tbh1.jpg[Our new series of ‘Road to the IGF’ profiles the nine recently announced winners of the IGF Showcase at Austin GDC - with the local Southern U.S. indie developers to be showcased at the Texas game development show next week.]

Continuing Think Services' ‘Road to the Austin IGF’ feature, we talk to Ryan Jenkins and Kyle Pittman about four player PC fighter Toybox Heroes.

Pittman and Jenkins developed the game as part of a team of 15 for their final year project at the Guildhall at SMU. Toybox Heroes uses the Source engine to allow players to “select one of four action figures, each available in four colors, and duke it out in a variety of household environments”. The game is primarily weapons based, with armaments ranging “from crayons to cherry bombs to Rubik's Cubes”.

What is your background with video games?

Ryan Jenkins: I’m currently working as a designer at Volition, Inc on Red Faction: Guerrilla. Before that I attended the Guildhall at SMU and got my Masters in design. Before that, I just played a ton of video games!

Kyle Pittman: I’ve been playing PC and video games for most of my life. I started teaching myself to program in BASIC when I was about six years old because I wanted to make my own games. My earliest efforts were mostly awful clones of popular NES games, but quality was never an issue – I just enjoyed being able to create something and see it come to life on the screen.

I dabbled a little in art and level design here and there, but I chose to pursue programming as a career, eventually migrating to Java, C, and C++ during my college years. In 2005, I enrolled at the Guildhall at SMU, where I received a Master’s degree in game development. I’m now working in the games industry and continuing my hobbyist development in my spare time.

When was the team behind Toybox Heroes formed?

RJ: The team was formed as part of the senior game project at the Guildhall. We were put together in mid 2006 and started production on the game sometime that fall.

KP: Toybox Heroes was our senior team project at the Guildhall. To provide some background, the Guildhall curriculum is broken down into three-month terms. Each term includes one major project, which alternates between team and personal projects. The senior team project spans two terms for a total six-month development time.

In an effort to replicate a publisher-developer model, the faculty gave the students a set of features that the game must include. Based on these requirements, students could submit a concept document. The faculty reviewed these documents and assigned game designer roles for each of three teams based on these. The students were then randomly assigned to teams, and the rest of the lead roles were assigned based on prior performance.

I was selected for a game designer role based on my concept document for a 3D fighting game tentatively called Toy Fighters, which ultimately became Toybox Heroes.

What inspired the game?

RJ: The game was based on an idea from our Game Designer. We really wanted to make a game with a theme that a lot of people could get behind, and everybody grew up playing with toys. I’ve tried explaining other games I worked on at the Guildhall, but nothing ever gets as much attention as, 'It’s toys that fight each other…'

KP: From the very start, Toybox Heroes was pitched as “Toy Story meets Power Stone,” so it’s safe to say those were probably our two biggest influences. As a gamer, I’m less of a fan of hardcore technical fighters as I am of those which mix in action and platforming elements, so we spent some time deconstructing games like Power Stone 2 and Super Smash Bros. Melee, trying to divine what made them fun.

Early on in development, we decided to go for largely weapons-based combat, as it complemented our toy theme well. Contextually, it made sense to have battlegrounds littered with random objects, and each of these could have different intrinsic properties to be learned and utilized. Our rule of thumb became, 'If it moves, you can pick it up.'

One of the earliest design decisions we faced was the choice of characters. We didn’t want to blatantly copy actual brand-name toys, but we did want characters with strong iconic traits that would evoke popular toys and action figures. To provide some cohesion among the characters, we began using the name “Toybox Heroes” as our fictional line of action figures.

To illustrate this fiction in-game, we designed our character selection screen to be themed like a toy aisle in a store, with each character packaged in the traditional action figure plastic bubble card.

What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations?

RJ: I think the point was to make a fairly simple game that appealed to a wide range of people, and I think we accomplished that. We really tried to stick to our own childhood experiences - most of us were kids of the '80s and early '90s - but we found that all ages really enjoyed the game.

At our Senior Exhibition, we actually ended up babysitting most of the kids who came there because they really enjoyed playing, and when their parents came back for them, they often found themselves playing against their kids for quite some time.

tbh1.jpgKP: Comparing the final product to my initial concept document, we fundamentally hit every note. We had characters made of shiny plastic with jointed limbs running through oversized environments, beating each other up with household objects. But what I couldn’t have planned is what the rest of the team brought to the game.

So much of what gave Toybox Heroes its unique brand of humor and personality evolved naturally from having a fantastic and multi-talented team who wanted to share ideas and make the best game possible.

What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is?

RJ: One of my favorite things to work on were the traps in the level. I was always trying to think of environmental hazards to jam into the play areas, and often times we had to pull back because we were afraid of creating to much clutter. But I love the Garage Sale, because I got away with putting more stuff in that level.

Go punch the radio!!!

KP: We have a robot that transforms into a cow. That’s pretty sweet.

How long did development take, and what was the process like?

RJ: We had a little over five months to work on it while we were also focused on other class work and masters theses. We spent a lot of time outside of class in a small studio working to meet deadlines set by our professors.

KP: As this was a school project, we had a fixed development time of about six months. In reality, this was probably actually closer to five months – although our final milestone wasn’t due until March 2007, we had to be in a near-final state by February in order to demo the game at GDC. Development took place in what was referred to as a “team pit,” a large, open room shared by all fifteen students.

