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Casually Speaking Interview: Paul F
September 27, 2007
Casually Speaking: Paul F
Welcome to Casually Speaking – the interview series that showcases the fantastic designers, artists, and developers who make MSN® Games such a great gaming site!
In our last interview, we spoke with developer Alex J about his work on MSN Games’ exciting new jumping puzzler, Hop It! This week we speak with fellow developer and Alex’s “partner in crime” – Paul F – about how the Hop It! game evolved over time. Paul will also talk about why he decided to become a casual games developer; and about his former life as a semi-pro keyboardist.
MSN Games: Paul, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. To start with, what do you do here?
Paul F: My title is Software Development Engineer, which means I’m a professional coder. I write the computer code that makes games work, such as figuring out what the player has clicked on the screen; drawing the chips, cards, or pieces in the right place and making sure they’re doing the correct animation; writing the AI so the computer players act realistically for the game; and making sure everything works as it should.
Like Alex I 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: When we spoke with Alex about Hop It!, he recommended we ask you about how the project changed over time.
Paul F: Hop It! went through many design changes, visually, thematically, and gameplay-wise. In the very early stages, all we had were squares sliding around the board with no animations. About a month later, we moved on to having pieces actually jump, and at that stage I went from thinking, “is this even going to be fun?” to “yes, we have a game!”
We kept changing elements and goals of the game as time went on. Did we want to reward long series of jumps or did we want clearing the board to be the goal? We wrestled with how we would give and take away lives, and the bombs that you see in the game now were actually at least two different things previously: skulls and gray broken hearts. The screenshot below shows you what the game looked like during the development stage.
MSN Games: Would you have done anything differently?
Paul F: There’s one thing I wish we had done differently – add an animation speed slider so players could control how fast or slow the game played. We kept speeding up gameplay in development – with animations happening faster and faster. But you must also keep in mind the users whenever you’re making a new title. Will someone play Hop It! for the first time and say “whoa, slow down,” or feel the pace is just right?
MSN Games: You were responsible for designing the game’s user interface or UI. What were some of the goals you had in mind when designing this part of the Hop It! experience?
Paul F: The User Interface is always a challenge because it’s what people see first and relate to as “the game.” There can be hidden problems in the underlying logic, but they all manifest through the interface, which means the UI tends to get blamed for a lot of problems. During development, I’d often hear, “Why does this look like that? or “what did you do wrong?” Half the time it was my fault for displaying the wrong piece. Other times the UI was doing exactly what it was supposed to, but the underlying logic was causing the wrong piece to show up.
Really, the goal of any UI is to make a game intuitive and easy to use for a new user. We have to support different play styles, like multiple clicks and drag-and-drop. So making sure everything in the game behaves the way the user expects it to behave is the biggest challenge.
MSN Games: By the way, how did you become interested in working as a game developer?
Paul F: I grew up with video games and owned a Commodore 64 as a child and a Commodore Amiga 500 as a teen. I used to write my own games using a program called Stuart Smith’s Adventure Construction Set, which allowed you to make turn-based adventure games. It was very primitive by today’s standards: 16 colors, only three sound effects at a time, and a joystick with only four directions and one button. But I found magic in the notion that you could take someone to a different place by making games.
MSN Games : You used to make Xbox® games , correct?
Paul F: Actually, my first jobs in high tech involved building software for robotics and financial applications. Thanks to that earlier experience, I built up enough skills to land the first game developer job I applied for in Seattle. That was in 1999. After bouncing between several game companies, I landed a contract with Microsoft working on the original Forza Motorsport™ for Xbox.
MSN Games: What then made you interested then in developing casual games?
Paul F: After a year of contracting on the Forza project, I began looking for full-time positions and found myself particularly drawn to Carbonated Games. I had already worked on several large scale, year-long projects with a team of 30 other developers alone, not to mention 15 artists working on dozens of levels. I really wanted to spend some time as part of a really small, tight-knit team, where I could make condensed, “fun-in-a-can” style games. After two and a half years, I can honestly say I’ve never been happier at any other group and I’ve never been prouder of the products I’ve shipped.
I had also become somewhat of a poker aficionado, and this seemed like the right group for me to join, with its love of card games and tabletop experiences.
MSN Games: What would you consider your favorite casual games currently?
Paul F: I’m a big fan of Texas Hold ‘Em and Catan Online on the MSN Games site, and UNO® on Xbox Live ® Arcade.
MSN: Any advice for aspiring game developers?
Paul F: A person interested in being a game developer has to have more of a passion for creating games than playing them. You need to really understand mathematics, from algebra to Boolean logic to the calculus that applies to physics. A good game developer also needs to be an excellent communicator, as so many games today are team efforts. This often means being able to effectively discussing and debating aspects of game code and design with your teammates.
MSN Games: We’ve heard you used to be a professional musician – is that true?
Paul F: Yes! In a former life, I played keyboard and did vocals for my own band called Static Engine and later joined a Seattle-based band called Sounds of Mass Production, or SMP. I also used to be a college radio DJ when I was attending Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. I still have a small home recording studio, although I mostly just noodle around writing the occasional song or helping friends record their own songs.
Otherwise, I like to go biking around Seattle with my wife or wander about town exploring new restaurants. Of course, I still love to play video games and probably play at least an hour every day – sometimes much more, much to the chagrin of my wife, I’m sure!
Thank you again, Paul, for taking the time out to talk to us!
Be sure to also check out the interview with Paul’s partner on the Hop It! team – Alex J – in the Casually Speaking archive:
View the entire Casually Speaking archive!