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Interview: Spore's Chaim Gingold Communes With Earth Dragon

Chaim Gingold was the lead on EA's Spore: Creature Creator. Now at work on intriguing iPhone game Earth Dragon, he tells us about the burgeoning indie scene and trying to "make Donkey Kong, not Super Mario Bros."

October 26, 2009

13 Min Read

Author: by Simon Carless, Kris Graft

For Chaim Gingold, working closely with renowned game designer Will Wright on the evolutionary god game Spore was just another step in the evolution of his own identity as a game creator. Gingold was the lead for Spore's integral Creature Creator editor, which allowed users to bring virtual beings to life. But his current project, the independently-developed iPhone game Earth Dragon, is less about creating, and more about destroying, albeit in a fun, cute way. Here, Gingold tells Gamasutra how these days, the destructive capacity of big mythical monsters is completely underutilized in video games, what his work on the high-profile Spore taught him about creating an iPhone game virtually on his own, and why he thinks with Earth Dragon, it's best to "make Donkey Kong, not Super Mario Bros. After you left Spore, what did you end up doing, and why did you decide to start making independent games? After I left Spore, I traveled around the world for a bit, ate a bunch of Masala Dosas, and then returned to Berkeley to start making games. Why did I decide to go the independent route? If you're at a big publisher the chance that you get to make a game you want to make is basically zero. And even if you are Will Wright, you still have to fight hard. When I left, there was some discussion of me starting my own project, but I realized two things. First, I don't have Will's Jedi powers of persuasion, so forget it. Whatever I made would probably get thrown way off course. And second, why should I make something for someone else? There are designers that require a large development team to make things, but since I can code, I don't need that. This kind of thinking does have some negative side effects, though... I spent about a year writing prototypes for a PC game whose working title is PK. Earth Dragon actually began life as a prototype for PK, and I eventually prototyped Earth Dragon, and wrote its level editor, inside of PK. PK generated a ton of interesting ideas and prototypes. The architecture editor I developed, for example, is light years more advanced than Spore's Building Creator. The iPhone felt like the solution to this problem I had, where after working for over four years on Spore, which was a great education for me, getting to write so many prototypes, design the editors, and work closely with Will Wright, I had no sense of proportion for what kind of PC game I could actually pull off. I got to the point where if I was at a big publisher, you'd start to throw people onto my dev team, and I looked around, and they didn't magically show up. I turned around, and realized that the cavalry wasn't coming, like it did on Spore, and I took a step back and reminded myself that I'm doing an indie game. I am the cavalry, and I'm not smarter than Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler put together - what am I doing? My job now with PK is to figure out which parts of it are most interesting to me, and how I can build a marketable product out of its core ideas and discoveries. That was a difficult realization to make, and I realized that I probably needed to take a creative break and work on some smaller stuff. With the iPhone it's a lot harder to go off the rails in terms of scope because of the platform's constraints, which at the time I thought would be the perfect antidote for me. Why iPhone? What attracted you to it? As a player, I've bought and played more iPhone games in the past year than games for all other platforms combined for the past three years. I don't want to spend $50 on a game that takes 40 hours of my life. Sure, at one point I happily did that, but games just don't fit into my life that way anymore. And they feel rather repetitive to me. Part of what's going on here is that what we call casual gaming is basically taking over the world. I will spend $15 on World of Goo for a handful of non-stop hours of fun I've never had before. I don't want to play Final Fantasy or Legend of Zelda yet again. I'll happily spend $3 on a game that provides an hour or two of novel, fun, experience. And these games, and the whole indie gaming world, are providing far more interesting gaming experiences than I can get anywhere else. iPhone games, and the indie scene, are becoming the creative center of gravity of the gaming world, and I'm excited to be part of it. It feels like a whole new golden era of video games. The shorter forms and lower price points on the iPhone -- and new distribution channels in general -- are also really interesting -- they fit into my life better, and they also seem to encourage more experimentation on the