Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Trace Vector.
Alex: My primary role was creating Trace Vector’s gameplay, visual aesthetics, levels, sounds, and general design. I programmed all the game logic and created both game modes within Tyler’s engine. I was also in charge of coordinating everything into a cohesive product.
Tyler: My role has been to flesh out the underlying engine that powers Trace Vector, make sure it is compatible with the widest range of platforms and hardware configurations, and keep the underpinnings of the software running smooth and leak-free. I have also been primarily responsible for the process of porting the core engine to other operating systems and devices, which continues to be my current focus at this time.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Alex: For me, my first exposure to computer programming was from playing around on my brother’s Commodore 64 system. On there, if you wanted to play games, you had to type in a particular and now iconic command to load a program ( Load”*”,8,1 ). Back then there were books you could buy that had source code for entire games you could manually type in. It was very difficult to copy everything exactly, and I can only recall a couple times when it worked. However, it gave you direct exposure to how everything worked and it wasn’t hard at all to tweak some values to make the games act different. Later on I started making my own text adventures in BASIC. Somewhere there might be some floppy disks with some of my first programs. Later on I got into different languages but I didn’t get back into programming specifically for game development until Tyler and I started working together. At that point I started picking up C++ a lot more, which is a language that I find suits my style.
Where did the idea for Trace Vector come from?
Alex: Trace Vector actually spawned out of a larger project Tyler and I first started working on. We were co-developing the game engine with this larger action adventure game. There was a little sub-game that I was working on that was going to be used to navigate computer networks and circuits in order to unlock doors.
That was a pretty stressful time for the project because it was clear that we would really need to scale back in some way to be able to produce something refined like we wanted. While we were deciding what to do about the project I had just started to get into amateur astronomy. Sometimes I needed escape my work desk and would go out to a field near where I live and look at the stars while I thought about what could be done. A natural thing your brain does when you look at the stars is to try to find patterns in the sky and draw lines between the stars. The similarity between that sub-game and the stars in the sky was an easy jump to make.
We decided two things. First, that the project was too big for us to complete at the quality level we wanted at the time. Second, that the mini game could be expanded and made into it’s own game. After messing around for a couple weeks we decided to break that mini game out into it’s own project. That was a hard decision to make. That turned out to be the correct move because it still took us years to finally complete Trace Vector at the quality level we wanted.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Trace Vector?
Alex: One of the best feelings in Trace Vector is how the music, gameplay, and visuals flow together. Tyler and I worked with Michael Birch (Flexstyle) to find the right sound for Trace Vector’s gameplay and aesthetic. Michael really got it really quickly and did a fantastic job with the sound and feel of all the tracks. Once we started experimenting with having the music tracks build and transition together between each level we knew we it was going to work out. We also wanted that visual transition to match the smoothness of the audio transition, so we used a stretching star warp effect to mask any loading that was going on. It took a lot of work to make that happen on a technical level but in the end it’s super smooth and it feels good every time you perfect a level and feel the music kick up.
Something that didn’t work out was an expanding map system we had at one point. There used to be this sort of expanding wedge of different levels you could unlock as you played. If you got a perfect score you could move to higher paths if you wanted. It didn’t work out because it became really difficult to reach certain sections. We wanted the player to be able to get to any section fairly easily, but more importantly that selection screen broke up the action too much. Despite it being a pretty cool thing in the end we dropped it for the sake of keeping the pace up.
Tyler: Use open source, stay flexible, don’t limit yourself to one audience, platform, or idea. Keep thinking outside of tradition, don’t try to re-invent the wheel, but don’t be afraid to try and improve on it in ways that make sense for optimizing the productivity of a small development team.
In its current form, how close is Trace Vector to your initial vision?
Alex: Fundamentally the game play has remained the same from the initial prototypes. We started with the gameplay and basic mechanics first and then only later went back to add in the space theme. A couple of the mechanics have been tweaked a bit during development but the fundamentals remained the same. One example is the fuel mechanic and the ability to spend fuel to slow down time. That became a big part of the game as it allowed us to keep the difficulty really high for advanced players but still have a fun to use mechanic for new players.
There are batches of mechanics we fully implemented and after testing removed because they didn’t fit with the goal we had in mind, which was a fast paced action arcade game that felt good to play and moved smoothly. Sometimes the mechanics work very nicely but just don’t fit with the theme, so we’d pull them out and set them on our sort of idea shelf to maybe expand upon in other projects.
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 Trace Vector and if you faced a similar challenge.
