Hardwood Spades isn't just any run-of-the-mill card game; it has a fantasy theme and characters, plenty of customization options, and a great online community.
Developer: Silver Creek Entertainment
Publisher: Silver Creek Entertainment
Release date: available now
By T. Byrl Baker
It seems that it would be easy to program a good card game, but with hundreds of free or shareware games in this genre clogging the Internet, simply getting noticed can be a developer's biggest challenge. Silver Creek Entertainment obviously recognized this problem early on; its games have never had a problem standing out in the crowded market.
Beginning with Hardwood Solitaire, it was obvious that Silver Creek wasn't just another company trying to cash in on a simple concept. The company focused on making its games customizable, user-friendly, and above all, beautiful. They succeeded on all counts, and Hardware Spades, the company's latest game, epitomizes what the Hardwood series is all about. Everything from the menus to the automated update screen shares the same gorgeous fantasy theme, with parchment paper backing all the text, smooth animations everywhere, and colorful particle effects showering the screen after nearly every mouse click. There are plenty of themed card decks to choose from, and the game is compatible with Silver Creek's Deck Press software so that you can design your own decks or use one of the hundreds of decks others have created. Even the MIDI music tracks are more enchanting than they have any right to be.
Hardwood Spades combines the outstanding graphics of its predecessors with online play and throws in a few surprises that really set this game apart from the competition. You begin by picking one of 21 customizable character portraits and then decide whether you want to play against the AI or head straight to the online servers. The online component certainly is the highlight of Hardwood Spades, and a wonderful community has crystallized around the game. There are always plenty of friendly folks willing to play, and, as you'll learn in the interview, Hardwood Spades has served as the catalyst for more than a few real-life relationships. Silver Creek has spiced up the online component by letting you chat and by implementing "fooms," which are perhaps the game's best feature. Fooms let you either punish or reward the others at the table by doing things like hitting them with fireballs when they wrong you or giving them a virtual kiss when they help you out (wittingly or not).
Fooms have absolutely no effect on the outcome of the game, but they do make it feel more like you're sitting around a table with some friends. Even the chat feature is designed to better emulate a real conversation by putting text in cartoonlike dialogue balloons next to the character who typed it. A standard chat box that keeps a log of the conversation is still accessible, but once we saw the semitransparent dialogue balloons in action, there was no going back.
You'd think it would take a legion of artists and programmers to create a game this polished, but it was produced by a team of three people: two programmers (Dan Edwards and Manny Suarez) and one artist (Jonas Stuart). Stuart and Edwards took the time to tell us about the development of Silver Creek's latest game, the problems independent developers face, and their upcoming projects.
Next: Q&A with Hardwood Spades' artist and king coder
Q&A With Hardwood Spades Artist Jonas Stewart and King Coder Dan Edwards
GameSpot: First off, who came up with the idea for throwing snowballs or smooching other players?
Jonas Stewart: I think someone had a "hey--wouldn't it just kick butt if we made a fireball out of the partials" moment, and then lo and behold, Manny presented the first "foom" effect. From there we expanded on the fireball until we had snowballs, kisses, gold coins, soap bubbles, and bolts of lightning.
The foom effects have been fun to work on, trying to figure out what it would take to make something look real. We actually did quite a bit of scouring on the Internet to learn how to create a lightning strike that looked real. The end result was great, and we we're pretty proud of it.
Of course, things could always be better--a thought that often gets us down the dark and scary road of fun and delight.
At first the foom was a secret, but soon the foom became a core part of gameplay and self-expression. Folks could now hurl a ball of fire when things didn't go the way they chose. Then we added Kiss and Pay to let folks have some fun ways to express gratitude.
GS: Silver Creek has been in the independent game business for a relatively long time. What's your secret to success?
JS: We don't know any better...Geez, were we supposed to fail by now? Heh heh. We're a small team, and we call all the shots, so there isn't anybody to pull funding out from us. So as long as folks like our games, we have enough resources to continue to make more great games just the way our players want.
We also have a direct relationship with our players; we personally respond to many of the questions our customers ask.
