CrunchTime Games Interview

Interview by Keith Murray, September 2008

Wednesday 3rd September saw the release of CrunchTime Games’ Shred Nebula. Founded in 2003 and boasting a team with experience on titles such as Aliens Vs Predator, Dungeons and Dragons: Tower of Doom, Soul Edge and Mark Eko’s Getting Up, we spoke to James Goddard about Shred Nebula and working on the XBLA.

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You have a long and illustrious history within the games industry – was forming Crunchtime Games a conscious decision to get back to your roots?

Absolutely! While I love working on big titles and running large teams, at some point you are just not able to do production work anymore- unless you work 12-16 hours a day. That is what I had to do before (be a manager most of the day, character gameplay designer/programmer into the night) and it started to wear on me (especially because I did not have any stock in a certain company).

So breaking off, I was able to just focus as a contractor on gameplay and expand to have more games and clients and less management meetings. I got picked up by Blizzard to work on StarCraft Ghost, later World of WarCraft and while I was busy as hell, it was more fun and focused- a great time. In the background, I worked on my master plan to create a studio of first time developers (students, interns, fresh graduates) and
then in late 2005 opened the studio on my ranch, in a converted detached garage and started staffing up. I completed contract work on all projects and then focused on phase two – making a game from scratch!

When did you start developing Shred Nebula? How did the idea come about and what’s been the inspiration behind the game?

The studio had shooter fans, and the thought was “let’s do a side scrolling shooter!”. I did not want to jump into that crowded market, owned by hardcore Japanese and UK developers, I saw a huge opening in the Asteroids/Space War and Subspace style genre.

I sold the team (you have to sell your team even if you are the boss) on how open it was, the fact that  in three decades only a few games did it right and with the addition of full fighting AI, the enemy ships, huge free-roaming interactive environments would make the game totally different. Then there was the multiplayer- a full game in itself! Everyone got excited and in March 2006, we kicked off a self funded prototype on PC.

How do you balance the need to appeal to both the hardened shooter fans and those who occasionally dabble in the genre?

It is important to make the control easy and cool things happen at casual level, but build in plenty of depth and skill to master to take players all the way to the hardcore level (something in adventure fighting Dave Winstead and I have done many time before). The challenge with Shred Nebula however is the control being easy- it is not Twin-Stick based like Robotron/Geometry Wars, and many players frankly have not played Free-Drift style flight control (like Asteroids) for a long time. We updated the control to accommodate for this and made it so you simply press the Left Analog Stick in the direction you want to fly/shoot and Left Trigger thrusts you in that direction.

We made the movement way faster and the ships more agile and capable of fast turns to also update things, along with ‘drift-dampening’ to bring ships to a stop over a short time, so players did not drift forever (might be controversial!) and feel like they cannot stop. Pro Sub-Space players right now are reading this going “duh- just counter thrust in the opposite direction to stop!” but casual players do not know that. Good news, at hardcore levels, the game is really fast and drift shooting (sideways to lay down a spread) is still there and easy to do. We can do things with this control that make for very advanced ship manoeuvres never seen in this genre before.

The trailer for the game had a very hard and heavy soundtrack – is this indicative of the soundtrack to the whole game? What’s been the main inspiration behind the soundtrack and how it’s implemented?

That soundtrack is straight from the game (1st reveal trailer) and all the soundtracks you hear in all our videos are right from the game with one exception: The official trailer #1, where it says “Captain…” in green retro text in the beginning, has a pumped up version of an in-game track.

We wanted music that just kicked-ass, felt new but had some retro flare to it. Our sound director/musician/sfx guy (all one dude) is just awesome and his style was perfect for our game. He is edgy and did a bunch of awesome tracks for the game. We even expanded the audio budget to allow for more music and sfx (we upped it 10megs).  Our sound guy is super mysterious, we do not even know his real name, but he goes by “the very odd house”. Check out theveryoddhouse.com for more.

What’s the thing you’re most proud of with Shred Nebula?

Pulling of a final game that is so much better than our original goal, all with the art and technology done by 1st time game developers!

The XBLA’s become firmly established in a short space of time. Do you feel that the it’s becoming too crowded a market for a shooter? What features do you feel make Shred Nebula stand out from the crowd?

I would be very uncomfortable if we were yet another Twin-Stick shooter right now. But what we have pulled off and the way this things moves, animates and plays, with ships actually hunting you (with no obvious
patterns) makes it just it’s own bar-raising genre within shooters.