Alex: This is extremely true for us as well. On a small team like this you spend a lot of time testing new mechanics and ideas. The general process of bug testing and game balancing is extremely time consuming. You’ll be spending hundreds of hours playing through your game and you’ll get bored and feel the need to make it harder and harder. At that point it became clear that we should really be having people external to the project to help us balance the game and to trust those results.
What was particularly a challenge with Trace Vector is that since it’s essentially an arcade game it feels like it should feel like a real arcade challenge to overcome. At the same time you don’t want to make everything too hard for new players. Slowly through development we started slowing the gameplay down a little bit at a time and adding in little visual cues to help the player out. It was amazingly how small of a change to timings and visual like a small purposeful stutter, or brighter dot on the junctions, could make.
The purist in me still likes the really hardcore and fast gameplay, so once you play through Trace Vector once a new difficulty mode unlocks which will flip all the levels upside-down, the game plays faster, and a lot of the little assists we added are toned down or removed. That’s my preferred mode for me to play. I think people are going to find the normal mode incredibly challenging regardless. My opinion is that it’s OK if a player fails a lot in a game as long as they feel like it’s fair, and the game isn’t cheating them. Because when you do it that high of achievement is that much greater. Game balance is was of the hardest things for us to do and something I think we can still improve on.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Trace Vector would run on the various PC system configurations?
Alex: Tyler is going to have more to say about this, but with the visuals and sound there were some challenges. Some screens were too dark or smeared too much to be clear enough with the thin vector lines, so we added lots of settings to tweak so it will work on your screen. The different capabilities of sound systems meant that some effects were hard to hear on some systems like laptop speakers for example. Since the audio cues are important in Trace Vector, I had to redo and modify some of the sounds to make them more distinct on those speakers.
Tyler: It was an interesting challenge, and an excellent learning experience, porting the software to other operating systems. This required us to look at a lot of hardware and software baselines and decide where an acceptable line was for compatibility. We utilized any resources we had available to us in order to pick the best balance of graphic fidelity and speed, while maintaining the widest compatibility bracket as possible. It exposed a lot of unique challenges and required some creative workarounds to be developed in order to successfully keep things working the same on each operating system and various hardware configurations.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Trace Vector.
Alex: Before working on Trace Vector I started to get really heavily into arcade machines from the late 70’s and 80’s. One genre I was aware of but didn’t fully appreciate was the vector games, mostly made by Atari. That changed when I ran into working examples of these vector screen games and saw how excellent they looked with their proper screen technology. The screens themselves can be incredibly bright, smooth, and vibrant, and as a result they feel so much different that the emulations or ports that I had played up to that point.
I then found an Asteroid’s machine on Craigslist that had a non-functioning vector screen. I fixed that machine up and in the process learned how the vector screen worked and what made it possible for that screen technology to look so striking. One of the goals for Trace Vector was to try to replicate the glow and smoothness of those screens and to do it using the same restraints those games had design wise. So all of the visuals in Trace Vector are made up of line draws and points and should be something vector screens can display.
Designing levels in Trace Vector is tricky and deceptively complex despite the simple gameplay. Part of the game of Trace Vector is being able to read the paths ahead of you so you can quickly make your decision of which way you want to move. Since the ship line that you control assumes the last direction you specified, as a designer you need to always keep in mind what direction the player probably moved last and factor that into the structure of the level. Sometimes that means putting fuel cells where the player is likely to move so they have some more time to think about what to do next, and sometimes that means you may be trying to trick them. The spacing between the connections nodes also starts mattering. A lot of times through testing we found that the junctions were too close together for most people to time correctly. So we’d have to go space them out a bit, or put in a fuel cell so there’s a visual and audio cue to prompt you to switch away from a dead end or some other hazard. It also became important to consider the music that plays during that section, how that felt when moving through it, what it looked like visually and if that was interesting to look at and read. That was tweaked right up to the end.
The music in Trace Vector was all done by Michael Birch (AKA Flexstyle) and he did a really excellent job. Once we heard how awesome the music transition between levels we started putting the music as a big focus to the gameplay. We started paying a lot of attention to how it sounded within the level and put in subtle things like dynamic volume and tone drops when you use the slow down mechanic. We also dedicated each world in Trace Vector to a music track. Michael did such a great job with the music that producing a soundtrack became like an obvious move. The problem was that since the music built specifically to make that transitioning between levels clean, Michael had to go back through and remix and add little structures to the tracks to make them really great to listen to on their own. Because of that extra work the soundtrack became it’s own distinct product that’s worth listening to on it’s own. I’ve played hundreds of our of Trace Vector and I’m still not tired of listening to it!
