Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: Meet Carbon Games

Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to this week’s Sunday Sidebar. Some of you will be grilling up a storm on this Memorial Day weekend, but of course the true faithful have been safely indoors, patiently refreshing VGW for their weekly dose of indie development exposé. In any case, sit back, relax and enjoy your Sunday with this week’s interviewee: James Green, director of Carbon Games. Like a number of his Megabooth cohorts, James is an industry veteran and even worked on Unreal Tournament many moons ago. The guy knows a thing or two about real-time strategy, and that’s a quality I respect in anyone.
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Meet Carbon Games' James Green
Hey James! Who are Carbon Games?
Hey! We’re a group of old-school game developers who have worked for smaller developers, larger ones, and have now formed our own company. Since we’re small, we all have to be multi-talented, and technical. No-one is a designer, and everyone is a designer.
Why ‘Carbon Games’?
I’ve always liked game company names that are short, easy to spell, and a little abstract. I chose ‘Titan’ for the same reasons, and it obviously works well for companies like Valve, Blizzard, Bungie, Epic, etc. Sure, it gets hard to find a free domain or available name, but for some reason Carbon was not taken.
I like Carbon as a name because of its symbolism too. Everything alive is made with carbon, and it can form anything from the softest to the hardest things in nature. Our original company tagline was “We are Carbon. We make Games.”
How did you personally get into game design, and when?
To be honest, I don’t consider myself a designer in the classic sense. I’m a total hack really, in that I can identify things in games that I like, and I’m pretty good at mechanics and balance through trial and error, but that’s about it. Look at AirMech or Fat Princess, they really are just combinations of other games that I have loved over the years.
When I was young I loved to read pen and paper RPG books. I played a few, but I read many more than I played. I was fascinated with the rules and numbers behind it all, making characters and trying to exploit the systems. Crunching numbers and looking for flaws was great fun, and I guess I still do that today.
My favorite types of games are class-based team games. Long ago, I knew I would never be the best in FFA (free-for-all) shooter games, but throw in the tactical rock-paper-scissors element and finally I stood a chance. Team Fortress in all its versions has been a love of mine, and I’m sure you can see that in Fat Princess and now AirMech. Mix in some Herzog Zwei and you have the foundation which evolved into AirMech.
Your team are something of a splinter group, having previously worked on Titan’s Fat Princess for PlayStation Network. What inspired the departure from Titan for Carbon?
Titan was actually part of a larger company called Epic Games China. Making smaller games was not the focus of the studio, and Fat Princess was just a small side project while we were building big MMO games for the Chinese market.
When the core work was finished for the MMO games, those of us at Titan wanted to work on small games again, which didn’t fit with the company direction. So we decided to reform into a new studio with the blessing of Epic Games China. There are seven of us here at Carbon that were also at Titan, the entire core team that created Fat Princess.
We are passionate about creating smaller scope multiplayer games. Personally, I’ve wanted to make AirMech for more than 10 years, and just never had the chance. Forming Carbon Games was the perfect time to do it.
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Some of the Carbon Games team hard at work minding a cat
How was your time as part of the Indie Megabooth?
Great! Having support from the other studios and someone to guide us through the process saved us a huge amount of trouble and confusion. I think it’s wonderful to be involved with the group, and as time goes on I hope we can help the next wave of newcomers into the family. Having a unified group makes it so much easier to market ourselves. It works well for fans too because they actually are looking for the indie games in one place, instead of scattered to the corners of the convention.
Kelly Wallick [Indie Megabooth's PR contact who organized the developers] was super helpful in guiding everything along and providing all the information we needed. We met a few new devs, though we had a lot of contact with them beforehand. The show itself mainly focused on interacting with the fans and press, which was great because thanks to everyone helping organize the Megabooth we didn’t have any surprise issues to deal with.
What are the prime challenges you face due to being independent? What makes it worthwhile?
The biggest challenge for us or any independent developer is money, I think. It’s relatively easy to have an idea and the passion to execute on it, but you need time, and you need to be able to feed yourself. So that means you do need some amount of money, variable depending on how much your individual team members need to survive.
We were fortunate enough to have been working in the industry long enough that we were able to fund ourselves between putting in our own money and the core team taking no/low salaries for some time. That’s a risk of course, but the reward of having zero external investment and total control over our game and our future is worth it.
