In our latest developer interview, I talk with James Woodrow, one of the founding members of indie game development studio Utopian World of Sandwiches. Their debut title Chompy Chomp Chomp is slated to release on Xbox Live Indie Games in May. In the meantime, we chat about life as an indie developer, the value of local multiplayer modes, and the trials of promoting your own game. Enjoy!
The Indie Mine: Thanks for making some time to talk with us today James. I’m sure you’re busy ramping up for the release of your first game. Before we get into that, though, can you tell me a bit about yourself and your history in game development?
James Woodrow: For as long as I can remember I have wanted to make my own games. When I left school I realized programming was not something I had a particularly natural flair for. I worked hard to get a portfolio together and got on to an animation degree. I taught myself 3D animation and when I left university I got a job at Jagex. In the early days it was an ideal training ground, we did all aspects of graphics from modelling and animation to all sorts of 2D artwork. I worked there for 6 years, learned a lot from seeing it grow from a small company into one of the largest UK developers and met a lot of great people. I never gave up on the idea of making my own games and worked with my girlfriend Sarah to enter Dream Build Play in 2008 with our first version of Atomic Bunny.
The Indie Mine: You recently formed your studio Utopian World of Sandwiches. How did that come to pass and what’s it been like working with the other members?
James Woodrow: Sarah is always drawing these crazy characters, and we often work together on artwork and ideas for animations. We wanted to make games but we knew we didn’t quite have the coding skills to pull off our ideas, and felt we spread our skills too thinly if we tried. We often started to work with other people but it just fizzled out or didn’t work out for one reason or another. When Sarah started her new job in 2008 she met Adam. They became good friends and we all hung out a lot. About a year and a half ago she was chatting to him and he said that he would be interested in making games with us. He had coded games before and he liked what we’d done with Atomic Bunny. We met up at the pub and talked about what we could do next. It was the first time we’d felt it would actually go somewhere. As a test we got together one weekend for a game jam. That’s how Chompy Chomp Chomp came about. The three of us work together so well, and the fact we are good friends makes it easy. We know each other’s strengths and quirks, we have different ways of thinking and complimentary skills which means we challenge each other to work harder and make everything better. We all have the same values and attitudes towards what makes a great game; creativity, team work and innovation. We live and work together, you’d think that would be claustrophobic or annoying but it has been the most creative and fun time of my life.
The Indie Mine: Well you mentioned your first game, Chompy Chomp Chomp. Can you tell us a bit about it?
James Woodrow: Sure. I describe it as a multiplayer eat ‘em up. It’s basically a multiplayer party game where you chase each other round various maps and try and chomp each other. The game is frantic and fast-paced and is sure to have you shouting and swearing as you chase one another round (or biting your tongue if you’re playing with kids). We came up with the design when we were looking for games to play with each other on the Xbox. Surprisingly we couldn’t find many! I’m a big fan of multiplayer games. I love getting a load of people round and playing games together in the same room – banter, laughing and good times are bound to ensue. We’ve played it with all our friends & family from ages 2-82. Online multiplayer on the Xbox is great with friends in a party too, but we find it hard to find games that we all own, we want Chompy Chomp Chomp to be one of those games. We’re filling the game with all sorts of different arena environments, an abundance of different power-ups and we’ll be expanding the game after release by adding new game modes, more levels, more power-ups and a whole load of other extras. The idea is so simple, which means we are finding hundreds of possibilities to add variation and fun.
The Indie Mine: I’m also a huge proponent of local multiplayer in games. Do you feel like it’s a design element that is still often neglected? Or do you feel like with indie games it has a chance to make a comeback?
