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Inside the IGF Student Competition: Puzzle Wars

In a new series, sister site GameCareerGuide talks to student developers who have submitted games to this year’s Independent Games Festival. In this edition,
In a new series, sister site GameCareerGuide talks to student developers who have submitted games to this year’s Independent Games Festival. In this Q&A, student developer Guillaume Patrux answers questions about Puzzle Wars, an anti-war puzzle game that drops Tetris-esque shapes -- represented as grouped civilians and terrorists -- which players must clear. A rescue helicopter will be sent to clear a line filled with civilians, and a plane dropping napalm will be sent to clear a line of terrorists, but the napalm-bearing craft will also drop its payload on lines populated with both terrorists and civilians. Created by six students from ENJMIN, the Graduate School of Games and Interactive Media in France, Puzzle Wars often leaves players without any option but to sacrifice innocent civilians when eliminating terrorists. Tell us how Puzzle Wars came to be. Guillaume Patrux: At the end of our first year of master's degree at ENJMIN, we are asked to develop a short game in teams of two to six students selected among the different specialties taught in the school. I previously had the idea to merge a puzzle game and a shooter -- though it was more shooter-oriented than puzzle-oriented -- but I had neither the time nor the means to realize it. I kept working on the idea and presented it to the other students as a first-year project. A team showed up, and Puzzle Wars was born. What was your goal in developing the game? GP: As the project was part of the school program, there where some rules we had to respect. First of all, the game had to be developed within only three months. Then, the game had to be self-documented, and anyone should be able to play it. Finally, the player should have a complete experience of the game mechanics in 10 minutes. Besides these rules, we wanted the game to be fun with good replay value -- that’s why we made it multiplayer. It was also very important to make it as polished as possible, as it was the very first time most of us took part in game development. This was the opportunity to show what we were capable of. What do you think is the game’s greatest asset? What sets it apart from other games in the IGF? I think we succeeded in making a really fun game, easy to learn through the tutorial, but hard to master. Puzzle Wars is a multiplayer confrontation game. Even the single-player versus artificial intelligence mode is based on multiplayer patterns. This multiplayer core gives the game a high replay value. Lastly, the players can experience original arcade game mechanics based on a mix between puzzle games and shooter games. What drew you to focus on war as the overt theme for the game? War is an omnipresent theme. We hear about war so much that people sometimes forget how cruel and inhuman it is; they even forget why some wars happen to be. I wanted to suggest a criticism of modern war through prejudices, abusive simplification, and satire. It was very important for me to insert this issue in the heart of the gameplay. That’s why during a game session, you will probably have to kill civilians in order to kill terrorists. This symbolizes collateral damages. But the goal is more showing that as long as there is war, innocent people will be killed, rather than to stigmatizing nations at war. However, we never wanted the game to be realistic. The game is not to be taken literally. We wanted to put the lightness of a game in contrast with the harshness of war. What games (or non-game things) influenced this game? How or why? I’ve always been fascinated by the addiction and the fun generated by puzzle games because they usually rely on a very simple mechanic. It is a very good game design exercise, that’s why I wanted to make a puzzle game, and that’s why the game mechanics are influenced by games like Tetris. On another matter, even if it didn’t directly influence the game, Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12 deals with the same theme as Puzzle Wars does, and leads to the same conclusion: civilian casualties can’t be avoided, and waging war may not be the best answer to terrorism. What was the most difficult part of developing the game? We had a lot of constraints during the game's development, the biggest of all was time. As I said, we only had three months. All the team members participated in other projects, and we all had to follow our courses, but not always at the same time, so it was hard to meet all together sometimes. And most of all, there was no way to delay the deadline. Besides this, we of course met technical issues, especially with the assets integration. Tell us one interesting thing that you learned in developing the game. Everyone learned a lot in this project. The first thing is that it is hard to have all the team members think the same way about the game. As a game designer, I had a very precise vision of the game. I found that sharing this vision with the others isn’t that simple, and even when it’s done, you always have to make compromises. Furthermore, even if most of us were familiar with [working with each other], it usually was with people of the same specialty (programmers working with other programmers, graphic artists with other graphic artists, etc.). Working with other specialties than yours is quite different; you have to learn their vocabulary to communicate with them and enter their world. Since making this game, have your opinions or assumptions about game development changed in any way? If so, how and what were they before? I guess we understood that developing a game is a complex process. Everything must be carefully planned and organized to lead to a conclusive result. To respect the time and technical constraints, you may have to revise your estimates downwards. We also thought that a concept was enough to make a game, but we found out that the so-called concept may be interpreted in a different way by the team members. That’s why communication in a team is very important. From a technical point of view, programming a game isn’t just about programming the gameplay and the engine -- it is also programming tools for others, so that they can test their work and ensure it will be possible to insert their work into the program. This is the same for other specialties. Graphic artists have to produce pictures to ensure that they will fit in the game’s artistic direction, so does the sound designer with music and sound effects, or the game designer with gameplay patterns. Before experiencing game development, we thought the constraints weren’t that strong, but we had to face the facts: you can’t always get what you want. [The full Puzzle Wars development team is comprised of the following: Guillaume Patrux, game designer; Tom Granger, graphic artist; Gregory Desmurs, sound designer; Sylvain Loe-Mie, ergonomist; Thomas Jolivet, programmer; Gary Williams AI programmer]

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