“Market research said no, robots weren’t cool, Transformers were out of style, and everyone had their own ideas about RTS on the console. Nobody wanted to take a chance on it.”
What led you to developing AirMech?
It was more than 20 years ago that I first discovered Herzog Zwei by complete accident. There was nothing left at the game rental shop, except for this strange-named game, and for whatever reason I decided to give it a shot.
After a decent amount of confusion, I saw what the magic of this game was. This predated all real-time strategy (RTS) games, remember. I loved the build-order-deploy concept. I would play many RTS games on the PC after that, but my first experience with the genre was Herzog Zwei.
Fast forward to Xbox Live, and I see companies trying to make RTS games for the console, clumsily forcing a controller to emulate the mouse/keyboard controls of PC RTS games. In my mind it’s as clear as day: this problem has already been solved more than a decade prior, and eventually someone will make something in the spirit of Herzog Zwei, put it on Xbox Live, and all will be right in the world.
Only, that day never came. New console waves arrived, now Xbox 360 and PS3, just begging to have an RTS that plays well with a gamepad on XBLA or PSN. Before Fat Princess, I pitched the idea to a bunch of publishers but nobody ‘got it’. Market research said no, robots weren’t cool,Transformers were out of style, and everyone had their own ideas about RTS on the console. Nobody wanted to take a chance on it.
But I could not stop thinking about it. I’d wanted to make the game for so long, it just kept rolling around in my head for years. When it came time to start something new, I was adamant—we were going to make this game, and it would be called AirMech. I am willing to bet the future of the whole company that this is a great game idea and that it is what gamers want. No ‘market research’ is needed to tell me as a gamer than an Action-RTS game with giant transforming robots is awesome.
In the end, I’m making AirMech for myself, because I’ve wanted to play it for so long and no-one else was making it. If others like it too, that’s great. It makes me really happy to see people having fun.
AirMech is fast-paced, to say the least. Do you find that people have much trouble picking it up?
Getting into AirMech can be a bit tricky depending on your gaming background and also what you are expecting. If you think it’s just a subtle twist on a DotA-style game, then it’s going to be a bit of a shock at first. Coming from the action side of gaming, players are fine with the speed but not used to having RTS elements involved. There’s no game quite like it out there right now, and that does create a bit of a barrier to entry. I honestly think it plays as well or better with the gamepad as with the mouse/keyboard, and it feels extremely natural with the gamepad.
It’s a learning curve. Look at shooter games, for example. Once you master one set of moving/shooting mechanics, you can jump into just about any shooter out there and feel at home. Because we’re exploring new territory (well, new to most gamers, it’s a shame that more people don’t know the classics) it’s unavoidable to need a period of adjustment. We have a pretty rudimentary tutorial in the game right now, but we plan to replace it pretty soon. It’s just balancing priorities of adding new features, fixing priority bugs, and polish.
Since we are in Alpha right now, and free-to-play, anyone can grab the game and try it out. I’d feel worse about the new user experience and training if we were at the release stage or we were demanding money, but as it is we are just being open and collecting feedback to make that new user experience better for the future release milestones.
“There will not be a sequel to AirMech—it’s just not how we see the future of the game. It will be one game that we support for as long as there is player interest.”
The game is only just moving into Beta. What are your long-term goals for it?
My ultimate goal is to grow AirMech into a hardcore game that follows in the footsteps of F2P pioneers like Riot Games’ League of Legends. I think they showed that you can do F2P while respecting your players, and have success. I don’t see us directly competing with the DotA-class games, because we are different in a lot of ways, but there’s definitely some overlap in gamer interest.
Compared to the DotA-class games, we have a lot more freedom in our map design because of the whole ‘fly around’ and ‘pickup and drop’ core mechanics of the game. The game also naturally works with a Survival or Tower Defense style gameplay, which is really popular with a lot of the more casual players. We also have Time Trial Challenges, and almost 100 Quests—we keep adding things according to player interest as long as it fits with the core of the game.
