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Road to the IGF: Justin Smith's Desert Golfing

Continuing our Road to the IGF series of interviews with nominees, we speak to Desert Golfing creator Justin Smith about his Nuovo Award-nominated surprise hit, an infinite and improbable existential cruise.

Justin Smith's Desert Golfing is so simple on its face that if you've never tried it, it might be hard for you to understand why it's so popular. With a pull-and release movement, you tap a tiny golfball across a desert endless landscape, one counter-intuitive and occasionally cruel hole at a time. 

But the zen-like mobile game stole hearts in the dev comunity and beyond (it was one of my personal favorite games of the year), and now it's up for a Nuovo Award at the IGF.

With his previous games like No Brakes Valet or Enviro-Bear 2010, you begin to see a trend: Identifying simple elements of conventional game designs and then subverting them. As part of our annual Road to the IGF series of interviews with nominees, I caught up with Smith and talked to him about Desert Golfing.

What's your background in game development, and what made you want to make Desert Golfing? 

I worked in the industry for 10 years (still have my t-shirt from GDC '99), and have been peacefully meditating as an indie for the last six years. If I had to credit one thing for making me switch it would be TIGSource.

Two ideas collided to make Desert Golfing. First, the desire to make a game about playing golf over top screenshots of Journey. Second, the desire to make a game with the Angry Birds mechanic that didn't ruin the mechanic's transcendent pleasure with annoying game-y junk.

What tools did you use? 

I used my own C++ game engine called the Crusty Engine, with Box2D physics once again. Erin Catto is my spirit animal.

How long did you spend working on the game?

Two weeks.

What aspect of the game was the most difficult to get right, and how did you achieve it?

The design of the game emerged very easily. The most difficult thing was getting the save-game system working on Android so that players can't cheat by quitting the game to reset their stroke count. It caused a shocking amount of catastrophic errors for a game that's 1500 lines of code.

Did you expect the game to be so popular? Did you mean for people to find it 'existentialist' and all that, or to have artistic Twitter feeds full of screenshots? 

I expect the popularity of a game to be proportional to the time spent working on it, but the universe doesn't care.

I was going for something of an existential vibe with the emptiness and the infinite scrolling. But it's like when you have a conversation with a friend and you pontificate a half-baked idea and hope that your friend will help fully bake it and thereby creating some interesting banter. The twitter-blog-o-verse made Desert Golfing become whole.

What's the best story you have about your work with this project?

I've had probably 50 people email or tweet me complaining that hole 153 is impossible - sometimes after just a couple strokes. In fact it's a very easy hole. But I love that people are playing the game assuming that impossible things are possible.

Is there anything you wish you'd done differently, or hope to implement in the future?

I struggled with the ending, or lack thereof. I'm still not completely happy with it. It makes me feel a little uneasy that people are playing well into the ten thousands of holes.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any you've particularly enjoyed?

I really enjoyed Tetrageddon. It feels like discovering a long lost cargo cult. The pseudo-DOS aesthetic just kills me.

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