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Casually Speaking Interview: Alex J
September 12 , 2007
Casually Speaking: Alex J
Welcome to Casually Speaking – the interview series that showcases the fantastic designers, artists, and developers who make MSN® Games such a great gaming site!
With its challenging jumping puzzles, fast-paced gameplay, and eye-catching graphics, Hop It! is quickly becoming a favorite with MSN Games players. This week we meet up with Alex J., one of the ace developers whose hard work has led to the runaway success of this new puzzle game. Alex also talks about why he wanted to work in the gaming industry, what it’s like to develop casual games, and how you can launch a career making games.
MSN Games: What do you do here at MSN Games?
Alex J: I’m a software development engineer, which means I program games and design their technical architectures. And, being an avid gamer myself, I occasionally get to help design gameplay!
I actually work for Carbonated Games, the first party game studio that develops casual games for Microsoft. If you’ve ever played Hexic or Mozaki Blocks, then you’ve played one of our titles.
MSN Games: What made you interested in a career as a game developer?
Alex J: When I was a kid, my dad took my family to a computer expo. He was looking for something to help him with his business but the only thing I remember was seeing an adventure game called King’s Quest. For the next nine years, I constantly battled my dad for use of the computer. I always wanted to play games like Quake, Wing Commander, and Starcraft, while he wanted to work. I spent so much time playing games I knew I wanted to write my own.
MSN Games: How did you get started as a software developer, and what made you interested in creating casual games?
Alex J: My first real experience in the gaming industry was interning for the massively multiplayer online game , “Asheron’s Call,” and improving the security of the Zone. Com’s lobby system. I wanted to join a team that actually develops games but instead was offered a job working with the Games Explorer in Windows, which was only sort of game related. A good friend of mine asked me which group she should transfer to, and I suggested she join the Casual Games group because I loved games so much.
As fate would have it, I would soon end up sharing an office with that same friend! A couple of weeks after she started working for Casual Games, she told me, “The Casual Games group is hiring developers. You should check it out.” Since my work on the Games Explorer was just finishing, I figured it would be a good time to change groups, so here I am.
Nowadays I definitely prefer playing casual games – they’re shorter and feel more “elegant” than more complicated games. I also don’t like playing games that have only one play-through. Texas Hold ‘Em is the perfect example of a casual game where the replay value is huge!
MSN Games: Well then, what are your five favorite casual games?
Alex J: I love Texas Hold ‘Em and Bejeweled on the MSN Games site, and Lumines! Live, Bomberman Live, and Joust™ on Xbox Live® Arcade.
MSN Games: Let’s talk about developing Hop It! How did you come up with the idea for a jumping puzzle game?
Alex J: Hop It! started with the premise that “Hopping is fun!” Games like Chinese Checkers, Checkers, and Peg Solitaire inspired some of the design. The majority of the game design came from our game designer John M. He developed the innovative system of repopulating the board, which makes Hop It! unique from other jumping puzzles. A Hop It! board may seem random, but objects left at the end of a level will affect the next level you play. You may get more bombs or bonus gems depending on how many pieces you left on the last level.
MSN Games: What were the biggest challenges in creating a fun, balanced game?
Alex J: The biggest challenge for Hop It! was distilling the fun parts of hopping games and cutting out the less interesting parts. Most hopping games start out boring. In the beginning you have to carefully set up your pieces so you can win later. But there are so many pieces it’s really hard to plan ahead. The middle game can be interesting as you make big jumps, but finally you have a sort of automatic pilot ending as you run out of pieces.
Hop It! sets up the interesting boards for you, letting you skip straight to the good parts. You get rewarded for getting down to one piece left at the end of a level, but you can have several pieces remaining and still continue. Credit John M. for his brilliant design. Otherwise, balancing the game was relatively easily. We tracked player’s progress during the beta, so we could tell how well or poorly real players were doing. I also created an artificial intelligence program that was really good at playing Hop It!, which in turn gave us information about how well a top player could play the game. It kind of set an upper limit on the game balance.
MSN Games: How will the three modes – simple, challenge, and puzzle – appeal to different kinds of playstyles?
Alex J: Simple mode is a good starting point, because it offers a concrete goal to shoot for and the game balance is not overly difficult. You need to complete 16 levels to win, which while challenging is still very attainable for newer players.
Challenge mode is similar to Simple mode, but it starts out harder and has no end. You’re punished more severely for leaving pieces on the board, but you also earn more points. This is a great mode for more competitive players. What level can you get to before losing? My best level is 19 on Challenge mode, but the AI has made it up to level 26.
Puzzle mode has a certain Zen quality to it. With puzzle mode, when you run out of lives, you can just continue. You’ll lose all your points, but you can keep going. It’s interesting, because the first few levels have few enough pieces that you can think through your entire strategy. But as the level get harder, planning ahead becomes nearly impossible – your brain starts to figure out patterns and somehow you manage to solve the boards even when you haven’t consciously come up with a master solution.
MSN Games: What advice would you offer to someone interested in writing games?
Alex J: My basic advice is to just keep writing games. You can actually write casual games without deep technical skills, but I would recommend you study programming languages like C #. By writing simple games, you can build up passion for programming. Then if you keep working on more and more complex games, it will really drive you to improve.
MSN Games: What do you do in your free time?
Alex J: I play Ultimate Frisbee, write short stories, bake sugary pastries and, well, write computer games in my free time. I’m in love with Microsoft XNA software that lets people quickly and easily write games.
Thanks Alex for taking the time to talk about your job and your experience working on the Carbonated Games team!
Be sure to check back next week when we talk with developer Paul F about his experiences working with Alex on Hop It!
View the entire Casually Speaking archive!