XBLIG Spotlight: Developer interview with Tiny’s Fury Studio, makers of Monster Katz
Recently, I had a chance to sit down and talk to the minds behind Tiny’s Fury and the XBLIG Monster Katz. We talked about game design, upcoming titles they are working on and what it is like to be a family of game developers. Listen to the interview below, or read the transcript underneath. Thanks to Tiny’s Fury for taking the time to answer my questions. You can also read the review on Monster Katz here.
Transcript of the interview:
I can’t see how many people are on the staff. How many are there?
There are three of us.
Anna, the creative lead.
Brian, the chief cook and bottle washer developer; I do whatever the other two aren’t doing.
Cameron, the designer and all-around game advocate for the company.
How did you all meet each other?
B: Well, we are actually a mom and pop and son shop. We are all family. Anna is basically the creative behind the company.
A: Well, I spent 10 years doing freelance and just broke out into starting our own company, starting Tiny’s Fury. We kind of decided we had all the abilities within our family, and so we went ahead and started the company and started developing storylines and turning them into games and we went for it.
B: So, about a couple of years ago we had some ideas. Anna actually had an interest in doing movies originally. That is kind of a big undertaking, not to mention it needs a lot of money. Also, she wanted to get into more of the interactive part of things. I had some experience with online gaming; I did a lot of interactive work and some integration work with a lot of different studios who were putting out online games. So, we started developing a couple of ideas that we had and realized that we wanted to turn them into games. We wanted to move the peer entertainment aspect of a movie and combine it with the interactive aspect of games. We liked that a lot more and thought it was going to be a lot better environment for our storylines. We started working on scripts and character development and realized that our ideas were really good and we had one that started really taking off, which ultimately is the Katz storyline. There is not a whole lot of the story in Monster Katz right now, but there is quite a bit of that coming out within the next year.
Do you mind telling me a little bit about that? I got some of the story, but obviously there is more.
B: Yeah. Not a lot of it pops up in Monster Katz.
A: The storyline behind Monster Katz is that the regular house cats are being taken over by an evil cat charmer and turned into monster cats. The plot behind Monster Katz is that we are not killing them, or harming them, per se, in as much as disapurring them to turn them back into regular house cats.
B: The monster cats themselves are basically all the annoying, stinky, evil aspect that people, even people who that like cats, don’t like. So, the cat that misses the litter box, the cat that bangs against your leg when it wants your attention. These are characters that came up in Monster Katz. Ann talks about Franken Kat is like the cat that head butts you, but he does it in a caricatured way.
That’s really neat. I didn’t know there was that much backstory to it. So, I assume you own cats.
B: Yeah. I think I have a love-hate relationship with cats myself. They are great when they behave, but when their claws come out, not so much. And of course there is the toxic furball; that’s my favorite.
A: That’s what you find in the wee hours of the morning and you are walking along and…oh good.
B: We had dogs too, but right now, we have a couple cats.
A: Just a cat family.
B: One of them is the president of the company. That’s Tiny.
Anna, you said you had worked on some freelance games before. Do you mind telling me which ones you worked on and your experiences doing that?
A: Well, it was just small gigs around town here. Although, I did some work for some Hollywood B teams, just something for them to shop around and get a TV show. I worked on online interactive; just small gigs around town.
B: None of us, well, I’ve got some background in game development, but most of us are pretty much starting out in that vein. Both Anna and Cameron are trained animators.
I know you are in Texas, but I don’t know where in Texas you are.
A: We are inMcKinney,Texas.
B: It is a suburb ofDallas.
So, I am guessing you guys are Aggies or Longhorns.
B: Actually, three of our kids have gone, well two of our kids, have gone to A&M. So, I guess by de facto, we’re Aggies. Both Ann and Cameron went to a local college that had an animation, modeling and game development degree. Ann graduated a couple of years ago from that, and Cameron is still working on it. He is in theUniversityofHardknocksnow. He is actually learning more probably with us than he would otherwise.
Tiny’s Fury is based on your cat and when she gets mad at you all the time, that’s why you thought it would be a good name for the company? Or is there some sort of story behind it?
A: Well, when we were putting together the company, Tiny was just a kitten. He is a Maine Coon, so they are naturally known to be calm and relaxed, but he charged around the house like a crazed maniac for a while. He would take on the other cats. He would take on bugs and that kind of thing. There were some things that looked like they were imaginary; just running around and having fun.
