Fix Fix Bang Bang Developer Interview

Most games feature a single fixed fixed perspective, a single gameplay style, a single game played at a time. Most games however are not developed by indie development company Surprised Man. Their newest game, Fix Fix Bang Bang, challenges two players on one keyboard to work together as a team. One player controls a spacecraft, avoiding bullets and shooting down enemies, while the other is inside the ship fighting enemies that manage to board, making repairs and generally being in charge of keeping the ship running correctly.

I was recently lucky enough to be able to interview game designer Peter Silk, half of Surprised Man. We took some time to talk about Fix Fix Bang Bang, the challenges of asymmetric game design, his advice for aspiring game developers and much more.

Laura: For any of our readers who haven’t heard about you or your game before, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into game development?

Peter: My friend Kieran Walsh and I had talked about making games for quite a while, but it’s one of those things that is much easier to dream about than actually do, like world domination. Then one day Kieran said to me, “Let’s dominate the world this weekend!” and I said “What?” and he said “I mean, let’s make a game this weekend!” That’s when he told me about Game Jams, these events that last a couple of days where you try to get something finished in a very short space of time.

By the end of that weekend we were calling ourselves by the name Surprised Man. We’ve carried on making games together, whenever we can fit it around our day jobs and get time to hop across London to work together. Broadly speaking, we design them together and he does the programming while I do most of the writing, music and sound and artwork, but there’s a little overlap here and there.

Laura: What is Fix Fix Bang Bang?

Peter: Fix Fix Bang Bang is an asymmetric two player co-op game where one player flies a ship in an old fashioned vertical 2D shooter style, while the other runs around inside the ship repairing damage, dealing with any intruders that slip through and assembling power-ups if there’s time.

Laura: Is Fix Fix Bang Bang designed for a pair of people to play through together, or for a single person to multitask? What design choices did you make to strengthen that choice?

Peter: It’s definitely designed as a two-player experience, and we don’t have any plans to enable network play because we really want people to be on the same screen, communicating. We’re always on the lookout for ways to make the one player’s actions mean a lot to the other. So, for example, to do repairs you activate consoles with simple minigames which are affected by the pilot’s actions. If you’re working on the engines, you’ll want the pilot to not change direction very often, and warn you before he does, otherwise it’ll make it really difficult to play the engine repair game without making things worse. And if you can’t keep up with repairs, the pilot will start feeling the effects, such as having his guns start to sputter or his view radius get smaller. Getting this interplay right is going to be our main task as we carry on making this.

Laura: What influences do you feel affected the design of Fix Fix Bang Bang? Is there anything else that has influenced you as a game designer?

Peter: Spy Party isn’t a game I’ve had a chance to play yet, but it’s definitely the one that got me seriously thinking about asymmetry, except with FFBB I thought making a co-op game where the two players are playing different sorts of games that interlock would be a fun challenge for us.

More broadly I think we are both keen on games where you have mechanics which interact in such a way that they provide a neat little engine for players to tell their own story. I hesitate to use the word ’emergent’ because I don’t think anything has happened in our games that we couldn’t have predicted, but we’re definitely fond of games like Minecraft, X-COM, more recently FTL, Spelunky where there are heavy random elements, but people come away with stories.

Perhaps FFBB is a little bit of a departure from that sort of game for us, but I’d say most of the ideas we like to work on fall across that spectrum, particularly our previous game, The Wager.

Laura: Have you ever played the dual screen asymmetric DS game “The World Ends With You”? If so, do you see any similarities or differences between your games in how the asynchronous gameplay functions?

Peter: I haven’t played that one, but my understanding is that that’s a single player game about juggling two different types of play. We have a practice mode planned for FFBB where one player can play while the other is AI controlled. It might be interesting to put a mode into single player where you have to switch between the pilot and the mechanic all the time in order to keep going but we’re a little way from figuring all that stuff out yet.