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Alex: One of biggest challenges is getting noticed. There’s so many new projects getting released all the time. It’s no longer particularly news worthy or surprising that a small team can put out a game. It’s frustratingly difficult to stand out from the noise no matter how fun your game is to play. We’re programmers and game designers, marketing is a new skill we’re still working on learning.
Another thing is trying to constantly make progress and not slow down. You’re going to be your own boss. You’ve got a hard job to do and sometimes it’s going to mean grinding long hours doing something boring like bug hunting. No one is going to know if you stop, it’s up to you to keep yourself going in spite of frustrations and set backs. You have to keep going and work hard. You’ll probably burn out a couple times and need to take a break. I can tell you that in the end it’s worth it if nothing else then for the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve made something you’re happy with.
Tyler: For me, it’s working to find solutions to problems very few people have faced, and not giving up when you run out of resources to turn to (even Google often fails to reveal information to assist with the coding challenges we’ve faced). It can be frustrating and tiring to maintain the disciplined process of developing the backend components. It’s work that must be done, and you have to use your talents where they are best applied, but it does start to push your patience and mental limits at times. It’s really hard putting in time and energy, without getting a paycheck until a product is released, and hoping that all the effort you poured in will make someone say “Wow, that was awesome!”. As an indie developer who’s in this for the love of Video Games it will all be worth it if I can know that result like that was achieved, in part, from my efforts.
How did you go about funding Trace Vector and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Alex: Trace Vector was completely personally funded by Tyler and myself and that meant making quite a few personal sacrifices. At one point we seriously considered creating a Kickstarter campaign to help ease some of that financial pain. We both felt it wasn’t fair to ask random people to commit money to a project when as a team we had no history of delivering a finished product. Now that Trace Vector is complete and we know we can deliver a polished product maybe that will change for future projects.
The importance of emotional support from friends and family cannot be overstated. If everyone around you thinks you’re wasting your time that’s probably going to have an effect on you no matter how committed you are. Luckily everyone was very supportive and kept asking for updates and provided us with honest feedback. The long hours that are required to work on a project like this can stress your relations, so thanks very much to everyone for being so patient!
Tyler: For me, funding it was a matter of sacrificing freedom to do other things that could have shaped my life in other meaningful ways. Time is money after all (or certainly could have been). But lets face it, you get into game development on this level because you also love doing it, so it wasn’t without its rewards as well. Despite being enjoyable most of the time, it did take a lot of support from my family as I worked (and continue to) late into the night as months of development time have melted into years.
Tell us about the process of submitting Trace Vector to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Alex: At the time of this interview we’ve only released Trace Vector on two services. The first is Desura, which was initially launched for our short beta. The second is Indie Game Stand. We didn’t encounter any resistance from either place and both have been very accommodating. I was going to mention the difficulty of promoting the Greenlight campaign on Steam but right in the middle of this interview Trace Vector actually got approved! That’s a big deal for us, so we’re pretty happy!
There was one distribution service that seemed impressed with the game, but decided to pass because they don’t typically carry arcade style games. That was a bit of a disappointment as it’s one of the services we really liked, but maybe they’ll change their minds later on. What genres an outlet favors might factor into where you should push. Since we’re all done with our beta phase for Windows, Mac, and Linux we’re actively looking for more platforms to expand to, including new hardware.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Alex: When we looked, we had a hard time finding similar games to compare to, so we went with a launch price we thought was fair at $9.99 US. From the feedback we’ve gotten it seems to be a fair price but it’s something we’ll be playing around with to see if there’s a sweet spot. We may also mess around with bundling the game and soundtrack together and doing physical releases.
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for Trace Vector?
Alex: As I mentioned before, one of the hardest things is getting noticed at all. The abstract vector style and gameplay we’re using is working against us here because it’s not immediately familiar. You can look at an FPS or platformer and immediately know what to expect. We actually ran a version of Trace Vector at Magfest a couple months ago and it was very nicely received, but it was clear that people looking at it weren’t too sure what it was. However, once they started playing it clicked and they started to have fun getting into it, bobbing their heads to the music and trying to get further and further. That’s why we’re working on getting a demo out and why it’s important that we do it right. Once people try it, they like it. So we’re making sure the demo is something special with some unique content to give them a nice vertical slice of the game. So please do try it out!
How important is it to get instant feedback about Trace Vector from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Alex: Any feedback we’ve gotten has been very nice and it’s always really nice to see that there are people out there that genuinely enjoy our game. Sometimes we’ve gotten negative feedback from people who only watched the trailer and that’s been useful to us to understand what we’re not communicating clearly and something we’re looking to improve upon. Sometimes players have really nice ideas like creating an viewpoint that’s got a perspective slant to it, which could be visually really interesting. There’s also been some interest in providing a level editor, another thing we’re thinking about.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Trace Vector professionally?
