Tandem Games: Innovating Match-3 with TGB
by Deborah M. Fike · 08/06/2008 (11:41 am) · 4 comments
Watch the game trailer:
Crunch Time is a freeware match-3 game with an innovative story based mechanic. Crunch Time was made by Tandem Games and is powered by the Torque Game Builder engine. It is a finalist in the in the Intel 2008 Game Demo Contest, selected as one of the top 10 games from over 350 entries submitted. The finalists will compete for over $100,000 in cash, tools and services, with winners announced by Intel on September 15, 2008.
The situation is this: mega-developer Futuracorp's newest epic science-fiction MMO game has entered "crunch time" (the last rush of work before the game's final deadline), and has been besieged by an influx of bugs and corrupt data, seemingly out of nowhere. As a special agent for VMC Gamelabs, your job is to regulate the flow of corrupt data - removing as much as possible, as quickly as possible, via a match-3 gameplay mechanic - so that Vega (appearing as a virtual avatar inside the game world) and Pixel (providing support on another monitor) can clean up the bugs. Do your job, and the game will ship on time, making millions of people happy. Fail, and gamers everywhere will be crushed.
Tandem Games was able to take VMC's original characters and create an engrossing narrative without sacrificing casual gameplay. VMC Gamelabs commissioned "Crunch Time" to be demonstrated at their GDC booth and download.
In this interview we talk about the game with Aaron Murray, co-founder and Technical Director, and Jon Wofford, co-founder and Creative Director.
First things first: How do you describe this unusual match-3 game, in your own words?Aaron: Crunch Time is an inconventional mix of story and puzzle wrapped in a self-imposed time limit for marketing purposes.
Jon: I see it as an interactive movie that is driven forward by frantic match-3.
What makes your game unique from other Match-3 games?Jon: The big difference is the presentation of the story. You are meant to feel like you are inside of what is essentially a big cutscene. Some puzzle games do have narratives, but they happen between game boards. Ours was going nonstop. There was also the requirement that the game be impossible to lose. You either play until you win, or you give up, but you don't "die." If you run out of moves on the board, it resets. There is no timer. The idea was to drive a story forward and give you something fun to do at the same time, which I think turned out to be great. The suspense of "oh man I might run out of moves" was replaced with the suspense of trying to make big matches while explosions rock the screen, and while operators on monitors scream encouragement at you.
Aaron: We definitely strayed far from the standard game convention of "death/loss, unless the player can avoid it constantly." The core match 3 mechanics are there, but you also get have an anime movie happening on the screen at all times.
Where did your inspiration come from?Aaron: [Laughs] Well, the inspiration originally came from me wanting to make a game that I could play with my 2-year old son. I wanted a split screen so that I could have a game on one side, and he could pound keys and make something happen on the other side. This led to many prototypes, including Tandem Elves which we presented at the 2007 Austin IGC. That demo led us to a contract job to take that concept, and wrap it with a different IP.
Jon: As far as the story goes, our client had existing characters, and had even commissioned a comic be made, so I had a lot to work with storywise. The comic had Pixel and Vega running around a World of Warcraft-like world, so we decided to shift it towards sci-fi. I had just fallen in love with Mass Effect, and that was still fresh on my mind, so we had a story take place in an MMO-like version of that universe. There was a Wing Commander level. There were some characters with heavy Star Wars influences. We had fun with making as many references and inside gags as we could.
What was your development process like?Aaron: Our development process was extraordinarily hectic. Talks started, the contract was approved, and 6 weeks later we delivered the game. I got a working build up as quickly as possible, and kept detailed developer notes (included in the games install directory) every day. Each night (or morning as it usually was) I would send out an email with a link to the latest build for everyone to see. The next day I would integrate the latest assets and work on features and bugs.
Jon: All I really remember is a lot of late nights, a lot of lunch meetings, and a lot of beer...
What appealed to you about Torque?Jon: I played with Torque Game Builder on my own, before meeting Aaron. It took me only a weekend to get my first prototype up, and I did a few more before showing it to Aaron. That was around the time you guys released Behaviors, and in about ten minutes went from scratch to a Breakout Clone. I think that sold him on it, and he started investigating it on his own. Rapid prototyping was the big thing for me. Why we went with Torque over something like Flash, it was the overall power of the engine, the cross-platform abilities, and the 3D capabilities. My plan was to start off with TGB and then take baby steps up towards TGEA.
Aaron: Cross-platform support was very appealing, and the TGB editor was easy to use. Jon showed me his concept demos and I bought an engine license shortly thereafter.
How many people worked on the game team and how did you work together?Aaron: It was a three person team. We had one programmer (me), one artist (Jon), and one sound designer (Troupe Gammage). Billy Cain from Critical Mass produced, and of course, VMC Gamelabs lent us a few of their lead QA folks to help with hardware compatibility testing and play testing. We also hired DB Cooper to do the voices of Pixel and Vega. Our development was all done remotely, with the occasional "code jam" at Jon's house, where we'd all get together and work side-by-side for a day.
How long did it take to create the game?Aaron: We were able to utilize much of the match-3 logic from our demo, but the rest had to be done from scratch. We worked on game design and story for 2 weeks (over Christmas vacation), then I started coding the first week of January. The final gold build was delivered on Feb 4th. It was about 4 weeks of actual development time.
What is the single thing that went into your game to set it a class above?Jon: If one were to say that Crunch Time is a class above, I would hope it is because we were so willing to throw away certain conventions and just have fun and experiment as much as possible. All of the things that shouldn't have worked do, and make the game more than just a puzzle game because of it.
Match 3 is like playing Where's Waldo, you almost become more effective at it when something is engaging your higher brain operations and you can just stare at the screen and wait for the shapes to come to you. The story gives your matching purpose and drama, but it also makes you multi-task enough mentally to make the puzzle part of the game more exciting.
What did you learn in creating the game?Jon: Nothing takes two weeks. I have a more profound understanding of the exploding head scene in Total Recall.
Aaron: Right, they take at least 4 weeks! [Laughs] I learned that coordinating a team is an art. Making a game is rewarding.
What can we expect to see next, either in development of your game or from your studio?Jon: I think it will depend on how well our current project is embraced. So far I'm totally amazed at the response, so who knows? The future is wide open.
Aaron: We're wrapping up the final month of development on our new web-based MMORPG, Domain of Heroes. It too takes standard game conventions and stuffs them in a dumpster. This new game has been interesting because we've let it redesign itself time and time again according to what's fun instead of what was originally designed. This is the game you play when you are at work, or school, or the in-laws' and you can't install anything, or even run a plugin in the browser.
Thanks for the interview guys. For more about Tandem Games, please visit their website. And don't forget to download and try out this great free Torque game!
For more stories like this, check out GarageGames' Developer Interview series.