part of developers. With games we have our epic novels, Lord of the Rings, that sort of thing, but we don't have our short stories, or our New Yorker length fiction pieces. We're starting to see what that might mean. Jason Rohrer's Passage, for example, is like a lovely poem. Adam Saltsman's Canabalt is like a short piece from Heavy Metal. These short forms excite me as a developer and a player. As an interactive designer, the iPhone is like crack. It's like being a kid, and walking into some otherworld fantasy toy store. The iPhone hardware is a marvelous playground for designers. Ever since seeing Jeff Han's YouTube video of his multitouch setup and the demo software written by a bunch of NYU grad students, and playing with it in person, I've had a burning desire to write multitouch software. I'm a total interface nerd. And with the iPhone you don't just have multitouch, you have an accelerometer, network capability, location awareness, it's portable, a camera, and a decent GPU. What do you do this thing? I'm really excited about where this medium is going, and the possibilities it presents. With consoles and PC's it's like ok, great, more triangles and CPU, big deal. With the iPhone you get something totally different, plus less triangles and CPU power, which is a creatively refreshing constraint. Also, I love how easy it is to playtest with the thing. What motivates me as a designer, and creative person, is the experience of making things -- solving problems, figuring things out -- and creating experiences for other people. I love watching people play not just my software, but play with anything. It's endlessly fascinating to me. I'll even playtest other people's games and software on my unsuspecting friends, to see how they react and why. Now, as an interactive designer, playtesting is pretty key to my job. Ask anybody who is still playing Spore what they do with the game, and chances are they spend at least half of their time making stuff in the game's creative tools. My team got something like four years to playtest and develop the editors, and I firmly believe that all that playtesting is what got us to such a fluid, easy to pickup, and fun to interact with set of editors. And all that observation and iteration made us smarter designers. Working alone, it's surprising how hard it is to drag people back to your office to playtest your game, so you can figure out if you're headed in the right direction or not. But the iPhone is a whole different story. You can playtest as often as you have your phone on you -- which is almost always. That is just amazing to me. I can indulge my playtesting addiction as often as I want. The ease of distribution with the iPhone is also a big plus. Apple really nailed it. And the development tools are easy to get, and super friendly. Coming back to the question of scope, the iPhone also encourages developers to think small, and grow successful ideas, which I thought would be good for me. I had an "a-ha" moment listening to Neil Young talk about Rolando at GDC last year, that this is one of the most profound transformations digital distribution is bringing to games. My mantra while developing Earth Dragon has been "Make Donkey Kong, not Super Mario Bros." Think small! If people like it, you still care, you can pile in the other million ideas you have later. Tell us about Earth Dragon and why it differentiates itself from other titles. What gameplay mechanisms are you particularly proud of in the game? I'm really happy with how juicy the game is, and how vivid, funny, and spatter-ful it is. People love it, and they just laugh and laugh. You've got burning cows, exploding people, castles crashing down onto archers -- it's just a riot of playful violence. I'm really happy with the tone of playful intensity Earth Dragon's violence has. Earth Dragon has the most intense level of cartoon violence Apple allows. And Apple has come back to us and said, fine, but people are going to have to be at least 12 years old to play this game. Basically, Earth Dragon is so intense that you if you're less than 12, forget about it, you should go play a different game. It's a good thing, too, that the iPhone and iPod touch screens are made of glass, because they protect you from the spray of blood and other matter that is generated while playing. The glass shields you from the game's juicyness, and is easy to wipe down after you're done playing. I wouldn't make this kind of game on any other platform -- it would just be too messy and awkward, not to mention unsafe. I'm really happy with Earth Dragon's touch and feel. I had to get the flying feeling really good on the iPhone, and be easy to learn in play tests, before I committed to continued development. One of the exciting things about designing for this platform is that everyone is basically inventing the platform's game conventions together. It's an evolutionary explosion of design. How you control characters, whether you should even be controlling individual