Once you experience deathmatch where you are actually fighting with counters and special ship abilities (none of which are shared) and you realize your 1st person shooter skills help you this much and your fighting game skills help you in dog-fights, it is pretty much when you realize this game is special.

That is my own experience talking and I designed a lot of that- but playing it blew even my mind. So we hope, graphically the environments and special-fx just set the standard for future space shooters and gameplay takes us the rest of the way to successfully proving this genre was in fact viable and wide open – and publishers are left scratching their heads as to why they did not think of it first.

Have you found there’s more pressure in developing something for the Live Arcade? Do you think external expectations are any higher or lower than for bigger titles?

The expectations are drastically different.  When it was just 50 megs as the cap, you had to be very good at planning how to make amazing content. Now the cap is higher, you are seeing great looking games. We are just 85 megs, we were 50 until the cap went up to 150 and we said we just needed a bit more because at 50 we looked 99% of how we look now.

But that war is now not as important as actually surviving making the game and getting through cert. People do not realize that this cert is actually harder than retail disk cert, because there are so many little things to catch and TCR’s to meet and the pipeline has choke-points not in the retail process. It is all good, you just have to plan for this. Now we know, next game we will have a long period planned.

How’s it been working with Microsoft on the game?

Good! We really had a great relationship with out PM, Test Lead and other key people at Microsoft.

How do you see the Live Arcade expanding in the future?

I think that the future will show more original content from independent sources kicking ass – there might even have to be an entire blade devoted to Ass-Kicking Indie Games… LOL!

Does the XNA initiative provide a welcome boost of new blood into the industry, or do you feel it doesn’t do enough?

With Microsoft announcing that crazy revenue split for XNA games, it just does not get much better. The opportunity is now there and it is up to the individuals to do something about it and put their money where their mouths are and figure out how to make a fun game (short or epic, but fun).  Lot’s and lot’s of examples are pretty key to encouraging this and already there are tons of such materials. We are even looking at taking our extensive fighting know-how (for fighting and adventure fighting in free-roaming 3D)
and making an XNA engine to do home-brew stuff with!

Do you feel the industry as a whole is doing enough to encourage people to get involved with games?

No, the industry is too busy (as a whole) making games to focus on how to improve the education systems trying to teach people how to make games. There are a lot of high-powered individuals making progress and devoting their time, but we have to band together to make something bigger happen. The IDGA is a key in this, but I myself have not yet contact them to bring my experience and advice as an expert at training designers into the process. So I am guilty of this too.

Shred Nebula was the start of me changing that and doing something radical to prove one experienced pro could take an entire team of 1st timers and empower them to do work that rivalled seasoned teams.  I also began teaching in April 2008 and got involved in reviewing and collaboratively designing cutting edge game development techniques and classes at the University of Advancing Technology as their Professor of Game Development and Program Champion. This is really showing me as an industry pro just how much we can make a different in the future of game education and independent communities. I used Shred Nebula documents as teaching materials this summer and they were very effective. I am very excited to say we are releasing some of them on the launch of the game.  Now that is something that is hopefully useful for aspiring game designers/developers! I hope more in the industry do the same!

What are your Favourite XBLA/PSN/WiiWare titles at the moment (apart from Shred Nebula of course)?

Pac-Man Championship Edition, Castle Crashers, Geometry Wars 1&2, Mutant Storm 1 & MS Empire, Lost Winds, Calling All Cars and a few more.

Any plans to go multi-platform now or in the future?

It makes sense to go multiplatform and we are considering it. But the way we do our games takes time and requires real budget. I have had publishers tell me they do games for $500k that covers two platforms and twelve months. We work with larger budgets that that just for one platform and want fourteen months to do it right. Obviously Shred Nebula being twenty six months in order to make all new tech and train people is out of the ordinary.

So we will be looking at how much it will cost to do what we want to do and ensure we have the cash to do it right with no BS milestone payment shenanigans (means we will have to probably self fund it again).

What’s next for Crunchtime games?

We are going to play lots of Shred Neubla, talk to a lot of players, build a community and planning and raising a $50k tournament  for Shred Nebula around it’s desires…  and doing something in the future with Shred that will be very, very cool.

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A big thanks to James Goddard for his time. Shred Nebula is availiable now to download on the Xbox Live Arcade.