B: We kind of looked at that and the cool thing about it was he didn’t know what he couldn’t do; he just wanted to have fun and be a cat. We kind of looked at that and said, “There are some similarities to where we are right now. We don’t know a lot; we’ve got a lot of experience – I’ve got 20 years in development, I’ve been a VP – but we realized, as a team, we didn’t have a ton of experience building games. So, we knew there was a ton of obstacles ahead of us, but we looked at this little cat. And you know what, we’ve got skills; we’ve got energy; we’re talented; we want to have fun. So, let’s just go do this and not worry so much about what we don’t know. Let’s worry about what we do know and start putting some things together that we think other people will like.”
Talking about the game now, when I starting playing it, I felt it played a lot like Plants vs. Zombies, but I may be wrong with that completely. What was the basis for the game, what were you trying to get inspiration from?
C: Yes. We were very inspired by the work of George Fan and his team, but we found ourselves asking “What if?” What if you were motivated to have a skirmish moving back and forth with your defenses opposed to your static defense you have in PvZ? What if you had to balance between using and preserving resources – that’s where the wind and water come into play?
B: And we also started talking about, on the phone in particular, but also on other platforms, with a single screen map, what if the game expanded horizontally or what if the game expanded vertically and you had to play across multiple screens at the same time. So, we started thinking about for example in our game, Monster Katz, the last stage is really multiple floors, and you have to think in multiple dimensions and think about what is going on in different levels at the same time.
How long did you spend in development of the game? You said Tiny’s Fury has been around since Tiny was a kitten. I am guessing she is an older cat now.
B: We have actually been incorporated officially last year. So, the company has been around really just for a year. We started working on stories lines, not just for Katz¸ but actually another episodic game that we have planned for the future. We started working on these ideas at the same time, and it took a while obviously to get the character development to the point we felt like we really had a game. So, we have been working together as a team for about four years. With respect to the game itself, we started Monster Katz last November; it took us about five months from start to finish calendar-wise. For the most part, Ann has been the only one of us that has been totally dedicated to the company. Cameron has obviously been going to school; I’ve got another job that takes a lot of my time. So, four or five months I think was the duration.
C: We spent about eight weeks just exploring the different game types and mechanics and coming up with subtle quirks that we wanted to put in the game. We ended up doing a lot of design testing, prototyping, card playing stuff like that. We tried putting in things like pop-up huds, various in-game assists and different map sizes, but when it boiled down some of the ideas just didn’t work out or we had to change them up so that they would fit and that’s what ended up taking a lot of our time during those eight weeks. We settled in on the unique aspects early on and then just kind of decided to play around with what could and what didn’t work. Another six weeks we spent modeling the levels. We had some pretty detailed spreadsheets.
B: We had lots of spreadsheets; we had data coming out of our ears. Basically, everything from how the defenses worked to the character durations. We had shot density calculations. We had durability, density calculations. We wanted the game to be comfortable for a casual player but also a little of a challenge for somebody to pick up the style and maybe come up with their own strategies. That’s where the whole upside and the downside to the water being a limited resource but also constraining you with respect to the top side, not just let you have unlimited water. You’ve got to play within a fine line, and I think you mentioned in your review as the levels go on it gets a little bit harder to do that.
What kind of programs did you use throughout the developmental stages?
B: For the software, we used primarily C+, obviously XNA, that’s probably no big surprise there as it is an XBLIG and Windows Phone app. I guess for the creative guys here they used Blender to model the animals and the towers and stuff and Photoshop to create the textures and the spreadsheets and the maps. Pretty much the same stuff everybody else uses. We did obviously have some custom frame works that we built. Our entire resource management system is custom built; we have some custom tools that we used for prototyping, used Excel a lot for spreadsheets.
C: As well as paper.
B: Yeah. A lot of paper. We had paper, we still do, up everywhere.
About the soundtrack, when I was playing it it felt like a remix of those little scary CDs you get for Halloween. What was your inspiration for the soundtrack and the sort of mood you were setting with the songs?
A: Well, I wanted to give the game a toon-gothic feel. So, the soundtrack kind of went along with that. Also, I chose the soundtrack to match some of the cats’ attitudes. The main theme I chose, I called Franken-Kat Knack. He’s a big cat; he walks tough. The Fun House theme is spooky and any of the spooky characters, like the ghost cat and that sort of thing.
