Daniel Menard from Crankshaft Games opens the doors of PC gaming development to discuss his co-op puzzle platformer, Party of Sin. In this interview, Daniel reveals his inspirations, struggles and how the modding of Half Life 2 began his PC gaming career.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Party of Sin.
I’m Dan, the project lead and one of the programmers on Party of Sin. I coordinated the team’s efforts and made sure our talented team was working towards a common goal. On the programming side, I focused on engine development. We used a custom engine for Party of Sin built on top of XNA and I handled programming all of the tools, animation system and low-level functionality.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I started in the Half-Life 2 modding community, leading a mod project called Eternal Silence that was eventually released on Steam. Eternal Silence was quite ambitious and I participated in its development for 5 years. It taught me a lot about programming and leadership. The mod was built with a team from all over the world working over forums, IM and Skype. I continued that practice with Party of Sin. Our team was distributed all through development.
Where did the idea for Party of Sin come from?
We originally wanted to do a top down shooter game. We kept thinking of color shifting as an interesting mechanic (like Ikagura). When we began doing research on different color schemes, the colors of the rainbow came up and each is associated to a deadly sin (and a virtue). This seemed like a great theme to build a game on, so we ran with it. The top-down shooter view never stuck, and we slowly shifted the game to a puzzle platformer as we developed it.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Party of Sin?
As the first commercial release for our studio, I’m quite proud of what we were able to achieve with Party of Sin. The game has a lot to offer and there is subtlety and depth to the sins. Players can visit four worlds with totally different art styles and we captured some of the old-school feel with our game mechanics (and the game doesn’t hold your hand through it either, old-school games were hard!). I think our greatest achievement has been the coop mode, which we spent a lot of time tweaking.
Party of Sin is an interesting project because it started off mainly as a hobby as I was completed school and progressively got more serious as development went on. The scary thing about that is the decisions you make in hobby-mode don’t always make sense for a commercial title. Building a custom engine is fun, but it’s a lot of work, likewise we chose to leave online multiplayer out in this release, and a lot of people put that as a must-have.
In its current form, how close is Party of Sin to your initial vision?
It evolved quite a bit throughout development. Most of our changes to the initial vision involved focusing the gameplay on the sins and getting rid of things that seemed out of place. The sins match our vision perfectly, and I think we captured their essence with their unique powers. The main features that got cut were things like weapons, which made the sins seem more similar.
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Party of Sin and if you faced a similar challenge.
We spent a lot of time at the end of the development of Party of Sin to streamline the difficulty curve, and I think we were fairly successful with that. The puzzles progress in a logical order and build up on themselves. It’s not until the last two worlds that you will face really difficult puzzles. The game focuses on building up a design language with the players, where they can recognize patterns in the puzzles and know which sin to use, then have those ah-ha moments when they discover a new interaction. We weren’t able to do this until the very end when we had come up with the most difficult puzzles, then we spent a lot of time deconstructing them into puzzles we could test the players with, which would build up to the final super-hard puzzle.
We did become experts as we developed the game, and I think this definitely helped come up with the more interesting puzzles. As we played the sins, we kept finding new combos that made for great puzzles. Being too close to the game does have its downsides though, we definitely had a harder time identifying flaws in things like the controls, since we were so used to them.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Party of Sin would run on the various PC system configurations?
XNA is a pretty good framework since it handles all of these things for you. We didn’t have any big issues with performance or stability. The game isn’t too demanding, and as long as you have a PC from the last 5 years it should run absolutely fine.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Party of Sin.
The art style of Party of Sin started with some great concept work our artist Tobias Frank did for us early on. He really set the tone for the game and the four worlds within it. From there our 3D team recreated the art and worked on lighting the levels to match that initial vision. The characters saw the most attention. We got them done early, but they are by far the art in the game with the most characters.
Level design fell to our programmer/designer Vincent Hippoman. I helped a little bit with designing the battles. We created a tool chain based on a 3D software package and we were able to script a lot of different things in our levels. We started building everything in collision meshes (no art) to test out a game mechanic. When we were happy with it, the puzzle would get put into a level and arted.
Music was handled by our excellent composer Blake Allen. I’m extremely happy with the music that Blake composed for us. It’s a mix of electronic and metal/orchestral which matches the different worlds and the feel of the game. Our soundtrack is available on Steam and on our website!
Tell us about the lack of true online multiplayer for Party of Sin.
We were originally building Party of Sin for the Xbox, but we could never strike a deal with Microsoft, so we released it on Steam. The unfortunate downside of that is there is no online multiplayer (we were focused on couch-coop). It’s still possible to plug your Xbox controllers into your PC and play with friends that way. It’s the best way to enjoy the game!
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Budgets and burnout. All through development I wasn’t able to pay our team a salary, so everyone worked on Party of Sin whenever they could. Everyone on the team held a second job to keep food on the table and it’s easy to burnout with a schedule like that. Luckily our team was dedicated and made it through!
How did you go about funding Party of Sin and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Friends and family were extremely supportive and got us through the tough times. We also did a Kickstarter campaign which brought in a good amount of money. Most of it went straight to trade shows and travel though, and as a result we had to continue working without pay. I’m glad to be indie though!
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Yes definitely. We chose a launch price of $15 because we felt there was enough content in the game to warrant that price. The game stands at 6-8 hours of gameplay with full 3D and coop. Some may feel the price is steep, and we plan to reduce it in the coming months.
We’ve drawn a lot of comparisons to Trine, which came out mid-way through our development. We have a similar premise with the swapping of different characters but I think we do puzzles differently. Trine focuses a lot on physics based puzzles whereas we push the logic and character swapping to the limit.
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for Party of Sin?
We always planned to release a demo. We want to allow players to make an informed decision before purchasing the game, and we felt a demo was the best way.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Party of Sin from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
We’ve been listening! I personally read every review and message board post mentioning the game, and we’re incorporating the feedback into future patches and updates.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Party of Sin professionally?
Professional reviewers are tough, and I respect that. Incorporating their feedback is the cornerstone of our strategy as a company and to improve the quality of our games.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
Yes we’d love to. I think bundles are a great way to revive sales of a game. For now we don’t have any bundles scheduled, but I expect to participate in one eventually.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I personally hate DRM. It punishes only the paying customer while the pirate gets away with a hassle-free copy of the game. Party of Sin has no DRM at all, and we did this because we trust our customers and refuse to treat them like criminals. I think most of the industry would be wise to do the same.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Party of Sin?
Love it! This is the best way to keep our community alive.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I don’t mind DLC at all. I think it’s a way to keep players engaged with our games and give them more of what they want.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Party of Sin?
Coming from the mod community, I know how great mods can be for a community. I would be totally stoked if someone turned Party of Sin into something different. We’re working on releasing our level editing tools soon to enable people to do this.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Work hard, don’t give up and if you are going to go indie, go all-out. Do the crazy things that the big companies can’t risk.
We would like to thank Dan and the entire team at Crankshaft Games for working to provide our readers with a wonderfully insightful interview. You can pick up Party of Sin via Steam.