Remember that first spark of creative inspiration that paved the way for your first ham-fisted voyage into the abyssal void of gaming development?
If your naively well-intentioned attempts at forging a legacy of innovation were as futile as my own, you’ll no doubt also recall the sobering aftermath of your fetid endeavours. As it turns out, no, nobody wanted to play through a half-baked LittleBigPlanet 2 platforming level in the style of SuperTed and, yes, you should probably follow your gut instinct and leave the artistry to the grown-ups.
It’s perhaps ironic, then, that one of the prime examples of creative dynamism from said grown-ups is actually a sprightly embodiment of the innocence of childhood imagination. Andy’s Notepad (Saucers) was released a couple of days ago via the Xbox Live Indie Games service amidst a parade of youthfully-inspired, yet ingeniously crafted doodles and a hearty serving of frenzied space shooting gameplay, and we at IGM couldn’t be more intrigued if it came with a William Shatner voiceover and a free box of Fuzzy Felt.
With my interest well and truly piqued, I engaged in an in-depth chat with developer Coneware’s Ken Cone (KC), who, along with right-hand man Justin, poured his heart and soul into what’s shaped up to be a package of mercurial proportions indeed.
IGM: First and foremost, can you give us a brief outline of the concept behind Andy’s Notepad (Saucers) and some of its key gameplay mechanics?
KC: Sure. The first part of the concept is a kid with a yellow notepad who likes to draw. Andy is imagining flying saucers piloted by aliens.
Before you ask, I’ll just tell you that Andy’s a made-up person. People ask, “Who’s Andy?” And we say Andy’s just a kid, you know? So, he likes to draw and this time, he’s using one of those old four-color BIC pens – remember the blue and white plastic ones with the four-color buttons at the top? Black, blue, green and red were the colors you could choose from, and those are the only colors we use in this game.
Andy’s Notepad (Saucers) is a sketchy-style game, and we intentionally kept everything as simple as possible, from the graphics to the sounds to the gameplay. We want our players to be able to use their imaginations, do their own thing and invent their own story every time they play the game.
One of the first thing players will notice (after the graphics and whimsical soundtrack) is the gravity mechanic. There is a strong gravitational pull toward the planet. Because of this gravity, some play testers died once or twice before they learned how to pilot their saucers. It’s quickly learned, though.
IGM: We’re aware that the game will feature both single-player and local multiplayer gameplay, but in what ways will each gameplay mode differ from their counterparts? Can we expect the presence or absence of human opponents to affect the player’s tactical approach?
KC: That’s an interesting question. Saucers is one game with consistent gameplay, graphics, sound and vibration, but single-player and multiplayer do have a significant difference.
The multiplayer game is pretty cool, especially if you play the game with four players. Our families both think Saucers is the most fun when you’re playing with a bunch of people. You can hang back and play with each other, experiment, whatever. Each game is new because people are unpredictable and you can play with them.
The single player game is interesting in a different way. It’s more of a “leveler.” Each new round, players meet new aliens with unique saucers, custom weapons and significantly changing behaviors, so you have to develop and learn new tactics for each one. You don’t play with them; you fight them. It’s a bit more fast paced and a lot more aggressive.
This is the first real AI that I ever developed. So when I was playtesting it one evening, and my wife had to ask me which saucer I was; that was a huge compliment. The computers can play fairly realistically. Of course, they will never be your friend, so the feel of the game is very different between the single-player mode, which is very tactical, and the multiplayer mode, which is more of a party game.
IGM: Speaking of tactics, what can you tell us about the game’s upgrade system?
KC: Each round, you’re awarded a certain number of points, depending largely on the number of enemies that were killed. After the round is over, you get to take the points you’ve earned in the round and purchase weapon upgrades.
There are four basic weapons: Photon Torpedoes, Phase Bombs and Lasers, and then you’ve got the Death Ray. The Death Ray’s not upgradable. The other three weapons have six weapon levels, and you can see what level your weapons are when you pull the triggers and see the HUD expand out of your saucer. The icons you see there match the icons on the weapons upgrade screen.