James Woodrow: Games are meant to be shared. If you play a game with a stranger you will leave the experience feeling less like strangers, so the bonding feeling you get from playing with friends or family is much stronger. We believe in games’ power to bring people together in ways that no other medium does. With the rise in casual gaming and the Wii, more families play computer games together now than ever, in some families it has replaced the good old board game. We have found it really hard to find a game that you can play with the whole family on the Xbox or with gamers of varying skills and ages. There are a few indie games coming about that use some really interesting multiplayer elements, Bug Ball and Hidden In Plain Sight are some that come to mind. I think with indie games there is an opportunity to innovate and try new things with multiplayer that don’t just involve shooting each other. With new platforms and ways of funding for indies, who knows what sort of new interesting things will emerge. I do feel like we are teetering on a new dawn of innovation and experimentation, it’s an exciting place to be.
The Indie Mine: With maze-filled structures and a chase theme, I’d have to think this game was inspired in part by Pac-Man. Is that true? Were there are any other games that inspired elements in Chompy Chomp Chomp?
James Woodrow: Sarah and I were chatting about what we could do for our first game jam. We wanted to make a multiplayer game to play with our friends but we didn’t have a mechanic yet. Sarah asked, “Why hasn’t anyone ever made a multiplayer Pac-Man where you chase each other instead, like with cats and dogs chasing each other or something?” I could only really think of Pac-Man Vs. and at that point my mind was off designing this game in my head. For a while I called it the ‘Circular Versus Game’. I couldn’t think of anything else which had that same 1 player eats 2 player eats 3 player eats 4 player eats 1 player circular chase going on. So yes it’s inspired by Pac-Man, although I wouldn’t expect a similar experience. With Chompy Chomp Chomp the circular chase mechanic makes it quite unpredictable, chaotic and frantic in comparison.
Bomberman is the biggest inspiration. It would be scary to count how many hours we’ve spent playing Bomberman over the years. Billy Hatcher on the Gamecube is another. It’s such a happy, kiddy game, but the multiplayer just leaves you shouting and swearing at each other as you completely ruin your opponents’ plans. ChuChu Rocket also invokes that same rage when another player brutally obliterates your previously winning score. Monkey Fight in Super Monkey Ball has the manic chaotic elements that we love. There may not be direct gameplay influence, but we knew we wanted to create that same sort of intense experience that really brings out the true colours of everyone in the room. I think that’s what makes a truly great multiplayer game for me, especially when you can see the other players smile or their tears of anguish, hear them squeal and shout and react to the game, and build an atmosphere where you can banter and compete.
The Indie Mine: So where are you at in terms of the release cycle for Chompy Chomp Chomp? Are you still adding modes or tweaking basic gameplay? Or is everything done but the polishing?
James Woodrow: There will always be more that we can and want to do to Chompy Chomp Chomp – we know we will carry on updating it after release. We want to keep it fresh and exciting. Right now we are making everything we have done so far as awesome as it can possibly be so we are currently focusing on getting the main game polished and running smoothly online.
The Indie Mine: As a developer, what’s it been like trying to promote the game? Is it something you’re familiar or comfortable with? What has the reception been like for the trailers?
James Woodrow: It’s been a good learning experience and I am sure that learning will continue after we release. We’ve had a good reception among indie sites and general indie press, and we are using social networking a lot. We have a fair bit of experience in online marketing and self-promotion; Sarah has been a freelancer and worked in ecommerce for years, and my friends in the games industry have been really helpful. I think the hardest part is knowing how to spread our small amount of resources across marketing and developing, and getting people to know about it who don’t frequent sites about games. People have liked the trailers though and they seem to have a good idea of what the game is about.
The Indie Mine: What’s next for Utopian World of Sandwiches?
James Woodrow:We already have post-release updates planned for Chompy Chomp Chomp – new game modes, arenas and other extras. Beyond that we have started working on a new version of our next game, Atomic Bunny, which will be available on a wider range of formats including Xbox, PC, iPhone and Android. We want to keep making small and quirky games that make people happy.
The Indie Mine: Thanks for talking with us today and we wish you the best of luck with the launch of Chompy Chomp Chomp.
James Woodrow: Thanks. It’s been a pleasure.
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