[Gamasutra's Simon Parkin talks to Vancouver-based Big Sandwich Games' Tyler Sigman about the studio's forthcoming PSN treasure 'em up, Hoard and the "incredibly frustrating" challenge of business planning when there's so little transparency with digital distribution sales figures.
After four of years work-for-hire development, boutique art outsourcing and consulting, Vancouver-based Big Sandwich Games is set to release its first in-house developed IP, action-strategy game coming to PlayStation Network on November 2.
Employing twin-stick shooter controls, players assume the role of a dragon in Hoard
, flying over a boardgame-esque representation of a medieval kingdom, burning villages, kidnapping princesses and slaying knights while gathering treasure.
For Tyler Sigman, the studio's Design Director, the game is the fruit of an idea born eight years ago. We sat down with Sigman to talk about the process of bringing a new IP to PSN and the company's long term aspirations for both the game and the business.
How many staff work at Big Sandwich? What did you all do before this?
Currently we have a staff of 16, including contractors. We come from a wide range of backgrounds within the game industry and without. Our President and Creative Director, Glenn Barnes, co-founded Barking Dog Studios (Homeworld Cataclysm, Treasure Planet
) which was acquired by Rockstar to become Rockstar Vancouver.
The other founders and some of our employees worked there as well, including Peter Holubowicz, Cory Lake, David Byun, Kelvin McDowell, and more. I was a designer at Backbone Entertainment and was an aircraft engineer in a past life. Some of our younger employees are really sharp guys fresh out of school. Typical for the Vancouver development scene, some combination of us have worked for Radical, EA, Rockstar, and other longstanding developers at one point or another.
Why did you decide on PSN at the lead platform for Hoard?
The honest answer is that we had a really great response from SCEA when we pitched the game to them. They saw the potential in Hoard
and thought it was a match for their Pub Fund program. It’s an awesome program, and a piece of that is console exclusivity to the PSN.
Why did you decide to focus on a four-player mode? Did you decide to make a downloadable multiplayer game, then the idea for Hoard came around, or vice versa?
isn’t actually *primarily* a four-player proposition. It was made from the ground up to be a great single player game as well as good for two, three, or four players. In single-player mode, you can compete alone, or against up to three CPU dragons.
The game was prototyped as a single-player game, but the multiplayer was a natural extension. The single player mode is most akin to a classic arcade game—do your best to set a high score on a variety of different maps, chase trophies, etc. The multiplayer is a really deep competitive or cooperative experience.
The theme for Hoard
came before anything else. I had been playing around with making a dragon game for a long time; my first boardgame prototype for it was made around 2002. One day at Big Sandwich we were trying to think of new ideas to pitch and I ran it by the team. Some of the guys got excited, so our Creative Director and I bounced some gameplay ideas around. We were looking for some PSN concepts to show Sony, so we specifically worked something up to fit.
One of the things I’m really excited about with Hoard
is that the theme is very naturally extendable into different genres. Although Hoard
PSN is an arcade-strategy game, I still really one day want us to make a heavily story-based action-adventure version of it that I’ve had planned out for a long time.
What are your primary influences for the game. Gauntlet? Or something more recent?
actually never came up internally as a reference until we showed the game at E3 and we got a comment back supposedly attributed to Ken Levine that he liked the “little Gauntlet
-like game coming to PSN”. It was only then that we said, “I guess it is a bit like Gauntlet
!” I loved Gauntlet
back in the day, so that game probably has influenced the design in an subconscious way.
I often pitch the game as a combination of Geometry Wars
and a fictional Sim Kingdom. We definitely were inspired by dual stick shooters as well as RTS and simulation-style games. Play wise, we were also heavily influenced by boardgames, which obviously have to feature strategy and solid mechanics, and can’t rely on visceral action. Art-wise, tabletop miniature games were a big influence, as we wanted to create something that looked like a beautifully painted set of miniatures come to life on your game table.
