Continuing Gamasutra's 'Road To The IGF' feature, Patrick Murphy talks to Large Animal Games' Wade Tinney about his 2008 Independent Games Festival Design Innovation Award finalist Snapshot Adventures: Secret of Bird Island.

This is one of the more interesting finalists, because it's definitely a casual title (if you want to get into inane genre classifications), but it nonetheless a bird photography game with some really fun, 'different' gameplay that he says was inspired as much by Spore as Pokemon Snap.

What kind of background do you have in the game industry or in making games?

Wade Tinney: Well, my biz partner Josh Welber and I started making games in graduate school in 1997. Afterwards, we were both making web games for different clients before starting this company in January of 2001. So, neither of us ever really worked in the game industry proper. Honestly, I think that lacking that particular type of experience probably served us well.

Coming from a web publishing background, we were pretty focused on just getting stuff made and putting it in front of people. We never even considered the notion that we should go out and raise a bunch of money so we could develop a big console game or something. We were blissfully naïve, so we just dove in, started making stuff, and gradually pulled the company up by the bootstraps. Do you know how difficult it is to even find bootstraps these days?

What motivated Large Animal Games to create Snapshot Adventures?

WT: We were looking for interesting subject matter that had not been explored in a game format, had an existing audience, and would appeal to a wide variety of players. In our research on popular hobbies and pastimes, birding kept popping up, so we ran with it. Now I own a few dozen books about birds and a sweet pair of binoculars. Oh, and my Dad and I have something to talk about besides cars.

Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?

WT: The main inspiration came from real-world birds and birdwatching. I really developed a love for that pastime and a greater appreciation for birds in general. Birding is a very game like activity and I recommend that everyone give it a try at some point.

Beyond that, we were heavily inspired by the concept of pollinated content that the Spore team has talked about at the past few GDCs. Naturally, we didn’t have the resources to take it nearly as far as that game will, but we were able to get players designing birds that end up in other players’ games, which we’re very happy about.

For the first half of the project, I resisted playing Pokemon Snap, because I didn’t want to be overly influenced by it. Then I finally broke down and played a bunch of it, and I’m glad I did. There are some elegant design ideas in that game that definitely influenced our thinking.

What sort of development tools are used by the team?

WT: The game was developed in our heavily modified version of the Torque Game Builder engine, with Visual Studio for the C++ and the Torsion IDE for editing script. The birds were modeled in 3D Studio Max and textured in Photoshop. All the other art in the game was either created directly in Photoshop, or sketched in pencil and then inked and colored in Photoshop. The audio was recorded using Ableton Live and the one-bar loops are tracked/sequenced in real-time using our custom audio engine.

What do you think the most interesting element of your game is?

WT: There are actually two elements of the game which I’d like to mention (sorry, I’m breaking the rules). First is the pollinated content that I mentioned earlier. Players can design birds, upload them, and then get information back about how many times their bird has been been spotted by other players. We worked hard to come up with a system to alter models and textures in real time on low spec machines in order to support player creativity and keep the file size down. The results are a huge variety of birds in the game. All told, almost half a million birds have been created by players since the game was launched.

The second thing is the residual learning that comes from the game. There are over a hundred real-world bird species represented in the game, with accurate field markings and real field recordings of their song (we worked closely with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to achieve this level of accuracy).

While we did not design Snapshot Adventures as an “educational game”, many players have told us that after playing the game, they now notice the birds around them more, and are able to identify many of them. Although I can’t say we designed it purposefully, the fact that playing the game is changing people’s perspective in this way is fascinating to me. I hope we can do more of this, both at Large Animal and in the game industry at large.

Roughly how many people have been working on Snapshot Adventures, and what has the development process been like?

WT: The core team was five people, but we had different folks pinch-hit on various aspects. All-told, there were around 15 different people who touched Snapshot at different times. Our development process is always highly iterative, when we were developing Snapshot, we had not yet fully committed to using Agile software development techniques, so that iteration made it hard to manage our time well. We learned a lot from the process, and now we have a much better framework in place.

If you had to rewind to the very start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently?

WT: Be more explicit with ourselves about the design risks and force ourselves to tackle them head on and early. Specifically, we spent way too much time trying to create a system that would subjectively evaluate player photos. We should have realized that this problem is tremendously difficult to solve and instead designed around it.

Instead, we spent weeks of engineering time trying to tune it. No matter how close we got, there were always exceptions – cases where someone thought a photo should have scored higher. In the end, we opted for an objective, learnable (by players) photo evaluation system.

What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development, and are any other independent games out now that you admire?

WT: This is a great time to be an indie developer, and an even better time to be a player of independent games. Yes, the competition is stiff, but with online advertising making a comeback and the market for short-session games on all platforms growing, there are actually ways to build and monetize an audience of players around games that are more affordable to build. Also, there are more companies out there who are actively funding these smaller projects.

In terms of specific games, there are too many to mention them all by name, but Crayon Physics definitely gets a shout-out. Great game.

You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the game business something very important. What is it?

WT: Work smarter, not longer. Oh, and please vote for Snapshot in the IGF Audience Awards!