This setup was chosen to maximize communication, which was essential, as most of us had little or no past experience working with the Source SDK, and we were constantly having to solve cross-disciplinary problems. In my opinion, this immediacy is the single greatest factor that sets Guildhall student projects apart from mod teams working over the Internet.

The tools we work with - hardware notwithstanding - are freely available or at least able to be substituted for an open-source alternative, but trying to remotely coordinate a project of this scope within the allotted schedule would be a nightmare.

Why did you decide to work with the Source Engine?

RJ: This was actually the decision of the school, but I believe it was because the system is very robust. It worked surprisingly well, considering it was designed for an FPS and we were making a fighting game

KP: This was one of our requirements for the project. Historically, the Guildhall senior projects have required students to adapt an engine to a genre that it was not necessarily intended to support. In the case of Toybox Heroes, we were given the task of recreating a console gaming experience, with multiple players gathered around a single screen.

To this end, our requirements included supporting PlayStation 2 controllers, designing the levels in a “set” or “vignette” style, and ensuring that the game was presented synonymously on all users’ screens. On top of this, we had to produce a prototype proving each of these features in little more than a week. That was a fun week.

What’s the scene in Austin like?

RJ: Since I’m not currently developing in Austin, I can’t really answer this question

KP: There are a number of major developers in the Dallas area and many more in Texas as a whole, but the industry still feels young, especially in this region. The veterans of this scene are people whom I was looking up to barely a decade ago, back when making a career out of game development seemed like an insurmountable dream. It’s exciting to me that more concrete, established paths into the games industry are being paved, and I hope that having a school like the Guildhall in this area will help the scene to grow and improve.

tbh1.jpgIs there a feeling of community?

KP: There is, to a certain extent. I would say my own sense of community is mostly anchored around the Guildhall, as I still live and work in the same area, and many of the connections I’ve made in the last few years have been through the faculty and my classmates.

What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry?

RJ: Independent game development has really come along way. If you look at the history of film, it’s really the next inevitable step. As the equipment to make film became cheaper and easier to use, more people were able to tell their stories and experiment on film.

We’re starting to see that with video games. It’s much easier to buy a game with a level editor or purchase a simple 2D engine, and we’re seeing people doing that. Xbox Live Arcade has seen some awesome games lately that are cheaper to make and get.

Players aren’t expecting huge technical leaps from these games, so developers can concentrate more on gameplay and story! Remember in the early '90s when people were excited about independent film because it was edgier and smarter than normal Hollywood fare? Well, I think we’re starting to see that from independent games. It’s very exciting.

KP: It’s fantastic to see more venues arise for indie, amateur, hobbyist, and student development. When I was first learning to program, it felt like the barrier to entry was impossibly high; there was no way I could have created anything of comparable quality to funded commercial titles, so I was relegated to making simple games for my own amusement.

With the advent of toolsets like XNA and distribution models like Steam and Xbox Live Arcade, it feels like a new market is forming where games like Audiosurf and Braid make sense and can be successful. And even ignoring commercial viability, one of my favorite aspects of the scene is simply having a venue where amateur developers can share their hobby projects among each other and provide feedback and encouragement.

Where do you see your game going from here?

RJ: Honestly, it’s exciting that a game we finished back in March of ’07 is still getting recognized and played today! All of the team has gone on to bigger projects and companies, so no one is really looking to work on it anymore. In a perfect world, it’d be great to redevelop the game for XBLA or something, adding characters and levels, maybe developing it’s own engine.

Then again, in a perfect world, I’d be the King of Australia.

tbh1.jpgKP: Since finishing Toybox Heroes, the team has graduated and dispersed across the globe. I don’t foresee any future development on Toybox Heroes, but I also didn’t foresee winning an IGF showcase a year later, so I suppose anything is possible.

What kind of feedback have you received so far?

RJ: Generally positive, and everyone has their own thoughts. 'You should have a He-man character!' 'How about a level in a bathtub!'

It’s fun to see players get excited about it.

KP: We got a mention in the June 2007 issue of Games For Windows Magazine as one of their “10 Things We’re Into This Month” feature, so that was pretty sweet.

Have you checked out any of the other Austin IGF games?

RJ: Mushroom Men looks really cool, and who doesn’t like Dodgeball (or Pirates and Ninjas)? I haven’t gotten a chance to play the other ones, but hopefully I will at the conference!

KP: I’ve been following the Road to the Austin IGF series, but I haven’t played any of the games yet. I’m hoping to get a chance to check them out in person next week.

Which recent indie games do you admire, and which recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why?

RJ: Well, I’ve been playing the heck out of Castle Crashers lately. It’s a very simple game formula, but it’s got tons of character! Other than that I’ve been playing WoW and Rock Band when I’m not at work. They’re small independent games, I’m not sure if anyone has heard of them.

KP: I realize raving about Braid and Portal is nothing new, but both of those titles married novel gameplay elements, puzzles, and fiction in a way that just clicked perfectly and produced something greater than the sums of their parts. There were both a little experimental without being inaccessible or pretentious, and they were both concise enough that I didn’t get burned out hours before the credits rolled.

Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF?

RJ: Check out the games on XBLA and online, as well as student games from the Guildhall and other schools! Oh, and check out Saint’s Row 2 on October 14th - shameless plug!

KP: Never stop learning.