Earlier today I had the privilege of speaking with Bloomfield’s Game Development Club about my experiences as an indie game developer. Members of the club took turns asking me questions on a wide variety of topics, and I enjoyed sharing some of my first-hand knowledge with those who were eager to jump into the gaming industry themselves.

Here’s the conversation we had through Skype, which has been slightly edited to fix some of the spelling and grammar. Enjoy!

Edwin: Would you mind giving the club a general introduction to yourself and the game?

Strife: I go by the nickname Strife. I’m 24 and I’m from upstate New York, but I’ve been living over in Denmark for a few years. I have a wife and daughter over there.

Strife: Anyway, Freedom Planet started off when I found a physics engine resembling the gameplay from Sonic the Hedgehog 3, and I challenged myself to see if I could take the concept of a 360-degree platform game in a completely different direction from Sega’s mascot. So far it’s turned out to be a melting pot of various action game concepts from the 90’s, and it’s definitely been a blast so far.

Edwin: That’s amazing Stephen. I know I have been admiring your work so far and am eagerly awaiting future updates. So here’s how I have this little shindig planned out: We’re going to have each member come up and ask you a question and give you time to respond.

Strife: Sounds good! And thanks!

Diego: Hey, names Diego, senior here and my role is a programmer. My question, when you found the engine, what language was it written in, and what was the engine called?

Strife: It wasn’t a language per se – it was a set of scripts made for Multimedia Fusion 2, which is a GUI-based game development software. While it’s not nearly as optimized as a raw programming language, it’s still powerful in the right hands and can produce working results more quickly than traditional means.

Strife: Programming is not my greatest strength, so MMF2 allows me to focus more on other aspects of game development by handling all of the major programming work underneath the covers.

Jon: Hi, my name is Jon and I am a junior. My role is programmer/artist. How did you come up with your characters and how did you get your sprites to look so good? Any specific software?

Strife: Hello Jon! (And a belated hello to Diego!) I had some assistance coming up with the designs for the main characters, but the other characters were my own creation. Designing characters can be somewhat tricky, but a general rule of thumb is that if your game is in a low resolution, you’ll want to aim for simple but easily recognizable characteristics. Complimentary colors also help your characters stand out a lot (such as Carol being a green cat with a red bandana).

As for my sprite work, I’m what you would call a “pixel artist” and I’ve learned most of what I do from studying sprites and animations from other games over the years. I use a mix between simple tools like MS Paint and Adobe Photoshop for when I need more specific effects done, though I’m sure there are plenty of other tools out there made specifically with pixel art in mind.

Jon (?): Thanks, and also, what’s the frame rate of the characters and how many frames was an animation?

Strife: It varies depending on the animation they’re performing. Some, like the walking animation, are more detailed and smooth while others don’t need to be as smooth (such as crouching down or looking up).

Strife: Generally speaking, the more frequently a character’s animation is used in the game, the more it would benefit from a smoother animation with lots of frames. Animations such as walking and attacking tend to be the most detailed in this regard.

Brian: So, do you know the exact frame rate of Lilac’s moves? For example, the dash move? This is Brian by the way.

Strife: Hello Brian! Lilac’s Dragon Boost is really fast and uses the full framerate, so it would be 60 fps.

Tom: Cool. This is Tom, I just started my junior year of Game Design. I have a few questions, sort of unrelated to each other. The first is, how did you come up with the story for your game? Second, how did you go about picking out the voice actors for your characters? And finally, how did you gain the interest or investment to work on this project?

Strife: Hello Tom! So they have Bachelor programs in Game Design at your college? Awesome! Always wanted to take one myself.

Anyway, what’s unique about storytelling in video games is that for the best results, you need to integrate the gameplay into the story and vice versa, and this can take a lot of trial and error if you’re not familiar with it. I’d suggest thinking about some of your favorite game stories and how they did (or didn’t) accommodate the gameplay. This is why “Save the World” plots tend to be so popular since it gives plenty of opportunities for action and adventure, but see how much of a spin you can put on the concept with your plot and theme. For example, I went for a Chinese theme with science fiction overtones.

As for voice acting, I wasn’t sure at first if my game needed it, but I figured that the style of my game would benefit the most from voiced dialog as opposed to plain text. So one day I decided to put up auditions on a voice acting forum, and it didn’t take long for me to receive a lot of auditions. There’s a saying: If you build it, they will come. If you’ve got a concept for a game that looks fun, unique or just plain weird, it should spark interest on its own with a little push in the right direction.

As a matter of fact, I’d say that a lot of the attention Freedom Planet has gotten is because it takes a concept that’s strikingly familiar (i.e. Sonic the Hedgehog) and does something different with it that people haven’t seen before or would like to see done. If you have an idea that people believe is worth sharing with the world, then that can be a powerful force of motivation.

Edwin: *applause*

Strife: Thanks! (How many people?)

Edwin: As for the audience, you have about 25 members, but as for questions remaining I’m looking at a possible six.

Strife: Keep ‘em coming!

Edwin: Time permitting.

Strife: I have time. I’m more concerned about you guys on account of my typing speed.

Michael: Hi, this is Michael. I’m a freshman, and I just started working on my first game with our Game Design team here at the school. Do you have any advice for a novice game designer?

