Interview: Final Form Games Talks Jamestown, Hoagies

Final Form Games is a small startup indie development studio that recently released Jamestown, an insanely fun pixelart shmup, on the PC platform. We got a chance to ask them their thoughts on the game, the industry in general, and of course, sandwiches.

Final Form Games is comprised of guys who have worked in the industry in some capacity before. What made you take the plunge into indie game development?

It really felt like the next logical step for us, as people who had all been making and modifying games for as long as we could remember.  Either as kids making levels for Lode Runner or Marathon, or in college designing tabletop RPGs, or out in the AAA world making first-person shooters and platformers at full-size studios, making games was always there as a major (and very satisfying) creative outlet.  The progression into starting a company for doing that sort of thing full-time and on our own terms felt very natural to us.  Maybe even inevitable?

We were certainly all excited about it in the abstract, and after 6 months of working together on practice projects during weekends, we got pretty excited about it in the concrete.  We were also feeling some pressure to take the leap before Real Life Obligations like families and children made risks of this magnitude untenable.

The Council of Elrond deliberatesOnce we had all agreed to go full-time at some point in the near future, it was mostly a logistical question of how and when it would be possible for us to all uproot our California lives and relocate to Philly within a viable time-window.  That was definitely a challenge, but was made a lot easier by how jazzed we were to start the adventure.

Jamestown’s credits say you worked for two years and spent much of your savings to make Jamestown. Can you tell us a little bit about that and the challenges faced during development?

One of the goals we had from the beginning was to self-fund our company, which is to say, to live off our personal savings for the duration of our games’ development.  It sounds pretty costly, and it was (not just in terms of money, but also in time, quality of life, social capital from friends/family, and all the emotional turmoil that comes with those costs), but it bought us something that, for us, was absolutely priceless: complete creative control over our project and direction.  A lot of what attracted us to indie development was the opportunity to steer our own ship out to uncharted waters in search of distant, magical places, so having that control was at the heart of why we even went indie to begin with.

The challenges that any indie developer faces during development would probably fill a book, but here’s two that bedeviled us frequently:

1) Achieving consensus on big decisions (because we do everything by consensus).  We’re all passionate, opinionated, extroverted guys, and the stakes of some decisions were higher than anything we’d ever previously been faced with.  You can imagine that debate got very heated over issues we disagreed about.  Because no-one was empowered to declare “it’s my way or the highway,” those conversations definitionally had to continue until we were all in agreement, or else development simply wouldn’t be able to continue.  However: as challenging as that was, we think the game and the company itself are both a lot stronger for it.

2) Sustaining faith in ourselves when things were going slowly, or when features just weren’t coming together the way we hoped and needed for them to.  When the skies are darkening over the endeavors of your self-funded start-up, full-blown depression is often lurking just around the corner of the next setback.  Developing strategies to pull ourselves out of those funks turned out to be very, very important.

Triple hacking

What games, if any, were the inspiration for Jamestown’s bizarre alternate history setting and steampunk art style?

The specific style of pixelart we used in Jamestown owes a lot to games like Metal Slug and the rest of the IREM oeuvre, but the conceit and design of the world weren’t particularly inspired by any games we had seen before.  CAVE’s excellent shooter Progear is probably the game that comes closest to being a direct influence, but I would guess that they drew a lot of their inspiration from the same place we did: the films of Hayao Miyazaki.

Of particular note are Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky with their whimsical machinery, bizarre landscapes, and deliberate juxtaposition/cross-breeding of technologies from different eras.

What was the reasoning behind releasing a 16-bit bullet hell shooter on the PC platform, which generally doesn’t receive a whole lot of pixel art games?

Ultimately, it was a very flexible and relatively low-cost platform to build our first game on.  Between the three of us, we’ve shipped something like 10 titles on various platforms, including several consoles.  Based on those experiences, we determined that console development is just riskier and costlier than a team of our means could justify targeting with our first release.  We’ve always planned to port to other platforms as circumstances allow, and we built our game engine with that in mind, but the PC definitely made the most sense as a starting point.

The Judgment difficulty level and many of the bonus levels are extremely challenging. Has anyone within Final Form been able to complete all of them?

We’ve all been able to complete the full set of Challenge levels, both individually and in groups of 2 and 3.  The Judgement difficulty was designed to challenge the most incredible shmup players in the world, and as such, has a few sections that are just utterly beyond our ken.  That said, we can definitely handle large chunks of Judgement when we’re having a good shmupping day.  Ask us again in the fall.  :)

Have you received any sort of feedback from the gaming community on the game since release? How has the response been?