B: Franken-cat you can kind of see him head-banging with that tune.
After most of the game is done, is there anything looking back that you wish you could have improved on or something you could have done differently during development?
Well, I think one thing we kind of thought about early on and would have liked to have done was to be able to be on other platforms in addition to Windows. I think going forward, we are definitely going to be targeting Android and some other platforms. We are not sure how the different titles will play out there. One of the titles that we have in development right now that we are trying to put out in the fall, we are definitely going to, once it launches on Windows, we are definitely look at putting it on Android. There are some other aspects of the game that we are never 100% satisfied with what we put out, but if we don’t put it out, we will never get it out. We really go to the point where we play tested it, and we were getting back consistently good responses from people saying “We really loved it.” They really like the different aspects of it. People were picking up on the quirks that we had in the game. When that happened we said OK I think we are there. If we keep changing it, we might never get this thing out, or start to tweak things that people really don’t care about, or really mess up on things they really do. So, when we started getting consistent feedback of “This is good. This is fun. I can’t quite figure out this part, but this is really cool,” or that sort of thing, we thought we were there.
You had mentioned that you were looking at different phone marketplaces to go on. Just on that note, I remember looking at data, the Windows market is the third smallest; it’s got a 2% market share. I think Android has a 50% market share; iPhone is somewhere in the 40% as well. Windows and Blackberry has about a 2 percent each. Why did you decide to go with Windows and Xbox Live Indie Games?
B: There are actually probably two reasons. The one reason was we were initially targeting XBLIG, and we realized we could port our code to Windows a lot easier than we could port it to Android or iPhone. I had done some iPhone development in the past, and I realized it was going to be a significant port for us. We didn’t want to bite off on that right away. We said, “Let’s shoot for XBLIG as kind of our lead and then let’s go ahead and port to Windows Phone if we have time.” Windows was almost an immediate port; an easy port, so we figured that would be a no-brainer. Well, it really turned out that the Windows Phone port was ridiculously easy for us. So, kudos to XNA and the Windows Phone team guys for that. Then we said, “Let’s get this out and let’s see how people respond to it, and then we’ll decide if it deserves to go to another market.” Obviously, if people don’t really find it interesting, it doesn’t make sense for us wasting our time doing that. Right now, we are getting fairly good response, and we appreciate your attention to this as well. Our expectation now is that Android will probably be the next target that we shoot for, so that we can get a larger market. The other reason that we chose Windows Phone was while it was really small, we anticipated that in a small market, maybe we have an opportunity to get a little bit more noise around us. Focus on an environment that yeah, maybe it only has two percent, but of those two percent, there are some pretty passionate gamers out there and people really, really love their Windows Phone. Windows Phone, I think unanimously has been one of the highest user-approved phones. I think Microsoft made a big deal of that with the Metro launch, saying seven of the nine phones on Amazon were rated by their users as the highest. I have an iPhone, but the other two have Android and Windows Phones, and they are very passionate about their phones too. So, what we said was, a lot of it has to do with what people are feeling comfortable with the devices they have. We don’t want to go chase devices; we want to be on products out there that people want to play.
What kind of Windows Phones do you have?
B: Ann’s got a Lumia 900. Cameron’s got a Galaxy S2. Our daughter’s got a Samsung. It was actually pretty cool, because her phone has actually a much smaller screen than Ann’s. Ann’s has a huge screen; it’s a gorgeous screen. The game just looks incredibly fantastic on the phones. The neat thing was, we also play tested on the smaller phones, and it played equally well there, so, we were actually pretty happy with the way the game looked on a Windows Phone of all different sizes. To your point, we are planning on bring out the game on other platforms. We are probably going to start being a lot more curious about what people want us to do. We are going to start using our blog and Facebook to start asking people where they want us to start directing our energy. If people start saying, “Get on the iPhone. GET ON THE iPHONE!” We’ll probably do that.
Back to Monster Katz, how did you guys come up with the title? I remember earlier talking about the things all people dislike about cats, but I was wondering if there were any titles that got scrapped, and how you finally came up on that?
A: The ultimate name of the title just kind of fit perfectly with the game. Monster Katz was the only title that we ever thought of. The spelling of ‘katz’ comes from the German ‘katzen’ for cats.
B: We wanted to be a little different than Monster Cats, so we changed it up a little bit.
