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Cannon Brawl: Creativity is a Never-Ending Resource

September 19, 2014 — by Industry Contributions

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The tiny Turtle Sandbox team, founded by Theresa Duringer and Pete Angstadt in 2011, was created to make a game that gamers had never seen before. Pete had come up with a concept for an artillery-based game with a real-time twist, and his winning submission to the 2011 Activision Independent Games competition paved the way to develop what would later become Cannon Brawl. In this postmortem, Theresa Duringer discusses Turtle Sandbox’s navigation of the exploding indie development scene to just launching Cannon Brawl on Steam on September 19th.


Genesis Story

Pete and Theresa originally met on a crystal dig in Trona in California, an area most known from such films as Star Trek V and Planet of the Apes. Imagine if we both had known that surreal trip would eventually precipitate a totally different kind of trip, a wild indie adventure.

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Theresa and Pete started their own small projects while still working at Maxis

We also both worked at Maxis at the time, where Pete was working as a gameplay engineer and Theresa contributed on the online team for Spore. Coincidentally, both of us ended up deciding to strike out on our own to develop smaller, more personal projects. With indie development in mind, Pete entered the 2011 Activision Independent Games contest with an idea he’d been musing on for years. His concept of an artillery game fused with real-time action-strategy won first place, and the prize winnings gave us the runway to dive into full time development.

Leaning on the Tribe

When we started Cannon Brawl, the prospect of going indie sounded purely… independent; a solo endeavor. We imagined ourselves crawling into our home offices and emerging haggard a year later, with a beautiful opus of personal magnitude. We bit off a huge task that we thought we would accomplish on our own: the creation of a game that would pull in enough sales to justify the effort. Independent game development requires a lot: programming, art, audio. We could do that (with the help of Rich Vreeland, who composed our score).

Looking back, if we could have found these support networks even sooner, we would have saved time and energy avoiding reinventing the wheel.

We’ve learned that it also requires legal work, marketing and press savvy, office space, and myriad practical needs that we’re not pros at. We’ve found support for these needs through local indie collectives. The exploding indie scene is more and more fostering an economy of favors, where indie devs offer feedback, services, and help to each other. For instance, indie devs Jeff Gates and Tod Semple shared an office with us and gave invaluable design feedback. Fellow indies Tim Keenan (A Virus Named Tom) and Randy O’Conner (Escape Goat) have come to do playtests so we could get away from ourselves and see if people were really getting the game. I met Murry Lancashire (formerly Halfbrick) giving a talk at GDC about making explosions pop, and invited him to our little studio to help critique some of our particle effects. He gave good feedback about flickers and impact.

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Fellow indies provided feedback for Cannon Brawl

As more indie studios emerge, the dev landscape is further supporting tribe-style support networks. These collectives are forming to assist each other. Joining forces with local indie collectives has been mutually beneficial for sharing resources, most important of which is word of mouth knowledge. We find out about contests (such as the PAX10), press events (such as the IGN Press Mixer), and conventions (such as GaymerX) through other devs. Corey Johnson helped work our PAX booth and was an amazing salesperson. He’s not indie (works at Unity), but he pitched in. Outside of sharing information, leaning on peers for advocacy, press contacts, and business advice has been hugely valuable to us. Looking back, if we could have found these support networks even sooner, we could have avoided reinventing the wheel and saved ourselves a lot of time and energy.

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“Indie devs offer feedback, services, and help to each other.”

Right now, the global market for game consumption is huge in relation to the local development scene, which disrupts typical economic models of scarcity and supply and demand and encourages collaboration rather than competition. While triple­-A game titles directly compete in huge markets selling millions of copies each, indie devs need only sell a fraction of a fraction of that amount to be viable. The success of indie peers will likely not eat into our market share. In fact, success begets success as cliques of indies carry each other to the top to some degree, simply through advantages with press, notoriety, and even community good will. In the few places indies do compete for limited resources, for example the Steam Top 10 list, we have the power to mitigate risk by strategically coordinating our release dates to not affect each other.

Allowing each other access to a larger pool of games to draw inspiration from strengthens all of our abilities to raise the bar and generate better games.

