After creating IGF-winning undersea adventure title Aquaria
with Derek Yu, Alec Holowka set up Canadian indie developer Infinite Ammo
with Katie De Sousa, Ian Holowka and Christopher Lobay rounding out the team.
Since the company's inception, the team's managed to keep themselves in the media spotlight through a pleasant mix of an open development and genuinely interesting concepts for their games. Throughout the making of their next game, Heroes and Villains
for iPhone, they've released pre-alpha footage, showing the game as it develops.
In addition, the company's GAMMA competition-created mini-game, Paper Moon
, has just been expanded
in association with Adam Saltsman and Jetpack Brontosaurus
creators Flashbang Studios for free release on web portal Blurst
It's notable that, sticking resolutely to the 2D scape, Infinite Ammo are determined to bring interesting and novel ways to approach the platforming/puzzle genres. Marian
is the other game they're currently developing. While all they've released are a single piece of concept art and one screenshot, the game has garnered a large amount of interest from the visuals alone.
In this interview, we asked Holowka for his opinions on the rise of the iPhone, how Infinite Ammo plans to tackle the replayability issue, and why they chose to be quite so open with their fans:
For those unaware what sort of thing you make, could you give a brief run-down of what you specialize in and the sort of games you set out to create?
Alec Holowka: I'm (kind of?) known for creating the indie game Aquaria
with Mr. Derek Yu. I did the music, code, animation and most of the story. It was a pretty intense experience, but ultimately very rewarding. Releasing Aquaria
and dealing with the aftermath of that struggle gave me a lot of inspiration.
The kind of games I'm interested in making are the games that pull the player into a deep, emotional, interactive world. I'm a big believer that some of the most important art comes from dark corners within the author -- that one valuable goal is expressing ideas that could only be expressed fluently through the art form. But its more than just putting what I feel out there in an interesting way, its about diving into those emotions and digging out something new. Arriving at new conclusions and bringing up more questions.
My approach is that the gameplay, music and visual art should form a seamless experience that grows out of the emotions, the characters, the game world and the underlying 'meaning' of the game. I want to make games that work as absorbing escapism, but also focus on personal internal struggles that we all share.
I believe that a lot of different types of gameplay emerge from thinking about games in this way. What if your game world was a real place and you lived in it as this character? What would you want to do? A lot of games avoid exploring the freedom and possibilities of the game world and limit themselves to locked-in objectives. I want to break free of that and allow the player time to pause, reflect and feel like they're actually a living part of this strange landscape. I want them to be able to explore a physical space while simultaneously exploring an emotional space through the characters and events that they're involved in.
FYI, Heroes and Villains
won't really do that. But I'm hoping Marian
What sort of background does the Infinite Ammo team have? Are you mainly drawn from the games development scene?
IA's core is myself and Mr. Chris Lobay. From there, we collaborate with a wide range of people. We've worked with the talented concept artist Katie de Sousa, who had some experience doing art in the casual games scene. We've worked with Adam Saltsman, (Paper Moon, H+V
) who is a very talented game artist who has a ton of experience creating all kinds of games as well as working for a wide variety of game industry clients.
We're also working on collaborations with the likes of Phil Fish, whom folks should recognize as the creator of Fez
I think this model has a good chance of succeeding. We're small, flexible and have a lot of great creative partners that are fun to work with. If you're not having fun when working on an indie game project, something is terribly wrong.
The only game you’ve released so far is the short project Paper Moon, with larger games in Heroes and Villains and Marian on the horizon. All three seem to be very different projects, coming from very different directions. How have you gone about keeping the range of your games diverse?
It comes from a desire to explore. There are so many untapped game ideas waiting to be discovered and played with. We've only really scratched the surface of our own style and vision.
This ties into the concept of thinking of the game world first, rather than hard gameplay mechanics. It allows us to open our minds to a lot of strange possibilities.
So far you’ve released quite a few development videos of Heroes and Villains in action, including a few without textures and all the pretty effects. Was this just to raise awareness of the game, and how important do you think it is to involve the community before your game is out?
We started posting the "pants-off" footage of H+V
as a kind of experiment. The main motivation was that it felt it'd be an interesting process for people to follow. I love following behind-the-scenes blogs for films (e.g. kongisking.net
) and I wanted to be able to share that same kind of experience for our game.
I was also curious to see how it affected the marketing, and it has managed to create some buzz that we wouldn't have without this approach.
Getting feedback as early as possible is always important. It generally happens that you spend a fair bit of time developing a gameplay system only to realize that a lot of people don't understand it. Watching someone play the game over their shoulder is the best and most brutally honest way to see what works and what doesn't.
Sharing footage on a blog also gives you a general sense of how your game might be received based on your design choices. But you have to remember to be careful to ignore a fair number of not-so-great suggestions.
