"It Was As Much Discovery As It Was Creation"
Vessel is amazing. After many long years of painstaking development, Strange Loop Games delivered a sensational indie puzzler last month; a debut title that featured exquisite fluid modelling, cerebral solutions, lavish art design and over twelve hours of content. Naturally I was keen to sit down with these ex-Pandemic veterans to discuss Vessel's development history, upcoming console ports and the myriad trials faced by independent developers... as well as getting a first hand assessment about the state of the burgeoning indie scene today.
Jonathan Lester (Dealspwn): Hi there, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. First off, could you please introduce yourself to our readers and explain your role at Strange Loop Games?
John Krajewski (Strange Loop Games): My name is John Krajewski, I designed Vessel and programmed it along with my partner Martin Farren.
Dealspwn: Can you give us a short history of Strange Loop? How did you guys get together? Why 'go indie' in the first place?
Krajewski: Strange Loop consists of a close knit group of 4: me, Martin, and our artists Mark Filippelli and Milenko Tunjic. Despite being close knit we're actually very far spread apart, Martin and I are in Seattle and Milenko and Mark are in Australia. We all used to work together at Pandemic Studios in Brisbane, which is how we know each other.
As for why we would go Indie, the better question is why not, and usually the answer is 'I need an income'. For Martin and myself this was something we were willing to forego for awhile, and we were able to start working full time on the ideas that we had. The thing about the games industry is that virtually everyone wants to make their own game, its full of such passionate people. In our case we had an engine that we had already developed in our spare time, and we were able to use that to jump start the game.
Dealspwn: In our opinion, Vessel is one of 2012's first truly great games. What inspired you to make it? What influences did you have?
Krajewski: Thank you for that very kind assessment. The inspiration for it comes from a number of things, but at its core it was built on the joy of manipulating physical worlds, and in this case simulated liquid specifically. The engine started as an experiment in physics and fluid dynamics, and as I added to it over the years it got to the point where we realized 'this could make a really interesting game'.
So it was that core mechanic of liquid dynamics from which the rest of the game grew. We took that simulation and kept playing 'what if' on top of it, what if we make creatures out of this liquid? What if you can create creatures out of any type of liquid? It was as much discovery as it was creation.
Dealspwn: Vessel was underpinned by seriously powerful fluid physics modelling. It's awesome. How tough was it to make, and how long did it take you?
Krajewski: The liquid in Vessel is the core of the game, and the reason we wanted to build it. Liquid simulations are such a fascinating thing to watch in my opinion, they have a reality to them that is unexpected in today's simulations, they feel like a leap ahead. We felt there was a huge opportunity in basing a game on that mechanic because not much had been done with that, and the best way to bring life to liquid was to do it literally, in the game you create liquid creatures.
So the liquid simulation was built well before the code for Vessel was ever started, and I spent a couple years on that before the rest of the team formed. There were a number of white papers on liquid simulation that we were able to use to get the basic algorithm working, so that gave us a head start, but then getting it formed into creatures took a lot of experimentation on our end, as there was nothing out there like that, and rendering it was another challenge that Martin did an amazing job at.
Dealspwn: One of Vessel's major triumphs was providing quantity as well as quality. Do you feel that indie games need to do more in terms of providing value?
Krajewski: Vessel's length is mostly a product of so many interesting features being made possible with the liquid physics, we couldn't stop building puzzles. They just fell out of the system automatically, and our puzzles are all about understanding the interesting quirks and combinations of these systems so it was very easy to get a lot of puzzles out there. The difficult part was putting polish on it, and that took more time than we expected, but the extra time we spent on it was definitely worth it in terms of the final product.
As for Indie games in general, I don't think it's bad that a lot of them are short. They should all be exactly the length they need to be, no shorter and certainly not longer. These days if a game brags 'over 80 hours of gameplay' I wont touch it with a ten foot pole, that means the developers couldn't create a distilled experience. It will be very likely that they'll waste my time if I play that game. Short games are much more valuable to me as a gamer now that I have time constraints. I compare an 80 hour game to how many books I could read or movies I could watch in that time period and the value it adds to my life and experiences in comparison. The 80 hour video game would almost always be a fraction of the value. So I think Indie games are in general much farther ahead of AAA games in providing value per time invested.
Dealspwn: Indie development is rarely an easy road. What obstacles and challenges did you face along the way - both from a development and marketing standpoint?
Krajewski: Getting the project off the ground was a challenge, being that we did it with zero dollars to start. We had to build a team that could fuel themselves on passion for the game alone, and we went through a few people who wanted to be involved but didnt have the drive to follow through. Once we got our core team of 4 though we were set, and from there we were able to build the prototype that got us into the IGF, which got us funding.
Marketing has been another challenge we underestimated. Being a new IP and a new concept and a new studio means we needed to really shout from the rooftops about who we were and what we were building and why anyone should care. Instead we put our heads down and worked hard on the game for 2 years straight, not showing very much. This arguably resulted in a better game, but the value we could have added to the project by connecting to the fans through that entire duration is something we really missed out on. So now that challenge is on us to continue promoting it and introducing people to it while we're out, and we have some ideas for how to go about that (hint, it involves our level editor).
Dealspwn: We understand that you're working on ports for the PS3 and Xbox 360. How far along are you, and can you tell us more about them?
Krajewski: It's running on both consoles now, mostly the work will be to make it run well (consoles are older hardware compared to PC, but we can do it) and making the most of the unique features on console like leaderboards, etc. They should be out this year sometime.
Dealspwn: Do you plan to release the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions via PSN/SEN and XBLA - and have Microsoft and Sony definitely given you the green light?
Krajewski: We're working with our publisher IndiePub to bring Vessel to console and managing the green-lighting of the project which is currently in progress, and we have a third party developer working with us on the port so it's been pretty painless so far. Vessel should be a great fit for console.
Dealspwn: Indie games are rightfully becoming an ever more important part of the market, but what more do indie games need to do to fully resonate with mainstream gamers? Do they even need to?
Krajewski: Indie games are best at exploring niches that AAA studios leave untouched, and a lot of times these niches are extremely lucrative and 'mainstream' in that sense (ie, Minecraft). That's the advantage indies have, exploring these unexplored territories of game design, and every once in awhile a gem is found with mainstream appeal. We can take the un-safe bets, and this is where the most interesting games are I believe, and I think the mainstream will start to recognize that too.
Dealspwn: What's next for Strange Loop?
Krajewski: We're exploring that now. We got this tech we built that we can do a lot with, and we're looking at bringing it to other platforms and using it in interesting ways. We also have the Vessel IP which we all really love, and we're looking at ways to grow that as well. Vessel itself is something we're continuing to work on, with the ports and new features coming for the PC version. And then we have a few totally off the wall ideas that have nothing to do with anything we've done that we're also exploring. It's going to be a fun ride.