Further contributing to the air of collaboration is the generative nature of our product. Game development is creatively productive; we’re not depleting a resource. It’s not as if we’re oil drillers, and thus if we help our competitor out overall, oil supplies deplete, resulting in less product for us to sell. Creativity isn’t a finite resource. One of the worst things a developer can do to shoot his or herself in the foot is hoard their ideas.

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“One of the worst things a developer can do to shoot his or herself in the foot is hoard their ideas.”

There’s a myth about startups:­­ if you have the next idea, you can strike it rich. An idea is not enough. It is in the execution of the idea where the real value of a product is brought to life. The elegant mechanic of Cannon Brawl, real-­time pacing joined with artillery style play, theoretically may have been conceived in parallel. We’ve been to more than one convention where people commented that they had the same idea for a game. The difference is Pete and I executed on our idea. We quit our jobs, buckled down for two plus years, and did the work. In the process, we tapped into our indie tribe network. The result is a game that has benefited from countless iterations.

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The Turtle Sandbox team wasn’t afraid of showing their game to competitors.

We didn’t hide our idea away for fear it would get snatched up. On the contrary, we invited our most direct competitors, other indie devs, to play Cannon Brawl, and we reaped the benefit of their expert feedback, with the understanding that we’ll provide the same courtesy in kind. In fact, many indie collectives share a code bank, where games are gifted freely. Such access to a larger pool of games from which to draw inspiration strengthens all of our abilities and enables us to raise the bar and create better games. This collaboration with peer competitors in the indie scene has been a big departure from the zeitgeist at large corporations.

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Creativity isn’t a finite resource, so sharing ideas wouldn’t harm anyone.

Design by Iteration

By relying on peer feedback, we’ve been able to hone and polish Cannon Brawl. We’ve embraced an iterative process. Part of this has involved heavy reliance on industry peers through countless kleenex tests and playthroughs. For example, we originally disallowed players from flying their zeppelins across terrain to manage the pace of claiming buried resources such as diamonds. We later implemented a requisite of unearthing diamonds before mining them. However, we didn’t see that this second solution also neatly solved our original issue of managing the pace of claiming buried resources until another indie dev pointed it out. Eliminating the original ban on cross­terrain flight improved usability and was something we may have overlooked without the help of peer feedback.

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Thanks to peer feedback, eliminating the original ban on cross­terrain flight improved usability.

The risk with peer feedback is that it can be colored by friendships. The harshest criticisms may be couched in praises, slanting the critiques to be more positive to avoid hurt feelings. For this reason, we’ve also relied heavily on player feedback through Steam’s community services. Posting the game on Steam’s Greenlight helped us acquire feedback from a community that we wouldn’t normally have access to as a small team. We found out about kooky issues on a wide range of machines setups and specs that we could not support on our own.

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In our building brainstorm thread, players post ideas for Cannon Brawl war machines.

Opening up our development process to the public required a vast amount of letting go, allowing the public to see raw content that we weren’t fully proud of yet. Our hope is that iterations based on the feedback we’ve gained have added more value to the game than the potential harm of exposing players to undeveloped content. Players seek out games in development through Early Access and the Greenlight program; so there’s an implicit contract that the content will mature as development marches toward final. Players know that their patience with rough content will be repaid by exposure to a development process and a chance to inform the shape the game takes. In our building brainstorm thread, players post ideas for Cannon Brawl war machines. Their knowledge of the rules of our universe and the combined power of their creativity has resulted in newly-minted content such as the bouncing grenade launcher and the damage boosting lightning tower.

The Turtle Sandbox team has been blown away by the positive support for Cannon Brawl. They’re gaining traction and building an online multiplayer base. Throughout this final development phase, they continued paying attention to forums, gauging the mood of players and responding to their needs with regular updates full of features and fixes. Theresa and Pete have recently been heads down crunching on as many fixes, features, and fun things as they could hammer out in time for Steam launch on September 19th. 

 

AudioDevelopmentExclusive Interviews

Rich “Disasterpeace” Vreeland on FEZ, His Love Of Music, and Videogame Soundtracks

September 5, 2013 — by Nicholas Yanes

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Rich Vreeland, more commonly known as Disasterpeace, has always had a passion for music. After playing the guitar throughout childhood and his teenage years, Vreeland pursued his interest in music by going to Berklee College of Music. After college, Vreeland interned at the Singapore-MIT Game Lab where he worked on the puzzle games Waker and Woosh. This experience would not only further solidify his love for music and gaming, he would use this experience to build a career designing sound and music for videogames.