We will also be adding more social features to the game, such as guild/clan support, ranked play and tournaments, possibly even a territory control-based meta-game. Things like this will be added as we get bigger. More success for AirMech means more money gets invested back into the game. There will not be a sequel to AirMech—it’s just not how we see the future of the game. It will be one game that we support for as long as there is player interest, which I hope will be a long long time.
unreal tournament trophy 300x168 Sunday Sidebar: Meet Carbon Games
Someone out there has an Unreal Tournament trophy that shouldn't belong to them.
What is your prized geek possession? Is there anything you’re still holding onto from way back when?
Sadly, no. I moved to China about 10 years ago to work for Ubisoft and through moving all my things around I lost a bunch of boxes of old toys and personal things. From my first sketchbooks to a physical replica of the Unreal Tournament trophy (the whole dev team got them) I lost almost everything. Saddens me to think of it, and I guess I’ve kind of lost the spirit of collecting things as a result of that.
That’s a real shame…
Yeah, it is. Memories are just as real though. I still remember faking sick so I could stay home from school to play Herzog Zwei, and the first time I played Metroid, or Total Annihilation, and ‘Team Fortress’ … Good times.
Thanks for your time, James!
You’re welcome!
AirMech is available to play right now on PC/Mac/Linux using the Chrome browser.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: Meet Strange Loop Games

Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to this week’s Sunday Sidebar. In this latest installment, I speak to John Krajewski, Studio Head at Strange Loop Games, an independent developer based out of Seattle, Washington. At the Indie Megabooth, they showed off Vessel, a wonderful and curious liquid-physics-based puzzle platformer. Enjoy!
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Meet John Krajewski from Strange Loop Games.
Hey John! So, tell me a bit about you and your team.
Hello! My name is John Krajewski, and I’m an indie developer along with my team at Strange Loop Games. We just made and finished our first game: Vessel. Our vision as a company is to make games that use the power of modern hardware to create new forms of gameplay, rather than simply advance graphics, and we’re proud to have achieved that with Vessel.
Where does ‘Strange Loop’ come from?
A Strange Loop is a loop that turns in on itself, a dream within a dream. Like the hands that draws themselves. It’s a loop of creation, pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. A strange loop transcends reality. There are a lot of properties about such a conceptual object that we liked and saw as representational of who we are and the kind of games we want to make.
How did you first get introduced to game design?
Very young. I still have my first game I ever programmed on the Commodore 64 (though the magnetic storage may have decayed on the disc by now), it was called The Fun Thing and printed colored letters to the screen. There was something amazing even at that simple level about the ability to craft these worlds, to create something with a reality of its own, and it stuck with me ever since.
escher drawing hands 150x150 Sunday Sidebar: Meet Strange Loop Games
The self-drawing hands of Escher encapsulate a 'Strange Loop'.
Your professional background is in AI design. How influential was that to the development of Vessel?
Yeah, I was AI lead at Pandemic Studios before leaving to start Strange Loop. It was a big help, because it gave me a strong foundation in traditional game AI, and in Vessel I was able to build on that. The way we innovated using AI in Vessel was to tie it directly to the liquid physics, so that the behavior of the characters depended on the liquid they contained, and they had visibility into the liquid of the world. The characters are able to be a much deeper part of the world than usual this way.
“Change is looming large in this game…”
Vessel‘s art style is like a watercolor picturebook, and the music is almost reminiscent of a dream. Where did the inspiration for the atmosphere in the game come from? Or the game itself, as a whole?
The visuals and storyline, in fact the entire concept, came out of the core mechanic of the game – creating life out of ordinary matter. We wanted to build a mechanical world that would contrast with the sleek, living-liquid machines you encountered in the game, and the music helped to create this sense of something other-worldly and surreal. The soundtrack, composed by Jon Hopkins, has a mix of classic piano and modern electronic music, which gives a sense that change is looming large in this game.
What inspired the move from Brisbane to Seattle? Would you ever consider relocating back to Oz?
A number of things, but mostly because I wanted to start the business here in Seattle, as it’s a great place for video game companies. I loved living in Brisbane though, and would consider going back someday depending on the situation. The game industry there has changed quite a bit. Almost all of the big players have gone under, and the talent there has splintered into a number of smaller indie studios. Overall I think that will be good for the industry and we’ll see some more interesting games out of it.
