Indie Interviews – Professor Fizzwizzle

In this edition of Indie Interviews we’ll speak with Ryan and Matt of Grubby Games and talk about their game Professor Fizzwizzle.

As always, our questions, and the names of the persons answering the questions, are in bold.

So, who are you guys, how did you meet, and why did you make this game?

Ryan: We’re just two regular guys who love playing games. I think we’re both pretty analytical too, so we enjoy scrutinizing the games we play to get the most out of them. It’s pretty natural for any dedicated gamer to have a desire to make their own games, so here we are!

Matt and I met in 1995 when we happened to be placed in the same dormitory house at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada. It turned out that we were also taking the same astronomy course, so we ended up talking with each other regarding assignments and exams. We share mutual interests in many areas (gaming, anime, beer, monkeys, etc), so it was only natural that we became friends.

As for why we made this game, I guess we have both always considered it to be a “dream job” to design and create video games. Situations compelled us to leave our 9-to-5 jobs and finally take a stab at making that dream come true. We sized up the competition and decided that we had a shot at making this thing work. Taking the plunge and quitting my day job was scary, but liberating as well :)

Matt: We’ve wanted to make games together for years, but it was mostly just idle talk and brief, aborted projects. When we started designing this game, the timing was just perfect. We both had finally finished school, and neither one of us had kids or a mortgage to worry about (so we had very limited financial obligations), and we decided that it was basically now or never!

How did you guys come up with the idea for Professor Fizzwizzle?

Ryan: I came up with the original concept back in 2003. I can’t remember what happened exactly, but I think I was trying to come up with a new type of puzzle game that would be more intuitive to play. Also, a lot of puzzle games make use of a top-down perspective, so I thought it would be a fun challenge to see if a side view could work.

I worked through a few quick prototypes in my spare time, and managed to identify a lot of gameplay snags by doing so. Once I had something that I thought was workable, I approached Matt with it to see what he thought. He liked it, and sent me back a mock-up of what he thought the game should look like (up until that point I had been using horrible programmer-art!), and I was blown away. I had thought that the game was fun before, but with Matt’s art it actually looked fun, too :)

We then discussed things over email for quite some time before making the decision to go for it. I flew out to visit Matt for a few days (we were living in different cities at the time), and together we hammered out the design of the game. The game you see now is 99% true to the decisions we made at that point!

Matt: When Ryan showed me the early prototype, two levels were already playable (one of which, “The Sand Trap”, appears in the final game, late in the regular level set), although only a few of the final game’s elements – ladders, crates, barrels, and trampolines – had been implemented. My wife and I had a blast playing those early levels, programmer-art and all, so it was clear that with a little work it could make a solid puzzle game.

What was the development process of Fizzwizzle like?

Ryan: It was pretty smooth, actually! People are always surprised when we tell them that Matt and I didn’t see each other face-to-face nor speak on the phone during the development of the game. After laying out the design, we conversed only by email and the occasional instant message.

I had an outline of what I was planning to code, so Matt knew what order the graphics should be created in. As I worked, I would send versions of the game to Matt for testing, and for feedback. The process was very iterative, and I think we managed to avoid bugs later in development as a result of our diligent testing throughout.

Matt’s excellent graphics kept me motivated (it was always cool to see how the next game element looked!), and I think Matt was motivated by the fact that he could see his graphical creations come to life, little by little, as I coded.

Matt: I would agree with Ryan; actually, I can’t imagine the process going any more smoothly! We’ve been friends for 7 or 8 years, so at the outset I was a little concerned that working on such a major project together might strain our friendship, but I think the opposite has happened. We seem to complement one another very well; and we’re both pretty open-minded when it comes to one another’s ideas, so we were able to keep the process very democratic. Whenever one of us had an idea regarding the game design, the GUI’s, etc, we’d just discuss it and mutually decide whether it was worth implementing or not. Surprisingly, I don’t think we ever strongly disagreed about anything, which is probably one of the reasons we were actually able to finish the game!

Were there any setbacks/hardships faced during the development process? How were these overcome?

Ryan There were no major setbacks, but there were times when it felt like we were slogging through. The first 4 months were quite exciting, as we were creating the actual core gameplay; every few days there’d be something new that the professor could do! But once the core gameplay was done, the more tedious work of creating the user interface began. I doubt it was much fun for Matt to create dialog boxes, buttons, and fonts, and I know I didn’t particularly enjoy coding them! But we got through it, fueled by the excitement of the impending release of the game.

When the release drew near, we sent the game out to some of our peers for beta testing. Two major changes were suggested, and Matt and I knew we needed to implement them. These were the “game map” that you now see when you click “Play Now” from the main menu, and the tutorial/help system you see as the hovering question marks throughout the levels.

