Like that title?  I came up with it myself.  It was either that or something about a tangled web.  I think I made the right decision.

My last blog entry on #AltDevBlogADay was concerning my road to becoming a game developer (although, according to my wife, I shouldn’t be calling myself that until I at least make a dollar off a game we create).  I thought I would take this opportunity to share a bit of the history behind what will be Itzy Interactive’s first release.  It’s a mobile game titled Itzy, and we’re excitedly working toward an early November launch.

School Daze

After my breakup with the brokerage industry, I ended up back in school fulltime at 35, studying programming and enduring the chatter of a class full of 18-20 year olds (apparently, manga isn’t that new thing the kids are into.  Oh, they’re into it, they’ve just been into it for a while).  As part of the new program I was enrolled in, after the first semester we were able to specialize our course selection.  I rolled the dice, crossed myself and chose game programming against my better judgement, knowing I’d hate myself if I didn’t at least try.

During the summer break after that first year our instructors asked us to give some thought to game ideas we could put into practice for the next year.  Being an older gamer, I thought back to the games that had resonated with me growing up and decided to take inspiration from the games of my youth.  I created a proposal for a spider themed game based loosely off the Taito arcade title, Qix.

For those not familiar with Qix, the objective of the game was to fill a rectangular playing area by drawing a line with your player across the screen until you finished, at which time the enclosed area would automatically fill in with a solid color.  Drawing the line left the player exposed.  If an enemy touched the line or player while drawing, it would kill the player character and abort the line.  As a kid, I loved this game and I’m not quite sure why.  There was something strangely rewarding about something as simple as drawing a line across the screen and seeing a huge area fill in.

My idea was to take the same principle, but apply it to a spider and create environments to fill that fit that theme.  A spider isn’t going to spin webs across a blank rectangle; it’s going to spin across tree branches or over your garden shed.  And if we’re going to follow a spider across multiple environments, would it kill us to tell a bit of a story along the way?

Artistically I wanted to keep the color’s limited – using dark colors and shades of greys as we’d seen in such games as Limbo or Pixeljunk Eden.  The web fuel that keeps Itzy spinning would be collected by eating a multitude of brightly coloured, alien fireflies that would also influence the color of his webbing, and using these two ideas, the fireflies and the webs, we would bring color to a bleak landscape.  As it turned out, rainbow webbing looked terrible, but my core ideas had found root.

What’s in a name?

So, Itzy, as a concept, was born.  I wanted to keep the game casual and light-hearted and I wanted to keep the controls and gameplay straight forward so the player could easily sit back and enjoy spinning giant webs across multiple environments.  For the life of me though, I couldn’t think up a name for my spider hero.  I had intended from the start to name the game simply after its title character, but what to name it?  I also wanted the character gender neutral if possible – but Pat the Spider?  Drew the Spider?

Frustrated, and a little hungry, I turned to Facebook.  I asked my friends and family to come up with a name for a cute spider.  The wife of an old, university friend suggested Itzy, and I felt it was perfect.  It was cute, easy to remember, played off the whole “Itsy, bitsy spider” nursery rhyme.  I had my character’s name.  Later on, it also stuck with us as a company name after our initial, Canadian themed studio names such as Angry Beaver Studios were ruined by Urban Dictionary (thanks for nothing, Urban Dictionary).  Itzy, again, seemed catchy, cute and memorable and Itzy Interactive came into being.

To breathe life into my character, I enlisted the help of my six-year-old niece who graciously agreed to give up an afternoon to spend with her uncle saying “Ok, again.  Now again.  A little higher.  Not that high.  Ok, that’s great.  …and once more.”

I’m still happy with the results and I’m especially fond of the sound she came up with when asked “What sound does a happy spider make?”

Apparently, it’s “Weew!”

Growing Pains

My team at school were able to start on the first level for a little over a month as part of a school project and Itzy started to take shape.  After graduation, Itzy Interactive began working on Itzy in earnest and we faced down a myriad of problems.  Our game was slated for the phones so Itzy needed pathfinding to move to where the player pointed on the screen.  With our limited understanding of game programming, our pathfinding didn’t seem able to search for paths “up”, only on the ground.  We overcame this problem by rotating the entire level when Itzy approached the base of a climbable object so the climbable object was now the “ground” we were scanning.  That opened up a world of physics related and performance issues, not to mention the transition between ground and tree while the world rotated was, to put it mildly, awkward.  Also, we struggled with making the webs and creating the meshes to fill the webs dynamically to correspond to Itzy’s created web shapes.  Then there were the terrible performance issues initially on both mobile platforms.  No one likes to see a game tested run at 0.7 fps.

All these problems were overcome in the following 6 months and as we tightened up the mechanics of the game we were then able to switch focus to the gameplay itself.  Building webs didn’t pose as much of a challenge as we hoped, so we introduced enemies and big fireflies that, when stuck, can ruin existing webs if not eaten in a timely manner.  Itzy’s enemies force Itzy to use powers of camouflage to continue web building after the danger has passed.  This led one programmer’s father-in-law to exclaim while playing “Give me a way to kill these buggers!” and a power-up system was born.

The game, Itzy, hardly resembles the game that ended up on that proposal document during the summer of 2010, but that’s a good thing.  Through the efforts of talented artists and programmers, many of whom worked as volunteers, Itzy has changed and I’m proud of the product we’ve created.  That pride I feel is more rewarding than anything I accomplished in my decade slinging mutual funds and placing trades.  I just hope it adds up to monetary compensation as well as a feeling of pride (pride, while great, doesn’t pay our mortgages very well) so we can continue to do this, and I can meet my wife’s criteria for being able to call myself a “game developer”.

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