Interviews: Frozen Codebase - Jam City Rollergirls
Posted by James Newton
Jammers, blue shells and water bombs - welcome to roller derby
Some games have thrilling stories of inspiration: a childhood nightmare overcome, fresh eyes on a new hobby. Jam City Rollergirls does not have quite such noble origins: it's the offspring of the fast-paced sport of roller derby and lots of drinking. We chatted to developer Frozen Codebase about the game, its fans and hitting players with vodka bottles.
Nintendo Life: Firstly, please introduce yourself and your role on Jam City Rollergirls.
Norb Rozek: Greetings! I’m Norb Rozek, and I was the designer on Jam City Rollergirls. I also got to be the audio guy, because we like to wear multiple hats here (partly out of necessity; partly because it gets cold in Wisconsin).
NL: This is, as far as we know, the first game to be based on roller derby. What is it about the sport that made you think it’d make a great game?
NR: Ha, I think the real question is “what is it about the sport that would make anyone think it WOULDN’T make a great game?” I mean – you have CONSTANT motion and action, you have almost constant hitting and impact, and then you have all these great personalities, in outlandish garb, evoking this spectacular outsider subculture vibe. We went to our first derby bout in September 2006, and, by the end of the night, we were pretty much drooling over the concept of making a game out of what we saw on the track. In my case, I think I was drooling in a very literal sense – I’d had quite a bit to drink that day, if memory serves.
NL: Did you get to take part in any matches or training to get a feel for roller derby, and did any major injuries occur as a result?
NR: We never strapped on the pads and went toe-to-toe with any derby girls, thank God. We did rent out a roller rink one afternoon, and have the local league – the Fox Cityz Foxz – attempt to show us how to skate. I am pretty much the worst skater of all time (they refer to me as “Frankenskate”), but I eventually figured out how to do this sideways crossover step-thing they were trying to show us. I got all fat and sassy about it, and I started kind of dancing around while doing this move, singing the song “Alley Cat” by Bent Fabric (the same song to which Riff Randell’s phy ed class is supposed to be doing calisthenics in the movie “Rock & Roll High School”), and, of course, as soon as I started showing off, I fell flat on my ass…luckily, I injured little more than my pride, but I think I got off the rink pretty quickly after that.
NL: Jam City’s pretty over the top – was it always like this, or did you consider a more “simulation” approach at any time?
NR: Our original approach was to attempt something way more realistic and by-the-book than what we wound up with Jam City. This was when we were using a different engine, and attempting to peddle the game as a full-retail title for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. With no publisher, limited funds and a small team size, we found the challenge of trying to produce a game that was sort of the “EA” of roller derby a daunting one, to say the least. Part of this is that there are certain unique challenges that adapting roller derby to the video game medium presents – for instance, derby is the only sport where both sides are playing offense and defence at the same time. This means (at least to me) that, in any effective derby simulation, you’re gonna need a top-down view to see everything that’s going on, and everything you need to see for this simulation to be effective.
Of course, a top-down view would eliminate about 90% of the visual fun of the game, plus make character control pretty much unworkable, so you’re going to have to try and pull off a simulation with the camera behind the player’s head viewpoint, which really only tells part of the story. Anyway, we soldiered on with a more realistic approach, and found out a number of things that, in retrospect, should have been obvious: 1) Going to the penalty box is not fun; 2) Taking corners too sharply and falling down is not fun; 3) Getting penalties for skating out of bounds is not fun; 4) In general, spending a lot of time NOT skating – crashing into things, falling down, sitting in the box – is not fun at all, nor is there an obvious way to MAKE it fun.
Further, the vast majority of gamers have NO IDEA what the rules of roller derby are, nor do they care, nor can they be MADE to care, in any in-depth way. Therefore, were we to keep on with the simulation aspect of things, we were on a course to end up with an un-fun game which followed a ruleset about which most potential customers neither understand nor care– a recipe for failure/doom/et al. Our solution for this mess was to re-launch the game as something more accessible and appealing to the 99% of the people in this world who WEREN’T roller derby fans – making a game that wasn’t just the roller derby rulebook (which is like 44 pages, by the way) made into a videogame, while keeping intact that which we considered to be the core components of derby. We really think we’ve hit a good balance between “real derby” and “not derby” in this game – finding that balance was a source of constant friction within the development team, but we take that as a healthy sign.
NL: Tell us a bit more about the power-ups that feature in the game.
NR: Well, we have a few generic ones, like speed boosts and what-not, but then we also have some that are a little more “out there” – there’s a water balloon power-up that you can toss at an opponent, a “Skate Invaders” power-up that summons forth a trio of otherworldly allies who will send your opponents flying, a power-up that will turn you into an invincible fireball, and the inestimable “Pink Reaper” – a chuckling pink spectre that serves as our equivalent to the blue shell in Mario Kart. We found that power-ups are an effective way to balance gameplay, and help equalise some of the potential disparities between players of differing skill levels.