GameSauce was recently able to interview Disasterpeace about his background, his experience at MIT Game Lab, working on Bomberman, developing January, crafting the soundtrack for Fez, and his general thoughts on music in gaming.

Beginning of Disasterpeace

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Rich Vreeland

Rich Vreeland always had a love for music. As a teenager, he was into “Nu Metal and pretty much anything that was guitar heavy and riff oriented,” with two of his favorite bands at the time being Tool and Rage Against the Machine. It was around this time that Vreeland became interested in videogame music. One of the first projects to truly get Vreeland’s attention was Metroid Metal – a website dedicated to the soundtrack of the Metroid videogame franchise.

It was also during his teenage years that Vreeland created the name that many know him by: Disasterpeace. Coined in 2004, Vreeland says, “Disasterpeace came out of ‘masterpiece’, and I changed piece to peace to give it an additional meaning, in the sense that disaster and peace are sort of diametrically opposed to one another.” It is a name that Vreeland not only feels accurately represents his approach to music and sound, it is the name that Vreeland would take with him through college and into his professional career.

Vreeland began his college career in 2006 at Berklee College of Music and graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor’s of Music in Music Synthesis. Due to Berklee being located in Boston, Massachusetts, and his interest in videogame music, Vreeland eventually learned of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Game Lab and its internship opportunities. Vreeland was able to earn an audio intern at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab.

Getting into Gaming – MIT’s Game Lab

Taking place from June 2009 to August 2009, Vreeland’s internship at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab involved him being placed into a team that, as he told GameSauce, “worked together to create games that solved specific educational problems.”  One game that his team created “attempted to help teach math concepts like acceleration and velocity.” Moreover, he continued, they “created two versions as a side effort to determine if narrative had any impact on the success of such an experience.”

“But I think it’s important to recognize your strengths and to interface with the world around you and react to what they seem to want/need from you.”

Vreeland’s experience at MIT’s Game Lab also made it clear to him that music is his skill. “Music is what I do best…, so it’s been a relatively easy choice for me to keep music as my primary focus.” It was a realization that confirmed his passion and cemented his desire to pursue a career in game music and sound design. His experience also taught him the importance of exploring areas outside of his comfort zone while keeping in mind his strengths. “I don’t have any qualms exploring areas that I’m not comfortable or the best in,” says Vreeland, “But I think it’s important to recognize your strengths and to interface with the world around you and react to what they seem to want/need from you.”

This internship proved to be more than just a line on his resume, but rather an experience that would help him throughout his career. “Above and beyond anything else, I think I learned a lot about working with others in a creative environment,” he says.

Approach to Sounds, Music, and Franchise Games

After his internship, Vreeland went on to write music for games such as Bomberman Live: Battlefest and Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter. During this time, he learned how a work environment could affect his creativity. “As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found that smaller teams tend to allow you more creative freedom to do the kind of work you want to do, and to do it in the way that you want,” says Vreeland. “Large teams tend to have layers of abstraction which make it difficult to communicate with others at times, and to get the right piece of information from the right person.”

“As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found that smaller teams tend to allow you more creative freedom to do the kind of work you want to do, and to do it in the way that you want.”

In regards to his work on Bomberman Live, a franchise that has been around since the 1980s, Vreeland remembers how he and his colleague aimed to honor “the aesthetic style of the more recent games by creating music that was high fidelity but had lots of ‘gamey’ charm and energy.” He does admit, however, that he “would have liked to have paid more tribute to the older games,” but was more focused on meeting the required standards.

Vreeland learned during this time that his approach to sound design had to differ from job to job. “Developers want you to handle most of the conceptual legwork yourself, which is great fun, but other times, they want to work more closely with you,” he explains. Overall, he feels that a significant aspect of designing a game’s sound is letting the person with the “strongest vision for the work” lead you through the design. An example of this was his next project: designing sound for Fez.

Fez

Released in April 2012, Fez is a puzzle/platform game created by Phil Fish and developed by Fish and his company, Polytron.  First announced in July 2007, the highly anticipated game took much longer than expected to be built. Upon the game’s release, Fez was not only met with critical and commercial success, its soundtrack was also well-received. It was so well-received that the soundtrack could be purchased, and an official remix version has been released.

