Road to the IGF: Tiger Style's Waking Mars

As part of Gamasutra's Road to the IGF series, we talk with Tiger Style about its IGF award finalist (Excellence in Audio, Best Mobile Game) and "action gardening ecosystem simulation adventure story platformer," Waking Mars.
Releasing to the App Store today, Waking Mars is an atmospheric action-adventure sidescroller, in which players take on the role of an astronaut exploring an alien planet while also trying to revive it. It's a curious botany-based experience that has the jetpack-wearing spaceman venturing into various Martian caverns, collecting seeds, observing strange creatures and the planet's plant-life, and solving puzzles in that ecosystem to progress. The game comes from Vermont-based Tiger Style, the indie developer behind Spider: The Secret Of Bryce Manor, which took home Independent Game Festival Mobile's "Best iPhone Game" and "Best Mobile Game" awards back in 2010. With Waking Mars up for IGF's "Best Mobile Game" and "Excellence in Audio" award this year, Tiger Style founder Randy Smith talks with Gamasutra about the iPhone and iPad title, how his team developed the concept and art style, and more. What background do you have making games? The members of Tiger Style hail from a diversity of backgrounds. The company founders are veterans of AAA mainstream console games, having worked on projects like Splinter Cell, Deus Ex, and Thief among others. The team also includes some other senior industry developers, some fresh talent that joined us to make our previous game, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, and some indie musicians and artists who collaborate with us part-time. It's a great mix that provides a balance of experience and energy. What development tools did you use? We developed our own in-house engine and editor, built in XCode and using some third party stuff, notably OpenGL and the Chipmunk physics engine. How long has your team been working on the game? Roughly two years, which seems far too long for a mobile title, but hopefully all the hard work pays off! We started this project in January of 2010, but it wasn't until June of that year that we landed on its current incarnation.
How did you come up with the game's concept? Oh, you know, we were all "I'm too tired to come up with anything original, let's just make another old generic action gardening ecosystem simulation adventure story platformer about an astronaut with a jetpack exploring caves on Mars and discovering and researching mysterious alien lifeforms." In reality, this patchwork of concepts evolved slowly as we prototyped and developed the ideas. The game started as a caving game on Earth, but went sci-fi when we felt it needed more interest. We set it on Mars in the near future to establish a tone of credibility, and created story and characters to help it connect and be relatable -- more NASA adventure than crazy alien monsters. We knew we wanted the gameplay depth to come from interactions within a functioning ecosystem simulation, so we iterated on our "action gardening" gameplay until it took shape. What was the inspiration behind the game's art style? We worked toward a vision we call "concept art sprung to life." If you've ever looked at those awesome '70s sci-fi concept art paintings and wished you could zoom in for more detail or press "play" to see that scene in motion, that's similar to what we were going for. We're painting lifeforms and environments with a combination of fine details and abstract implication. It's meant to be not realistic, exactly, but believable -- it evokes your imagination and helps you feel immersed. The "sprung to life" part comes from animation and tons of depth -- you can see deep into these cave environments as sprites parallax past each other.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed? Phil Fish of Polytron was here in Austin this past fall presenting Fez, which I think is probably a masterpiece. Although it doesn't hit you over the head with it, it's a game about perspective, about existing in world with more dimensions than we can observe or understand. The fact that Phil was able to speak knowledgeably and passionately about these subjects tells me that Fez is doing one of the things video games are meant to do -- representing some aspect of the human experience, conveying ideas and emotions between people, just like any other art form. What do you think of the current state of the indie scene? I'm enthusiastic about it. I see it growing with more people getting involved every day. I love the new faces, I love the new releases from established talents, and I like that experienced developers are leaving the mainstream to find their own voice in indie. I like that we're seeing a range of production values, from quick lo-fi games to heavily developed, polished deliveries. Are we as a species ever going to colonize Mars? I personally have a lot of mixed feelings about it. Clearly we should be taking better care of the planet we're actually adapted to inhabit, and we should all brace for the next 50+ years of environmental disaster, because Mars is never going to be a great place to live. But I also feel sad about the recent decline in interest in space exploration. I feel like it denotes a collective lack of imagination and ambition, and the space programs have historically been massive promoters of advanced scientific thought, something America used to be able to feel proud of. And on yet another hand, I have concerns about new technology and how it has influenced our lives and what it means to be human, especially how we connect with other people. So why the rush to take the next step? Waking Mars hopefully touches on all of these subjects, if only tangentially, and ideally raises these types of ideas and questions. But it's not a preachy game, and it doesn't present any conclusions, just some material to ponder and respond to. A big mechanic of this game is learning how the environment works and adapting to its quirks. Is that inspired by something in the real world? The ecosystem of lifeforms is the heart of Waking Mars' gameplay, and it's inspired by everything and nothing. We wanted our lifeforms to be "unearthly," so we worked hard to keep any of them from seeming too familiar in either their appearance, sound, or behavior. But they all draw tons of influence from some of the more amazing and exotic lifeforms on Earth, which gives them a sense of credibility. As alien as they might seem, they all have things in common with real creatures, stuff we're passionate about or inspired by. They all eat, die, reproduce, and exist together in a self-sustaining ecosystem, one which has been tuned with action gameplay in mind. Our goal is that the player gradually becomes familiar with each new life-form, mastering its behaviors and creating their own strategies for interacting with it, just in time for us to introduce another one which expands the possibilities as they combine into an ever-larger ecosystem.

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