A few weeks back, the DailyGame staff paid a visit to the Indie Games Convention in Eugene, Oregon to see what was coming in the world of indie development. While we were there, we were incredibly impressed with Fuzzee Teevee, the first title from Gastronaut Studios. It was a title that grabbed a lot of interest from the crowd, and we felt it was only fair we let the rest of the gaming world hear about it. What follows is our Q&A with the founder and sole employee of Gastronaut Studios, the makers of Fuzzee Teevee.
First off, thank you for taking the time for this Q&A. Could you take a moment and introduce yourself and Gastronaut Studios to our readers?
Sure, I’m Jacob Van Wingen, the founder and only full-time employee of Gastronaut Studios. Gastronaut Studios was started in 2001 as a creative change of pace for me after developing enterprise software for a while during the dot-com boom. I’ve been programming video games as a hobbyist for about 10 years and I’ve been drawing for a bit longer than that.
I’m kind of a world food enthusiast and the name Gastronaut comes out of that. Gastronaut is a made up word that means a taste explorer. The sad irony of naming my venture Gastronaut Studios is that since starting the company the only food I can afford is instant ramen.
If I recall from speaking with you at IGC, you are basically the entire development and design team. Do you have any other help, maybe with playtesting?
I do the programming, art and animations. My good friend, Jon, does the announcer’s voice. The recording sessions for that were lots of fun and for a brief moment made me feel like a producer. He’s also quite good at giving me helpful suggestions when I’m stuck. My girlfriend, Mindy, helps me try out the occasional feature and gives me plenty of useful feedback. She also struck down my working title, “Carjackin’ Gun-Totin’ Hookers,” and helped come up with the title, “Fuzzee Teevee.” My brother, Matthew, helps me with business and organizational issues in addition to proofreading, playtesting and general advice.
Your main title is Fuzzee Teevee, which we saw at this year’s IGC. Can you describe the basic idea of the game?
Fuzzee Teevee is a platform game that is played on a block puzzle board. You control a character that can run around the level picking up, throwing and pushing blocks to match same-color sets of blocks and solve puzzles. The basic concept is very easy to grasp and quick to get drawn into. Advanced players can devise clever ways to match huge sets of blocks at once in massive chain reactions. Some levels have baddies that wander around trying to stop you from collecting matches.
The multiplayer game (Brawl Mode) has several different games that can be played with up to four people. The Emblem Match game was showed off at IGC, others are in development. So far, Brawl Mode has been a big hit with my playtesting friends, which is great because I want the game to be a sociable experience, a “Party Game.”
How did the concept for the game come about? Was there any movie or show that inspired you, or was it a purely new idea?
I was working on another game as the debut for Gastronaut Studios and found myself struggling with a game design that was far larger than a single developer could manage. I took some time off and refocused my efforts on designing a stripped-down, minimalist game that would be fun without having extensive art assets — something that a single-developer could pull off. I settled on a game design, built a quick prototype and played it — and it just didn’t feel right — it was actually too complicated. As I began to pick apart various components and shed away game-design fat, Fuzzee Teevee began to come together. It’s a very different game than the original design. I brought in some features from block-puzzle games and shed some slightly more original concepts that weren’t working out. I’ve tried to create an experience which is very different as a whole while paying homage to multiple genres that ease new players into the game.
Most of the inspirations in game-design have come from earlier video games rather than movies or shows. Part of my philosophy in designing this has been to make the game-play the most compelling feature of the game, rather than the environments or story. I actually love some games that really just surround the player in atmosphere, but this is something that’s best left to the major studios to do. The amount of content that must be created for a game like Final Fantasy or Zelda is impossible for most indie developers. What we can do as indie developers is work on new core game-play concepts with a few highly polished assets.
I look at some of the early Nintendo games and see so many simple ideas that were tried out. I particularly like Balloon Fight. It’s a great game that plays around with the way the avatar is controlled to create the core-game. Then, it throws in more goals and obstacles to motivate players to want to learn how to control the avatar. It’s really simple but so addictive!