Alex: Professional reviews are always a little scary, but so far we’ve been really happy with the reviews. There are some criticisms about the arcade style and difficulty perhaps alienating some players, and I think that’s legitimate. That’s an example of a criticism that’s not un-expected since Trace Vector is a really targeted game, but it’s a totally valid point. It’s also really great to know stuff we put a lot of work into, like the tutorial, is doing its job in explaining the gameplay. In the end what I feel you should be making is a game you personally want to play, that should be your first priority.
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?
Alex: Those kinds of promotions have been a big help to us. We had the opportunity to get Trace Vector in one of the Groupees bundles a little bit ago and it got us a lot of attention and some decent sales. Outside of the exposure you get during your first few days on the Greenlight list it was the biggest draw we ran across. We’re going to be running a new bundle on Indie Royale soon so watch for that one! Of course, in the back of your mind you’re thinking “Jeez, I’m giving away this thing we put a ton work into for the price of a cheese burger.” But in my mind, I consider this an audience we were going to have a really hard time reaching anyway. So if more people can enjoy our game and we still get something out of it then that’s a great thing.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Alex: It’s a difficult issue. As a player I understand the frustration with a lot of DRM setups. Steam as a platform seems to solve the issue pretty well as it makes a nice compromise for the player and I think they deserve a lot of credit for that. However, games that seem to require connections to servers in single player games are especially annoying. I think that’s going too far and I think there’s something wrong with treating your customer with suspicion as a default.
That said, Trace Vector has no DRM protection and nearly immediately our game was appearing on a couple pirated software sites, which isn’t exactly inspiring. I don’t think there’s really anything to do about that though. No matter how complex a DRM system you come up with someone will find a way around it. Meanwhile you’re risking making the pirated versions superior to the paid version.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos and receiving monetization of Trace Vector?
Alex: I don’t have any issue with that. For Trace Vector it’s not really a story driven game, you have to play it to really experience it. Watching someone play just isn’t the same. Hopefully, someone would watch the gameplay and say “That looks cool, I want to try that.”. I could see someone having a problem with the idea if the game relied heavily on non-playable scenes though, in which case it’s really closer to a movie isn’t it. To me, video games are at their best when they’re as interactive as possible. That’s what sets them apart from other forms of media. I don’t think watching someone play a game can ever be the same as playing with, and interacting with it yourself.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Alex: DLC as a concept is a great idea and it can be done right. It seems like it can go horribly wrong though. Personally, I’m not a fan of most DLC and I nearly never buy any. There have been exceptions like where you’re adding on new levels or a game mode, but paid DLC that gives you and edge or is required to experience the game properly just ruins it for me. I feel like DLC should really be more like an expansion to the game, not something there to patch holes.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Trace Vector?
Alex: To me the modding scene is like a modern version of first got me interested in computer games in the first place. Being able to modify the source code and resources on games in particular was a great way to just mess around and re-experience the games you had. In a similar way the Game Genie devices for the NES filled a similar role for me in those spaces. At first I would just plug in those codes to get some cheats, but it wasn’t long before you realized that you could start modifying other aspects of the game with the Game Genie and soon you had a notebooks of little segments of codes that seemed to do odd and interesting things.
Trace Vector isn’t particularly set up to be modifiable so I think it would be hard to modify the game modes. The levels on the other hand would be pretty straight forward to drop in. If there’s demand for a level editor I think I’d like to try to get it working with the Steam Workshop to make it easier to manage custom assets.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Alex: Everything takes longer and is more expensive than you think no matter how conservative your estimates are. If you’re a small team exploit what small teams are great at, which is being flexible and taking risks. If something doesn’t work don’t be afraid to restart instead of forcing it.
On a smaller project like Trace Vector it means that we both had to do a little of everything. The advantage of that is everyone has some insight into how all the other pieces work. That said, if someone is particularly adept at something you should absolutely trust their judgment and work. If you need help filling a void in your team, it’s worth finding an expert. One of the best decisions we made was to get Michael involved with the music for example. That decision alone meant Tyler and I could spend more time working on what we were best at and the music came out better than what we could have produced. In a sense, every other aspect of the game was indirectly improved just by letting us exploit everyone’s particular talents better.
Tyler: Jump in. Try things. Have fun, and don’t be afraid to create something that doesn’t make sense to anyone else. It’s the crazy ideas, the out of the box thinking, the freedom to invent and create that makes the magic of great game development and video games. It’s also the best toy box you’ll ever find, so don’t be afraid to play!