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Democracy Now: An Interview with Torque X Developer GarageGames

Following the premiere of Torque X for Xbox 360 at GameFest, Gamasutra sat down with GarageGames' president, Mark Frohnmayer, to discuss the future possibilities for Torque, independent developers, and the possibility of a 2D Xbox 360 renaissance.

Shortly after Microsoft announced its new XNA Game Studio Express on the eve of this year's Gamefest in Seattle, independent/casual game publisher, developer, and technology company GarageGames announced the release of Torque X, the next generation of its Torque Game Engine technology and tools for use with the Microsoft XNA game development platform.

GarageGames' Torque X is a full-featured 2D and 3D game engine which will support the editors being used in Torque Game Builder, as well as the features of the Torque Game Engine and its shader generation system. In relation to this, Gamasutra sat down with GarageGames' president, Mark Frohnmayer, to discuss the future possibilities for Torque, independent developers and whether or not we'll be seeing a 2D game renaissance.

GS: Now that the entry price for developing for the XBox 360 is so low, what kind of games do you expect and hope to see?

MF: What kind of games do I expect and hope to see? I guess that the easier question to answer would be what kind of game developers I hope to see. As far as what they're going to make, well, I don't know. I think that there's a huge number of areas in terms of games and game mechanics and untapped paths in both 2D and 3D game mechanics that I would hope to see exploited. Mostly what I'd like to see is more people and more creative energy going into development.


GarageGames' Torque Engine

GS: Where do you see independent XBox 360 development heading?

MF: I think one of the great things about XNA is that it opens up console development to such a wide potential audience of developers. We'll definitely start seeing applications that you'd never expect to see on a console, things that aren't necessarily games. Whether they're new ways of visualizing music or different forms of interactive video and audio creations, that sort of thing. I think now that we have this device in our living room that people can code for, it's going to be huge.

GS: Do you think that, with Torque X and XNA, we may be seeing some unknowns get discovered and possibly receive full Live Arcade releases?

MF: Absolutely. I was talking to one of the product managers for Live Arcade, and it's certainly going to make their job a lot easier. They have a huge amount of interest in people developing games for Live Arcade. This will allow them to preview and look at the actual running gameplay on the actual console. I believe this will open it up to a much wider potential audience of developers.


GS: With the imminent release of Vista and Direct X 10, there's going to be a lot of interesting stuff going on in game development. Where do you see GarageGames taking Torque next?

MF: Our continued focus is going to be on making the experience of developers working with all the Torque technology's easier to get in to. We're going to be refining our tool pipeline as well as taking advantage of Direct X 10 and it's graphical advantages.

GS: What are some of the more interesting features we can look forward to in Torque X?

MF: What we have up and running so far is our complete suite of 2D game building functionality, as well as work for arbitrary polygonal meshes and sphere collisions, and we're looking at what other features of the engine we're going to try and bring over before the actual XNA launch. That could include things like our particle engine technologies. Really the biggest feature of the Torque X is going to be that it's a full featured 2D/3D engine that's going to be much more accessible to those who haven't exactly had a lot of C++ experience.

GS: What do you think that coders will get most excited about with Torque X?

MF: The real advantage of the managed environment is that it just takes away from the super low level, incredibly challenging to deal with bugs and issues you have if you're coding direct to the metal. So, it really makes developing stuff a lot quicker in terms of rapid prototyping of game ideas. It's a much less painful environment than coding direct to C++. As far as having the Torque X foundation on top of that, it's just going to be a really fun rapid development environment for experienced programmers and new programmers as well.


A simple 2D shooter, developed quickly with Torque X

GS: What do you see artists get most excited about with Torque X?

MF: Well, on the 2D side we have our 2D game builder tool, the Torque Game Builder, and it's a direct content pipeline into Torque X. It's a very drag and drop experience for laying out game design assets in 2D. Torque X will also, longer down the road, have support for our new 3D game building tool, Constructor, will eventually have support as well. Aside from the work that we're doing on the Torque X side, the XNA Team has very detailed plans for their whole content pipeline that's going to make it quite a bit easier to bring art into the whole experience.

GS: Why is working with managed code easier? Will it slow down the games?

MF: The main advantages are that you don't have to deal with things like pointers, memory overwrites because of not checking the boundaries on arrays, just the kind of low level programming gotchas. It's a managed environment, so it manages your access to the hardware resources in such a way that it can save you a lot of stupid errors that we all make in the C++ world. That's the major advantage. The common criticism in managed code is that it's slow. In our experience, however, we've been able to figure out ways to make the managed code to perform at almost the same level as our native code.

GS: Will we see a 2D game renaissance using the tools, since you have 2D elements to your toolkits?

MF: I think so, and the reason I think so is that we departed from the world of 2D game mechanics world happened, in my mind, because of the hardware. For instance, we had platformer 1 and platformer 2 that were 2D games, but now that we have 3D cards we'll do platformer 3 in the full 3D experience. In many cases I think that was a detriment to the overall play experience of the game.
There are games that are very well expressed in 2D that lose something in the translation to 3D.

I think that as people start looking at what you can do with 3D hardware in the building of 2D games, such as taking advantage of shader effects, whether it's displacement mapping, bump mapping or whatever, you can make games that look completely different than any other 2D game you've ever seen before. People are going to have a lot of fun exploring in those directions, but aren't going to have to take the substantial hit that it takes to develop all the content for a 3D game and yet they can make game experiences that look completely new. They can also go down paths like “What is Super Mario Brothers like in a network world?” That sort of thing. Just in terms of games I'm noticing myself playing, coming from a pretty hardcore Quake and Tribes gameplay background, I'm now gravitating towards experiences that are quite a bit simpler in terms of interface and those are often more naturally expressed in 2D.


GS: Would you like to have seen Microsoft go further with opening up the XBox 360 to everyone?

MF: Well, of course, I would love to see it be totally open for everyone to develop. I think they're taking baby steps and trying to keep it in line with the business model of the hardware. So, I know that in the vision that they have articulated that it will be a more open experience, but you gotta walk before you can run. I'm hopeful that this step that they've taken will actually force a change in this direction across the board. That would be really cool.

GS: With the success of Marble Blast on the 360, is GarageGames developing anything else to be released on XBLA?

MF: Absolutely. It's a great platform to develop for and in terms of downloadable channels, it's seems like one of the best out there.

GS: Will you charge a one-off fee for XBox 360 games using Torque, or royalties? Will it be similar to the $100 you charge for initial PC licensing?

MF: We certainly don't imagine that we'll be charging any royalties since our existing business model isn't based on that at all currently. As far as pricing, the final price hasn't been determined yet for Torque X but we imagine it will be in line with other offerings on the platform, including Game Studio Express as well. We're still hammering out the final details, but it's not going be a huge departure from our current business model.


Marble Blast Ultra, running on the Xbox 360

GS: Can you comment on Jay Moore's departure and whether you intend to replace him?

MF: Jay has been a valued member of GarageGames since right after it's inception, he was one of the first people to come on. As far as replacing him currently, we're just trying to parcel out all the various different things he was working on to other members of the company.

GS: With Microsoft releasing the XNA for development on the XBox 360, it seems like a shot at Sony for trying to close down homebrew on the PSP and other platforms. Have you guys spoken with Sony or Nintendo?

MF: As far as I know, they haven't revealed to us any plans of doing anything like this. I think Microsoft has taken a real leadership position just in terms of saying “Well, if there's all this huge interest in homebrew and people are practically having to fight the console makers, then why are we putting up barriers to people who are wanting to use our system in this way?” When it comes to Sony and Nintendo trying anything like this, I can't really comment on that.

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