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John and Martin (Farren, Technical Director) at the Vessel hub.
How was the Indie Megabooth experience for you?
It was really fantastic. Teaming up with other indies made the workload so much easier to handle, as I was the only one from our team who was able to make it to Boston. I got lots of help from Boston indies, and I’m hoping to repay the favor in Seattle at this coming PAX.
What are the prime challenges you face due to being independent? What makes it worthwhile?
The prime challenge is the same as what makes it worthwhile: no one tells you what to do. You’ve got to make it on your own. That’s a huge amount of added responsibility compared to working at a normal company, but the benefit makes its worthwhile. You get to really see what you’re made of, and you can create with much fewer limitations than you would otherwise. [Laughs] It’s good for the soul to do that, I think.
Vessel has already released on PC to much acclaim. Do you still have designs for the console market?
Yes! We’re working on ports at the moment to bring it to Xbox and PS3. We’ve been thinking about iPad, but that’s up in the air for the moment.
Finally, what is your prized geek possession? Is there anything you’re still holding onto from way back when?
I still have my Commodore 64, my first programming platform. I dont think it works now though, and it’s much easier to play on emulators!
Thanks for your time, John!Thank you!
You can pick up Vessel on Steam right here.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: Meet Dejobaan Games

Good afternoon, one and all, and welcome to this week’s Sunday Sidebar. We reach something of a milestone this week, with this interview marking the quarter-way point of the Indie Megabooth Mega Interview series. Our fair ship continues to push forward, sparking inspiration and education within the hearts and minds of everyone who sails in her. Perhaps. This week I spent a whirlwind afternoon in the company of Ichiro Lambe, the self-appointed Lead Person and hyperactive mastermind behind Dejobaan Games. Ichiro bursts at the seams with ideas. Our conversation follows almost verbatim:
ichiro bathtub 300x190 Sunday Sidebar: Meet Dejobaan Games
Not everyone operates out a high-falutin' office, you know.
Good afternoon, Ichiro!
Hello, Christopher! So, what brings you here?
Let’s start with the basics. Just who exactly are you guys?
Who wants to know?
The fans!
Alright! We’re Dejobaan Games, Limited Liability Company, right out of Boston, Massachusetts. We’ve been in business since 1999 in one form or another. Dejobaan’s a small studio – our last project had, like, 8 people on it – but we’re growing. We’re best known for our award-winning, most sensual AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! – A Reckless Disregard for Gravity, and for our part in the Portal 2 Alternate Reality Game.
What led you to come up with the name ‘Dejobaan’?
It’s a middle finger to the Dotcom Era, I tells ‘ya! Dejobaan was originally a nonsense word from a tabletop roleplaying campaign, circa 1991. When I founded my company in ’99, it was at a time when groups of people were getting millions in funding, and then going away on weekend retreats in the woods to figure out what their domain names should be. I said to myself, “Fie! I bet I could name my company anything, and if I make stuff that’s fun to play, it’ll be a success.” They all went out of business. On the other hand, I’m still jealous of their weekend retreats.
How did you personally get into game design, and when? Is your background more in programming, or storytelling?
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They didn't call it BASIC for no reason.
When I was seven, my father sat me down in front of a TI-99/4A and solemnly decreed, “Thou shalt not know how to play sports.” I was hooked, Christopher. Soon enough, I was creating things like this:
[Pictured right]

What is not to love, here? So, over the years, we got hardware sprites; player missiles; 16k of memory; 4 voice music; cassette tapes; floppy disks; 16-bit CPUs; math coprocessors; 1200 baud; joysticks; bit blitting; sampled audio; 320x240x256 graphics; 1MB of memory; hard drives; mouse input; 9600 baud; SVGA graphics; gamepads; 3D accelerators; broadband; and, Jesus, now we have ten-core CPUs with 16 terabytes of RAM and holographic displays with haptic feedback. Or something.
“If you get enough like-minded people into an area, good things seem to just happen.”
What is it about Boston that makes it such a hub of independent development?
The independent game developers! They rock. And are friendly. They all seem to want you to succeed. If you get enough like-minded people into an area, good things seem to just happen. For example, when the Dejobaan and Fire Hose teams get together and have screaming matches to see how quietly an entire team of game developers can scream at each other. Or when Alec (business development at Subatomic) and I will get together for drinks, and we’ll have arm wrestling competitions with other people’s arms. People actually don’t mind that.