We were so close to release, and so eager to be done, but we knew that without these key features the game wouldn’t be as appealing. So we buckled down for one last month of work, and added these two features.

(Instead of the “game map”, the levels were previously selected using what is now the “Custom Levels” screen! Much less visually appealing. Also, in place of the tutorial/help system, we had large blocks of text at the beginning of each level. Users tended to skip the text, as it was far too wordy!)

Matt: Yeah, when we released the beta version, we were ecstatic to have finally finished the game (it had been 90% complete for about 4 months, and we had just been adding the final polish and designing the last of the levels, so it had been very slow going). But we received some truly excellent feedback from several indie-gaming veterans, and we both knew right away that we had to take a step back and make a couple of major changes to the game. Anyway, when we finally finished the game (for the second time), we were both glad we had spent the extra month. I think the game is much more fun and accessible now.

Fizzwizzle is one of the most balanced games I’ve played (in terms of the levels of difficulty). What was the process for determining which puzzles belonged where?

Ryan: Usually we’d create puzzles and send them to each other, without mentioning the “intended” difficulty level of the puzzle. We’d then test the levels out and give feedback, stating what we felt the true difficulty was. We’d then sort them accordingly. (ie. Kids, Regular, Advanced. Or, “early advanced”, “late regular”, etc.)

We also watched other people play the game (they were kind enough to allow us to watch over their shoulders!), to see where they’d get stuck or frustrated. We would then tweak the levels accordingly.

Matt: When someone finds an alternate solution to a level, we say that level is “broken”. Ryan is the king of level breaking! Designing the more advanced levels was definitely an iterative process: Ryan would break the level, so I would “Ryan-proof” it; then Ryan would proceed to break it again… A couple of the levels in the advanced set went through over twenty iterations before they were truly airtight!

Speaking of the puzzles, how in the heck did you come up with so many of them?

Ryan: Matt created all of the kids’ and alphabet levels on his own! As for the remaining levels (Regular and Advanced), I’d estimate that Matt created about 60% of them, and I made about 40%. Near the end of development, I was still working on the user interface, bugs, etc, while the graphics had already been finished. As a result, Matt was usually on duty as a level designer. It took us a long time, and it was quite mentally tiring at times, but we managed to meet our goals for the total number of levels.

I had a few tricks that I would use when designing levels, too. I tended to start off with some sort of sneaky interaction (ie. Using a game element for some purpose other than one of its obvious uses) and build the level backwards around that. Also, I’d often “finish” a level and then try taking something away (removing a powerup that I thought was needed, for example) and then see if I could still solve the level. When this technique worked, it often resulted in interesting and convoluted solutions!

Matt: Many of the puzzles just followed naturally from the basic interactions of the game’s “elements.” Fizzwizzle doesn’t have as many elements as most logic games, but during the design phase we strived to include only the elements that seemed the most versatile, and that would allow us the maximum creativity when designing levels. For every element or power-up that’s in the game, there are probably twenty that we considered but ended up discarding. Our favourite one is the frost gun, just because it provides you with so many options when designing levels!

You have so many levels, yet they all feel unique and never get boring. Who do we have to thank for that, and how did you pull that off?

Ryan: I think this is in part due to the fact that we were working on levels throughout the development process. If we had waited until the end to create all of them, we surely would have burned out. Also, I had a list of “sneaky tricks” jotted down that I would refer to whenever I couldn’t think of a starting point for a new level.

Matt: They were easy to design at first, since various puzzle/level ideas had been fermenting in our brains for 4 or 5 months while we hammered out the core of the game’s code and graphics. So for me, at first it was a simple process of consulting my handy list of puzzle ideas, choosing an idea that hadn’t yet been used, and building a level around it. It felt like the levels designed themselves!

But near the end of the project, when we were trying to come up with the final 30 or so levels, it became a much more brain-taxing and tedious process. I’d spend several hours just running through various ideas in my head, until I stumbled upon one that might form the basis for a level, and then I’d madly sketch the design out on paper. It was a little bit like work, at that point! But that process spawned most of my best levels, oddly enough.

How has the response to Fizzwizzle been, in terms of customers and fan support?

Ryan: We have only just begun to market the game, but sales have already been quite good by our standards. If things continue to go well, we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to afford a second game! We don’t want to go back to our old jobs, that’s for sure :)

Finally, which one would you prefer: Pepsi or Coke?

Ryan: If I had to choose, it would be Coke. Although I would prefer a nice cold beer, or perhaps just water, instead! I’m one of the few programmers who is not a caffeine junky. I’m twitchy enough without it, thanks!

Matt: It’s Pepsi all the way for me, although I’ve just completed my own 12-step program to get off the stuff!

Thanks once again to Matt and the particularly verbose Ryan for allowing us to interview them! Remember to check out Professor Fizzwizzle over at Grubby Games.

Provided by Geekstreak

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