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Road To The IGF: FizzBall's Matt Parry

The latest interview with Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants chats to Matt Parry of Grubby Games, developers of mash-up styled Katamari Damacy vs. Breakout PC indie
Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview is with Matt Parry of Grubby Games, developers of FizzBall. The company developed the game over the past year, hot on the heels of the success of their previous title, Professor Fizzwizzle, which was a finalist for the IGF Grand Prize in 2006. FizzBall, too, has recently been announced as a finalist in the competition, in the Excellence in Audio category. The game is described by the team as a “fun, family-friendly” “Breakout style game with a terrific twist”, in which various animals must be rescued by being secured within the FizzBall, “a super-strong bubble”. FizzBall features over 180 levels, throughout which players are challenged to “save all the animals and unravel the mystery of why they’ve been left behind”. We spoke to Parry about the game, its entry into the competition, and the difficulty in making a game that appeals to both a younger and older audience. What is your background in the games industry? None, before forming Grubby Games! Until recently there were two of us - Ryan Clark and myself - but we've now expanded a little with the addition of Mike Lee. Ryan and Mike have been hobbyist game programmers since they were kids, and I've been messing around with graphics for as long as I can remember. The three of us lived in a university residence together, and we spent a lot of time batting around various ideas for games we'd like to make, never thinking that we would actually make games for a living one day! When was Grubby Games formed, and what previous titles have you released? In 2004, Ryan and I were both in a position to take the plunge and try to develop games full-time. Our first game, Professor Fizzwizzle, was released in July 2005. It's a 2D platform-based logic puzzle game, and it did well enough to allow us to keep going and make a second game, which ended up being FizzBall. What inspired Fizzball, and why did you decide to make it? Any gamer who checks out FizzBall will see its influences straight away! After the release of our first game we were playing around with various ideas for our next project, and at the time Ryan and I were finally able to check out both Katamari games. We fell in love with Katamari, and Ryan had the idea of taking one part Katamari and one part Arkanoid, and mashing them together. What really excited us about the idea was that it presented a solution to one of the biggest problems with Arkanoid-style games - the "last-brick syndrome", where the last few bricks can take forever to try to hit. Because in our game the ball would get larger and larger, it would actually get easier to hit things toward the end of the level. We like playing well-made Arkanoid games ourselves, and we figured this - along with all the animals - was enough of a hook to make a unique addition to the genre. What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations? Our expectations were to make a polished game that's lots of fun to play, and full of the little details that make us smile when we play games. I think the end product lives up to those expectations – while it's certainly not everyone's cup of tea, we've had loads of great feedback from people. It's always great to watch people play for the first time, because the game often makes them laugh - and with the type of games we develop, that's pretty much the best reaction we can hope for! How difficult was it to balance the game between being too focused on a younger audience and still having an appeal for an older audience? How well do you think you have achieved this? Well, it's funny - we added the kid-friendly levels in Professor Fizzwizzle almost as an afterthought, right near the end of development, just because we realized the game lent itself well to that sort of thing. But the response from kids and their parents was tremendous! So with our second game we really wanted it to appeal to those existing users - the kids and their families - while at the same time appealing to the mainstream casual market. To be honest, I'm not really sure how well we have achieved this! On the one hand, I think our game does a good job of allowing people to play at whichever level they want to play at - if you're not good at action games, you can focus solely on bouncing the ball, but if you a more experienced gamer we've added all sorts of optional goals to shoot for. But on the other hand, some of the feedback we've received (mostly from producers at the portals) is that the graphics may be too childish. We hope the cartoonish graphics don't lead people into thinking it's a game just for kids, but we'll have to see how it performs over the next couple of months. What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is? I think the most interesting thing is how players of different skill levels can play the game in extremely different ways. It can be a straightforward ball-and-paddle game if that's all the challenge you need, but we also included a fan mechanism that allows you to blow the ball around and control its movement much more accurately. In order to win the more advanced trophies, or to have any chance of getting a worldwide high score, you really have to become skillful with the fans, because they allow you to get crazy combos and thereby score lots of bonus points. With advanced players there can be long stretches where the ball never even touches the paddle, and the player is controlling the ball solely with deft little puffs from the fans. We were very excited about this - it's a totally different style of play, but it's still quite fun for people. How hard was it to present a message in the game without being condescending about it? We tried not to be too heavy-handed, but we did slip a bit of an environmental message into the game. I don't think we consciously thought about whether or not we were being condescending; I think it helps that the story is told in a very light, cartoony way, so it never takes itself too seriously. How long did development take? It took the two of us almost exactly one year. What was the development process like? The first month or so was spent prototyping the physics, gameplay, and graphical style and point-of-view, as well as doing a lot of brainstorming for the details of the gameplay. We had most of the gameplay figured out within the prototyping phase, although we were able to incorporate a few new ideas as we went along. That flexibility is of course one of the nice things about being an indie. Things went relatively smoothly, although the game took far longer than we initially thought it would. We expected it to be a fairly quick and easy project for us compared to our first game - in the neighborhood of six months - but the development time ended up being doubled! Having made one game before, we were well aware of the tendency to underestimate how long things will take, but we were still quite surprised...and there were times when we got a bit discouraged as those self-imposed deadlines whooshed by! What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry? I think that as long as small indie teams (like us!) can make fun games and scratch out a living, independent development is alive and healthy. Having an army of small developers out there, trying new things and filling small niches, is a good thing for gamers in my mind. As for how independent game developers fit into the industry...well, we don't really. We're kind of like a craft fair set up right next to The Industry's mini-mall. We peddle small hand-made items that are quirky and strange, but there should be something for everyone, great deals to be had, and a few diamonds in the rough. Have you checked out any of the other IGF games? I've checked out a few of them, but I'll definitely be test-driving more of them as the IGF approaches. There were a lot of exciting entries this year! It was very competitive. Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why? Of the ones I've tried, I've been particularly impressed with Armadillo Run. I absolutely love great physics-based games, and Armadillo Run really took me back to the days of The Incredible Machine. Also, it was really a beautiful experience to play Samorost2. Its visuals are simply gorgeous, and I thought the music complemented them perfectly. Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why? I really liked Aveyond, for the way it brings me back to the good old days of 2D RPG's. I'm sure you can sense a trend: I long for the gaming days of 15 years ago. In general, I'm not much of a fan of 3D games, unless there's a really good reason for adding that 3rd dimension! As for mainstream titles, I must admit that I've become a little too jaded to play most of what lines the store shelves these days, although I absolutely adore everything about Katamari, and I'd almost buy a PSP just to check out Loco Roco. I loved the art design and brilliant use of lighting in both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF? To our fellow contestants: thanks for making the games that appeal to cranky old-school gamers like me. If you didn't make them, no one would!

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