A veteran XBLIG and PC developer with a handful of titles to his name, David Johnston is the man behind Smudged Cat Games. Smudged Cat’s puzzle platformer Gateways is one of this year’s entries selected for the Indie Games Uprising. In this interview, David talks to us about his latest title, developing for XBLIG, and the lessons that all new developers must learn.
David, congratulations on being selected for this year’s XBLIG Uprising event. How familiar were you with the previous incarnations, and were you surprised to be chosen?
Thanks! I was certainly aware of the previous Uprisings and always really wanted to be a part of one but my previous games were never due to be released around the right time. I’m really happy that people have seen the potential in Gateways and it was picked for the Uprising from the many great releases coming out. I’ve always thought Gateways was quite a unique game that could fit well into an Uprising.
Your latest game, Gateways, was chosen after being released earlier this year on PC. What made you decide to port it to Xbox Live Indie Games?
It’s a bit of a no-brainer really. The game has been written using XNA so porting it between the PC and XBox is fairly straightforward. I’ve actually been developing the PC and Xbox versions in tandem as I’ve been going along as I was always planning to release for both platforms. I’m interested to see how the game fares on XBLIG as it’s the first large scale game I’ve released on the platform. My other games like A Bomb’s Way, Time Slip and Growing Pains have all been quite small bite-sized games.
I know some comparisons have been drawn between this title and Portal. Can you expand on that a bit by telling our readers what Gateways is all about?
I’m guilty myself of comparing the game to Portal because it’s the quickest way to get the general gist of the game across. It goes well beyond Portal though by adding different types of guns that give you powers beyond just travelling from one place to another. You find a gateway gun that lets you put down 2 different sized gateways. By traveling through the small one you emerge out of the large one at twice your normal size and going the other way shrinks you down. Another gateway gun lets you adjust gravity and the final one lets you travel back in time.
The structure of the game is very different as well. Gateways takes place in a single large map which you gain access to parts of by acquiring the different types of gateway guns and other power ups. There are no loading screens between areas of the map, the whole thing is one giant level that you are free to roam around in. I’ve also implemented a help system so that if you get completely stuck at any part of the game you can actually buy a solution using the in-game currency.
Sounds like you’ve got a bit of Metroidvania going there. The large-scale map also sounds reminiscent of Growing Pains which was actually the first Smudged Cat title I’d played. I really enjoyed how that level design was presented to the player, the growing mechanic, and the online leaderboards. It’s been awhile since that title was released, so you’ve probably had some time to reflect. In what ways do you consider it a success?
Growing Pains was actually a bit of a diversion while I was working on Gateways. I’d been playing with Gateways for so long that I really wanted to work on something different for a bit of a change. I had the idea of a continually growing character and decided to put together a prototype. I really liked the way it worked so decided to make a few levels and release it as a game. It’s the only game I haven’t worked with an artist on, all the graphics are vector based and generated in-game. I needed something a bit different anyway because of the way the map scales so I used fractals for rendering the walls which produces a nice effect when zooming out. I’m really happy with the way the whole game worked out.
I know that we, like other sites that cover XBLIG, would consider you an XBLIG veteran due to the fact that you’ve released a variety of titles on the platform. Most of these have met with critical, if not always commercial success. What is it that keeps you developing for the platform and how/why did you get started on it?
I started using XNA (the framework used for XBLIG games) before it was actually possible to release games for the Xbox with it. I could see that at some point Microsoft were going to allow indie developers to release games for the Xbox and thought it would be a really great opportunity. I was right about being able to release games for the Xbox but perhaps not so right about it being a great opportunity. I know some games have done really well but I haven’t really had the kind of response I was hoping for from the platform. I’m not sure if I’ll be using XNA for my next project.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about indie development through the process of creating all of these titles?
I’ve really learned the importance of trying to promote your game as much as possible. It’s no good just releasing a game and hoping for the best. It doesn’t matter how good your game is, if people don’t hear about it then no-one is going to play it. There are plenty of technical things I’ve learned as I’ve gone along as well. With every new game you learn from past mistakes and get more and more refined in how you implement games. It’s not the sort of thing you can really teach people, it just comes with practice and, like everything else in life, you get better over time.
I know Gateways isn’t out yet, but have you started thinking about what your next project will be? Is it time for some time off, or is there something you’re already planning and are willing to talk about?
I honestly don’t have another project in mind yet. I recently released The Adventures of Shuggy on PC and have been thinking about making some new levels for that. I’m going to concentrate on supporting Adventures of Shuggy and Gateways and perhaps think about porting them to other platforms before starting something new. It’s always tempting to jump into a new project when a new idea excites you but I want to make sure I provide proper support for Gateways and make the most of it before moving on.
Are there other games on the XBLIG platform you’ve either enjoyed or been inspired by?
I really enjoyed Clover when it came out but that was a while ago now. The most recent game I bought was P-3 Biotic which was a fun twin stick shooter. To be honest I’ve not had much time to play any kind of game recently, whether it’s AAA, XBLA or XBLIG. Once Gateways is out there and things die down a bit I’ll try and catch up with the games that I’ve missed recently.
Before we go, let’s hear your pitch for Gateways. Who do you think will enjoy the game, and why should everyone give it a try?
I think Gateways will appeal to people looking for some great puzzles rather than fast-paced action. You can take as long as you like in Gateways to explore the map and uncover areas you previously missed, there’s no time limit or anything pressuring you to finish. It’s been designed to be played at a leisurely pace allowing you to sit back and contemplate the power that’s been given to you with the different Gateways guns. It’s the type of game that I enjoy playing so I hope it’s the type of game that other people will enjoy playing as well.
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