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GDC Austin 09: Flashbang: How to Make a Game in 8 Weeks

2:16 PM on 09.16.2009 // Ashley Davis

It's very likely that you've played the hell out of one of Flashbang Studio's games. They've been on a roll the past few years with releases like Off Road Velociraptor Safari and Minotaur China Shop.

Matthew Wegner and Steve Swink are two members of the team behind these games. Not only that, but they're also behind the Independent Games Summit at GDC Austin 09. They've been around for every talk, and today they got to do one of their own. In it, the full title of which was "The Blurst of Times: How to Make a (Shader-Heavy, Physics-Based, 3D) Game in 8 Weeks", the guys explained Flashbang's history, what they have done right, and what they have done wrong.

Hit the jump for a summary of the talk, sans the image macros they dug up from Reddit to lace their presentation with.

They opened the talk by telling everyone a little about themselves and showing off some funny pictures they'd found on the Internet. Then, a flowchart popped up on the projector screen: make casual game > $$$$$$ > profit.

They explained that this flowchart shows the wrong way to go about things, but it was the way that they thought was right when they first started making games. With a casual focus, they made three games. Each one was a simplistic puzzle game, and by the time they were almost finished with the third, they found that they hated making games like these. The third game was very polished, but never released due to this revelation.

From this point on, they decided to switch gears (while a picture of a chihuahua with a shotgun appeared on the screen). Instead of focusing on casual games, they would instead make a lot of prototypes and put them on the Internet. The ones that the Internet enjoyed, they would take and make better.

They then went through all of their games made prior to 2009. Their first made after the change, I Hate Clowns, was a game made in two weeks. Six months went behind the next game, Blume, which was a physics based game inspired by Bust a Move. Next came Off Road Velociraptor Safari, which marked the point where Flashbang's games were starting to become very popular. Matthew asked the crowd who had played the game, and almost every hand went up.

Jetpack Brontosaurus, the next game in the time line, was the largest one that Flashbang has ever made. It took four months to make. It was followed by Minotaur China Shop, a much more quickly made game that wrapped up the year 2008.

At the end of this year, they had another revelation. Their small games were doing so well on their own merits that they decided to keep going, leaving behind the idea that they wanted to pick one out and improve upon it. They came up with an eight week development cycle to stick to, learning from the mistakes they had made with Jetpack Brontosaurus. "We really blew the scope of the game. It was first project we worked on with a bigger team, so we used that manpower to make more content instead of polishing what was there."

Another flowchart was shown, this one depicting the details of their eight week cycle. The first two weeks are spent prototyping a game, conceptualizing, making sure that all of the basics will work, and so on. The next five weeks are spent developing and fine tuning the game. The final week of the cycle is dedicated to launch preparation. In addition to making sure everything's ready to be published to Blurst, they also take care of press releases. The game itself is finished before this final week begins. Steve adds that the best way to make a game in just eight weeks is to "cheat as much as possible".

The duo then began to go into their 2009 lineup of games. The first up was Blush, the first game that they worked on nothing but from start to finish. Beforehand, they would often work on one thing, then another, then go back to the first thing. Although it wasn't developed by Flashbang, they gave Paper Moon a mention. Then they showed off Crane Wars and Time Donkey, and joked that the latter had a "very sophisticated taco system".

When they lined up all of these games side by side and compared them by the amount of work that went into them, they found that the smaller games were more successful than the larger ones like Jetpack Brontosaurus.

They then showed the audience their site stats, which showed huge spikes in visits around each game's launch. The biggest spike, of course, belonged to Off Road Velociraptor Safari, and it is to date still their most popular game. The guys mentioned that while they are still sticking to their plans not to pick out games from their lineup and improve on them, they do plan to give Velociraptor Safari  the treatment.

Matthew and Steve changed the topic to Flashbang itself, and started out by saying that there are huge advantages to being an independent. "It allows you to look beyond the scope of the workplace," Matthew said. He went on to explain that the best investment the company has ever made was not the computers or the new chairs in the office, but gym memberships for every employee. " Being fit is a big part of being a good game developer. If you are unhealthy or unhappy, it will affect your performance." An image macro of a monkey (hitman monkey finds no joy in his job) was added for effect.

The next subject was focus. They stressed the importance of working on single tasking, and having no interruptions whatsoever. Steve said, "Understand that people's time is important. Respect your own time and the time of others, and everyone gets a ton more work done." He then offered another nugget of wisdom: "Instead of scheduling fun time, like most people would do, schedule your work time. Say, 'I have work till 3:00, and then I can play Batman.' You look more forward to work this way."

Another advantage to being indie is the immense amount of communication that the team can keep up. They have several different ways to communicate with one another what they are doing, what they actually have done at the end of the day, and so on. It helps things to run a lot smoother. As they speak of the importance of realtime communication, an image of an armless dog walking on its hind legs is shown.

Going more into how to communicate effectively, the best piece of advice that the guys give is that having everyone sit close to one another is ideal. Flashbang's workplace has all of the developers in one big, open office, making communication extremely easy. This portion was accompanied by a series of images: two laptops back to back (good), two people sitting close to one another, staring at a computer screen that the viewer can't see (better!), and a screenshot of two Second Life characters having sex ("I tried to find the most disturbing Second Life image," Steve chuckled).

Switching gears again, they went on to discuss creativity and brainstorming. According to Steve, Flashbang has a "special brand of retarded awesome" that fuels the ideas that go into their games. They explained the very basic, silly ideas that a few of their games were based upon; for example, Off Road Velociraptor Safari was influenced by British imperialism and feathered raptors. They stressed the importance of keeping creativity organic in nature.

Next, some tips on how to amplify creativity when making up game concepts. They tell the audience that when they're trying to answer a question about their design to never settle for the first answer. They also say that "people like ______" is not a design philosophy. "Make games for yourself, not your audience."

The last topic they tackled was technology. All they had to say on the matter was if you are making a 3D game, use Unity. If it's a 2D game, use Flash.

The duo ended their talk with one overarching piece of advice each. Matthew likened game development to composing a piece a music; start with a single melody, because if that one awesome nugget of melody is there, you can't do anything else. Steve asked the developers in the audience to not be afraid to try anything. Their ideas and  ways of doing things may be "retarded awesome", but as Steve mentioned earlier in the panel, there is a difference between it and just plain retarded. Their way of doing things has worked wonderfully for them so far, and as they figure out more and more the direction they want to head, we can only expect even greater things out of Flashbang in the years to come.

Ashley Davis,
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