Interview with Squid in a Box’s Robert Hale

A developer recently made waves on Steam – literally. Squid in a Box, headed up by an industry veteran, recently gave a go with the arena shooter genre and has crafted Waves, which is available for $9.99 on Steam. The studio is comprised of one person, Rob Hale, and he was kind enough to talk to us about his most recent game release.

IndieSnack: Can you start by introducing yourself and explaining how Squid in a Box started and what its mission is?

Rob Hale: Hi I’m Rob Hale and I am Squid In A Box. All of it. I started Squid In A Box for one reason really – So I could make the games I wanted to make rather than the games I was told to make. In the last couple of years working in the games industry had moved from being a dream job I was passionate about to being just a job. I’d burnt out on AAA console action games and just wasn’t enjoying making them. It was around this time that Epic released UDK so I figured I should take all my experience working with Unreal and try and make a game that I would enjoy making and playing. Hopefully I’ll be able to make a living at it.

IS: Your first game release, Waves, landed on digital distribution recently. With the number of “twin-stick” games available on the independent level, what made you target this genre and what did you look to add to it?

RH: It was largely an accident. I was messing about with Unreal over a weekend and ended up with this really simple ball rolling game wher eyou collected dots and there was water you could float in. Basic physics puzzle stuff. At first I thought I could make a physics puzzle game with it but soon got very bored with the idea and it quickly started to feel like I was pushing myself in a direction I thought was profitable rather than fun (for me). So I added a gun to the player and a bunch of tiny balls that you could shoot. Instantly I was enjoying working on this thing far more and I decided to stick with it and see where it took me.

The thing is there are a lot of twin stick shooters and the vast majority of them are rubbish. I think that since Geometry Wars 2 there have been maybe three or four twin sticks released that have been good – not great just good. I hear it alot on forums or in comment threads “Oh another twin stick. Pass.” there is a huge amount of genre apathy now with twin-sticks because of the hundreds of really bad ones that have been released. Making a twin-stick shooter is really easy. Making a good one is really hard. Convincing people that yours is one of the good ones is even harder.

I am a Score Attack shooter fan. I’m not quite so into the Bullet Hell or Story driven shmups that are out there but I love playing Score Attack games – especially everything by Kenta Cho (ABA Games). When I looked at what was available on Steam and elsewhere I noticed that there isn’t actually a good highly polished and strategically deep Score-Attack shmup out there. The PC doesn’t have Geometry Wars 2 and the original Geo Wars doesn’t have any online leaderboards on PC. So because a game that I wanted to play didn’t exist I decided I’d try and make it.

IS: With a demo and the full game available, how have players been responding to Waves?

RH: Players have responded really well to the game. There is this moment after about ten or twenty minutes where players grok the scoring mechanic and they relise that actually the game is far deeper than they orignally thought and that tends to be the point where they get hooked. I’ve heard alot of stories about people playing the game far longer than they meant to and it’s even caused marital tension between my Sister and her husband. She’s much better at it than he is. Mostly because she actually read the instructions.

IS: What would you say is the biggest design challenge in crafting a shooting title?

RH: The basic mechanics of shooting is easy. Really easy. For Waves the hardest part was trying to find the scoring mechanic that suited the enemies. In most shooters all you have to do is stay alive longer than the other guy to get a better score. It’s very shallow and far more about reflexes and reactions than strategy. I wanted Waves to require players to be aggressive and take risks.

If you watch videos of people playing Geometry Wars then the highest scoring players tend to play very defensively – they hug the wall and kite huge blobs of enemies behind them just carving their way around the edge and surviving. I wanted to try and “solve” that problem so there was more than one way to get a good score. So with Waves the Combo system was born – The system was designed to encourage players to let the Arena fill up while they just dodged around enemies before opening fire and trying to rack up lots of kills in a short time.

The result is that you get this kind of ebb and flow between playing defensively and aggressively. A Player that just tries to kill everything straight away won’t get big combos and neither is a player who hugs the wall. This ended up working well with the Slowmo and Bomb mechanics. Slowmo lets you dodge around the arena and Bombs let you rack up huge combos.

IS: Some of Waves’ modes has the player trying to survive as long as possible. How does a developer have to approach a game differently when there is no true “ending?” Also, this genre of game tends to have adaptive and gradually-increasing difficulty. How hard is this to program and what does a developer have to keep in mind when crafting such a feature?

RH: It’s a similar problem to making a multiplayer game like Counterstrike. Why does everybody keep playing a game that they can’t ever “Complete”? The answer is very simple – because the act of playing the game itself is fun. I think a lot of PC gamers have been through a period where they spent every night for months just playing de_dust over and over again without the promise of achievements or unlockable hats. The fact is that every time you played a game you could feel yourself getting better at it. Each time you died you’d learn a little lesson about how to do better next time.

