TPG caught up with Pascal van Beek, lead programmer on the currently in development, side-scrolling breakout platformer, Caromble!. You will learn how Caromble was born, the difficulties with working only one day a week on their game, plus much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Caromble.
I’m Pascal van Beek, 28 years old, living in Utrecht, the Netherlands. I received my Masters in Game and Media Technology in 2011. I work at a company that develops systems for medical rehabilitation through virtual environments. My first console was the NES and before that I played on my grandfather’s Atari 2600 (I loved Megamania).
In the Caromble! team I am a programmer, level designer, marketing guy and office space provider. But that’s what all programmers in our team do. Specifically, I feel that I’m mostly concerned with the gameplay; balancing the existing and thinking of new gameplay features.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
It all started during our Masters in Computer Science; building a game-engine in our spare time. We began working on Caromble! when we met Thomas S (graphics artist) at the Global Game Jam in 2009. We haven’t spent a single Friday at a paid job or at school since. Every week we get together and cram our laptops on one of our kitchen tables to work on Caromble!. We also put in most of our spare time and occasionally take a day off to work on the game.
Where did the idea for Caromble! come from?
For me, Caromble! started with a collapsing wall. We’ve been having all sorts of crazy ambitious game ideas for years. But in the end, those plans simply were not feasible for a team as small as ours. Then after a tough discussion, one of the guys knocked together a simple physics-based 3D breakout with a single collapsing wall in a couple of hours. That simple idea is still the core, but we twisted it around and build upon that to make it more interesting. As such, Caromble! was born.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Caromble!?
Developing games with friends definitely has its challenges, with the main challenge being the lack of leadership. When we started, people didn’t have clear roles in the team and we had discussions over every tiny detail of the game. After a while though, we grew into our roles and learned to accept each other’s flaws and recognize each other’s strengths.
We still have no hierarchy and we still make all decisions together, but we’ve learned to trust each other’s opinions. Of course, having to convince your friends about an idea takes a little longer, but it assures that only the best features are implemented in the final game.
In its current form, how close is Caromble to your initial vision?
Our vision really changed a lot during development. The first prototype we showed to the public simply focused on destroying cities and growing paddles (Katamari Damacy style). While people were pretty positive about that version, we wanted to be more than just another Breakout. For that reason, we tried to find new features to juice up our gameplay. We added mechanics you would not expect in Breakout games and created a distinctive atmosphere.
Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Caromble and if you are concerned about the game being too hard or easy upon release.
Once we are content-complete we’ll start tweaking the difficulty. We really want Caromble! to be challenging, but it should definitely start off a little easy. We want to achieve challenge through both puzzle and reaction time based gameplay. It’s is a pretty thin line between frustration and being challenged. This is really something we want to get right.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Caromble would run on the various PC system configurations?
Caromble! is completely written in Java using our own engine. Java has excellent multi-platform support. For the graphics our engine uses Ardor3D, which is a pure java graphics library that uses OpenGL for rendering. So in theory everything should work out of the box. On the whole I think multi-platform support went pretty well, but there were some compatibility issues with getting our custom shaders to run on Linux and MacOS. On Windows we had some problems with Intel-based GPU’s.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Caromble.
Thomas S, our artist, starts all textures on paper, scans them and then colors them on the computer. Because we only have one artist, he has great freedom to experiment with style.
All music has been developed by Nineyards Audio, a small talented audio studio we met a while back. The storyline concerns an alien virus and combatting, and they have done an excellent job to incorporate that into the music.
Level design for us is something that we really learned on the job. For most of us this is the first real game we have been working on. I saw “Indie Game the Movie” the other day and Phil Fish (the creator of Fez) talked about how he started doing pixel art, but since he was new at it he got a lot better over time, and found himself redoing a lot of his earlier stuff. The same is also true about our level design. We have learned a lot over the past couple of years, and we have redone most of our earlier levels.
With the level design we try to find the boundaries of the genre. Breakout / Pinball games have a very fixed set of gameplay mechanics that is repeated in most games. But there is so much more you can do. For instance, what happens if you make a level so wide that it plays like a side-scrolling game? Or what if you use half-pipes and ramps to extend levels vertically? Having a well-known basis provides a great way to amaze players, by playing with their expectations.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
We are a bit odd in the world of indie-developers, as we are not financially dependent on the game, I guess for most indies that is the most difficult part. However, for us finding the time to work on the game is the toughest. For every job we always have to negotiate that we can only work there only 80% of the time. Also progress is relatively slow, as we only have 20% of the time most game-developers have.