What have the primary challenges been in terms of the design?
The fun of Hoard
is built up from a bunch of different systems and mechanics interacting. So “finding the fun” was a process of iterative additions and ultimately subtractions to create something better than the sum of the parts.
I remember prototyping and setting up all the kingdom simulation elements, dragon movement, attacking, etc., and the game was no fun, no fun, no fun, and then—BAM! It was fun. Then we added some more stuff and it started getting too complex. So we pruned some things back out, found our core fun, and then ran with it.
Your team can be a great bellwether for this stuff. I knew the game was getting fun because the team members were playing it, competing for high score, and giving me all sorts of feedback unasked. Usually you have to pry this kind of stuff out of people, especially in the early prototyping stages when things can be a bit rough.
One specific challenge we encountered was establishing the scale of the game objects and terrain. A princess is as big as a castle which is as big as a mountain. It all works, but it took some time to find the right depiction.
Another thing was balance of the dragon’s stats through all the upgrade levels. How fast should the dragon ultimately be able to go? How much fire damage? Treasure carrying capacity? Health, especially relating to other dragon attacks? Fortunately, the game was playable all through development so I’m pretty happy with final balance. I would throw things out of whack, see how our internal matches would go, keep adjusting until one strategy became dominant, and then dial things back down.
What have you done to to stand out on the platform?
You begin with trying to craft solid game that is fun, addictive, and rewarding. I think a high-quality game will stand out on any platform, so that should always be the primary focus. Secondly, we wanted to provide a game that features 4-player couch play (competitive and co-op) because there aren’t many out there.
I know that if I have three friends over and we want to play something kind of casual and really fun, it often comes down to Rock Band
or Castle Crashers
. We would love for Hoard
to be included in that list of options, and think that helps it stand out in the catalog.
What are your main frustrations with the PSN? How would you like to see it grow and develop?
I have to put on my business hat for a moment and say that a main frustration of all the main digital distribution outlets is that sales figures continue to be mostly mysterious. There are a lot of reasons for this, the biggest being that the data is typically owned by the publishers, not the service, so it’s really just up to them whether they want to “open the kimono.”
Most publishers don’t really want to share crappy sales numbers, and sometimes not even great sales numbers (gamers might thing you are making money! Gasp!). But even though the reasons make sense, it is incredibly frustrating to do business planning when you have to rely on second-hand estimates (leaderboard counting, etc.) to even get a rough idea of how many copies are moving. If all figures were public, then you could at least look at the spectrum, do a competitive analysis, and project confidence intervals of where you might end up… and then make a business plan around that.
A lot of game development is still in its infancy in terms of established business models. A great many developers in the digital distribution space have a really simple “business model”: make something and HOPE it sells. If it does, you’re off to the races. If it doesn’t, you’re out of business. It's not very sustainable. It’s still the wild west...
Why have you chosen to take the route of downloadable titles rather than boxed products?
As much as possible, we want to create and develop our own IP. It’s easier to do that in the downloadable space, because project funding requirements are smaller. Also, it’s really fun and exciting to work on projects with smaller dev cycles. Hoard
was 12 to 13 months from breaking ground on the prototype to appearing on PSN for sale on November 2.
All of us at Big Sandwich like the challenge and opportunity of smaller, shorter games. We’re not closed off to bigger endeavors, but the downloadable titles are exciting for all those reasons. You get excited about something, make it, and then it’s out.
What are you hoping to achieve through your games, other than financial success?
There are a lot of ways to make money in the world, and I’m convinced that game development is not the easiest one. Obviously we do want to be successful from a monetary perspective, but the main thing we want to do is make games that people love! I could word that in a million different flowery ways, but it’s all pretty simple.
We want people to play our games and love them. If that happens, we can make more. While we are doing some innovative things, our #1 goal is not innovation, or profit margin, or anything else besides making great games. We believe that if you can do that, then everything else will follow.