Raycatcher Making Waves on Steam
by Deborah M. Fike · 05/05/2009 (2:40 pm) · 3 comments
Guitar Hero. Karaoke Revolution. Dance Dance Revolution. In the past few years, rhythm games have become a staple of our lives. This once unheard of genre is now breaking boundaries that we never thought possible. I myself have purchased more Rock Band content than I care to admit, and I'm happy to say that I enjoy every penny's worth of it. There's one thing that most rhythm games haven't been able to get right, though, and that's user-driven content. Guitar Hero World Tour gave it a spin with mixed results. The truth is, not all of us have the time or patience to create our own music (even if we wanted to). We'd much rather enjoy the songs we already love.
Meet Raycatcher, now available on Steam and Direct2Drive. Raycatcher allows you to interact with your personal MP3 library (no additional downloads required). It is a simple, colorful, entrancing game that involves you rotating an ever-growing cluster of colorful shapes in order to catch different colored light rays that enter the screen. As this happens, your cluster powers up and eventually grows and evolves. Rays enter the screen and colide with your cluster in sync with your MP3s. Hear it in action:
John Warner of Thinking Studios worked on Dawn of War II last year, but decided it was time to get into the game business for himself. He found a partner in Barry Foust, and the two set up to make their first indie game. John was very generous and detailed in his interview responses, so enjoy!
Where did your inspiration for Raycatcher come from?Raycatcher was conceptualized during a discussion with my friends and I, when we were analyzing modern RPGs that involve the player killing critters in various environments to gain experience points and level up. Personally, this bores me. My friend came up with the concept of Raycatcher -- a game where you absorb your environment into your self in order to grow, instead of destroying it. At it's roots, Raycatcher is really a philosophical experiment, albeit a very simple one.
Whether or not we actually hit the mark is up to the players of the game. What makes Raycatcher unique isn't exactly easy to market. In my opinion, the growth theme could have been expressed more strongly, but I'm very proud that we created what we have.
What was your development process like?The entire development process was very simple. I made a post on an online forum for anyone who was interested in making games from a programming perspective, and a fantastic guy named Barry Foust (credited in the game as Slam Dunk Studios) got a hold of me from all the way down in South Carolina (I'm in Vancouver, Canada). Barry and I got along very well. Almost all of our correspondence was via email, which was challenging at times but we managed for the most part. I created all of the artwork for the game, Barry did all of the programming, and we more-or-less co-designed the game. That's right folks: two people made this game. Two. Isn't that romantic?
Production started out with me sending Barry a few concept videos and images that I had. We chatted a bit about the scope of the project, and decided which platform we would build it on. We decided to go with Torque Game Builder because of its price, ease of use, and proven history. Barry did an incredible amount of work in a very short amount of time and created a prototype before we had even put any contracts together. From there, it was just a long process of adding features and fleshing things out. We polished and polished until the game was finished.
Music integration was done with FMOD. We were both a little bit hesitant about putting in some sort of music analysis into the game, but we decided that even if it wasn't perfect, it would be better than nothing. The music syncing works fairly simply. For a given difficulty level, we know how many rays we generally want to send at the player. The game then analyzes the waveform in a small range around each ray's planned impact, and delays it or speeds it up to hit at the moment of highest contrast. We then spent a while tweaking values until we got something that was very pleasing. Raycatcher still isn't perfect and can get confused at times when dealing with softer music, but certainly manages to churn out some funky stuff when you give it something with a beat.
Later on in development we began to realize that it might be a good idea to ship the game with some music, so that players could start playing immediately without the need to build playlists of their own music. Thankfully, I have two friends who are great musical artists, and we decided to include their music with the game. They were kind enough to create three custom tracks for Raycatcher and one track for the menus of the game. This was a very pleasing partnership and goes a long way to show that there are solutions for indie developers who are on a tight (or non-existent) budget. New music artists get some publicity and royalties, and we get great, cheap music. Everyone wins!
The project was completed, start to finish, in approximately 5-6 months, but we're still bug fixing and polishing this and that. We relied on our friends and family for QA, which is starting to look like a huge mistake. I don't know what is out there in the way of QA solutions, but quite frankly, I'm beginning to think we should have just borrowed money from the bank if we needed to. We've gotten a number of bug reports upon release on Steam, and I've been going in and out of hysterics. I've found that problems don't tend to come up by having a dedicated QA guy find bugs; they come up by testing your product on as many computers as physically possible. Perhaps I could have found some company in India to install it on 200 computers or something. Oh well. Next time.
On a related note, as I move forward, I'm believing more and more in getting some investment money when you do a project. Even if it's just a few thousand dollars from this-or-that loved one.
"We decided to go with Torque Game Builder because of its price, ease of use, and proven history." - John Warner of Thinking Studios
What development hurdles did you run into?We didn't actually run into many technical hurdles at all because the scope of the project was so small. For the most part, we found creative solutions to everything. The truth of the matter is that any system you work with is going to have limitations, and more often that not, creativity is born out of limitation. I would love to tell you that we could have done a fully-animated-and-dynamic user interface, but if we had the time and budget to get that done, we'd probably be building our UI in some crazy package like Scaleform. Thankfully Raycatcher simply isn't complex enough to have that many technical hurdles.
