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Friday, June 03, 2005
The New James Whitehead

James Whitehead was responsible for developing the New Satan Sam, which was most memorable for its adorable pixels and ridiculous amount of levels. Most other developers would have started on something slightly smaller for their next project but not James. Not content with how the New Satan Sam performed, he returned with an improved engine and a whole new bag of tricks up his sleeve in the form of a work in progress game called Tormishire. From the first glance (and bear in mind that there isn't even a playable demo available yet), it is easy to see that Tormishire eclipses the New Satan Sam in every way possible, from its size, level design (with many multiple routes and sub-quests planned) and graphical appearance (which is absolutely stunning by the way). It doesn't really take much to realise just how passionate James is about Tormishire. You wouldn't expect anything less from someone that spends so much time and effort on the development process. And this makes James all the more pleasurable and interesting to interview. So without further ado..

Give us some background about yourself..

My name is James Whitehead. I'm 21 and currently live near Manchester in England. I've just graduated university and heading back to college to start work as a lecturer.

What systems did you own and videogames did you playing growing up? How have they influenced you?

I grew up on the Amiga. I think we got an A600 when I was about 6 years old and I still used it frequently until the N64 era. Games like Turrican, Flashback and the whole public domain scene really inspired me at a young age. Turrican 1 and 2 are easily my biggest influences just for the soundtrack and level design. Factor 5 really did produce something spectacular there.

At what point did you become interested in game development? Why did you choose MMF as a game development tool?

We didn't have many NES games since the Amiga was the console in our house. Through boredom I used to draw my own NES carts and design boxes for them. A few years later we bought our first PC and ordered Klik and Play from some magazine. Then it all started! Picked up the Games Factory in high school, then MMF1.5 during college, MMF2 at university. I’ve taught myself bits of other languages too but to get a game finished quickly MMF2 is my preferred application.

Where did the concept for Tormishire come from?

During The New Satan Sam development I planned on breaking the linear design with a sprawling world map where levels would be represented as dungeons. I split this game into The New Satan Sam and Red Lands - the working title for a new adventure game using the Sam engine. I ended up scrapping the whole thing and starting afresh, basing it around a neat little physics engine. I decided to split the game completely from Sam and start with a whole new game.

So how far into development did Red Lands get? What made you decide to scrap it?

I suppose it was more a transition than a scrap, so much that the player sprite is still called "Sam 2". I just felt I could build a much better engine (more efficient), since Sam's was a bit of a bad performer, system wise. I built everything around a unified physics engine this time round and there’s a much more consistent feel throughout the gameplay for it.

Do you have any other abandoned projects?

Madventures of the Love Rockets was an RPG I started a few years ago. It was similar to Golden Sun in gameplay but the project just lost steam and it was cancelled. This was my first project that Mr. Pineapple produced music for and has been essential contributor to my games ever since.

At what point did you decide to make it shareware?

The decision to make it shareware didn't come lightly, it's all down to the scope of the project. It’s definitely the biggest game I’ve worked on and it does take up a huge chunk of the day just making this. The full version will come with at least 1 other short game too, but I’ve only just started work on it so even I don’t know the full details. Um, stay tuned!

Tormishire will be your largest project to date with multiple paths to take, also creating a large replayability factor. Do the features that you add to your projects stem from things that you, yourself would like to see in videogames?

I love replayability, whether it’s achieved through unlockable playable characters or new modes. Because of the nature of Tormishire, there will only be a few unlockables but the replayability here lies in the diversity and optional areas. I want to make something truly giant in terms of level design. I've also always wanted to play a game where the player can get hopelessly lost but still find a sub-quest and to change the overall story through their own choices. It’s a complete nightmare to design and code since you have to take so many items and previous stories into account but it’s worth it.

What has the development process been like so far?

It’s been good and bad. Team Fortress 2 and Knytt Stories don’t help much! I normally get around 2 - 4 solid hours a day working on it, more if I’m doing the concept art pieces or music. Music is terrible for me. I can only get musical inspiration when I’m as far from my computer as possible.

Since all I have to do now is expand the game, I just sit down, put on some Tangerine Dream tracks and get designing!

Have you experienced any unique challenges in the development process?

The online side of the things have been a constant source of troubles. It’s something I’ve always wanted to put into a game but too overwhelmed by it. It’s certainly a challenge for me but I’d get bored otherwise. Once I got the online parts sorted I went ahead and added in custom servers for anyone to run.

Best and worst aspects of developing games - what are they and why?

Level and enemy design is something I enjoy doing. I’m a media artist by trade so I like to fuse together everything I’ve been brought up with, trying to create games as good as those I played growing up. I can’t stand bug testing but that’s been solved by a very helpful group of testers.

Since Tormishire is your most ambitious project to date, do you find it hard to keep motivated throughout such a long development process?

Motivation is certainly hard to keep up, whenever I get tired of a certain area and design I'll just switch to another area or shake up the current layout a bit. It’s all down to moderation. Spending all day just designing levels breaks my eyes, doing more than 1 track a day makes all the tracks sound too similar.

Do you always feel that all the blood, sweat and tears are worth it in the end? What is the best reward about creating games like this?

Oh they’re always worth it. I don’t play that many games really so it’s how I spend my free time. For Sam it was seeing guides popping up, knowing that people had played the game and uncovered every inch. Just little silly things like that really.

You have stated that this will be your last game. Do you think that the game development bug will catch you again? Do you ever catch yourself thinking about projects beyond Tormishire?

Tormishire will definitely be my last game of this scale, at least on my own. I’ll probably throw out some smaller games for my solo work. I’d actually love to make something beyond Tormishire pushing it into a series of sorts. But I don’t want to plan ahead just yet!

So game development isn't something that you would like to make a career out of? Just as a hypothetical, what if the release of Tormishire went really well and you made a decent amount of money, would this make you re-evaluate things?

I wouldn't mind a career in the industry. If Tormishire did perform well, then I'd just grab a bunch of the most creative people I know and get us producing games. I suppose we'll see what happens next year round!

Are you entering IGF?

I have entered Tormishire yes and I've been working my socks off to get a proper demo together! It's certainly given me a nice solid deadline to work towards.

In the indie community, exploration platformers seem to be more in fashion then ever. Have you had the chance to play many of these? Do you have any favourites? (Knytt, Knytt Stories, Alex Adventure, Lyle In Cube Sector).

I adored Knytt. I linked it to my friends and demanded they play it. Nifflas achieved something great with that style of his. I’m a sucker for these stylized platform games! I really enjoy these and hope designers can take note that there’s an army of players screaming out for these games.


Blogger jw said at 10/11/2007 10:16:00 AM:  
Nice interview. :) I'd like to see more of those.