But the crux of all of this is that devs get together and talk about running small studios, or creating games, or whatnot. And it’s not just the indies that mingle: one of the Irrational Games’ [BioShock developers] staffers is throwing a BBQ today, and a bunch of us will talk about how lovely the a) weather and b) video game industry are, in general. Game dev love abounds.
“The bar has been raised a great deal.”
How was the Indie Megabooth experience for you?
The Indie Megabooth was grand. Mind you, getting 16 strong-willed studio heads to agree on things (like what shade of lavender the bloody logo would be) was like herding cats at times, but that’s fun too. I took a whole ream of photos over the weekend that speak for themselves. Talking with fans was great. Talking with the press was great. Doing this here thing with other indies was immeasurably fun. Being indies, our versions of the much-maligned ‘booth babes’ were the women who actively work on games as part of our teams. Take that, AAA!
Great! So you think now is an exciting time to be an indie developer?
That’s a softball question! I love being an indie developer now. We have amazing tools at our fingertips, great communities that push us to constantly improve, with gamers and publishers and journalists that truly value what we do. Of course, this great global community we’re in can also be a downside – the bar has been raised a great deal. What might have made a few hundred thousand dollars in 2002 just isn’t going to cut it in 2012. You need more art. More content. More interesting gameplay. In many ways, game development has become tougher as direct result.
Your team’s manifesto is composed of four simple words: Dejobaan Creates Amazing Games. How seriously do you take that?
I actually think that this will be the key difference between a successful Dejobaan and an out-of-business Dejobaan:
‘a·maze (verb): to overwhelm with surprise or sudden wonder; astonish greatly.’
We probably do this best when we include instructions on time travel or when AaaaAAaaa… had a guided meditation section. Our internal mantra is, actually, Joyous Unique Interactive Entertainment. We love it when people laugh at a name, such asAaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!, or…
I see where we’re going here! Yeah, so your upcoming release is ‘Drunken Robot Pornography’, right? That’s a bold name. Are you hoping to run with that as the final-draft title?
…yeah, that. Drunken Robot Pornography started out as an April Fool’s joke, then became a song in another game, and finally became a proper PAX East prototype. It took us a while to come up with the name, and we’re sticking with it. It’s descriptive:
  • Drunken: Your enemies are fueled by isopropanol, methanol, and ethanol, which determines their powers and dispositions.
  • Robot: Your enemies are robots.
  • Pornography: You’re fighting 12 robot centerfolds. They’re sleek and sexy. Can you best Mister December?
Side note: It’s actually the cleanest game on the Internet.
With plans for a turnaround time of under a year, how important is scheduling?
It’s got to be a tight fit. We go for milestones, and often (but not always) hit them. IGF deadline for Aaaaa!, PAX East for our Drunken Robot prototype. But at the opposite end, we launched Drop That Beat Like an Ugly Baby as a playable pre-order on Steam a year ago, and are still working on it, about 50,000 months longer than I’d ever imagined. I screwed that timing up – but we won’t actually launch-launch until it’s great.
What is your prized geek possession? Is there anything you’re still holding onto from way back when?
I think I still have my old Atari 800 and some floppies from my Atari ST coding days. Also, I just unearthed a box filled with old Amiga and Atari game boxes from the ’90s. Which, I suppose is silly to keep. But what the hell. I have a basement.
Thanks for your time, Ichiro.
Awesome! Thanks for chatting.
Dejobaan have released AaaaaAaa… for iOS in conjunction with Owlchemy Labs (who I spoke to here). Development continues on Drunken Robot Pornography, with a planned release before the end of the year.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: Meet 17-BIT

Good morning everyone, and welcome to this week’s Sunday Sidebar. This week I spoke to Jake Kazdal, lead designer and CEO at 17-BIT, née Haunted Temple Studios. Jake is a seasoned veteran in the games industry, having worked his way through Nintendo, Sega, and Electronic Arts. Games you may have played that spent time on Jake’s work-top include Space Channel 5Command and Conquer 4, and most significantly for me, Rez.
