Road To The IGF: Band of Bugs' Jeremy Throckmorton

Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, we chat to Jeremy Throckmorton, lead designer for NinjaBee’s “fast playing, accessible, tactics str
Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview is with Jeremy Throckmorton, lead designer for NinjaBee’s strategy title Band of Bugs. Band of Bugs, which is described as a “fast playing, accessible, tactics strategy game”, and was formerly known as Bugs Of War for IGF entry purposes, has recently been announced as an Xbox 360 Live Arcade title, though a release date has not yet been revealed. The download is set to include a level editor, as well as the option to play against other players via the Live network. NinjaBees note that the gameplay has been designed to “be satisfying to established fans of the tactics genre, but friendly enough to appeal to more casual gamers as well” as “all vital information is presented through an interface designed so a player never need look at the actual numbers to play the game”. The game is a finalist in this year’s IGF competition, in the Technical Excellence category. We spoke to Throckmorton recently about the game, its entry into the IGF, and the challenges associated with balancing the gameplay to appeal to hardcore and casual gamers alike. What is your background in the games industry? Well... I've been in the industry since '96. I started as a tester at a developer in American Fork, Utah. Not long after, I moved into production, and I've been working on games ever since. I'm now lead designer at NinjaBee and working with a bunch of great people on the kinds of games I might not be able to work on elsewhere. When was NinjaBee formed, and what previous titles have you released? I'm going to let Steve Taylor, our company president field that one: “NinjaBee is the "Indie" side of Wahoo Studios (a more traditional contract studio). We first used the NinjaBee label when we pitched Outpost Kaloki to a bunch of publishers as a console title, but ended up deciding to release the game on our own as a PC game. The chance to release Outpost Kaloki X on Xbox Live Arcade not only let us accomplish the original vision of the game but also made NinjaBee a much more well-known name. The games we have developed and released under the NinjaBee label are Outpost Kaloki X (PC and Live Arcade), Cloning Clyde (Live Arcade), and soon to be Band of Bugs (Live Arcade). We sell a few indie games from other developers on the web site.” What inspired Bugs of War, and why did you decide to make it? A bunch of us at NinjaBee central are fans of tactics and strategy games. We wanted to make a game like this that would fit the Live Arcade platform. After a lot of discussion we decided it was time to quit just talking about it and charged forward. Band of Bugs was born. We had a lot of inspiration from games we had played in the past, both computer games, and table-top ones. What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations? Or expectations were a little broad. We wanted to make a game that was accessible to more casual gamers who had never touched a tactics game, but still appealed to fans of the genre. We wanted to make a tactics game that could be played in small doses, and that had a quick and casual multiplayer element. We wanted to make a game that players could add to, and have some ownership of the gameplay experience, and we wanted to make sure they could share that experience as effortlessly as possible. I think we met these goals, although we may not have fully explored all of the options we had intended to from the start. I suppose that's what future projects and expansions are for! We certainly learned a lot along the way during production. How have you tried to balance the gameplay so that it appeals to casual gamers and tactics fans? We had a lot of wild ideas on how to approach the strategy genre, but the size of our staff and budget didn't support a lot of room for too much experimentation. This was especially the case with out decision to ship an editor with the game. The editor was a whole project in itself. What we ended up doing was taking a lot of the staples of tactical strategy and stripping away any excess baggage. We took a hard look at a lot of the reasons a casual gamer would like or dislike a turn based strategy game and based a lot of our decisions on that. Encounters in our game aren't epic, they are kept to a small scale, and our turn order is very fast paced for a turn based game. The last thing we wanted was players sitting around and waiting for minutes on end for their turn to come around. On the flip side, we didn't want players to feel they had to master the game right away to be competitive. We wanted to make sure they didn't loose that sense of security that comes with a turn based game, where you can strategize, plan your move, and go when you are ready. What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is? I'd have to say our level editor. We wanted to put a powerful tool for creating and sharing maps into the hands of the player. Because we wanted to make the editor as accessible and robust as possible we made sure it was something we would use ourselves, and use it we did. Every level in the final game was made using the editor. Because of this, the editor is a little less casual than the game itself, but that was a sacrifice we made in order to give players as much control as we could. How long did development take? 10 months. What was the development process like? We were very ambitious in what we set out to accomplish, and while I think we met our goals, development was a bit rougher than we had anticipated. Even though Band of Bugs is smaller in scope compared too many tactical games out there, it was still a very large project. At times we had some difficulty chewing what we had bitten off. There were a few mechanics not directly related to the tactical combat portion of the game we had to revise, otherwise the game would never get done. Fortunately, we have a lot of industry experience at NinjaBee, and were able to make some of these revisions early in the development rather than later. Even so, we really pushed as much as we could into the game, so things have come down to the wire. Some of our programmers in particular have very heavy workloads, and have sacrificed a lot of their personal time burning the midnight oil. What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry? Independent development is necessary, and plays a vital role in our industry. It's what built our industry up to what it is today. Independent games show where we as a medium can go, and are frequently the first to go there. Independent games are also able to cater to niche gamers, and are able to explore the little know recesses of the gamer market far more effectively that the big publishers seem to be able to do. Have you checked out any of the other IGF games? Most definitely. I keep an eye on the IGF each year, and the quality of games just gets better and better. It's really kind of intimidating, actually, and that's a great thing. It really is an honor to be a finalist amongst such great work. Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why? I'm particularly impressed with Bang! Howdy. What they've done with tactical strategy in a multiplayer game, and how smoothly they've done it is very impressive. I keep meaning to spend some quality time with Everyday Shooter, as it looks and sounds really cool, but haven't gotten around to it. My soul dies a little bit each day because of it. Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why? I haven't spent as much time playing indie games as I would like lately, so my answer isn't going to be as educated as it should be. I've really been impressed with RoboBlitz, and what the Naked Sky guys were able to deliver. The game looks great, the download is small, and the physics based gameplay is a hoot. I'm also really looking forward to the releases of Alien Shooter 2, Castle Crashers, and Mutant Storm Empire. As far as mainstream games go, I'm going to have to be totally predictable and say I really admire Gears of War. Holy crap - everything about that game is amazing. If you like shooter type games, and don't mind the content, what's not to love? They really raised the bar as far as production and polish goes. I guess the only part that really falls short in my mind is the story, and I didn't really feel that way until the end of the game. I've also really been enjoying Viva Piñata and Loco Roco. Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF? Congrats to all the other contestants. You guys rock! The fans are what keep the whole thing going, and without you the games wouldn't mean squat. You guys rock too!

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