Though Fez became known for its long development time, Vreeland only joined the project after the game’s visuals were established. “When I joined the project, the game’s visuals were largely set in place,” he says. “All that was left was figuring out how the levels worked together, some mechanical adjustments and lots of tweaking, as far as I can tell.” As such, Vreeland and Fish instead focused on how to develop a soundtrack that complimented the game’s unique mechanics.

Originally, he and Fish discussed using music that “tapped into the mechanics”. “It turned out to not really make much sense, so we ended up taking a more traditional approach,” Vreeland says. However, Vreeland pointed out that “one area in which the music takes advantage of the structure of the game is in the fact that the game is highly modular, and in some places, the music is as well.” Vreeland described this aspect as “layers com[ing] in and out and the music shifts as you move through various levels that are similar, but different.”

Snowflakes and Music – Developing January

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In January, the player moves the character in order to lick the falling snowflakes – with each snowflake touching the character’s tongue creating a musical note.

Prior to working on Fez, Vreeland had been playing with ideas for games that would allow him to strengthen his programming skills. After finding a tutorial in Flixel on how to make Space Invaders in Actionscript 3, Vreeland felt that it would be the perfect opportunity to make a game about falling snow. This game concept eventually evolved into January.

Centering on a person outside while it’s snowing, the player moves the character in order to lick the falling snowflakes – with each snowflake touching the character’s tongue creating a musical note. “In the beginning, I didn’t even know it was going to be a strictly music-related experience, but that is sort of how it evolved as I got deeper and deeper into the code and trying to see what I could do with it.” As such, it is a game that uniquely displays how gameplay can be utilized to create original music.

The Shift to Mobile

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Vreeland’s understanding of the industry grew just as much as his understanding and passion for music has.

Being involved in games, Vreeland noticed the significant change in consumer habits that is affecting all aspects of the gaming industry: the shift from consoles to mobile devices. Though this reallocation of consumers has impacted those that code and design games, Vreeland feels that “the difference between these two is still tantamount. In the beginning, I was writing music for cell phone games as MIDI files to be delivered, so in that regard, things have converged a bit.”

However, he doesn’t view mobile devices as having the hardware needed to a sound experience comparable to consoles.“Cell phones still have terrible speakers, and oftentimes, you have to adjust your sound and how it’s mixed accordingly so that it doesn’t get washed out by low frequency content that it simply cannot handle.”

Looking Back – Lessons Learned and Future Goals

During his time as a videogame music producer, Vreeland’s understanding of the industry grew just as much as his understanding and passion for music has. “I think seeing people experiment and create music that has so many nonlinear possibilities has given me a lot of perspective about music that I didn’t have before,” Vreeland reflected. “When paired with other media, it can really take you places you wouldn’t even think to go, and that’s one of the things that I think is so great about games and music in games.” Though he is amazed by the near limitless potential of games and music, Vreeland pointed out that “there are a lot of times at the end of the day that I still just want to listen to a good record. It’s funny that way.”

Vreeland is currently working on other several projects, with the next game to be released featuring his music being Cannon Brawl. In addition to making games, Vreeland wants to continue to develop his potential as a musician. “I really want to explore some different spaces, work my way into areas that are not all necessarily game related,” says Vreeland. “I really want to make some traditional albums, because it’s something I’ve been flirting with for years but have never done.” He has also become interested in scoring, an interest he describes as “refreshing and requires an entirely different set of parameters to accomplish.”  Overall, though Vreeand doesn’t know exactly where his love of music will take him, he does know what he wants: “to be doing music-related things for a long, long time.”

Exclusive Interviews

Game Development’s in the Family: Meet the Duringers

January 22, 2013 — by Vlad Micu

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As some lucky parents have it, the passion they hold for their own careers can end up rubbing off on their offspring. Maryann Duringer Klingman, a seasoned producer at Disney Interactive’s Playdom and a professional who has spent two decades in the videogame business, saw it happen with her daughter Theresa. Partially due to her mother’s career, but mostly out of her own insatiable appetite and interest for everything digital, Theresa Duringer followed in her mother’s footsteps becoming a versatile game professional. I sat down with Maryann and Theresa to talk about their shared passion for the game biz, where it all started, and what both generations were able to learn from each other.

