Interviews: Flipper Developer Hugo Smits
Posted by James Newton
The one-man voxel machine talks DSiWare development
It's not long until Flipper will be swimming onto DSi systems, so we had just enough time to reel in Hugo Smits, hook some questions on him and wait for him to return with the answers.
Nintendo Life: First off, congratulations on the Seal of Approval! Just to bring our readers up to speed, what's Flipper about?
Hugo Smits: Flipper is about a boy and his best friend, a goldfish named Flipper. One night Flipper gets kidnapped from his room, while the boy is sleeping. The boy wakes up the next day, and decides to rescue his best friend! To do this, you will need to guide the boy through some awesome puzzle levels, which sounds easier than it is, because there are many obstacles and enemies on your path. Luckily there are power ups that can help you transform the landscape to your advantage. If you use them wisely, you will be able to reach Flipper. The cool thing about these power ups is that you can use them on every pixel in the world. You can really precisely blow up a wall for example. This makes for many possible ways to finish the level.
NL: What inspired development of Flipper? Were any titles particularly influential?
HS: Most of the early 90s games, as well as some 80s games. My favorite games are Commander Keen, Crystal Caves, Secret Agent, Monster Bash from Apogee and Doom, Mortal Kombat 2 and Ninja Turtles 2 arcade game from other developers. All those games inspired me to create something that would capture the real ‘game feeling’ instead of trying to be like the next big Hollywood blockbuster. The result is a lot of colourful worlds, secrets and cool chiptune like music!
However, what really inspired me to start the development on Flipper was the voxel engine. I created it, and wanted to sell the licence for it to other developers. However, most producers didn’t get what voxels where, so I created a test game to show all the advantages (destroying, building, rebuilding.) The game turned out so much fun that I kept playing it myself. That’s the moment I decided to build a full game around it.
NL: The game uses a voxel-based engine. What are voxels and how do they differ to pixels and polygons?
HS: Well, voxels are basically 3D pixels. The cool thing about this is that you can change them one by one. So you can totally modify a 3D object. In the case of Flipper it means that you can blow up any piece of the wall, build your platforms anywhere in the world, and repair any piece of the world YOU WANT. With polygon engines you don’t have this freedom, you can blow up things but only the spots the developer had put in place for you to blow up.
This is really apparent in some older games such as Duke Nukem 3D, you could blow up a wall where it has a crack, however shooting a rocket at any other place doesn’t do any damage to the wall at all. With voxels, it doesn’t matter where the rocket hits the wall, it will always blow up at that place.
NL: The art style changed partway through development. What brought on the change?
HS: I wouldn’t say the art style changed as much as I’m just a bad artist.. haha. It was always the plan to have crisp pixel-art. However, in the beginning I did it myself which was a lot of work besides programming, game design, level design, biz stuff. I decided the art really suffered from me not having enough time, and not being a totally great pixel artist, So I called up Paul Veer (who is an amazing pixel-artist) if he had any interest in making the art. He did, and the end result is what ended up in the game.
NL: You've mentioned before that the extra memory on the DSi was quite a plus for you, would Flipper have been possible on a DS at all?
HS: No, it wouldn’t be possible. At least not the game that Flipper is today. I already had a lot of trouble trying to cram the levels into the memory, it was always a (heavy) fight. Sometimes I won, sometimes the DS. When I got to play with the extra memory, I was so relieved. Suddenly everything worked like a charm. Later, I also had to put in music. With the extra memory this wasn’t a problem. If I had to do this on the normal DS, I probably had to stream it under hard conditions (i.e. less of the music in memory = more streaming,) which would have made the game really slow. So yeah, the extra memory means a lot to Flipper.
NL: You were sole developer on Flipper. What challenges did you face during development?
HS: A lot, I had to sacrifice everything. I believed in the game for 200%, but it was hard to explain it to family. I basically locked myself up in my room for more than half a year. I was living there, between empty pizza boxes and soda cans. Working deep into the night. I slept mostly during school classes. Of course this wasn’t always respected by my surroundings. But I needed to create this game, that’s how it felt: like I really needed to.
