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The Future of Gaming: Igneous

Igneous 1The 2010 IGF Student Winners have been announced and 10 different titles landed in the spotlight. At the festival in March, the 10 will compete for an overall Best Student Game Prize, but to get to this point they definitely had to be special. We’ve dug through them all and contacted their developers in a series of interviews called The Future of Gaming. Because if anyone is going to take over the industry, it’s these bright minds.

The other title that emerged from Digipen in this year’s IGF is Igneous. We heard from the Dreamside Maroon Digipen team on Friday, but here’s what their friendly rivals have to say. Created from the ground up, with a disclaimer making sure you’re aware of that fact, Igneous follows a tiki totem as it rolls its way through the innards of an exploding volcano. Part racing game, part heart attack, this title is an impressive feat for student gaming. The game is available for download from its website. I was able to get in touch with the team via email, and a copy of our Q & A session lies below.

DIYgamer: The term “pulse-pounding” gets thrown around quite a lot in entertainment, but I think Igneous has earned the description. Great work on the game.

Ben Gable: Thank you! Its great to hear that you enjoyed the game.

Chris Howard: Thank you very much, it’s great to hear when people really get the reaction we were trying to get out of people when they play our game.

DIY: Can you introduce yourselves and your positions on the project?

Ben Gable: My name is Ben Gable and I was the Producer on Igneous. I am a senior in the RTIS program at DigiPen.

Chris Howard: I’m Chris Howard, I am a senior RTIS student at Digipen Institute of Technology and I am the Graphics Engine programmer and Art Director for Igneous.

Will Graham: My name is Will Graham, I am a senior RTIS student at Digipen Institute of Technology and I am the game play programmer and Technical Director on Igneous.

DIY: How did you come together as a team to work on this project? Did the school assign groups or were you able to choose who you wanted to work with?

Will Graham: At DigiPen everyone always chooses their own team consisting of four to five people. Cameron and I had worked together on previous games and wanted to continue with that. Chris joined us when we went looking for someone who wanted to make a graphics engine for a game shooting for IGF. And Ben joined us when we went searching for a producer to keep us on track.

Chris Howard: For my part, I was somewhat of a free agent at the end of Sophomore year, when most people are deciding who to work with on their Junior year projects. I knew I wanted to make a sweet 3D graphics engine, Will and Cameron contacted me as they had been working on a team before and we realized we had similar goals (To win the IGF) and a team that covered the major bases. Most 3D teams will need a dedicated physics and graphics programmer if they want to get anything running and sometimes it can be hard to find people who really want to do either.

We do get to choose our own teams, but we had a bit of a twist. We signed up for a somewhat special game class, where the instructors experimented with having “Lead” roles: People with skill in a particular area who had the capacity to work on multiple teams. Ben Gable was one such person. He produced both our game, and another fantastic game, Kabloom. We were offered the chance to get Ben as our lead producer and honestly we were a bit leery about the idea at first, as we didn’t see the need for a producer for a tech heavy student game. We soon found out that Ben was worth his weight in gold.

Ben Gable: Yes, every year DigiPen students get into teams to make games. We are able to pick who we work with and what kind of game we want to make. Will, Cameron and Chris had formed a team and I was looking to join a team as a producer. We met up one day to see if things would work out and found that we all shared the passion to make a game that would go to IGF. I joined them after that as their producer and our motto quickly became “IGF or bust.”

DIY: What other notable projects had you guys worked on before getting to this point?

Chris Howard: Well, most of my experience comes from projects I worked on for DigiPen, we have to make a game every year so I had two other finished game projects under my belt before starting Igneous. I honestly wouldn’t say either of them were particularly notable strictly as games, they were more learning experiences from a technical perspective. You don’t really have the experience or the knowledge to make a full blown game until your third year, but you still learn a ton of practical lessons you can only get from actually finishing game projects which are invaluable when it comes time for your Junior game.

Ben Gable: There weren’t any really notable projects that came before Igneous. As Chris mentioned, we had games that we worked on for our 1st and 2nd year at DigiPen, but they were far from being complete and were more of a learning experience that helped us when it came to developing Igneous.

Igneous 3DIY: Where did the initial concept come from?

Will Graham: When we first started brainstorming about what kind of game to make, our producer Ben had the great idea of, “What if you’re on a bridge, and it’s exploding?”, and the rest of us didn’t think that was much of a game concept at all, and dismissed it as dumb as hell. After that the initial concept was a 3D action shooter where you controlled a tiki totem that manipulated a bunch of obsidian rocks (think Rumble from Kameo). We wanted to do something with physics that hadn’t been used much so we decided on a volcano setting to use lava soft bodies, which became the enemies you’d fight. After working on this design for a while, going through a shooting phase, then a melee oriented combat phase, we didn’t think that we’d have the time or manpower to really put out a fun and polished experience. So when we were brainstorming on what to do next, our producer Ben asks, “What if you’re on a bridge, and it’s exploding?” The rest of us decided that was an amazing game concept and decided to strip everything out and focus on just trying to survive through epic situations.

