, like, us sitting around, having a smoke – well, Tom smokes – having a smoke or just like having a break and then Matt was just doodling and he drew on these train tracks on a page. And we were like, oh yeah, and they could move horizontally and they could connect up and the ideas just started flowing.
Interviewer: Awesome. So, do you find that technique of just spending a lot of time trying to figure it out consciously and then all of a sudden when you’re somewhere else, it just comes through.
Simon: It often happens that way. The other thing we do, I guess, is that as soon as we have about six to eight ideas, I think, we went off and we all programmed because we all know how to program, we all programmed one idea each, but we have another person as the designer. So, we’re all in a triangle situation, one design and one programmer per idea and we all share. You can’t have one designer and one programmer on one idea. And then, we made six ideas and it was just obvious that Train Conductor was the strongest.
Interviewer: And so, how does that work when you have people working on multiple – or the prototypes you just have different – mixing and matching. How does that work?
Simon: Well, it was the idea. We didn’t necessarily follow it verbatim, but the idea was that, OK you’ve got three ideas and we’re going to make them all concurrently. Each of three people, one person is the designer of one idea, one of the other, and one of the other. And then that person pairs up with one of the others as their programmer.
One person is in charge of designing it and like keeping an overview and trying to help design the game, basically. The other person is just focused on achieving the results in programming because we find there’s a lot of fighting between your designer brain and your programmer brain.
Interviewer: That’s a really good point.
Simon: What we tried to do was to basically separate those two roles, and then that way you would spend half your time designing and half your time programming but on separate projects.
Interviewer: Was this the first game that you did that for, or did you do that for a previous game, too?
Simon: No. That was new. That was for this because I knew we had a problem.
Interviewer: That’s an interesting process. Is that something that you’re going to do moving forward because you’re absolutely right about you don’t want to feel the pain of the programming when you’re thinking of the design.
Simon: Yeah. Yeah. Totally. It is pain because you’re just biting yourself. You’re like, oh no, I don’t want to make that feature. I just coded all that stuff. So, yeah, we will be doing that again in the future, and we’re moving back into prototyping soon.
Simon: The other good one, as I said, was that three words and then combine it and try and make ideas out of that. That’s worked really well for us. We’ve enjoyed that comp. We’re going back to that comp again in October.
Interviewer: You used Flash to prototype everything then, right?
Simon: Yeah. Well, Tom and I program in Flash because we’re very comfortable with it. We’ve been working on it for years, but Matt prefers to program just straight on the iPhone. So, I guess, we also choose whose program based on what’s appropriate for the platforms. We mix it up.
Interviewer: Cool. Any other suggestions then for indie game studios or indie game developers to make solid games, interesting games? You talked about those design programming techniques which I think are totally awesome. Anything else?
Simon: Let’s see. Well, I guess from our point of view we would like to make very much game play centric stuff, so we’re not story driven game developers. So, for us we’re always about trying to find out a mechanic that works and yeah just boning through the ideas. I know it sounds really clich