One career rebooted, another one sprouted

Back in 1993, after almost 10 years of being an at-home mom with one of her two daughters in elementary school, Maryann Duringer Klingman rediscovered her appetite for a career again.

“I rejoined the workforce working full-time again as an administrative assistant at Electronic Arts’ educational software department in November of ’93 and quickly went up through the ranks as a producer,” Maryann recalls. “I was fortunate enough to work with the some of the best children’s brands and licencors, including Sesame Workshop, Marc Brown Studios, Nickelodeon, Warner Brothers and DC Comics. I produced educational games with such characters as Bert and Ernie, Spongebob Squarepants and Reader Rabbit.”

Theresa Duringer, the younger of two sisters and only ten years old at that time, grew up with quite the appetite for technology and a penchant for creative, technical tinkering. “As a kid I was pretty shy,” Theresa admits. “We always had a computer, and I would tinker on it for hours, dabbling with scripting, making websites, and meeting other kids on IRC a million miles away.”

Even with friends from school, we would make up our own board games, which was probably even more fun than playing them

Theresa would even start modding games and submit her own art to different projects. “It just clicked for me. I got this incredible energy from seeing the art I was making come alive on the screen. Even with friends from school, we would make up our own board games, which was probably even more fun than playing them. I still remember printing out our own adventure-game playing cards on an accordion of dot-matrix card stock my dad brought home from work.” Her passion for drawing since a young age could be seen everywhere, from the margins of her notes from school to books and mirrors at home. “Growing up in Silicon Valley, having a programmer father and video game producer mother, and being surrounded by creative tech types gave me a familiarity with the industry that let me dive in and thrive in game development.”

Through the ranks at EA, just like mom

Maryann Duringer Klingman happily at work at Electronic Arts in 1994
Maryann Duringer Klingman happily at work at Electronic Arts in 1994

Three years later, after graduating from Berkeley, Theresa went right back to testing games and landed a testing job at EA. After several months of working as a tester for EA’s The Godfather, she was appointed to being the main contact for her QA team to share their findings directly with the production team. “One thing that is also cool about working at EA is that they really recognize talent from the testing group and give testers opportunities to prove themselves with bigger projects to work themselves out of testing into production,” she says. “It’s from testing The Godfather that I was able to work my way up from tester, to community manager and end up in production at Maxis.”

According to Theresa, the most important thing a tester can do while working your way up from testing to development, besides working very hard, is to hang out with the developers as much as possible. This is known to be a tricky challenge, as testers and the ‘testing pits’ they work in are often segregated from the development teams. Theresa had her own way of making sure that kind of contact was possible.

“I started out on a dedicated testing floor, and didn’t have any development contacts at EA. I ended up buying popcorn for a fundraiser from one of the lead’s kids in order to have an opportunity to march over to his office, pick up my popcorn, and make my case for why I wanted to join the dev-test team over at Maxis.”

I ended up buying popcorn for a fundraiser from one of the lead’s kids in order to have an opportunity to march over to his office, pick up my popcorn, and make my case for why I wanted to join the dev-test team over at Maxis

Theresa’s one-on-one with the lead paid off and got her a foot in the door to a team she would later join at at Maxis. “I participated in Art Lunch, Board Game Night, rallied folks to go on Bike Lunch Fridays, and hung out in general with as many developers as I could who had common interests with me, even taking up a few new hobbies like Victorian ballroom dancing and even rock climbing.”

The more you interact with the developers, the firmer an idea you can form about which specific jobs would compliment your talents, and what kind of team you would mesh with,” Theresa suggests. “You’ll also have advocates when you go for that new opening. Try not to stagnate in testing too long.”

One way Theresa learned to break through the glass sealing of being a tester was to invest in herself outside of your working hours. “In my case, I learned to be proficient with JavaScript, CSS, Flash, and Photoshop, which were vital skills when I joined the Pollinated Ninjas [the online team for Spore]. At the end of the day, I really wouldn’t recommend my path from test to dev. A testing job is easy to land, and you’ll get your foot in the door, but you’ll spend valuable time in a sector you may not be passionate about. If I could do it again, I would find hackathons, game dev jams, and contests in my area to connect with other like-minded folks and build my talents collaborating on projects, then directly apply to a development position. The testing route was a roundabout way to get where I am.