Chris Howard: Really, it was more chance and a combination of things than anything else. We went through a ton of design changes throughout the course of developing the game. We had countless meetings where we tried to figure out what we wanted to do for a game, most of our goals were technological (Cameron for doing something interesting with his physics engine, me for doing something graphically impressive) so we didn’t have much of a plan when it came to actual game design. Most of our “design meetings” consisted of Ben saying something off the wall (some gems are “Why don’t we have a game where you…. punch…. things….” or “What if you were a miner, who blew up a mountain with dynamite”) and us generally not getting anything done. We just kept working on our respective engines and throwing ideas out until something stuck, once it did we had the tools to make a prototype and try it out. We gave a couple ideas a shot before throwing them away before getting to our final design, the original idea is nothing like the final product.

Originally it was going to be a first-person weightless space platformer if you can believe it. We killed that idea fairly quickly and focused on something more possible for us to actually accomplish with the time constraints, like a brawler about an idol made of rocks punching lava blobs inside a volcano. This was doable, but we quickly realized that to make this concept truly fun and polished, it was going to take a whole lot of extra development time. Testing and tweaking all of the power ups, special moves, different enemy types…. All of that would have to be balanced and iterated upon to make it the experience we would have wanted, and with just three engineers (only one of whom was actually working on gameplay) who were taking 18+ credits we realized we just didn’t have the time.

In February we met with our professors to determine what to do about the brawler game, or figure out a new game to make. We had the flexibility to go after any game we set our minds to, so long as we thought we could polish the experience. We had all just played the PS3 indie title “Flower” and we were into the idea of making a game that was more about an experience than a formal game, something that really grabbed people for a short amount of time and gave them an unforgettable memory. This was combined with one of Ben’s goofy ideas in which he simply said “What if we made a game… where you were on this bridge…. and it was exploding….” At the time we dismissed it, but at the design meeting we somehow came back to that really simple concept and decided to make a level where we put a bunch of bricks down like a bridge, and have them blow up behind you. It turned out to be a lot more fun than we ever anticipated, and we basically iterated on the “Run from X” concept for the rest of the levels.

DIY: The gameplay is quite like a more formal racing game, had you ever considered a multiplayer aspect?

Will Graham: If we had started with the design we ended with, we’d have definitely had multiplayer planned out. Also, the whole thing didn’t really become apparent to us until much later in the development cycle. When I first implemented the bridge level, the player moved significantly slower, I wasn’t changing things like field of view as you move faster, and it didn’t really feel like a racing game that much, more of just a slightly faster platformer. As we continued to implement more levels and change stuff around, the focus of the design kept focusing on more and more speed. A lot of people like to compare the game to 3D Sonic games and we think it’s kind of funny because we never intended to make a Sonic-like game, it just kind of happened due to a lot of iteration and tweaks.

Chris Howard: Yes, it’s something we would have liked to have done for sure. However like most things that aren’t in the game, it was mostly about time and resource constraints. We were already working as much as the human body can endure right up to the submission deadline, so if we put something else in we’d be taking that time away from something else. We wanted to make sure the parts that were in the game were actually worthy of people’s time to play, so we didn’t take on any tasks we didn’t think we could completely nail.

DIY: What other games and designers helped inspire you along the way?

Will Graham: Kameo for the initial design. Dino Run for that sense of always about to die from some big catastrophe behind you. Marble Madness because technically the player is just a sphere rolling around a world. A bit from the last level of Halo 3 for the bridge.

Chris Howard: I just want to point out that even though we get it a lot, we never mentioned Sonic in any of our design meetings. I was most inspired by the ending scenes in Halo and Halo 3, the parts with the Warthog. Just the way that they do a great job in keeping the pressure on you and making you feel like you are narrowly escaping this destruction, without making it terribly difficult. In those games this tends to kill the suspension of disbelief when you mess up and the destruction behind you just sort of waits for you to catch up. We decided to take a bit more hard-line stance and actually shut you down if you failed. This unflinching following through on our threat of destruction is what creates a lot of the tension in the game, people feel a lot more pressure if they know you aren’t afraid to give them the axe. Of course Flower was an influence as I stated before. The feeling we were going for is almost the exact opposite of Flower’s though.

Ben Gable: A lot of the design eventually came from the notion that we wanted to create an experience rather than a traditional “game.” We looked at a lot of ending sequences from games where you beat the last boss and think its over, but have to do one final challenge to truly beat the game. We really wanted to capture that feeling of pressure and danger. You are inside an erupting volcano after all!

