Return of Indie-Ana Co-Op and the Questioning of Cadenza Interactive

2/1/2011 at 3:06 PM

It's been a while since our intrepid mascot, Billy, donned his fedora and leather jacket and went off to explore the hot, humid depths of the modern gaming jungle in search of those great independently developed gems that are out there for our co-op enjoyment.  With Co-Optimus' recent joyous celebration of its 3rd birthday, there seemed to be no better time for Billy to set out on his adventures again!  The Indie-Ana Co-Op feature will run every other Tuesday and feature not only discussions of additional co-opportunities that are available out there through XBLIG, PC, and additional gaming platforms, but also the occasional in-depth look at what goes on behind-the-scenes and into the development of many of these games.

To kick things off, we sat down with Dylan Barker, Community Manager from Cadenza Interactive, the developer of the XBLIG and PC co-op tower defense hit Sol Survivor, in order to go in-depth and discuss the developer's humble beginnings, the challenges they faced during the game's development, what they learned along the way, and what they have in-store for us next.

Cadenza's first entry into the gaming world: the co-op tower defense title, Sol Survivor Dylan, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. First off, tell us a little about Cadenza Interactive. How did you all meet and decide to start making games together?

Dylan Barker: Most of Cadenza was formed out of a group of friends from high school.  The guys all went their separate ways for school, but when summers rolled around, they met back at home and took on film editing and other months-long projects.  When the original guys finished with school, they had an idea to make games.  It so happened that there were a few computer scientists, and one of the guys had some experience with 3D modeling.  They pulled together a "trial work week," where they got together in a garage and made a tech demo to see if they could function together in a work environment.  The results were good, and from that point on Cadenza became a real possibility.  We managed to scrape together some financial backing, and the main development team were hired to move into a house together to start work full-time. How many sample games did you all design/create before coming up with Sol Survivor?

Dylan: Like most game companies, our first idea was much larger than our fledgling team could ever hope to produce.  We didn't produce any sample games, but that was partially because of how Sol Survivor was built.  We decided on a sci-fi based tower defense fairly early, and given that the genre itself is fairly constrained, we were able to create a playable version very early on.  Our early version is completely unrecognizable from Sol Survivor as it is today, and each milestone along the way was iteration from that original version.

Your turrets aren't the only things that can take out the creeps. Your XO has additional powers to help stem the tide Sol Survivor was an interesting new entry into the tower-defense genre by allowing players to actively attack the "creeps," which introduced some new tactical elements to the game.  Where did the idea for this first come from?

Dylan: The ability to attack creeps came from frustration, mostly.  Warcraft 3 tower defense maps were our primary source of inspiration, and one thing we found generally lacking was a way to catch up if your regular defenses only just barely fell behind.  Support also allowed us as developers to make levels harder, knowing that players interested in the challenge would have a point of tension as they watched their ability to fire on the creeps dwindle if their towers weren't keeping up with the creeps. What was the biggest challenge you all faced when developing the game?

Dylan: This question could be a whole interview unto itself for an indie developer.  From the early days, the main challenge was how to create content such that our part-time guys could use the two hours they had here or there to contribute.  This meant putting in hundreds of code man-hours in developing tools that let non-programmers interact directly with game assets without having to bother programmers.  This was a high initial time investment, but it was one of the most important core design philosophies we adopted early and it paid off for us in a serious way.  It allowed our three man team to leverage an extra six part time guys to do everything from stat balancing to level design.  This let us puff up our team size where and when we needed it, despite not having the funding to pay more full-time employees. Initially, the game was released on XBLIG, but then was moved to the PC and released via Steam.  What prompted this change?  Was it always planned?

Dylan: The PC was an inevitability.  Our initial release on the Xbox, however, was the plan all along.  Like so many indie developers, the goal was to get onto Xbox LIVE Arcade.  In retrospect our naivite was pretty funny.  I see Boromir from Lord of the Rings as I say this, saying "One does not simply walk onto Xbox LIVE Arcade!"  The fact is, we thought we would, and there are more hurdles than we had originally imagined.  We had a few weeks of e-mail correspondence before realizing that we weren't going to be on Arcade.  For a few days there was serious despair on the team.

Looking back, it was clear that our game wasn't ready for outside eyes at all.  We hadn't taken the time to add foliage and other props to our levels, and the bulk of the environments were gray and without flavor.  We took stock of what we had going for us, and fortunately, our early decision to use the XNA framework meant we were a great fit for Xbox Indie Games.  At the time there weren't many games attempting our level of graphical sophistication, and there certainly weren't any with our volume of content, so we decided to push on with the Xbox via Indie Games.

