Continuing with our ongoing coverage of the indie games scene – in case you missed it, click here for last week’s exclusive feature – this week spotlights both a game and a studio you probably haven’t yet heard of. The studio is The Old Fashioned Game Company, the game is Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad. A “runner” of sorts with an emphasis on button-mashing designed to test endurance, HTUR looks to blend ironic humor into a serious period of great historical significance for America.
Currently, the game is being developed by a two-man team: Ben Nix-Bradley and Aaron Umetani. I had the opportunity to chat with both of them to get their thoughts about the project, indie development in general, and what their ultimate goals are. Take a look:
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IGX Pro: When did you decide to get into the development scene? Was there a particular moment of realization that led you to want to design your own video game?
Ben Nix-Bradley: I’ve been interested in games since I was three years old or so. I decided to get into development halfway through college. My friends and I were learning how to program outside of the normal school activities. It
actually hurt my grades to learn what development was all about. Also at this time I was introduced to the tabletop scene; Icehouse and [Munchkin creator] Steve Jackson Games were my door to development.
Aaron Umetani: It wasn’t until I met Ben when we were working together at this one media company, that I really started to think critically about what makes a game; like, on the game mechanics level that makes a game’s experience. And it wasn’t until we had been friends a while that I really started think making an actual game was possible.
IGX: Is there a particular game you drew inspiration from while taking HTUR from concept to active development?
Ben: Games like Canabalt and Temple Run were pretty big inspirations for me when we first started developing the first prototype of HTUR.
Aaron: My day job is directing videos, and I had read a book about making cheap action movies and the author said something along the lines of ‘do what you can do well, and do what you can do, well.’ Around that time I also started playing Robot Unicorn Attack, which wasn’t a mind-blowing game in terms of scope or innovations; but everything from the mechanics and control, to the artistic presentation felt very polished and really unified, but also like something a team of one or two people could achieve.
IGX: You obviously had a very specific idea in mind when developing HTUR. Is there a personal story behind the game’s subject matter?
Ben: I remember talking about different Afro-Centric games with Aaron on the way home from work as we freestyled to hip-hop instrumentals. HTUR was a product of those trips to and from work.
Aaron: When I was a little kid and we learned about Harriet Tubman and the ‘Underground Railroad’, I thought it was a real underground tunnel train tunnel that Harriet Tubman had dug and built that lead to the north. No one ever explained to me that it was a metaphor for the network of places and people that helped free slaves. So that was the original imagining, and then later I pitched it to Ben as sort of a joke but he believed it could be a game so here we are.
IGX: Can you talk a little about the gameplay?
Ben: The game is a ‘finite runner’. The tracks get longer and more difficult enemies appear as you attempt to free slaves from the southern states. One mechanic that we’re trying to test out is being able to save your progress in an arcade experience. Like Gauntlet, but without bleeding you out as you play.
Aaron: Unlike an endless runner, where the feeling is something similar to surfing or gliding, I thought it should be a little more tiring and about endurance. One of the things we talked about was the Numan Athletics kind of button-mashing-endurance type of mechanic, coupled with some basic upgrade/item purchases. We’re also talking about possibly adding some minor narrative elements. It’s still really early though.
IGX: In an almost ironic twist, many of the most popular indie games of today offer a fresh change of pace by stripping mechanics down to basics and taking players back to their nostalgia-filled roots of yesteryear. What made you decide to develop Underground Railroad as a 2-button title?
Ben: We wanted to address the issue of fingers taking up screen space during play. I guess you could say it’s a 5 button game when you include the item implementation. At it’s core, the 2 button system is supposed to represent an easy to pick up action [experience].
Aaron: When I first met Ben, he said he wanted to be the guy who was all about focusing on one mechanic or game element and just perfecting that, and that really inspired me to think about simple ideas and try to do them well. We spent a lot of time talking about the old Nintendo Game & Watch games like Game & Watch Mario Bros. (where Mario and Luigi worked in some kind of bottling factory) and just those LCD games in general. I think a lot of the reason indie devs do simpler, old school mechanics, is because in the old days, development teams were much smaller, sometimes one person doing everything; which is how the indie scene is now. It all comes back to knowing what you can do, and working hard at that, rather than trying to make a crappy version of a game that was too big for you to tackle. This is something that is familiar to filmmakers as well.
IGX: Developing a game is no small challenge. Being a two-man team, how do you juggle such a daunting task alongside everyday responsibilities?