The mechanics of Heroes and Villains seem very puzzle driven and each level appears to have one solution. How are you planning on maintaining interest after the initial playthrough? How important do you think it is to make a game fun a second time through?
Our goal was originally to develop levels that had different paths to arrive at the outcome. We've only toyed with that a little bit so far, and its something I would love to get into more.
The original design for H+V
was actually very freeform, allowing the player to risk the lives of some of the civilians to save others. For example, you could be confronted with the following situation: a bus-full of kids is teetering on the edge of a cliff while a rich business man is about to be crushed by a wrecking ball. The rich business man will give you a cash bonus. You only have time to save one party.
Unfortunately, designing a level that can be played in both ways proved to be pretty difficult. Hopefully we'll be able to revisit those ideas in a workable way in the near future.
What made you want to make the game for the iPhone? Do you perceive the audience to be bigger there than on other platforms? How easy is the iPhone to develop for?
We use the Unity engine, and that makes developing for the iPhone (and other platforms) relatively easy. The iPhone has hardware limitations that get in the way occasionally.
I have no idea how big the market is, to be honest - this is an experiment. We like the game concept and we want to see how well it does. The iPod Touch was a relatively new platform when we started and we were excited to try it out.
Infinite Ammo hasn’t been around too long, but has already generated a good deal of interest, despite not having a commercial release. Have you been really active in putting yourselves out there or do you just have a really good PR department?
Seeing as the core company is two people, we don't exactly have a PR department. I blog a lot and Chris prints a lot of pretty things for conferences. Our website incorporates video blogs, Flickr and Twitter. We update an insane amount. We're both very passionate and excited about the projects we're working on, and I think that comes through in a big way.
Recently news broke that you’re developing Power Pill with Polytron. What’s it like developing with another team? Are you working on different aspects, or collaborating on everything?
is Phil's baby. I really wanted to work with him and support him to create a "Phil Fish" feel. I'm sure some of my own flavor will work its way in as well.
Essentially how it breaks down is Phil is doing the design and art, and I'm doing the programming. Chris and Ian wrote some awesome music that ended up in the latest build, and I think it'll probably stick. Its bumpin'.
Power Pill is also pegged as an iPhone title. Do you see mobile gaming taking off in the near future? Do you think it already has?
I think the iPhone and iPod Touch have a great potential to bring in new gamers who wouldn't normally buy a game console. How this will pan out for indie game developers is hard to say.
I've seen two different sides of the coin through my developer friends. The aforementioned Adam Saltsman created a boggle-type game called Wurdle
that got in the top 10 and stayed there for quite a while. He's doing very well.
Another friend, Tommy Refenes, has tried several attempts at different iPhone games, eventually focusing mainly on games that annoy people. In Free Money*
, you scratch lottery tickets that have real lottery winning odds -- i.e. You never win, and even if you do, it's never real money. His latest opus is in approval right now and its called Zits and Giggles
. (you can imagine what happens in that one) He's collaborating with Adam on it, so maybe the Wurdle
luck will rub off.
Tommy sees the App Store as a lottery, with odds of success similar to those in Free Money*
How do you see the indie scene at the moment? Do you think it is becoming more of a viable profession than it has been in the past?
In some ways it is, but its still a "risk" in the sense that you can't really plan a success. You have to actually have an original and exciting concept, and that's not something you can just buy. Those looking to make a steady income first should probably go elsewhere.
As the IGF grows in stature, do you think its effect on the indie scene is growing with it? Do you agree with the feeling that it’s acting as a divining rod for indie success?
The IGF does a lot to promote indie games, and that's why its a wonderful thing. I think what would be even better is if companies like Microsoft did their own research into the indie scene and started to think objectively about the situation.
What we have are starving indie developers with great content and companies with piles of money looking for it. 1+1=2. Give the starving indies a modest budget upfront to create content for your platform, pay them healthy royalties once its released and the world would be a better place.
You’ve stated that you use the Unity engine for your games. How diverse an engine is it to develop with?
I was surprised with how flexible it is. I developed my own game engine from the ground up for Aquaria
, and I was kind of a curmudgeon about game creation systems after having a terrible time trying to reverse-engineer Torque 3D a few years ago. (to create a Curling game, of all things) Well, I made a Curling game in Unity over two days at TIGJam. I think that says a lot right there.
Is the indie developer scene a very tight-knit one? Do you have any particular developers you are close to?
A number of us regularly hang out on Skype and talk about what we're working on. A lot of creative and good-humored developers frequent the TIGSource forums. They're a really great bunch of people. One of the coolest things about the scene is that everyone is willing to help each other out. Since most people are following their own passions and creating unique experiences, we don't end up competing against each other.
Its a nice place to be right now!
Are there any indie titles that you are particularly looking forward to?
I really want to see "Indie Brawl
" finished. I'm hoping that someday LIMBO
will be a real game. I've also heard rumors about a possible "Spelunky
" console port... that would be epic beyond words.