There have been a few issues that have been bothersome however. Resolution issues are a good example. We're still not exactly sure how to adjust the pixel aspect ratio with TGB, so pixels tend to stretch awkwardly when running our game on a widescreen display. In fact, when we first released the game, it had no support for other resolutions at all, and we were getting some very angry "I bought this game and I can't even run it" emails. Yeesh.
Our biggest problem has been localization like getting our game to be cool with non-English characters, especially in file paths and stuff like that. Raycatcher references files on your hard drive, like in your application data folder, for example, and the inability to find these folders in a non-English windows install has been seriously problematic. I don't know how many other folks are having these issues, but it's certainly the biggest thorn in my side right now.
The big, hilarious joke that I'm learning is that you'll never really be able to think about all these problems until you either sit down with someone who's gone through the process a few times, or until you do it yourself. Fun! Thankfully, Torque has got a great community of creative individuals.
"As I move forward, I'm believing more and more in getting some investment money when you do a project. Even if it's just a few thousand dollars from this-or-that loved one, it can certainly help." - John Warner of Thinking Studios
What was it like getting Raycatcher on Steam?Digital distributors are very cool people. I just sent a bunch of them an email today with a big bug report, going into hysterics, as I usually do. One of the dudes from Direct2Drive just told me to chill, and that "bugs-like-this" happen all the time. Very nice guy. Whenever I do something new, I always get super formal and polite, just in case, and at almost every turn in this industry, I've found that it's not super necessary. Perhaps it's good to put your shiny foot forward, but everyone's really quite friendly, cool, and supportive, especially Valve! Wow. I'm still shocked with how cool those people have been to me. They created custom banners for Raycatcher and posted me up on their front page. Amazing. As if Half-Life and Portal weren't good enough.
What did you learn in creating Raycatcher?What did I learn in creating Raycatcher. Woo boy.
First of all, and more than anything else, I learned that it's entirely possible to do what you want. A year ago I was at Relic Entertainment, working on Dawn of War II, which was a great job with great people whom I still love and a fantastic game. That being said, I wasn't really happy. I hate working for someone else, and I knew that I wanted to do my own thing. I was just scared because it was a new concept. I was very fortunate to lose my job when a wave of layoffs swept through the company. Shortly thereafter, I decided to just see what would happen if I threw out a question onto the internet if anyone out there was interested in getting into games. Barry responded, and the rest happened easily as a result of that momentum. I've found that working up the willpower to do the first tiny step was the hardest part, even if that first step was just infinitesimal. Quite frankly, I'd almost rather people buy into that story than buy my game.
Another thing...I think it's really important to have a goal. Getting this game on Steam was a deep goal that I set into my gut from day one. I figured that if we could polish this sucker well enough that it got onto Steam, we'd do well, but the rest was nebulous. We got on Steam and things are well, but nebulous. I got exactly what I wanted, and nothing more. Very weird.
As far as game design goes, I learned one thing that I was told previously, but I suppose I wasn't quite ready for: When you make a game, fun has got to be your bottom line. I was hell bent on designing Raycatcher around the aforementioned growth themes, because I was (and am) so sick of video games with simplistic stories and violent gameplay. I'm proud that I did what I did, but I learned that trying to do noble things consciously is a waste of time. The truth is, I'm not going to make a game about shooting people because it just genuinely bores me. I don't even particularly care about the whole violent video game debate. I just find violent games boring. I care very much about other people and sharing states of mind that make people happy. I think that as long as I keep that deep in my gut and just forget about the theory and make games that are FUN, they'll also be wholesome in that sense. It's a great realization for me, because I've always thought that there needs to be an intellectual component to everything I do. I realize now that that component is really just for changing myself. It's good to look at the games that you're playing, analyze them, and get in touch with what YOU want as a developer, but once you've done that, just turn off your brain and make somethin' sexy!
"A year ago I was at Relic Entertainment, working on Dawn of War II, which was a great job with great people whom I still love and a fantastic game. That being said, I wasn't really happy. I hate working for someone else, and I knew that I wanted to do my own thing." - John Warner of Thinking Studios
What's next in your indie game career?Maybe nothing from Thinking Studios. A friend and I just incorporated Greener Grass Games. We're working on a full 3D, browser based, free-to-play mystery game. It's going to be friggin' awesome. Maybe GarageGames should get Torque running in a web browser perhaps?
We're looking into different revenue models, because we're both convinced that paying for games is going the way of the dinosaur. Raycatcher has a few torrents out there and has been downloaded more times than there are people on the planet. The public has voted, everyone! Nobody wants to pay for games anymore! We've got to stop making casual games for sale, because it's a waste of time. So why fight it? Might as well get creative, and find a positive solution!
Thanks, John, for your time. Now I have something to supplement my Rock Band obsession.
For more stories like this, check out GarageGames' Developer Interview series.