NL: Roller derby players obviously come in a range of sizes and roles – what sort of impact does this have in the game?
NR: Well, as this is a game made for Nintendo WiiWare – and therefore restricted to a pretty small file size limit – we don’t have the full range of body types and positions that you’d find in real derby. In Jam City Rollergirls, you always play as the jammer – your team’s sole offensive player. You never play as a pack player. In the jammer role, speed, acceleration and agility are paramount, so the most common approach is to play as a smaller, faster character. However, we’ve adjusted the numbers so that it’s possible to play a larger, less speedy character as your jammer – a skater whom, in real life, would probably never play the jammer position. In this case, your jammer’s ability to deliver and withstand punishing hits offsets her comparatively lessened speed and agility. In real life, the faster skaters would tend to be the jammers, and the stronger, slower skaters would tend to play in the pack – since we don’t allow the player to play in the pack in this game, we attempted to make the stronger, slower skaters valid jammers, in their own way.
NL: The latest trailer showed off some customisation elements to the game. What sorts of attributes can you alter?
NR: Well, as you progress thru SEASON mode, and earn money, you can upgrade your gear – helmets, skates, etc. – which, in turn, adds modifiers to any of six different statistical categories: Speed, Acceleration, Strength, Agility, Stamina, and Fan Love. “Fan Love” influences the odds of the player getting a really good power-up, and worked as a great gameplay balance adjuster for us.
NL: The game includes officially licensed teams and players. What was it like working with the girls? Were any of them scary?
NR: Ha, no, they were all great! You wanna liven up a dull gaming convention and/or trade show? Get a few rollergirls workin’ your booth! You might have to go chase them down a few times because they’re on the verge of getting you all kicked out, but TRUST me – it’s worth it!
The significant others of both myself and our company president both play roller derby – I think the thing of which I’m most scared is hearing that I hafta foot the bill for another $700 pair of skates!
NL: Were there any elements you wanted to include that got shot down by the leagues or teams?
NR: Surprisingly little. It really wasn’t a case of things getting shot down, it was more like each side understanding from where the other side was coming. One of the largest segments of our target market is, obviously, derby skaters – so if we put something in the game the teams or the league hates, we’d better damn well listen to them when they tell us they hate it, because they are very likely speaking for the majority of the skaters, whom we hope will buy our game. It works the same going the other way – if we told them “we have to have fireball power-ups in the game or it’s gonna wind up boring and no one will buy it,” they listened to us. For example, at one point in time, we had a vodka bottle power-up in the game. You got it, and then you could hurl the bottle at an opponent, and it would knock them down and explode into a bunch of glass shards. They were like “geez, we don’t want people throwing booze bottles at each other in the game, that’s getting pretty far afield from the image which we’re trying to project,” so we changed it to a water balloon. Nobody complains about the water balloon, everybody loves it – it is a much, MUCH better fit for the game – so it was more like working towards a common goal, even though the priorities of the two sides (US: making a great game; THEM: promoting their sport) are slightly different.
NL: The trailer had a pretty rocking soundtrack. What sorts of tunes can we expect in the finished game?
NR: I sincerely hope you like the song “Go!” by Tricksy, because there isn’t much room for music in a WiiWare game…
NL: We’ve seen from the response to our posts that roller derby has a bigger following than many people realise. What’s the reaction been like from the fans?
NR: People honestly love it. We really thought we would get more friction from people who hated the idea of power-ups and non-oval tracks, but that never materialised. I think people like it because it’s still recognisable as roller derby, but it is also very pick-up-and-play. They “get” it. I demoed the game at RollerCon in Las Vegas this summer, and the only gripe I heard was from some guy (whom, I might add, didn’t even bother to play the game) who didn’t like how one of the levels had a railing in it, because it looked reminiscent of banked-track roller derby, not flat-track roller derby. If the only complaint you hear about your game is that one yahoo doesn’t like a railing, your game is very likely on the right course.
NL: How about the teams – what do they make of it?
NR: I don’t want to speak for the teams, but no one’s given me the impression they dislike it.
NL: There were a few things our readers want to know: one, will players cast shadows in the finished game, and number two, will it be in widescreen 16:9?
NR: 1. No, shadows would kill our frame rate. 2. Hells yes.
NL: What sort of release date are you shooting for?
NR: We’d like to see it out in November, but that’s all in Nintendo’s hands right now.
Our thanks go to Ben Geisler and Norb Rozek for their time and answers.