avatars like we do on consoles, how you perform actions, appropriate length and difficulty, the types of games that make sense, and so on. It's an exciting place to be designing things. In Earth Dragon, I wanted to get a feeling of flapping and flying around -- you flap the phone to flap the dragon's wings and go up, and tilt side to side to glide around, and it feels really nice, and you have this slightly inexact feeling of control, but very satisfying feeling of flying and swooping around the screen. And that leaves touching the screen for smashing things, breathing fire, and diving onto people who probably aren't expecting a dragon to come screaming down from the sky, straight at them. It's a control scheme that just wouldn't be possible on any other platform. Earth Dragon's theme is pretty unique, not just for the iPhone, but for games as a whole. Earth Dragon is basically Rampage with dragons and castles, but specifically designed for the iPhone. You're a super cute and super powerful dragon who takes on entire castles, and levels them. No survivors. I wish we had more giant monster games - it seems like a totally underrepresented video game genre to me. Being really big and powerful, and smashing your way through cities is really fun, not to mention therapeutic. Katamari is the most recent game I played that really hits this feeling. Apocalyptic destruction in these types of games requires a certain playful or ironic tone that Katamari, Rampage, and Earth Dragon all have. Otherwise it can just feel kind of sadistic, which is how a lot of violent games can feel to me, like Grand Theft Auto or Gears of War. Games with a lot of graphic violence turn me off. Make it playful enough and people will enjoy inflicting massive destruction while laughing their heads off. They're laughing at their own violence, thrilled at their own destructive powers, while feeling kind of sorry and silly at the same time. It makes a great demo -- setting people and cows on fire, and then smashing them to bits. You can kidnap the princess, or just set her on fire. Either way, it's funny. It's totally the kind of game you want to show off to your friends. The castle smashing levels have a compulsive quality to them I'm really proud of. Jane Ng, the artist I collaborated with on this project, told me that she would often get sucked into playing the game while she was trying to test something. I've had to tear away people from the game, including myself, which is a nice feeling. Even though the game is kind of short, I'm super happy with the game's pacing, the rhythm with which things happen and the game unfolds. If the game is received well enough I'd like to make a procedurally generated infinite play mode, where the levels just kind of regenerate underneath you, kind of like how Pac-Man CE on the Xbox 360 has this endlessly unfolding and compulsive play quality. That kind of pacing can be dangerous -- we might never be able to finish making it! I also want to release the castle editor I made for my Mac, which is a surprising amount of fun, on the iPhone. If the game sells well enough I'll totally be motivated to do that. Are you worried about standing apart from other titles in the iPhone store, since it's so crowded? Yes, I am worried about standing out in the super crowded App store. I do have a kind of naive belief that as a designer I bring something unique to the table that other people won't, and hopefully there are enough people out there who want to play with my weird software that I can make a living making the things I want to make. This dovetails nicely with my other naive belief that despite the volume of stuff on the App store, people will tell their friends about software they like, and it will find its way to appreciate, paying customers. I guess I'll find out shortly. I'm not trying to win the iPhone lottery and get into the top 10 or something -- for me, it's about being able to make a living doing what I love. What's your longer-term plan? To keep making iPhone games, or try other things? I have about a gajillion ideas that the iPhone is the perfect platform for, and I'm really digging the shorter games that it makes possible. I have a ton of ideas sitting in my personal prototype vault that I've never been able to figure out what to do with, but I think many of them would work nicely on the iPhone, which is exciting to me. And I'll probably be able to work a lot faster now that I've got my development bearings here. I do want to return to PK, the bigger PC game I was prototyping - since I'm really in love with a lot of the prototypes and ideas that it generated. I've also realized that one of the things I love about designing in a team environment is the quality of teaching and mentorship it has, and I'd really like to devote time to teaching one day. I'd also like to get some hens, because with hens you can get fresh eggs from your backyard, and they eat your kitchen scraps.

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