We released on Indie Games in September of 2009, concurrent with our placement in the finals of the Dream Build Play competition that Microsoft holds annually.  We worked with the Xbox version for another two months or so before switching ourselves completely over to the PC side for our March 2010 PC launch.

One of the features included with the PC release was an encylopedia that detailed the turrets, abilities, and creeps When it was first released, co-op for Sol Survivor was limited to a specific mode and a handful of maps where two or more players could work together to stave off the invading creeps. What lead to this decision?

Dylan: Co-op gamers were a force that we dramatically underestimated.  We spent so long trying to make the game appeal to the competitive multiplayer crowd in Wars that co-op was originally an afterthought.  About a month after release, we realized that there were elements we hadn't tapped into.  Our original co-op maps only included one map with a shared choke point where friends could build together.  When we made our first major additions to co-op, we of course included several more.  Eventually, we added co-op to the campaign and to our survival mode, largely because of the interest from our forums. Building off that, how important is this kind of input to you all and how do you all determine which pieces of feedback are feasible to implement?

Dylan: Community input is essential for game studios, and I think that's a given in the industry as a whole.  For an inexperienced team like ours, the community is a lifesaver.  Our early adopters were great in supporting us, both with encouragement and criticism.  Sometimes things that the community brought to us seemed obvious, once we were presented with them.  Making campaign co-op and survival co-op were both relative no-brainers, in retrospect.

As you say though, not every idea is fit for the game.  The filter for us is mostly a practical question: "how long will this feature take to implement and how many people do we expect want it?"  Smaller changes and fixes to controls and UI tend to get done as a matter of polish, but big changes like adding whole co-op modes take some discretion.  In the end, we went ahead with it because it was something our early adopters wanted.  We wanted a way to thank them for helping us through release with bug reports and, of course, with their purchase! What has been the biggest lesson you all learned during the course of making Sol Survivor?

Dylan: Hah.  This is another one that, over drinks, could last all night.  I should probably just go the Socratic route and say that the most important thing to developing an indie game is to realize just how little you know.  On a daily basis we encountered situations that were new and required us to grow as a studio.  Because we couldn't simply ask a more experienced team member, we took time to absorb information from the internet in helping us to make informed decisions.  We read everything we could get our hands on, from white papers on graphics programming to blogs on indie game marketing.

Most people probably don't realize how much the process of making a game consumes the people involved.  In the last few months of Sol Survivor, we had guys working 60 hour weeks.  We'd be up until 4 am after working all night, sitting at a diner talking about this tweak or that addition that we wanted to push through the next day.  Burnout can become a real factor, but for Sol Survivor we functioned mostly on adrenaline. Of which aspect of the game are you all most proud?  Is there anything you wish you could have tweaked or done differently?

Dylan: Personally, I am most proud of how much content we were able to produce with such a small team.  The tools that our programmers made allowed us to really amplify our capabilities beyond our team size.

I know Sol Survivor was hamstrung by its learning curve.  I'd like to go back and look at how we could have made the game easier to pick up in the first five minutes.  Strategy games typically require more involvement, but that didn't jive with the more casual gamers that tend to make up the tower defense fan base.

Looking back, our team is also in agreement that we should have focused our efforts on a PC release prior to the Xbox.  I know that we learned a lot by having XBLIG to experience a first release, but Sol Survivor wasn't a great game for the platform.  We developed with a PC mentality and then released the game first on a platform that functions more like the Apple App store, both in terms of the low expected prices and the ease with which any given title can remain in near total obscurity without some attention from the platform itself.  We may revisit the Xbox with our next title, but we certainly will be approaching it from a different angle.

The sweet smell of co-op lasers in the morning... With Sol Survivor completed and enjoying some success, what's next?

Dylan: We've been very fortunate with our PC release.  Steam and Impulse gave us the platform we needed to show our game to the public and fund ourselves for a second title.  We've hired a part time designer to remove some design burden from the programmers, as well as an artist who is doing a lot of concept and modeling in addition to our original 3d artist.

This past August we moved the team and got some dedicated home-studio space as we started work on our second project.  Since then we've had a major engine overhaul, and we've integrated our new content creation tool with the engine itself.  There are a lot of really geeky things that lets us do, most of which we'll blog about after we announce the game itself.  Once again we're making a bit of a gamble, that our small team can produce a lot of very ambitious content by having a tool that lets us work smarter, rather than harder.  In the last two weeks or so, we're starting to see the first evidence that it may pay off!

We'd like to thank Dylan again for the time he spent talking with us and look forward to hearing about their next game very soon!