Igneous 2DIY: When you start the game, its full of disclaimers about the game’s authentic nature. Can you talk about the technical side of the creation process?

Will Graham:We’re very proud of creating what we have from scratch. Basically Chris wanted to make an awesome graphics engine, Cameron wanted to make an awesome physics engine, and I made everything else that used those engines and created a game.

Ben Gable: The technical creation process for the version of the game you see today was all about iteration. Once we came up with a level design we thought would be fun, I would take the idea and make a level mesh using 3DS Max. After I finished the basic static mesh, I used a plug-in that Chris wrote to place dynamic objects such as block towers, lava pools, torches, etc in the static mesh. I then handed it over to Will so he could place event triggers throughout the level using the same plug-in. He used Lua to hook up the event triggers he placed in 3DS Max to the game engine so that things would actually happen once the Tiki Totem hit them.

When everything was hooked up, we would play the game ourselves and determine what worked and what didn’t. If it was good enough, the mesh would go back to me where I would stitch up holes in the mesh, add more ambient decorations, and anything else that needed to be done. Will would go in and adjust triggers more and Chris went through and placed particle systems and lights. It was only after passing the level through each person multiple times that we came out with our final “level.”

Chris Howard: The technical side of the creation process pretty much WAS the creation process. When we started the project we had nothing but an empty Visual Studio project and heads full of dreams of winning the IGF. We used very little outside code to get our game done; the biggest exception is of course FMOD, which we did use for our sound engine. For my graphics engine the only outside resources I depend upon are the DirectX 9.0c graphics API, and the Standard Template Library, everything else is 100% my code. I was also in charge of developing the tools for the game, I wrote a level editor which works as a plugin to 3DSMax, and I wrote a rather extensive tool which we used to create materials for the game objects, and editing special effects like particle systems and triggered objects.

The bulk of my and Cameron’s work the last year and a half hasn’t been really making a game, it’s been researching and developing engines and creating tools to make the basic framework of a fully fledged 3D engine work, so that Will could make the game on top of those powerful engines. A lot of work goes into these engines that is really difficult to see, like figuring out what objects should and shouldn’t be drawn in a given frame to boost performance; or figuring out the best way to tell the engine how a particular object should be drawn, maximizing both flexibility and efficiency; or what’s the best way to structure a Post Processing pipeline, so we can do fun things like motion blur and HDR rendering. A lot of my time was spent reading articles put out by various game companies, graphics hardware companies or SIGGRAPH presentations so I could learn how to milk as much processing power as I could from the graphics card. I learned a lot of cool tricks along the way that I think really sets us apart visually.

A particular area of focus for me was lighting. We needed a lot of dynamic lights in the game because technically everything could be moved by the physics engine, so it was a bad idea to pre-calculate lighting conditions when the whole game world could potentially be destroyed. I did a considerable amount of research into a technique known as Deferred Lighting, which works really well for a lot of dynamic lights, and has seen use in recent AAA games such as Killzone 2. I did extensive research and made numerous optimizations to my particular engine to best suit the needs of the game, incorporating ideas from the similar Light-Pre-Pass technique and its extension, Inferred Lighting.

DIY: As a student team, what were the most difficult elements you still had to learn to create the finished product?

Will Graham: The most difficult elements to me were finding gameplay that was genuinely fun, which is something you can’t really teach in school and it took us a while to find a concept we thought would live up to our expectations. Another thing was finding the ideas for each level and then getting them fun to play. We wish we had more levels, but our game basically requires that each level be epic enough to be the final level in other games, like the last level of Halo 3 or Ocarina of Time. There’s a reason you don’t see a lot of those levels though, because they’re quite hard to build and make fun, and we’re quite happy about the three levels we have in the game.

Chris Howard: Well the tech is an obvious one, I’d never done a 3D engine before and I was essentially told “Here’s a blank slate, you have your previous two years training, make graphics happen. Go!” So that was certainly a daunting task. I understood the underlying mathematics, but understanding how something works and actually getting into the thick of it are two different things.

Of course there were also plenty of game design lessons to be had. The biggest thing I took away from this was that if you want to make your game fun and professional looking, cut anything that isn’t going to be amazing. Anything less will detract from the parts that are amazing. We cut tons of levels, technical features and game ideas because when we playtested them they turned out to just not be fun. We accepted nothing but the best of what we could come up with for the final product, and killed the rest. Your game is only as fun as its most boring moment, and each moment is only as fun as the least interesting part. Everything has to come together throughout the whole game or people don’t walk away satisfied.

Igneous 4DIY: Can you talk about the sound effects and music? Without sound, the game just isn’t the same and even after multiple deaths, the music keeps the action moving. How did it all come together so smoothly?