Strife: Hello Michael! Welcome to the world of game development.

During my time in college, I learned something value about any large-scale project that you may tackle – Always break it down into more manageable components. Don’t tell yourself right off the bat “I’m gonna make this game.” Break it down. You could say instead “I’m gonna make the first level of this game,” but that’s still too broad. “I’m gonna make the first enemy in the first level of this game.” Keep going! Break it down as much as you can until you end up with something you can work on immediately. “I’m gonna draw the sprites for this first enemy in the first level.”

Far too many times I’ve looked at the big picture and had my eyes glaze over and my attention float elsewhere, so as long as you’ve got specific tasks that you’re doing, you should be able to keep your eye on the ball.

Michael: Thank you!

Strife: No probs!

Brenda: Do you have any specific advice for the art department? This is Brenda, and I was wondering about what steps or precautions that I should take on my way to becoming a Game Artist?

Strife: Hello Brenda! While I didn’t take any art classes beyond high school, it was still one of my favorite subjects. I’d say that if you want to work your way into game art, try and keep in mind that you’ll most likely be designing characters, objects, and scenery in a world that’s constantly in motion. Depending on the game’s style and theme, you’ll probably want to use colors and features that can be pointed out easily in moving environments (which is something I’ve had issues with in Freedom Planet because of the lack of harsh outlines and the lack of contrast between some foregrounds and backgrounds). Also take note of the designer’s target audience, which could also influence the style that you use. Note the differences in art style between, for example, Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2, two games which share the same genre and engine but are completely different concepts.

Chris: Hi. This is Cris, but you can call me 8-Bit (everyone else does haha). I’m a freshman majoring in Animation. The game was absolutely amazing and I loved it! Naturally, a lot of time and effort was put into it. What was the most challenging part for you in development of the game?

Strife: Stephen “Strife” DiDuro: Hello Chris! Glad you liked it so far!

For me, I think the most challenging part skill-wise is the artwork, because it can take someone like me a really long time to make not only a stage look good, but the various obstacles and enemies within it. If you work in a team, you can really cut down on development time if you have one person do all the artwork and another one do all of the building and designing.

Of course, if you know a few tricks with trigonometry/math, you could actually skip over the animation process of your artwork and instead divide certain objects into multiple pieces that move and rotate with math instead. I did this with both the snake boss and the giant stomping enemy in Dragon Valley, and I’ll be doing it again with almost every future boss in the game. I can’t wait to show off some of the new bosses I’ve made using this concept, including a giant robotic panther that would have been a nightmare to animate by hand!

Chris: Sweet! I look forward to seeing it! 😀 Thanks a lot!

Strife: You’re welcome!

Diego: Hi, it’s me Diego again, got another question. When you designed the game, or any game you made, how do you go about designing the first batch of levels that would teach the player how to control the player and use the mechanics to go through the level?

Strife: Hello again!

How you approach the introductory stages of your game varies depending on the genre and the complexity of your game’s rules, but as a general rule of thumb, I’ve been trying to teach players how to play the game through the level design alone without the use of tutorials or text boxes. If you’ve ever watched Egoraptor’s video on YouTube where he compares the original Mega Man series to Mega Man X, he describes this idea more brilliantly than I ever could have, so I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to get into game design:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FpigqfcvlM

Anyway, what I could recommend is that you teach as much as you can to the player without spelling it out for them. Then, whatever you can’t explain through subtle hints in the level’s layout, you can explain through helpful signs, hint boxes, or other characters instead (which is quite true for turn-based RPGs and the like). As an absolute last resort for when you game has a lot of mechanics that the player must know about, you can opt for a tutorial stage that’s almost completely dedicated to teaching the player how to play. It would be a good idea to make such a stage optional/skippable for veteran players, of course.

Diego: I’ve watched the egoraptor video, 3 times, and its a design idea I’ve been trying to add in my games as much as possible.

Strife: I love it. It’s hilarious!

Diego: Oh yea, definitely.

Edwin: OK, so last question…

Roger: Hi I’m Roger, I’m President of the Game Dev Club. What struggles did you have working with a group, such as keeping communication.

Strife: Hello Roger! Funny you should ask, since this is the first project in which I’ve had a group helping my out as opposed to working by myself. It’s definitely making life a lot easier!

Anyway, one of the most important things about a group, I think, is that everyone has the same goal – finish the game – and that the benefits from reaching this goal keep them motivated so that they’re always actively helping out and don’t need to be told to pitch in. In the case of my voice actors, for example, they’re eager to get more experience and exposure. And for the most part I’ve had very little in the way of conflicts between group members; They’re practically nonexistent.

Keeping communication can be tricky, though, so above all else, your entire group should have a single gathering point to which you can relay information in real-time. For us, it’s Skype. Skype really is a brilliant way to keep team members together because it allows people to read messages from the group even if they weren’t online at the time, so no information is lost and everyone can stay on the same page with the project’s development. Don’t ever let anyone fall out of touch if you can help it.

Roger: Thanks! Similar to your Skype meeting we meet every Thursdays to touch base so that’s good on us. We’ll keep using Skype in mind too though.

Edwin: Thank you for your time Stephen! Thanks for the great responses and insight. We’ll definitely be looking forward for your next project!