The upgrade screen shows your saucer and then you can upgrade each of the first three weapons. There’s a visual difference between each weapon level along with an increasing damage effect. And by the way, there’s increasing vibration power for each weapon level on the lasers. I’m especially proud of how we used vibration in this game. I wonder if players will notice…
IGM: The game’s official trailer was striking for a number of reasons, but its most immediately eye-catching facet was the hugely impressive manner in which it showcased the game’s hand-drawn graphical style. Was this particular aesthetic something that you were pushing for right from the get-go? Were there any major revisions that had to be made during the development process?
KC: Thanks! We’re really glad you liked it; we were happy with our game trailer too. That was all Justin. As far as the style goes, we always knew we wanted this to be some sort of sketchy game, but the first few concepts Justin sent me were nothing like what we have now. I really like how Justin works; I guess he’s used to working with others over long distances, so he’s gotten really good at communicating using electronic media. Because of that, we have quite a collection of concept art.
Anyway, yes, the notepad concept came very near the beginning. Justin has done some indie development with another friend in their company, 3DAL. They do iOS apps more with an educational focus for children. So I had this idea for a space game and asked Justin if he’d do graphics for me. He talked with Bruce of 3DAL and we all agreed that Justin and I would start Coneware and focus it in the Xbox / Windows area. I also had the crazy idea that I was going to code this game in a couple days and we’d have something simple and fun that we could release. Boy, was I wrong! We started over Christmas break and released on 6/29 – six months!
Anyway, the major revision wasn’t the graphical style, or even the soundtrack and sounds. It was the single-player mechanics; we had to do a full rewrite of the AI.
IGM: Given that Andy’s Notepad marks your first foray into console development, we’d be interested to get your take on the Xbox Live Indie Games service. We’ve heard plenty of mixed reports on the approachability of Microsoft’s development tools from a designer’s perspective, but it’s also been a platform upon which several success stories, most notably FortressCraft, have been forged. Was there anything that particularly attracted you to the idea of Xbox 360 development?
KC: What really attracted me to Xbox was that I really wanted to get into indie games with Justin, and he had an exclusive agreement with his partner in 3DAL for iOS, so that wasn’t an option for me. I didn’t really look at Android; any developer can see the incredible fragmentation there; that’s untenable. Justin and I both have Xbox consoles, and I’m familiar with MS tools, and really, I love to play indie games on the 360, so that was the venue that made sense.
As far as the mixed reports go, I think you’ve got to take those with a bucket of salt. There are some pretty impatient people out there who think they should be able to develop a game in two weeks, release it and everyone at Microsoft needs to drop what they’re doing and work on their problem. At the same time, it’s pretty clear that the app hub and msdn just aren’t MS’s core business. I’ve sent emails and received nothing, not even an automated response. Problems will occur on the service with astoundingly little feedback to developers, and then, one day, the problem is gone. No explanation; it just works again.
The biggest negative experience I had didn’t affect me too badly, but that was only because I had to go on a business trip for a week. I was still pretty frustrated, though. Sometime in March, I think, all of a sudden the XNA Connect app wouldn’t allow my host computer to talk to the target (the Xbox). I got on the forums and nobody could deploy their projects to their Xbox. Can you imagine how frustrating this is? I wanted to give Justin a test build to hammer on while I was gone, but I couldn’t. I had to get on a plane and while I was gone, I followed the forums everyday. There was a thread where a lot of frustrated developers vented. I got home a week later and it was fixed just a few hours after that. It took a week! To this day, I have no idea what the problem was, just that MS was working on it and then they got it fixed. So the support side of things could use improvement.
On the other hand, the tools are good. I mean, Visual Studio 2010 is just a great embedded development environment. I’ve got that tied in with Bazaar and a couple other plug-ins and it just works. Also, when we went to release this game, we had prepared ourselves for a 48 hour delay, but from the time I pushed the “Publish Now” button to the time it showed up on the store, well, it was about two hours. We were shocked.