Ben Gable: We knew early on that we would need to have really good sound effects and music to set the tone of the game and make it into the experience we wanted. Originally it was suggested that we use a heavy metal soundtrack. Basically intense music for an intense game. We tested a few metal tracks but quickly found out that it just didn’t fit the style of the game. Since our setting was inside of a volcano and our character was a tiki totem, we started looking in the direction of tribal music. There were videos of Japanese taiko drummers that really caught my ear due to the sheer speed and intensity of the songs they were playing. I also felt it was much easier to make tribal type music with my limited musical knowledge! I ended up listening to a lot of drum heavy music from various sources and used a program called Fruity Loops to compose the tracks using drum samples from the DigiPen sound library. I tried to make them as menacing, deep, and intense as I could. I thought the constant drumming really kept things going and implied that the danger never ceased.

For the sound effects, we used a ton of different explosions, rock smashes, fire cracklings, and lava gurgling to add a little bit of ambiance everywhere. It took a lot of editing in Fruity Loops and playing with the sound engine to get it to sound like an erupting volcano, but in the end we were very happy with how things turned out. Again, constant iteration was the key.

DIY: What parts of the game are you most proud of?

Will Graham: I’m definitely most proud of the fact that I find our game fun to play, and every now and then I’ll boot it up and enjoy it for 20 minutes or so.

Ben Gable: I echo Will and am very happy that I feel like we made a fun game. I still have fun running through it and its great hearing about/watching people have fun with it as well. I really think we nailed our vision of an “erupting volcano” as well. I’m very proud that we were able to make a short, intense, and fun experience.

Chris Howard: The amount of polish. We did a ton of work not only on the tech, but on iterating on the design, and what we needed the tech to do to make sure it was fun. I built my editor to accommodate quick changes to shader effects, post processing effects and for doing composite objects with special effects, like the snake heads who shoot fire out their eyes and mouth at random time intervals. All of that has to be meticulously tweaked and we had to have a robust underlying architecture to allow us the freedom to make these adjustments according to playtest feedback and our intuition. There’s so many small things that go on throughout the course of playing the game which players may not be directly aware of, but contribute to the overall look and feel of the game. That’s where the power of our engines and the dedication of the team really shines through.

DIY: What’s next for all of you?

Ben Gable: Finish up DigiPen and wonder what the future and GDC holds!

Chris Howard: Well this is our last semester at DigiPen, so we’re finishing up school and looking for jobs in the industry!

Will Graham: GDC in March, on the hunt for a job.

DIY: Are you guys going to make it down to San Francisco for IGF?

Chris Howard: For sure, all of us will be at the GDC booth. Come and see us if you are in the Expo hall! We’d love to see you!

Will Graham: Oh yeah we’ll all be there for sure.

DIY: What advice would you give someone considering pursuing an education in game design?

Chris Howard: It’s impossible to tell what is fun until you implement it and playtest it. No one sits in a room and issues edicts on what a good game is. If you think you have a good idea for a game, prototype it, playtest the heck out of it and iterate on it. Never stop playtesting and iterating on your design and don’t be afraid to cut out stuff that just isn’t fun, no matter how hard you worked on it. Better to cut it now than later, when you’re out of time.

Ben Gable: For someone who wants to pursue a degree in game development/design, know that playing games and making them are two totally different things. Its a lot of hard hard work and you really have to stick with it and dedicate your time to doing it. Everything is always changing as well–from game designs to the technology that you use to build them. Know that game development/design is what you *really* want to do and be prepared for challenges that seem impossible to do at first! Keep at it and Never give up!

Will Graham: You get out what you put in, if you don’t have the dedication to stick with it and do the work, you’re not going to have much to show for it.

DIY: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Chris Howard: I’d just like to say thanks to all the generous game companies who are willing to share their knowledge through posting their GDC or SIGGRAPH presentations online. I really don’t know how I would have figured out how to do half the stuff I did without those tremendously useful resources.

Ben Gable: Thanks to everyone who playtested the game and gave us feedback throughout the entire development process! We would not be where we are if it weren’t for the people who told us our game sucked and how we could fix it. :)

Will Graham: A big driving force to the development of our game was the competition from our fellow students at DigiPen. Games like Dreamside Maroon (other student winner from DP), Solar Flare, and Attack of the 50ft Robot were always pushing us to work harder on Igneous because they were so good. They kept us unsatisfied with what we currently had, and without that we wouldn’t have the game we finished with, so thanks for that all of you.

DIY: Thank again you guys. Good luck in the run for the Grand Prize.

Ben Gable: Thanks again!

You can go download Igneous right now from its website.

Full Series: The Future of Gaming
*Ulitsa Dimitrova
*Devil’s Tuning Fork
*Boryokudan Rue
*Dreamside Maroon
*Paper Cakes
*Puzzle Bloom