How did you go about funding Caromble and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Since we all have day-time jobs on Monday till Thursday, Caromble! does not need any funding. This is great, because it makes us completely independent. Last week we paid 10 euros for business cards. These costs, together with the admission costs for Greenlight, make up the total expenses for Caromble! so far.
About emotional support; friends and family are the ones we always get the first feedback from and their optimism and enthusiasm is very helpful. We do however, still have to convince our girlfriends that those Fridays are not our day off. Working on the game is awesome to do, but it is still a lot of hard work.
You mention the team only works with Caromble on Fridays. How difficult has it been to develop under those conditions?
The main problem with working on the game one day a week, is that you work on the game only one day a week. This means that you lose momentum easily. Also, we need to have all our meetings and discussions in those precious few hours that we get to work on the game. That can be difficult, but on the whole, it is a pretty sweet arrangement.
Tell us about your experience with Steam Greenlight and if Caromble will be available through the various digital distribution clients.
With Greenlight, we exposed Caromble! for the first time to a big online public. Before, we did show the game on a small conference in Utrecht, but it was very exciting to get feedback on Caromble! from all over the world. Every single comment was – and still is a highlight of the day.
We hugely underestimate the amount of viewers for new submissions. Retrospectively we wish we had a bit more polished content on our Greenlight page. We are also looking at other distributing clients, such as Desura and GOG, but we haven’t registered on either of those yet. We might also distribute the game ourselves.
Have you thought about the launch price?
Yes, somewhere near the psychological 10 dollar threshold. We think that’s a fair price for what Caromble! offers.
Will you release a demo for Caromble at or around launch?
We are planning to release a demo. In what form, we are not sure yet, perhaps a single level or a public beta.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Caromble from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
We are convinced of having great ideas and knowing what players want, but as the developers we realize we are inside this deep, dark tunnel which narrows our vision. We think it’s very important to listen to feedback from players. It seems that they know what they want .
We got lots of feedback through social networking sites, and also though Greenlight. We also have a development blog on caromble.com. Our best instant feedback we got from showcasing the playable game on the INDIGO events from Dutch Game Gardens. It was awesome and very informative to stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the best indie game developers from the Netherlands.
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?
Indie bundles are something that we are very interested in. We are working to get Caromble! in some of the major bundles. “Pay What You Want” is a very interesting concept, that has worked very well for some games. It is a great way to make the community decide what your game is worth.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I understand it is a significant problem for the industry. However, I’m not a big fan of how some companies are trying to solve it. Obligating players to connect to a server, even for offline gameplay, is not the solution, as SimCity recently demonstrated. Piracy will continue to exist, so focusing on piracy itself is not the solution. You should focus on the buyers and not on the pirates.
The best way to get players to buy your game, is to make them care about the game and ideally about you, the developer, as well. This can be done in several ways: for instance by rewarding your buyers with extra downloadables, have a forum where players and developers can join the conversation. Developers should try to be part of the community.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I think DLC is a great way to provide extra content of your game to players. However, games should be complete without DLC and DLC should only add to the experience. But a good DLC can be a great way to blow some life in an old game. I do like episodic distribution, as Telltale has done with The Walking Dead. It provides a way to just taste the experience as a player and decide later whether you want the full meal. Also every episode is a full experience on itself, so I like how that is done.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Caromble?
I believe that providing modding possibilities really helps building a community and obviously that is important. DayZ and Dear Esther alone show the potential. For Caromble!, we are considering to release our level editor. It would be very interesting to see what players can come up with. Probably with ideas I can’t even imagine now, and that is exciting! I think having the community mod or extend your game is one of the biggest compliments you can get as a developer.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Find a real job! No, just kidding. Well, with Caromble! it is a two-edged sword. Because we have a job besides this project, we have no financial pressure and complete freedom to add whatever we want. On the other hand, working on Caromble! for only one day a week makes it a slow process. As we are so free, we can easily extend deadlines, which doesn’t always help the game.
Most importantly, you should keep having fun in what you’re doing and realize that you’re probably in this field because of fun, not the potential millions of dollars. Strong determination and a friendly team whom you can be open with doesn’t hurt either.
We would like to thank Pascal and the rest of Team Caromble!. We wish them all the luck in the world and will be keeping an eye on further development. You can follow their dev journey via the official site. Also be sure to vote on Steam Greenlight.