IGM: What would you consider to be the areas in which you’ve needed to be the most meticulous over with regards to the game’s fine-tuning? Were there any particular aspects of the game the required a significant amount of tinkering to meet your creative vision?
KC: Oh, absolutely. Our first attempt at computer player AI just didn’t work. Justin kept saying that he hated it; I mean, he was polite, but that’s what he was really saying. I threw all that code away. I still have a file (called AI_Collection.cs) with the thousand or so lines of code I ripped out.
So at one point, we had resigned ourselves to releasing a game that was 2-4 players and had no single-player mode.We released the game to playtest and people enjoyed it, but they kept saying we weren’t going to sell as many copies because they didn’t have anyone else to play with. Justin knew we had to have a single-player mode, but I hadn’t figured out how to do it yet.
Well, I read and read, and finally found a book someone recommended on the XNA forum that talked about steering behaviors. I was making it way too complicated. Once I discovered steering behaviors, it all worked out. So then we started implementing each round of single-player with the unique weapons and saucers and piloting. We probably spent 6-8 weeks just developing and fine-tuning the computer players.
IGM: As a two-man team, you’re arguably the quintessential example of an independent studio. Going forward, are there any plans to continue Andy’s adventures with his fanciful notepad and, if so, are you intending to remain a dynamic duo?
KC: Oh, of course. If you read the splash screen, you’ll see it says, “Andy’s Notepad (Chapter One) Saucers.” For our next game, we’re working on… well… Chapter Two, and yes, for the foreseeable future, Coneware will be building a library of Andy’s Notepad games.
We both really love doing this and hope to do this for a long, long time. And since Coneware is a partnership of Ken and Justin, we plan to keep going forward developing with each other.
IGM: There’s evidently a fair few string to the game’s bow, and it’s clear that it will boast several features that resonate with gamers at face value. Still, we’re always eager to discover an extra secret or two, so could you make our day and confirm the existence of an Easter egg or two?
KC: Sure, why not? One of the many cool, unadvertised features (or Easter eggs) is that when your saucer is destroyed, you expect that to be it, right? I mean, you think, “There I go; I’m dead now,” but that’s not quite the case. When your saucer explodes, your alien flies out (and sometimes your pet), but this alien is still yours. You still have control. It’s limited, but you’re still part of the game.
So somebody wanted aliens to fall out of saucers when they exploded; I can’t remember who. We talked about it and Justin sketched this concept to show me what he had in mind when a saucer explodes. You can see here that each saucer has its own alien, and each alien has its own pet. He had implemented kind of a random thing that the saucer explodes and all these parts come out, and one of these aliens do too and then maybe a pet does or maybe it doesn’t, but it was random. He wanted each unique saucer to be matched with each unique alien, so that’s what we did.
Again, in playtest, we learned that people bring something new to our game – our creation – that we didn’t plan or expect. As soon as we allowed the players to control their aliens, we saw them using them in multiplayer mode as a strategic part of their gameplay. It just added another small dynamic to the game.
I really like how we work together. If I have an idea, or one of our wives, or even our kids have an idea, we’ll say, “Let’s playtest that.” Justin will draw something; I’ll hack it out, and we’ll try it. That’s when we know if it works or if it doesn’t.
IGM: Thanks for all your co-operation. In closing, how can our readers keep an eye on your studio’s ongoing progress in the world of independent gaming?
Anyone can go to our website , and we’ve got a Facebook page. We also have a Twitter account. We’ll keep these updated, but of course we’ll also keep in touch through IGM!
Andy’s Notepad (Saucers) is available for 80 Microsoft Points on the Xbox Live Marketplace, where a free demo can also be downloaded.
Source: The Indie Game Magazine – Sketchy Saucery: ‘Andy’s Notepad (Saucers)’ Interview