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Road To The IGF: Bang! Howdy's Michael Bayne

Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, we talk with Three Rings co-founder and Bang! Howdy developer Michael Bayne about the game an
Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview is with Michael Bayne, chief technical officer and co-founder of Three Rings Design, developers of tactical strategy MMO Bang! Howdy. Three Rings worked on the game, a “multiplayer online tactical strategy game in a 3D Wild West setting”, over a period of six months, with a team of nine full time developers. The title sees players competing in a “variety of gameplay scenarios using a team of units with different capabilities”, and also allows them to “buy new units, gameplay affecting cards and custom avatars” using an in-game microcurrency. The team estimate that, with the current size of the company they “anticipate spending another 54 developer months” working on expanding the game with another three towns. They add that this has the benefit of cutting the “development budget nearly in half” and allows them to “fund part of the game with revenues from the game itself”. Bang! Howdy was recently announced as one of the five finalists in the running for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize. We spoke to Bayne about the game, its entry into the competition, and the struggles of revenue estimation and paid and unpaid content balancing. What is your background in the games industry? I got into games during the Internet boom. I convinced our CEO that online casual games were going to be a big deal and so we acquired a budding casual games site, PlaySite.com, and I set about rewriting the underlying technology to support the orders of magnitude more traffic that we planned to drive to it. After I left that company, Daniel James and I started Three Rings with the intent of focusing on the intersection of casual and massively multiplayer online games. When was Three Rings Design formed, and what previous titles have you released? Three Rings was founded in March of 2001, and our first game, Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates, went to public alpha in October of 2002, and launched in December 2003. Bang! Howdy is our second proper game, though in March 2005 we launched a website called Game Gardens, where game enthusiasts can create and host multiplayer Java games using our open source toolkits. What inspired Bang! Howdy, and why did you decide to make it? I had been growing dissatisfied with multiplayer turn-based games and with real-time strategy games. The former were too tediously slow, making you wait for your opponent to make their move and the latter frequently degraded into a contest of who had better memorized the keyboard shortcuts. I wanted to find a middle road where the spirit of turn based strategy was preserved - things like discrete unit movement, pre-attack feedback on attack and defense bonuses, control over individual units - but with a pace and level of action more akin to early real-time strategy games. I had also been working on a concept at the time that I was calling "Strategy + Antics = Fun!". The idea being that so many strategy games were so rigid and unforgiving that if a player made a wrong move early in the game, they were doomed to play out the remainder of the game knowing they were going to lose. I wanted to take a lesson from Mario Kart and introduce wacky bonuses that would help to bring players that were falling behind back into competition. Of course, the trick was to do that without upsetting the integrity of the game. After making and playing some prototypes and discovering that they were a lot of fun, one of our artists came up with the steam-punk Wild West theme, and Bang! Howdy was born. What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations? We had a few larger goals in making Bang! Howdy. One was not to take so dang long to make the game. Puzzle Pirates took nearly three years; we were aiming for one with Bang! Howdy but ended up just shy of two. Another was to avoid making another "kitchen sink" game. Puzzle Pirates has a tremendous diversity of features and it is extremely difficult to explain all of the things one can do in the game to a new customer. With Bang! we wanted a tighter focus and a game with a clearer value proposition but at the same time introducing depth where we can without diluting the focus of the game. We're very happy with that right now, but it will take discipline for us to preserve that focus as we start to add more features now that the game is live. Of course we also wanted to make a good game and we are all extremely pleased and proud of how engaging, great looking and downright fun Bang! turned out to be. How have you calculated revenue expectations for the game, and how confident are you that Bang! Howdy will follow those? We have some ideas of what is possible based on our experience with Puzzle Pirates, but one of the ways in which Three Rings is trying to push the frontiers of independent gaming is by experimenting with different business models. We're using a micropayments model with Bang! Howdy but we offer a heck of a lot of the game for free. We will be keeping a close eye on how we're doing at getting customers to eventually pull out their wallet and we'll no doubt be experimenting with things that help to convert a player into a paying customer as well as what sorts of things people feel comfortable paying for. How difficult is it to balance what a player is able to access for free with "premium content"? It's a difficult thing to balance, but because we're trying to establish a long term relationship with our customers rather than just convince them to make a one time purchase after playing a limited demo, we can err on the side of being generous, and know that if they really do end up liking our game we'll give them lots of opportunity down the line to demonstrate that by buying stuff. We have some units and cards that can be bought with microcurrency, but one can play and enjoy the game without making those purchases. We have fancy avatar clothes that are basically just a way to show off to other players - never underestimate peoples desire to show off to one another. Then we have the sort of "mini-expansion pack" which are the new towns. With that three-pronged approach I'm optimistic that we make it easy (and free) for someone to discover that they like the game enough to pay for something and then give them something tangible value when they do. What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is? In terms of novelty, I think it's definitely the hybrid turn-based real-time strategy mechanic. Many of