While at Maxis, Theresa would first be put in charge of being a community manager for Spore, before she later became assistant producer on Dark Spore. “I once again got to see her bring that creativity to life in the little programs that she would write for her work,” Maryanne says. “She took on some responsibilities at Maxis that, as parent, you’re just really proud of.”

My mom’s gone through it all, so she really can help, lend an ear and provide advice when I need it

Having a mother who had grown through the ranks of the same company two decades before not only gave Theresa a source of inspiration and support, but also a place for comfort and advice. “I’ve learned to not take the first offer and really push ahead while still being professional. My mom’s gone through it all, so she really can help, lend an ear and provide advice when I need it,” Theresa says.

I’m very proud of her,” Maryann adds. “I believe Theresa was very quickly identified at EA as someone who could take all feedback and information, assimilate it, write a complete sentence and then share that with the entire team.”

As an assistant producer at Maxis, Theresa was able to explore the full range of strengths and weaknesses. “When I was working on Spore as a tester, I didn’t have a ton of influence on the game or decisions,” she says. “But once I moved into community management, I was able to craft that user experience from outside the game. It was a challenge because I’ve never done it before. “Another challenge for Theresa was to rely on someone else than herself. “I would find a community member who was really excited to put their energy in moderating the forums and then engage them, asking them to think about ways of ranking Spore creations made by community members. Eventually I would provide the community member with production tools and rely on that individual completely to moderate the forums. That was not intuitive to me because I’m a doer, but you can’t always do everything yourself.”

Learning together

The Duringers at the Playfirst offices

While Theresa is currently exploring the exciting challenge of being an indie game developer, her mother recently got back to her production roots. Previously working at Playfirst as their developer relations manager, Maryann saw an opportunity to find another challenge at Playdom.

“My previous position at Playfirst was more of a business position where I was out basically meeting and greeting with the development community,” She explains. “I was responsible for sourcing production talent to work with my organization. Over the years of working with external development studios, I learned about contracts, negotiations and the business side of gaming; all useful skills when working with external partners. Although I enjoyed business development a production opportunity presented itself at Playdom. I would get to work with talented individuals, many of whom I have worked with in the past and whose careers I have watched grow over the years. It is a pleasure to see individuals whom I initially met as testers or producers now comfortable and successful as senior producers and studio managers.

People often get surprised when they get to hear that Theresa’s mother is also a game producer. Most find it the most amazing thing ever, and it’s hard to disagree. “She is someone I can rely on, she’s one hundred percent honest with me and gives me the advice that might not always be exactly what I want to hear,” Theresa says.

I try to live my life as an example,” Maryann says. “What Theresa gleaned from her childhood and chose to pursue as an adult has more to do with how she comes to her life. I provided an environment where she could feel comfortable being herself and I exposed her to my work life. It was up to her to choose her path. Having said that, I did provide a home where creativity was appreciated and intelligence respected. And we played games! If I influenced Theresa, it was that she saw what I did for my work, and that I enjoyed it; the game industry was familiar and appealed to her.“

If I influenced Theresa, it was that she saw what I did for my work, and that I enjoyed it; the game industry was familiar and appealed to her

“Its exciting to see your child grow into their adult life and then move into a career and be successful at it,” Maryann adds. “Seeing my daughter moving through ranks from testing to community manager and producer and to see her teaching herself programming and being an artist, makes me very proud as a parent.”

“I want other women to negotiate more and not settle so easily,” Theresa says. “My mom is awesome at this, and I always love to hear her stories about mediation and negotiation. I push myself to follow her lead. Also, I think there can be a bit of a locker room vibe at game companies, often times just because there are so many guys. For me this was intimidating, but I’ve learned that my differences can actually help me set myself apart and be noticed. I’m so pleased to hear more and more women talking about their game development projects lately, so hopefully this will change soon. I also think women get nudged into marketing and management positions. If this is your passion, wonderful, but if you want to be engineering and get your hands dirty in game dev, hold your ground. Come up with a clear goal for how you want to contribute to games and go for it.”

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