I could bang on a lot about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Flow but there is a simple set of rules to follow: If something is too easy then it’s boring, too hard and it’s frustrating. But when you’re in that sweet spot where something is just a little bit harder than you have the skills to handle and you have to really push yourself to keep up and get better – that’s where the fun is. Trying to code a system to automatically keep a player in that spot all the time is very hard though! You have to find ways to evaluate how good a player is based on what they just did so things like surviving a long time or keeping the arena clear of enemies indicates that a player is doing well and is probably going to get bored if you don’t make things tougher while dying and getting overwhelmed means you need to tone things down to avoid frustration. It took a lot of trial and error and tweaking but I think I ended up with a good balance.

IS: Waves features an online leaderboard, which encourages players to go for the best scores. What design mechanics does a developer have to keep in mind in order to keep a leaderboard balanced and fair?

RH: All of them. Seriously the last few months of development were spent going through every single idea I’d implemented and deciding if it was beneficial to leaderboard play or not. If it wasn’t then I either had to work out a way to make it beneficial or scrap it. Power-ups got dropped because in order to have them I had to do two things: Make the players normal weapon suck and make all of the power-ups equivalent to each other. Power-ups just didn’t add anything tactical to the game (which isn’t to say they don’t in other games that are power-up led) and took a lot of the control out of the players hands and turned it into a dice roll. At one point the level ups would give you an upgrade which would let you move faster or have more slowmo and again the problem with these was that I had to make the normal speed and slowmo worse to make the upgraded versions worth having. It also didn’t flow well with the gameplay and in the end didn’t affect your score so I dropped the feature.

IS: How important is the presentation in a game like Waves? How much of your development time was spent deciding on items such as what colors to use, which music to implement, etc.?

RH: A lot of the colours are actually defined for gameplay reasons rather than aesthetic ones. There is a certain shade of blue that gets used for the player and all of the things that can’t hurt him as well as the HUD. Blue was chosen for that in order to aid people who are red-green colour blind so even if they have trouble with the different colours of enemy they should always be able to identify where the player is in the arena. My brother-in-law is actually red-green colour blind so I did a lot of testing with him to make sure the game was playable.

The enemy colours were all decided based on tones that you could quickly identify. For some reason you seem to be able to detect more tones in the magenta/violet area than in the red/yellow area and yellow enemies were always hard to spot for some reason compared to making them slightly more red or slightly more green. I don’t know why this is but it’s something I experimented with by doing things like taking screenshots and blurring them massively or increasing the bloom to ridiculous levels and seeing if you could still tell the difference between enemies.

Overall I wanted the game to look good and feel polished. It’s purely because I would work on an effect until I was happy with it and I’m something of a perfectionist when it comes to particle effects and shaders. I also was very aware that I couldn’t model or texture worth a damn and I was trying to hide all the coder art behind shaders.

The music came about because I happened to be going through a chiptune phase and I stumbled across a few tracks that I really liked on 8-bit collective. They ended up suiting the gameplay and visuals really well and it was mostly luck in the end. I didn’t set out to find some chiptunes for the game I just set out to find some chiptunes to listen to.

IS: Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in Waves or is there anything you would have liked to add? What did you learn from developing Waves that you are looking to carry forward to your future games?

RH: Finishing things is hard work. I’ve always known that but it’s even harder when the only person working on the game is you. When you’re part of a 100 man devteam it’s much easier and you’re only responsible for a tiny part of the overall game. On the other hand it was far easier to fix bugs and polish the game up when you work alone. Staying motivated is the hardest part and I found that posting regular work in progress videos of the game helped with that.

I would have liked to add some more meta elements like being able to customise your ball in some way (possibly with hats) but overall I got everything into Waves that I wanted. Adding anything else would have turned it into a different game. If I do add any more content to the game it will be as completely separate game modes so I don’t upset the leaderboards.

IS: Where do you see Squid in a Box five years from now? Where do you see the video game industry as a whole five years from now?

RH: I’d like to see myself being able to earn a decent living from my games. Most importantly I’d like to be moved out of my parents spare room! I don’t have plans to try and turn the company into a full studio with multiple employees or anything like that. I want to keep it small and focused with a selection of trusted contractors.

IS: Any advice for aspiring video game developers?

RH: If you want to get a job in the games industry then the most important things is to always be making games. The guys that get hired are the ones that would be making games even if they didn’t get the job. My advice therefore is to make as many games as you can and make sure you learn something with each one.

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Indie Snack is a video gaming Web site focusing on independent developers and game releases. Indie Snack will also soon have services made available to independent developers to include tools aiding them in public relations and game marketing.

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