the other aspects of the game are "tried and true". The business model is a bit experimental, but business models tend not to be interesting to anyone other than the investors and the accountants. How long did development take? We started development in earnest in March of 2005, went to public beta in April of 2006 and are in the process of launching the game right now. We're holding off on making a lot of noise about Bang! until the cacophony surrounding the launch of the Wii and PS3 has died down a little. What was the development process like? It started with a few prototypes I made in early 2005 and then we added one artist to the "team" and started working on the basic engine for the real game. As this was our first 3D project, that involved a lot of investigation and experimentation before we finally settled on using the combination of LWJGL (a Java binding to OpenGL), JME (an open source scene graph engine) and a bunch of our own code (which we release as open source at threerings.net/code). Over the next year we ramped up development, growing to three engineers - including myself, who also acted as cat herder, arbiter of design arguments and meeting scheduler - and a heap of artists. Our artists work on all the projects at once, so only the lead artist ever worked full-time on Bang!. What challenges have you faced in terms of the game's online play? I've only ever made online games. I dream of some day pursuing a simple life, making single player games where one is not constantly beset by concerns of latency, disconnection, distributed information management, other players being annoying and the long list of other problems one has to deal with when making online games. However, the tremendous additional fun that comes from having a social aspect in the game - players making friends, playing against real people, having tournaments and other competitions - more than make up for the trouble one has to take to make a game work online. How far do you see the game expanding in the future? Bang! is built as a series of towns, each of which is a complete game within itself based around the basic game mechanics but with a different theme. In Frontier Town we have basic Wild West units, four gameplay scenarios based around general Wild West themes, a bunch of cards and bonuses and badges and avatar components - you'll have to play the game to find out what those are. Then in Indian Trading Post, the second town, we do it all again with new Indian themed units, three new Indian themed gameplay scenarios, a bunch of new cards and bonuses, new badges, cool new Indian avatar components. We are just starting work on Boom Town where we are going to explore the steam aspect of our steam-punk Wild West world in more depth. That means cool robot units and new gameplay modes. Following that, we will be working on Ghost Town, where we'll be introducing spooky ghostly units and gameplay modes. We also have plans for a fifth town called City of Gold, but we're keeping mum about what's going in that one. What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry? I think this is a tremendously exciting time for independent games. The traditional publisher model is struggling with a variety of problems, aversion to taking risks, rising development budgets, a rising resistance among their employees to being overworked. This, combined with a rising public awareness of games and the low-overhead distribution mechanism provided by the Internet presents independent game makers with a huge opportunity. There is a huge and diverse audience of people that want to be entertained and it takes hardly any money at all to make a game and distribute and sell it on the Internet. If we equate casual games to sitcoms and AAA games to Hollywood blockbusters, I feel like we're starting to see consumer demand for games that equate to indie films and games that equate to the high quality serials that are popular on cable channels; which is how I view Bang! Howdy. These consumers are looking for more than just a mindless diversion and more than soulless high budget polish, they're looking for the quality that comes from a passionate creator. As this group of consumers expands, I think we'll see the much heralded creative renaissance that independent games were always supposed to be before they got sidetracked into the realm of casual $20 downloadable games. Have you checked out any of the other IGF games? I've played Armadillo Run, RoboBlitz, FizzBall, the original Samorost and the first Bone adventure. I'm certainly keen to try out the other finalists for the grand prize. Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why? I enjoyed Armadillo Run and its distillation of physics based gameplay into something accessible and fun. Lately, designers have been falling over themselves trying to incorporate physics into their games and end up with something where there are ten thousand ways to do something wrong, and now three ways to do it right instead of only one. I haven't yet played Samorost2 but I admire the original for providing a charming and fun experience without relying visibly on the crutches and devices of a normal game. It just feels like a magical little place, and a captivating story unfolds as I click on it. Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why? I very much enjoyed the first episode of Sam & Max. It is a rare treat to play a game that makes me laugh out loud. Ever since I discovered that such a thing was possible when playing Monkey Island, I've lamented that so few games seem to have a good sense of humor. I also applaud their foray into new business models. I can't say I'm a fan of Gametap, but selling episodes of their game from their website, released on a pretty rapid schedule, is not a far cry from what we're doing with towns in Bang! Howdy and I think it's great. Most of the mainstream games I've been playing lately are on the DS - other than Guitar Hero II. I can't say that there are recent titles for the DS that I outright admire, but in general the games available for that platform seem to have more video gamey goodness and less pointless fluff than commercial games on PC or consoles. Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF? To the contestants, thanks for creating such excellent games that remind us of the possibilities of the medium and challenge us to explore them. To the fans, thanks for supporting independent games in these early days. I look forward to a future where, thanks to improving technologies and continued efforts to facilitate user created content, we can blur the line between game creator and game player and unleash your creativity and enthusiasm.

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