And the virtual box art, it shows the little eye with the claw marks through it. How did you come up with that as well?
A: Well, the claw marks is the original design for the Tiny’s Fury logo, which incorporates our motto “Unleash the fury” and goes back to Tiny being the inspiration for the name of the company. I plan on incorporating into each title we produce. So, the eye behind the claw mark is the monster looking at you, ready to come through and get you. I wanted to incorporate our studio brand into all of our work.
B: So, it is kind of like don’t let anything get in your way; claw your way through whatever you have to.
You were talking about the different ways you got into working at Tiny’s Fury. Cameron and Anna, you said you were at the college getting experience and degrees. For someone getting into the market, do you have an advice? Do you recommend going to a certain college and getting a degree, or do you feel it is better to go off, like you did? Cameron, you said you are getting more experience now than you when you were actually getting your degree.
C: I do think it is important to get at least some schooling, just so you can get your feet wet and know what you are doing, and at first have someone there to look at your work and say, “You can do this, but if you do it this way, you can do it faster, and it will look better.” It is always good to have someone there who knows what they are doing and knows what they are talking about and can give you that instant feedback. Having some schooling would be good, going all the way through wouldn’t hurt, but if you do have an opportunity like I had where you have a team ready to go, you have to choose which one better. I thought this was going to be a better idea, just jump in with a team, help them out and see where it goes.
B: We actually have a friend that’s Cameron’s age who’s actually going all the way through college. We would obviously love to work with him in the end. Like Cameron said, I think everybody needs to make up their own mind as to where they are from a skill set perspective. There is also a mindset change.
C: A lot of the mindset change is coming at it from the eyes of a gamer into the eyes of a game designer, and just realize that there lots of things that you want to do with the game that might not work out, might not make it better. You pretty much have to use your own intuition to figure out is this going to make the game better? It is worth my time to invest into this option? But what it really comes down to is that you are going to hit speed bumps and that it is very easy to have one or two things happen. Either one – get discouraged after missing deadline after deadline and have that drag you down. Or two – not hitting the deadline and getting used to it and then missing each one after that and end up getting nothing done. It is very easy to let that happen, but if you hit that line right in the middle, then you are pretty much golden.
Cameron, since you are making the transition from gamer to game designer, do you have any tips for anyone trying to get into the game development market?
C: Find whatever genre you like, because odds are you are going to have lots of experience in it. You are going to know what the consumer wants, and that’s going to give you a big head start on what game you are going to make, what sort of features it is going to have. Just kind of get an idea and just start running with it, and pretty much don’t let anything hold you back.
B: There’s nothing that replaces that kind of intuition that you have as a designer. I don’t necessarily think that someone that isn’t enjoying games can necessarily be a good game designer. Cameron is extremely passionate about games, and he mentioned earlier that he is effectively our company’s player advocate. When we go into design session, and we start doing play testing, he is the guy that is going to basically say, “That is not what the gamer wants; that’s not what the player wants,” or “This is definitely what they want; we’ve got to put this in.”
You developed for the Windows Phone and the Xbox, but each device – Android, iPhone – has different software, different specifications. What device do you find is easiest to develop for? Obviously, for Tiny’s Fury you’ve worked with the Windows Phone and the Xbox, but Brian, you had said you worked with the iPhone and other phones. What console or market do you find is easiest to develop for?
B: I think to get to the marketplace, the phone across all platforms – Android, iPhone and Windows Phone – are basically the easiest to capitalize on. There are just huge markets out there. For the most part, the certification processes are very similar. So, someone who is breaking out the phone marketplace is a really great place to go. We only chose one to give us focus on something. We couldn’t provide coverage on all three phones as obviously I couldn’t spend my time just writing code. So, we were pretty darn surprised by how the game works on Windows Phone, which made us pretty confident we could get it to other platforms. I have experience with iPhone, so I know what to expect there. I played around a lot the Android stuff, so I know what to do there. The XBLIG market actually looked a lot more enticing originally, because it was a community based platform. The trick with that versus a different community base is you are kind of at the mercy of getting people’s attention and working with people to get them to test your game. Just a case in point, we took about two months to get the game certified on XBLIG and it took us two weeks to get it through Windows Phone certification. Same code base. Just in the matter of the Windows Phone, it is a dedicated pipeline, and you can pretty much expect to get in there between five to ten days. With the market on XBLIG, it really depends on how busy everybody else is and whether your game is an interest to them or not. I will say this though, the XBLIG channel was the best place for us to play test. We got some fantastic input from people. I think without that, the game probably wouldn’t be as good as it is.