Laura: Independent game development has in the last few years boomed, resulting in a lot more indie games fighting for gamers attention. How have you gone about the challenge of getting noticed as an indie developer? How successful have you been in getting the word out about the game so far?

Peter: It’s difficult to say for this game, because we’ve really only just started talking about it as we near the point where we can do some early, closed testing. For The Wager, we never really expected many people to play it. More than anything, we do this because it’s fun, and so we were amazed when it appeared on as a freeware pick. That gave us the confidence to start talking about it to websites and so we got covered by Rock Paper Shotgun, Destructoid, the Gamers With Jobs podcast and more and they’ve all had lovely things to say. A lot more people played our game than we ever expected; we think that it stands at about 9-10k unique players right now.

But let’s put that in perspective. In a year and a half, about ten thousand people have played The Wager. Right this second, 4019 people are playing FTL. I’m not saying that we should have as many players as that game… which we wish we’d made… but it certainly throws into sharp relief the gulf between our actual audience and our potential audience, doesn’t it? Even getting a bunch of positive press doesn’t mean your game will be a big hit. That comes down to a combination of lots of things, some of which we still probably haven’t worked out. But the plan is to just keep talking about it, show it off when it’s ready and let the right people know about it. Failing that, world domination.

Laura: What did you prioritise when developing Fix Fix Bang Bang? Where did you begin? Was there anything you wanted to include that had to be left on the cutting room floor?

Peter: We started out making the basic shooter mechanics work, before adding in the mechanic side, and right now we’re in the process of getting the most basic version of the interplay between the two on its feet. So far, we haven’t had to cut anything, but we’re only just about at Alpha and so there’s a lot that could still change.

Laura: Do you have any advice for aspiring game designers?

Peter: The best advice really is just to make something. You might not have a lot of time, but put yourself into whatever position is most likely to make you productive. In our case it was the tight time limit of a game jam, because that has the advantage of both only taking a weekend, and also providing some gentle motivation because nobody wants to come away having achieved nothing. It doesn’t have to be amazing and it probably won’t be at first, but it’s amazing just that first step of seeing how, actually, you can make something that can really get things started. Don’t worry too much about what tools to use, find something that works for you and give yourself simple challenges to learn it, or use something you’re already familiar with, even if it’s not what all the cool kids with their fancy hats are using.

Laura: What challenges have you come across as a small scale indie developer that don’t come up in more traditional or larger group game development?

Peter: Working in a team of two is challenging in a couple of ways, for me. Firstly, as I’ve mentioned, it can be hard just to find the time to get together, and we really do our best work when we can be in the same room. It’s a spare weekend here, and an evening there, but we both have busy lives outside of making games so it’s a struggle to get that balance right. We have far more good ideas stored up than we’re likely to find time to work on, which makes it hard to decide when to commit to new projects.

Also, for me, I take on more than I would if we had a larger team. For example, I’ve become competent at pixel art, but it’s time consuming and I’m often tempted to give it over to someone who is both better and faster. In all, though, I love working with Kieran. I don’t think we’d be able to work the way we do, in these really intense bursts of going crazy for a couple of days, without being very good friends.

Laura: What feedback have you had when showing off Fix Fix Bang Bang?

Peter: People respond very well to the concept, which I was hoping they would, and they like all the little ideas we’re putting into it, especially the flat-packed powerups that need to be assembled before they work. I get the idea that everyone’s really keen on seeing these ideas up and running as a functional two player game now, so I’m glad that’s close.

Laura: When can we expect to get our hands on Fix Fix Bang Bang?

Peter: Is 2013 too vague? I want to say in the first half of 2013 we’ll have something out for people to download and play, at least a Beta, and hopefully more, but our unpredictable schedules make release estimates tricky until we’re very close.

Laura: Do you have anything else to add?

Peter: Did you know that the duck-billed platypus sleeps up to 17 hours per day? That’s why very few of them become indie game developers. They also have venomous spurs on their hind ankles, which makes it very dangerous to stand behind them when they are operating a laptop.

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