At IGC, Fuzzee Teevee seemed to be one of the more popular titles around. Did you gather any interesting or useful feedback from the people who played it?
A couple of things — the first and the most unfortunate is that I found that many PC gamers are vehemently anti-gamepad. That’s really too bad because I think Fuzzee Teevee plays best with gamepads instead of with a keyboard. Other than that, I got lots of feedback on the difficulty. Many people had trouble with the levels that have the falling blocks and the level with the shark baddie. I knew the shark baddie was a tough one, so I’m working on getting in some other introductory baddies that aren’t quite as aggressive. I’m also working on some more techniques for generating blocks in ways that are less frustrating for players. Some of the hardest work I’ve done in this game has been in designing the game-play aspects and achieving proper balance. Sometimes I joke to my friends that I should just give up and give all of the characters guns and not have to think about the design anymore, but I’m sticking with it.
A lot of people who saw the game loved the artwork, but curious about the character models. What are those little guys based upon? Was it just a random idea to strap gas masks on some sort of mouse-like character, or did you have something specific in mind right from the start?
I was working on creating a cast of four characters for the multiplayer game and had a lead and sidekick character, so I started to work on the classic slow & powerful character. I drew up a design for an elephant that I liked, and threw on this gas mask because I liked the concept of the specially fit gas mask for the elephant. I liked the look, but decided that he needed to be 50% cuter with 10% more attitude. So, I swapped the elephant out for this abstract, bubbly aardvark. Aardvarks are almost as naturally funny as monkeys or cows but remarkably less popular. Maybe it’s because people don’t realize that aardvarks are also anteaters, so they split their loyalties. Anyway, I just wanted to give aardvarks the celebrity status they deserve. My “focus group” really liked the design, so I gave him the lead role. At the moment he’s a Clint Eastwood man-with-no-name kind of character, though he has a nickname that I use to name his data-files.
Many people think that he has a gas mask because he is a “gastronaut” — which is not the case, but really just a coincidence.
Going back to IGC, it was frequently mentioned by the presenters that the “line up the blocks” and “bubble popper” type titles were getting a bit long in the tooth. Since the core of FT is about moving blocks, what do you think will set it apart from all the other games of the genre?
I remember sitting through that session wondering if they were talking about Fuzzee Teevee. Fortunately, I don’t think they were. I don’t really consider Fuzzee Teevee to be a block-puzzler. It borrows elements from a broad range of arcade game genres, but the block puzzle aspects stand out — they’re definitely the most visible. Fuzzee Teevee stands apart in the natural interaction that results from controlling a character to solve the puzzle. Sometimes it’s fun to just run around the board throwing blocks and making random matches. I felt validated in my work with Fuzzee Teevee when I read in an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto that his favorite part of playing a video game is simply controlling a character that moves around on screen. I’ve always felt like this sense of control is lacking in puzzle games, but I think Fuzzee Teevee has it.
Once youÕ²e done with FT, do you plan on starting another title right away, or are you going to take a break?
I’ve got plenty of other game ideas. The trick for me is to pick one that will actually be feasible with a staff that I can afford. Right now I’m focusing all of my efforts on getting Fuzzee Teevee finished, polished and published. There are so many things that I want to get into the game for players, but not all of them will make it in this time…
At IGC, representatives from various online publishers (Pogo.com, RealArcade, AtomShockwave, etc.) were present. Was there any interest shown by them towards Fuzzee Teevee? Are you actively seeking a publisher, or waiting until the product is 100% ready to roll?
I can’t talk too much about this, but I have been overwhelmed with the interest in Fuzzee Teevee. I’ve just started to examine publishing options. I realize it’s crazy to want to get such a low budget game on a console, but I really think that Fuzzee Teevee belongs in front of the couch, not the desk chair. I’d love to see the console publishers start to take more risks on indie games.
Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like our readers to know about Gastronaut Studios and/or Fuzzee TeeVee?
Fuzzee Teevee will be finished in spring 2004. Until then, more information, including screenshots, can be found at http://www.gastronautstudios.com.