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Road To The IGF: Whirled Games' Prime Time: Maths Adventure

Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview is with Taylor Clark and Ben Shirley of Whirled Games, developers of the educational puzzle title Prime Time: Ma
Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, today’s interview is with Taylor Clark and Ben Shirley of Whirled Games, developers of the puzzle title Prime Time: Math Adventure. Clark is a South Dakota based programmer, who worked on the game over a period of two years with Washington based artist and designer Shirley. The game (which thus far lacks an official website) came about due to a shared disappointment in the state of educational software, with the game’s aim to allow children to “learn and laugh at the same time”. The duo summarize the game, saying: "Prime Time is a math based puzzle game that challenges a player's skills at insane speeds. It only takes a minute to learn, but achieving high-score or being the best online can take a lifetime. With multiple play modes and difficulty settings, you're sure to have a good time." We caught up with Clark and Shirley via email to discuss the title, its development, and educational software in general. What is your background in the games industry? Clark: I knew I wanted to program games for a living since age 8. I went to DigiPen Institute of Technology and in my sophomore year I got an internship at Monolith Productions on The Matrix Online. After graduating I got a full-time position and worked at Monolith from 2001 to 2004, I really loved working there. Despite how great it was, I always had a drive to be my own boss so I left to open a chain of gaming centers with a friend from DigiPen. The first center opened in Sioux Falls, SD in September 2005 and was covering costs within 6 months. After a year here I realized that programming games is my true calling and have decided leave this endeavor and go back to a professional company by the beginning of 2007. I suppose my career, as brief as it is so far, looks like I have a severe case of grass-is-greener syndrome, huh? Shirley: I've loved games since I was a fetus. I played Game Boy inside of my mom. But really, I have loved games since I was little and wanted to work on them for forever. I went to DigiPen for my associates and did a ton of testing in the Seattle area. I also worked at Monolith for a little bit but got fired from a Nueve de Mayo party I threw. Then I tested some more and got a level design job at Amaze Entertainment which I love! When was Whirled Games formed? Clark: Whirled Games was formed specifically for Prime Time in this year's IGF. Shirley: The idea of Whirled Games is that we're in different places around the world and we can still whirl our ideas together to make a great product. And I like puns. What inspired the game, and why did you decide to make it? Shirley: I have an intense fondness for basic math and puzzle games, so this project sort of birthed itself in my brain. I'm pumped that Taylor mentioned wanting to make this an educational title for schools, cause the target audience was pretty much just me. I think it'll be a sweet way for kids to learn and hopefully have fun, 'cause a lot of learning games are horrendous. Clark: I am always a big fan of Ben's game designs. He definitely goes for fun and refreshing gameplay foremost and adds a ton of flare. I remember him telling me his idea for Prime Time and when I saw a need in the educational software for a fun math game I knew it could be a hit. Why did you decide to focus on prime numbers? Shirley: I wanted a set group of numbers the player could choose from and prime numbers worked perfectly. What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations? Shirley: The game has come along so well. Taylor is a code genius and has handled all that stuff perfectly. I'm way pumped that we got something this nice out there despite our only contact being through emails and phone calls. It’s great! Clark: I have made small games on the side for fun my entire life, but this one I wanted to be professional. It was far harder than I thought to accomplish that myself. Writing an auto-updater, a crash reporter, and actual game tools that Ben could use took very long and some parts of the code feel rushed for IGF. I feel like the game plays well and is very stable, but I still have qualms with the code. What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is? Shirley: I think it's easy to pick up and play, and it's something I'm hoping to eventually get onto the DS because of that. It's got all of them fun of "real games" but you come out learning something which is hard to come by. Clark: The “Help me Learn” option. If a player creates a profile in Prime Time and plays while logged in then all of the gameplay is tracked. Numbers such as the average equation size and which numbers were used in valid or invalid equations are stored. After about 10-20 minutes of game play time the player can go to the “Help me Learn” mode. The most recent playtime will be analyzed to find the player's weaknesses. Then a round of gameplay will be generated that focuses on presenting the player's most mistake-prone or weakest points to them so they can improve their math skills. I'd also like to mention an interesting thing from a code standpoint. I programmed the game with school computers in mind since these are usually really low end systems. The graphics engine can scale from using DirectDraw 3 to Direct3D 9 depending on what drivers the computer has installed and takes advantage of the unique capabilities each driver