Ben: We use a combination of phone calls, chat and shared documents to have as much hassle-free communication as possible. We spent weeks re-iterating the design document and trying to catch exploits or interesting thematic
engagement in correspondence.
Aaron: I feel like I am not that helpful sometimes, because I can’t program and I’m not that great at art or music. There’s this anime Gurren Lagann where one of the characters says, ‘believe in the me that believes in you.’ It sounds kind of dumb, but I think if Ben believes in me, and I believe in him, we can keep going even if we sometimes don’t believe in ourselves. As for work, work is pretty draining, but I keep going because I don’t want to let Ben down.
IGX: When thinking about the impressive feats small teams can accomplish, one of the first examples that comes to mind is Supergiant Games, the team behind Bastion. Are there any indie developers you personally look up to as the benchmark for success?
Ben: Super Meat Boy (Team Meat) is a prime example. I’m also a huge fan of Jonathan Mak, Dennaton Games, Jonathan Blow and Notch. I have a special place in my heart for Lexaloffle as well, to name a few. There are many great indies out there.
Aaron: Man, I really like the guys at Klei. I met them at PAX ’09 (I think) when they were showing Shank and I was so impressed because their game didn’t feel at all like a small game. I’ve also always liked Behemoth, I don’t know how indie people consider them? But they seem like they always make the kind of games they want to make.
IGX: How active are you within the indie community? Are you keeping up with fellow developers or looking forward to other projects in particular?
Ben: I catch almost everything in the Google+ indie community. I’ve been paying attention to sites like TIGSource since Cortex Command was a thing. It’s probably been about five years for me. Buying indie bundles and always taking recommendations from friends. Before that, Newgrounds was the way to go. Go back and play RED if you have never heard of it. The developer from that game taught me a lot about design.
Aaron: Unfortunately I’m not particularly active in any community really, I’m kind of a recluse outside of my work life.
IGX: How has the indie community responded to your project thus far? Are they supportive in terms of offering feedback and constructive criticism?
Ben: We haven’t been showing the game off too much. There has been some closed testing and we’ve made an effort to get people to play as we iterate. We just haven’t gotten much feedback. The people that have played it have been challenged and have usually lol’d (an older woman actually laughed out loud for quite a while). The response has been very positive so far.
IGX: What are your plans for HTUR in terms of pricing, availability, and platforms?
Ben: Our first goal is to take this game to Adult Swim if we can get the right ironic/iconic tone out of the final product. If they don’t go for it then we’ll probably promote and publish the game ourselves. In which case we’ll shoot for the Android [Google Play Store] and price it at three dollars or less. I’d like to be able to fund an iOS release through that.
IGX: Is developing for next-generation consoles something you’d consider now that indie self-publishing is becoming the new standard?
Ben: Yes. Definitely yes. If our initial projects can fund that and we can ‘move out of the basement,’ next-gen development is high on the list. Still, we have a few more mobile/web style games that we want to develop. It’s important to build up the chops before aiming for such a high standard.
Aaron: I mean, at this point I just want to prove to myself that we can ship a finished, polished game on some platform or another.
IGX: Where can folks go if they’re interested in finding more information about the status of HTUR, or otherwise looking to comment about the project?
Ben: Every week there is a new version of the game on our sub-reddit. This is the best place to test out the latest version of the game and leave comments. We’re slowly building a community for indie developers to find the play-testers they need. If anyone has a game that they would like to post there, please feel free!
IGX: After a day of developing your own game and earning some downtime, what do you play for fun?
Aaron: I’ve always been a big Street Fighter fan, so right now it’s Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition and Monster Hunter Ultimate.
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If all goes according to plan, The Old Fashioned Game Company plans to have Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad completed by the end of the summer. From there, the next step is to either land a publisher or distribute the game on their own. Keep an eye out for HTUR, as it might pop up in Google’s Play Store for Android devices relatively soon. A very special thanks to Ben and Aaron for taking the time to chat about their work-in-progress. If you’re interested in keeping track of the game, you can either follow along at the previously-mentioned sub-reddit, or catch Ben and Aaron on Twitter.
Do you enjoy getting a behind-the-scenes look at game development and the industry itself? With self-publishing becoming a major factor for next-gen consoles, what upcoming indie game projects are you most looking forward to? Let us know in the comments section, and don’t forget to like IGXPro on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or give us the ‘ol +1 on Google+. If you can’t get enough of my shenanigans, (who could blame you?) you can check me out @GamingsNirvana, or add +VinnyParisi to your circles.