Luckily they can see what a great game Flipper turned out to be. In fact my girlfriend even likes to play it! Other than that, it was the economical crisis that wasn’t too helpful. It made a lot of publishers scared to publish DS titles. The development itself wasn’t easy either, but I never saw this as a problem, I rather thought it was fun. I learned a lot about the DS hardware!
NL: Would you have any advice for other budding developers hoping to try and produce their own title?
HS: Yes, just do it. It sounds easy and corny. But it’s extremely true. If you think you have a good idea, build it. Nobody is going to give you a publishing deal because you think you have a good idea. You need to prove it. Build a prototype: is it fun to play? Start building the full version. I’m sure it will change a lot before it’s anything like the final product (the same happened with Flipper). But it’s important you have something to show.
Flipper came to be, because every time I had a meeting with a publisher or somebody important I could take my DS with me, and show the latest build. Sure it wasn’t perfect, but it showed them I was capable of building something that could actually run on the DS. And they could experience the gameplay, and see how fun it was. Nobody cared about some textures that weren’t quite right yet, or the lack of good music; everybody believed I could put those in later.
This made them take Flipper seriously, and it’s what gave a Flipper a chance to be.
NL: The game was scheduled for release late last year (September). What was the reason behind its delay?
HS: Multiple things, a lot of fine-tuning and other little things happened. Besides that it was also me who underestimated what it takes to bring a game onto the market. You have all these little things, that you don’t think about when you start development. You need age ratings, there are actually quite a lot of rating a game needs (for a world wide release). You need to wait before those ratings come in, this takes a lot of time. And all ratings have totally different ways of checking your game: some want a video, others want to play the game. Some ratings want you to submit the materials in digital form; others want you to post it. Then the letters get lost at the post office, you need to resubmit it.. argh! By the time you have all the ratings, you're weeks further on.
Then of course you have the Nintendo lotcheck, which wasn’t all that bad, but it takes time. I was the only programmer, so I was the only one who had to process the lotcheck results. It was a lot of work. There were no major-bugs in the game, the lotcheck came back for little things. But you need to fix it and resubmit it, it all takes a few weeks. Nintendo was pretty helpful and friendly during the whole process. And I think the game got better because of their input.
NL: What kind of playtesting have you done, and what has the feedback been like?
HS: There wasn’t really any playtesting to be honest. I played the game during development, and what felt good stayed, otherwise I would cut it. Some people from the publisher(Xform) played the game, and send me bug lists.
The thing with my games is; I try to find some core-thing that really, REALLY works well and is fun. And then I design my game around that. And it stays the focus of the entire development process. For Flipper it was the modifying aspect. It’s just awesome to blow things up. Even after one year of development, I still like to play around in the world of Flipper!
NL: Would you like to bring other team members onboard, if the game sells well enough?
HS: Yes, I want Goodbye Galaxy Games to grow out to be an awesome game studio. But at the same time, I like to work on a lot of aspects of the game myself, so it will be hard to give certain tasks to others.
However, I know, as with the graphics and music for Flipper, it is the best for the game to let some other people help out. There are so many aspects that all deserve and need the same amount of detail and time, which makes it almost impossible to build a good game totally on your own.
I feel lucky that some talented people helped out on parts of Flipper. Without them the game wouldn’t be nearly as good.
NL: What's next after Flipper for Goodbye Galaxy?
HS: A lot, I’m working on a prototype right now for a 2D platform/puzzle game. I can’t really say anything about it, other than that the core-gameplay will be new/innovative while the rest (graphics, sound) will be old-school. Besides that, I want to make a lot of different games for DSi-ware. I have ideas for a strategy, shmup, FPS and a beat-em-up game. Maybe (depending on sales) I will port the DSiWare games to iPhone.
Thanks to Rebecca Gunn, who contributed to the production of this interview