“I’m really tiring of the big budget sequels, thank god for indie gaming!”
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Jake sets himself against the noir landscape of Tokyo city
Hi Jake! What’s your role in 17-BIT?
Hey! I’m Jake Kazdal, CEO, Creative Director and Art Director. Our team is only a handful: Borut Pfeifer is the lead engineer and a designer, Ben Vance is an engineer, designer and lead writer. Paul Schreiber does some engineering and runs operations, and Colin Williamson focuses on UI and PR materials. We also have some part time contractors that kick a lot of butt too!
So, a new game and a new name. Why the change from ‘Haunted Temple’ to 17-BIT’?
Haunted Temple came from my love of Chinese Ghost Hunting movies, a whole genre full of action and wackiness. With all the temples you haunt in Skulls of the Shogun, it seemed more than appropriate! However, what started out as a joke with mockup packaging for an old 32-bit style press kit, ended up giving us the name 17-BIT, and now we have just recently changed the name of the studio to that! 17-BIT basically means the core experience of 16 -BIT games, plus a bit of modern polish.
How did you get into game design, and when?
I worked at Nintendo in High School as a game counselor before the internet killed that job, I’ve always loved games and knew I wanted to do it from a pretty young age. Today, in my team here at 17-BIT, I do the character designs, design the backgrounds, and am the lead game designer. I’m fascinated by visual communication, and how much it impacts a player’s experience with a game.
You divide your time between Seattle and Tokyo. Was it your career with Sega that caused such a duality? Where is home nowadays?
Yes, it was working at Sega that gave me a life here in Tokyo. I’m in Tokyo right now, finishing up the last bits of Skulls of the Shogun away from the main studio in Seattle. I still live in Seattle, but plan to move back to Japan later this year, probably for good this time. It is home now.
Do you think it is an exciting time to be an indie developer? What sort of challenges do you face because of it?
17 bit 300x192 Sunday Sidebar: Meet 17 BIT
That is one sharp logo.
This might be the best time to be an indie developer. As indie gaming grows, so do the markets that support it. There are so many avenues: Steam, iOS, XBLA, PSN, etc. There has never been such easy access to such huge audiences as there is right now, and as awareness continues to grow hopefully it will really prosper. It seems the AAA disc games are really struggling right now.
Yeah, I mean [being indie] just means having the ability to create exactly the experience you want to create, whether it be through film or music or whatever. Not having ‘big brother’ looking over your shoulder constantly telling you what you need to change. I do believe you see a lot more original exciting content coming out of the indie scene in any media, and games are certainly no exception to that. I’m really tiring of the big budget sequels, thank god for indie gaming!
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?
We’re finalizing Skulls of the Shogun now. It takes inspiration from classic turn-based strategy games, infused with 1960s Japanese cartoon flair. All the content is submitted and complete, so we are just fixing bugs and finalizing network code right now. As regards platforms and dates, we’ll be launching on XBLA, Windows Phone App Store, and Windows 8, all in conjunction with the release of Windows 8. So… whenever that happens!
It really has a striking art style, can you tell us more about it?
I have been very influenced by 1960s Japanime, as well as modern urban vinyl character design. I love iconic, simple, original characters. The advantage of a 2D game like this is that you can much more effectively design every shot, you always get just the right angle on your characters to see their faces, you’re never going to have guys facing in all different directions, making it much harder to tell what unit type they are. The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker has always been a massive inspiration to me. Link’s expressive little face, the amazing blend of cinematics and yet still keeping the entirety very cartoony. [Laughs] Yeah, it’s definitely one of my biggest inspirations!
How did your publishing deal with Microsoft come about? That must have been an exciting and relieving moment.
I can’t go into too much detail, unfortunately. It was a long hard road, but something I really wanted to make happen. I love XBLA, and I spend the majority of my (admittedly rare these days) gaming time on there. There are always lots of new ideas, but still with tons of polish. It’s really a great thing.
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Meet Jake's robot companion, Dingbot.
Finally, what is your prized geek possession? Is there anything you’re still holding onto from way back when?
I have an unhealthy love of Tomy’s little robot series out of Japan in the 80s. My Ding Bot and Hoot Bot rank amongst my most prized possessions.
Thanks for your time, and best of luck with the launch!