We’ve been absolutely bowled over by how positive the community’s response has been, and also by how broad and diverse that community has turned out to be.  We were hopeful that the shmup crowd would approve of our efforts, but were only cautiously optimistic about the gaming audience at large.  When we started to see glowing reviews from places and people that almost never even look at shmups, let alone enjoy them, that was in some ways the most gratifying feedback of all.

Another source of warm-fuzzies for us is the surprising number of emails from people who are just writing to tell us they love the game, and to thank us for making it.  The same thing happens on the official forums, and although we don’t currently have time to respond to all those messages, we deeply appreciate the time our players are taking to actually write down what they think and put it in a place we can see it.  Indie game development is very hard, largely solitary work, so that kind of direct encouragement from our fans is worth more than we can say.

What do you see as the future of the Jamestown franchise? Ports, DLC, sequels, expansion plans?

For the moment, the bulk of our efforts are focused on the stability and performance of the main game; giving our players the best experience we can is our #1 priority.

We’re also working on getting an official soundtrack ready for release, replete with extended tracks, bonus tracks and other goodies that didn’t make it into the game, which is a very exciting project that we hope to make an official announcement about soon.

What are your favorite games? Any developers you look up to?

MIKE: Racing games are a real pleasure-button for me (e.g. Mario Kart (all), F-Zero (all), and a little oft-overlooked gem called Excite Truck), but I also enjoy FPS (Marathon, America’s Army) and of course shmups (Gradius V, Progear, DeathSmiles).

HAL: Portal, NeoContra, Soul Calibur, Rez, UpLink

TIM: Everything these guys said, plus… [SHOOTERS] DoDonPachi, Mars Matrix, Twinkle Star Sprites and [OTHERS] Starcraft, Zelda: LTTP, FFIV, Unreal Tournament

Developers we admire: Cave, IREM, Treasure, Takumi, Valve, Bungie (pre-Microsoft), Rare (circa Goldeneye), Nintendo EAD, Harmonix, Number-None, Wizards of the Coast

What advice would you give any of our readers who are ready to jump into the gaming industry?

Short, borderline-snarky answer: Make games.

Somewhat longer and hopefully more useful answer: Zero in on a core skill set other than “game designer” (which is sadly not an entry-level job) and hone that skill as much as you can by using it to make games.  Think analytically about games you like.  Try to finish something, which is a skill all its own.  Learn to collaborate successfully with other passionate people.  Then apply for a job at a lot of game studios that need someone with your particular skill set, and fight through that first wave or eight of flat rejections.  We found working at established studios for a few projects to be immeasurably valuable prior to starting our own company, so if you have aspirations to go indie, we recommend getting at least some industry experience first.  It’s not the only way to get there by any means, but it worked very well for us.

Matrices are used to define the location of things inside a coordinate system as well as how these things are projected onto your screen. If you’re looking to learn more, check out this view matrix tutorial.

What projects is FFG looking to take on in the future?

The aforementioned soundtrack is the most solid project on our horizon.  Other than that, we’re focused on supporting Jamestown and seeing where that takes us.  We have many ideas, but we’re still waiting to see how things go with this initial release and planning to take it from there.  We’ll tell you as soon as we know for sure ourselves!

What’s your favorite Rocky movie?

Having just watched the original on the steps of the art museum here in Phily just last night, it must be said: Rocky makes a strong case for itself, and if you haven’t seen it, that’s definitely the one you want.  If you have seen it, then go for Rocky Balboa (or “VI”.  The speeches!  The heart!  The South-Philly-ness of it all!

Not actual size

What’s the best sandwich joint in Philly?

We have found the Center City location of Primo Hoagies to be the dominant choice for a classic Philadelphia sandwich at a decent price.  The have fresh, expertly proportioned ingredients, a huge menu, and absolutely the most high-quality and consistent construction in the city.  Mike and Tim are fans of the Tuna and Veggie Diablos, and Hal (ever the classicist) favors the Italian Diablo.

For something a bit more special-occasion-y, Paesano’s (two locations) does a pretty incredible roast pork Arista (with provolone and broccoli rabe, the secret “true”Philadelphia sandwich) and is also crazy enough to deep-fry lasagne and put it on a sandwich with a fried egg garnish.  Just… let that idea sink in for a minute.

We prefer not to be pulled into the perennial cheesesteak debate. Philadelphians are very proud of their sandwiches, and have very strong opinions. Any answer we give would have the city pounding on our doors demanding our blood.  Besides, the city’s many other amazing sandwiches make a much better argument for paying us a visit.

Thanks for your time!

There you have it, dear readers: an indie game developer that takes its sandwiches very seriously. Oh, and Jamestown also happens to be excellent; be sure to check out our full review.

By Kyle Mann

Gaming enthusiast and writer for Press X Or Die. I game on my PC, as well as my Nintendo consoles and handhelds.