Monday, February 21, 2011

Interview: John Sandoval

If you aren't already familiar with the name "John Sandoval," you damn well should be.  John is an independent developer who, while having yet to release any of his big projects, shows an immense amount of promise and dedication to his work.  If you haven't heard of this guy or any of his current stuff, you've come to right place.

When did you first become interested in making games?
JOHN: When did I first become interested in game development? Well, since the moment I picked up a controller, really.

What was your first programming language?
JOHN: Well, I started learning how to program about two to three years ago, when I was 15. Up to that point, I'd been spending a lot of time coming up with ideas and design documents, in the margins of homework and notes and whatever little scraps of paper were lying about, but nothing substantial had ever really come of it. With the intent to change that, I started off learning C++. It was tricky, but immensely satisfying.

Are you still continuing to learn more C++, or have you stopped learning for now?
JOHN: On occasion, I'll still fire up DevC++ and just muck around in it a bit, but for now, I don't actually use C++ to program games. Instead, I use GM8 (Game Maker 8). It's just a lot easier to get a prototype up and running. In the future, I'd like to see if I can build something from the ground up, but for now, it's GM.

Has your prior experience in other programming languages made GML (Game Maker Language) easier to get into?
JOHN: Well, the syntax of GML's not exactly a tough nut to crack, but the general thinking process behind it, the identification of a problem and the discerning of solutions, that's something that's been pretty helpful. I don't know if I picked it up while learning more 'difficult' languages, but it's definitely been my most useful tool.

Biochrome; Sandoval's first game.
You definitely show a liking for Game Maker, as Erhardt and Vergessen, your two current projects, are being actively developed with it.  What made Game Maker the program of choice for development?
JOHN: It's cheap. It's easy. And there's a lot of tutorials for it on TIGSource (The Independent Gaming Source).

Speaking of TIGSource, that's probably the one community you're most active in.  What drew you to TIGS - and the independent gaming scene moreover - in the first place?
JOHN: Well, I can track my very first encounter with indie games back to the Freeloader blog, which was written by Scott Sharkey of 1UP. Anyway, he did a little video podcast on independent gaming, covering stuff like Crayon Physics and Darwinia, and a few of Cactus' games. And as for TIGSource, I got involved with the Indie Brawl Community project (it's been going on for a while now) as a spriter. I liked the people there, so I've stuck with it ever since.

And you've started up a few projects of your own, too!  I'm already familiar with Erhardt and Vergessen, the two you're working on now, but I don't believe I've heard anything about Biochrome, your mysterious other project.  For those who don't know about any of these games, would you mind giving a brief summary of each?
JOHN: Right. Well, Biochrome was the first real project I made (using GM). It started off as a school project for Biology class. The idea was that you were a virus, and you had to infect as many cells as possible. Avoid T-Cells, multiply, evolve, repeat. Aesthetically speaking, the game looked like a microscope slide. Gameplay was a bit derivative, but hey. You've gotta start somewhere.

Erhardt, a "little puzzle platformer" about a girl with mind powers
As for Erhardt, it's a little puzzle platformer I started in the summer of 2010  where you control a young woman with the ability to move objects with her mind. She's trapped in this sort of hellish dimension, and the objective of the game is simply to utilize your abilities to get to the exit. Hopefully that'll be finished before summer of this year, but for now, it's been put on the backburner while I work on my latest project, Vergessen.

Vergessen's currently entered in the TIGSource Versus Competition, and it's a 2 player game built around the theme of "survival of the fittest". In the game, you must work with your partner in order to survive this frozen wasteland, but it becomes clear that the two of you are in direct competition for food and water. So the whole game is sort of this passive aggressive mind game that ultimately results in murder and/or cannibalism.

Judging from what you've released about it so far, Vergessen is probably the most intriguing Versus entry I have yet to see.  Another game that I was reminded of when I saw your thread was Under the Garden, which was submitted last year for the "Game By Its Cover" competition.  While you might not have drawn inspiration from that one specifically, where did you get the idea for that "survival of the fittest" type game?
JOHN: Econ 201. There was a lecture on economic scarcity, and I sort of took that information and tried to bring it to life as a game. We'll see how successful my attempt is in a few days.....

It's a dog eat dog world out there, or man eat man, in this case.
Even from the current screenshots, there's already a sort of bitterness and isolation present.  The idea of cooperating with your partner to survive at the beginning, only to have to stab him in the back later on for your own well being is a pretty brilliant one.  Were you planning to give the player some sort of emotional attatchment to his/her partner to make the act of killing them at the end a morally challenging one?
JOHN: Well, yes. Through the course of the game, there are quite a few instances where players will have to save each others' asses, and inevitably they'll build up some sort of comradeship. However, as to whether or not it'll factor into making them question the act of killing one another, I'm a bit of a skeptic. Murder is just much too fun.  In games, at least.

Since you are making this for the "Versus" competition, you have to finish the game by a set deadline.  Have there been many difficulties in trying to conform to that deadline?
JOHN: I've been managing to keep up fairly well, but a lot of things have had to be cut. Online play was pretty much ruled out in the first week. But some of the cuts have been for the best. Originally, the game focused on exploration, with new areas being unlocked as players delved beneath the surface. Naturally, time constraints have forced me to cut that down quite a bit, reshaping the game's focus into holing down in one area and building up a sort of a base, though exploration still plays a decent part. Still, I feel it provides for a much tighter gameplay experience. An added plus is that I don't have to make nearly as many art assets as I did before.

Vergessen: a game about dots and larger dots.
What has been the most challenging part of development so far?
JOHN: Am I allowed to swear?

Sure, I don't see why not.
JOHN: Right, well then, all I can say is: fuck inventory systems, fuck data structures, and most of all, a very special 'fuck you' to user interfaces. Getting these little bastards up and running has been a long arduous process that's still not 100% complete. In comparison, terrain generation/destruction took me two days, and the damage/death system only took me a few hours.  Yeah, my first version of the inventory system was done with a huge set of variables that was completely hack-ish and ass backwards. It took me a week before I realized I had to redo it.

Is there any confirmed date for release, or is this going to be a "barely make the deadline" ordeal?
JOHN: One way or another, the game will end up being released on the 27th of February. Percentage wise, right now I'd say I'm currently 85% complete, so I feel I've got a pretty solid chance of finishing it to my satisfaction.

Silly questions
"While you were busy fucking off on TIGSource, this guy built 7 games"
Nuclear Holocaust imminent.  You're only allowed to take 3 games into the shelter.  Which three do you choose?
JOHN: Minecraft, Minecraft, and a pack of cards for when the power inevitably dies out.

Inspirational figures?
JOHN: Petri Purho and Jonatan Soderstrom, also known as Cactus. Both are indie developers, and both are known for their ridiculously high output of interesting games. I've actually got each of their faces posted up on my corkboard as sort of motivational posters...  (one of the posters says "WWPD: What Would Petri Do?" and the other says "While you were busy fucking off on TIGSource, this guy [Soderstrom] built 7 games")

You can find out more about John's projects on their respective threads on TIGSource: Vergessen, Erhardt

You should also check out the works of Artem Bank, the man responsible for Vergessen's incredible soundtrack.

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