provides. How long did development take? Clark: I started coding from scratch in December 2005. The idea had been floating around Ben's head for years. The first 6 months was really light coding, but picked up as the game developed. What was the development process like? Clark: Ben lives in Seattle and I live in South Dakota so we kept in touch over the phone and e-mail. Once he got the game design to me there really wasn't much correspondence until the last 2 months. What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry? Shirley: I love seeing indie games 'cause people will do all sorts of crazy crap, not that it's all interesting, but it's awesome to get such an array of games together for contests like this. Clark: That's a tough question. I have enough trouble trying to determine where the commercial industry is going. There are really a lot of amazing indie games out there and being produced. We do it because we love to make games - that's why indie games will never go away. I hear people talk about how the interactive entertainment industry is going towards the movie business model and that bothers me. I'd like to see less huge budget “AAA” titles reaching the $70 mark that are bland mutations of old gameplay and I would like to see more unique smaller-budget games that are actually fun and have a cheaper price tag. Valve's Steam seems to be headed in this direction. I understand the AAA titles fund the industry and get us into the news, but, in my opinion, they just haven't been that great lately and prove that publishers are unwilling to take any sort of chance. If we do take anything from the movie industry, I'd like to see the interactive entertainment version of independent films. The indie games scene and IGF is the start of this, but it seems like the movie industry's big names recognize indie films more than our industry recognizes indie games. I must say that it looks like the IGF is getting pretty big. What do you think of the state of educational software? Clark: I am disappointed by the current state of educational software. When I was in elementary school we all played Number Munchers and Oregon Trail on the Apple IIe and loved it. Since then I can't think of a fun and truly educational edutainment title. Even the second generation of Oregon Trail disappointed me (no offense to MECC, they made good software). I was oblivious to this until I started mentoring 2 years ago. I mentor a 7th grader and we occasional use his middle school's computers while we meet. I tried the few games that were on the computers their and they were pretty lame, for lack of a better term. I searched online for educational math games and what I found was the same boring equations middle schoolers have for homework wrapped within some pretty graphics. I remembered Ben's idea and how the actual math was the fun part of the game and I knew it could go far. Finally, educational games always seem behind “normal” games in terms of features. I think Prime Time could be one of the first math games to offer an online multiplayer mode. Shirley: Right now, the popular educational games are just homework with a popular character like Spider-Man on top of it. Answer a question; he shoots a web or something. It’s not a game. I used to have so much fun going to the computer lab and playing games on the Apple IIes. I'm excited by the recent success of Brain Age and Big Brain, and I feel if people have interest in those titles, it won't be hard to win them over with a game like Prime Time. Have you checked out any of the other IGF games? Clark: I've only checked out a few. Aquaria looks really beautiful, but I didn't get to play it. I like to check out what DigiPen is putting each year days as it is always good stuff and this year continues that trend. Professor Fizzwizzle is a very well made puzzle game. Shirley: I checked out a bunch of them. I’m usually interested in what new puzzle games there are and if there's anything that jumps out at me. Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why? Shirley: I think the background art in Gumboy is fantastic, it looks so good. I’m kind of interested in Tune (the 2D tuning game) but that's 'cause I love 2D platformers. What recent indie games do you admire, and what recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why? Shirley: I don't play too many indie games, but I've been checking out homebrew DS games. Unfortunately the only one I was really interested in was a remake of Mario's Picross. Recently, Loco Roco won me over a ton, mostly because of its style and great use of the environments. And it helps that it's 2D. Clark: To be honest I've really been out of the indie loop lately. I can't say I've played an indie game that has really impressed lately because I haven't really played any. If remakes can be indie than I'll say TASpring, I loved Total Annihilation and I think TASpring is an amazing tribute. One of the perks of owning a gaming center is that you get to play all the new games as much as you want. But even though I have all of these new “mainstream” titles to play I find myself going back to the classics like Starcraft and Counter-Strike. So I guess I'll say that I don't admire any recent mainstream titles. To be fair, I have always found more pleasure in making games rather than playing them so I am not really a good source for reviews. Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF? Clark: I wish them the best of luck and I'm extremely impressed (and intimidated) by what I've seen. Shirley: Good luck, and send us some artists! Cause I draw like a horse.

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