You had mentioned you are working on two different titles simultaneously with Monster Katz. Could you tell me a little bit about that title?
B: We are actually working on two casual titles right now. Both of those will be out this fall.
B: Alien Art is a turn-based, card/puzzle game, where you are basically being recruited by the leader of the Universal Graffiti Underground. His name is Art, and he is an alien. He has been using Earth, and other Earth-like planets, as his canvas for decades, and he is looking to recruit new people to the Underground. So, in the game, you basically compete against other people to be the first to create your crop circle in kind of a turn-based card game. It’s kind of like a game of Go Fish! with a puzzle. There’s a box in it where we basically have cows that you can teleport on to your opponent’s field that will stop them from completing their pasture or crop circle. It is a quirky little casual game that we came up with a while back and there’s not a whole lot of story behind it, but we are going to put that out here this fall. The other one we can’t really talk about. It is pretty much…very social. It is hugely social play. But with respect to the episodic stuff that you talked about, obviously Katz has a lot more story that we want to come out with. So, we are working on, and have been working on, the next game in that series, and it’s called Lights Out. And it’s a 3D immersive game, with a little bit of a first-person shooter aspect to it. I think we are shooting for December for that. Our big episodic that was really one of the first things we started talking about several years ago, we call it Project E, for Project Episodic. It is a huge storyline; we are continuing to develop it. The aspect of it is kind of like a multi-faction tug-of-war. We really don’t think there is anything out there like this yet. The closest thing you can think of would be if you put Starcraft into an environment where it was not one-on-one or two-on-one, but as many as you want on one or two, or you can join alliances on the fly and the system itself basically maintains the tug-of-war status. While you may be completely owning your opponent, the game may introduce opportunities for the opponent to either sabotage your defenses or maybe you got them in a siege and the game will give them an opportunity to break out, if they can take advantage and they are skilled enough. It is not a situation where Cameron is beating up on me, and I suddenly beat up on him. It is more along the lines where the game providing an opportunity to escape and reassemble. So, the whole aspect of the game is to continue the conflict. I am in the process of building the engine; I call it adaptable real-time conflict.
And what platforms are you planning on releasing those on?
B: That’s one of the reasons we have kind of been holding back on that. We are kind of looking for the right game engine to do this on. With the progress of game engines like Unity, SunBurn, Havok, MonoGame. It looks like there is going to be a lot of opportunity for us to multiplatform games. We are kind of looking at Havok a little bit; we are looking at Unity. We are getting some experience with SunBurn with a couple of our game titles that we are working on now will probably come out in SunBurn. We are also looking at MonoGame. What we really want to do is have it on a console, on desktop and on the phone, and possibly on the web as well.
All those sound like fun. Alien Art sounds really interesting though.
B: We think Alien Art is going to be a lot of fun for people to play. It’s got that social aspect, and it’s got that fun, quirky thing that people will just have fun playing.
The update to Monster Katz, when could that be expected to go up – for the survival and the arcade?
C: The plan is to have the update and the certification by mid-August, which hopefully will be available for download in September.
B: We’ve got the arcade and the survival mode coming out. Survival mode is actually going to play a little bit different than the regular levels in the campaign in a couple of regards. One, obviously it is a survival mode, but a couple of neat things about it. In Monster Katz in the campaign mode, the probing of the cats is kind of static and kind of easy to recognize and beat – the herds come in, there is a couple of probes that come in and the herds don’t really take advantage of that probe. In survival mode, the game character engine is actually going to look at your weaknesses, probe for your weaknesses, and basically send in herds based on your weaknesses. You are going to have to get really good at skirmishing. Also, the water forces are random.
Since you are telling me all this, are there any tips and tricks that you know that most people don’t?
B: There are definitely some tricks. We will probably start teasing those out online after the game launches. We are kind of interested to see if people will discover them for themselves. For example, on the fun house there is a very specific tactical design that we built into it, and I’m really kind of interested to see if people will start to discover it. If nobody comes out and says they figured it out, or are having trouble, we will probably tease out some ideas.
*AUTHOR’S NOTE: The audio has been slightly edited for clarity, and the transcript does not include some tangential details from the interview.