We have taken some pretty solid games and really elevated them to the level of fun that those games should be at. The kind of games we do are evergreen; they are good games at the core and have been for generations. So I guess we just make the games we've all played better.
Dan Edwards: Keeping it real and doing what works. Growing slowly and not risking a lot.
GS: As an independent developer, what has been the biggest obstacle Silver Creek has faced in producing and distributing its games?
JS: Gaining market share. We solely sell on the Internet right now, and getting a quality game spread across it is a challenge; and we still don't have the product recognition to the level we'd like to see.
However, I'd have to say that it's not uncommon for me to bump into people that have played one of our games, which brings joy to my heart.
We are craftsmen; creating fun is our craft, and we enjoy the fact that we can even make a difference to some people's lives.
DE: Time. To compete nowadays, it takes a lot of time and effort to keep up.
Next: Fairy dust flies into poker faces!
GS: What features have you implemented in Hardwood Spades that you feel really sets it apart from competing card games?
JS: I think the obvious answer would be graphics and special effects...and, indeed, we put a lot of effort into the imagery of the games we make. I could list off things like particle effects that let you see the fairy dust fly off cards or see a fireball collide with a player in a flurry of embers. Or the neat interface things we've done like the cool characters you can edit with all the colors of the rainbow.
But I think the real difference is [the] baked-in-goodness factor. We really want our games to be more than the sum of their features--it's the magic of everything put together, something with atmosphere.
GS: How successful has the online component of Hardwood Spades been?
JS: The online Internet play has been pretty popular and has added a dimension to our games that is really a blast. Much of our design efforts have been in solving issues with online play. Trying to balance everything to make it [as] fun and fair as we know how.
It's been astonishing to watch our online community grow. Heck, we even had a couple meet on our server and get married, one player from the US, the other from Australia. In fact, they wanted to have their characters from our game on their wedding cake!
GS: Has the online ranking system spurred interest in the game?
JS: The online ranking is definitely an important aspect; however, we found that it's the friendships that form that really is the key to online play. Players make friends from all around the world and return to meet with them every day on Hardwood Spades.
Almost like a global pizza parlor.
GS: What is your approach to programming the single-player AI for a game like Spades? How do you make something like that seem as human as possible?
JS: Computers will be computers, and making the AI humanlike hasn't been our focus, but, instead, our focus is using the strengths of the computer. People are very good at the psychology of a game. They'll try to put on their "poker faces" to make you wonder what cards they might or might not have. The computer, on the other hand, has skill in remembering everything, something that it's better at than people, and that's where we have so far put the emphasis on the AI. It observes and makes a decision on that perfect memory.
As we refine the AI more and more, we might try some of the more psychological playing. Right now, though, there are plenty of both types of play on the online server.
GS: Were there any technological hurdles to overcome during the development of the game?
DE: I would say the biggest problem with technology is the Internet. It is really hard to write something that is bulletproof on it. After a year of fine-tuning and [creating] elaborate solutions to problems like lag and disconnects, it continues to be a problem. Keeping a server online 24/7, 365 days a year is not an easy task.
Next: Fans and beta testers request more fooms
JS: One thing Dan's done to overcome many of the problems inherent to the Internet is to make our game do everything it can to make sure you get put back into your game. Sometimes it's so fast that folks don't even know the Internet kicked them off the server.
On many online game sites, even a small Internet hiccup could ruin your current game, which is a real problem. Not so with Hardwood Spades. In fact, you can even sometimes recover from major issues like your dog pulling the power cord from the wall socket while chasing a skunk through your house. You just power back up and log onto the server, and we'll place you back into your current game! Now that's cool.
GS: Are tools readily available for teams willing to spend the time it takes to master them?
DE: As far as tools being out there, yeah, they're a great starting point. But to do the really cool stuff, you either have to spend mega bucks or do it yourself. The whole Linux movement has also really helped all aspects of computing and has helped us solve lots of problems cheaply.
GS: How much input do fans and beta testers have on your project?
JS: Players are a great sounding board for new features and ideas. Many of the features we worked into the game were requests, for instance, some of the "good job" type fooms--Kiss and Pay. They thought it was great to zap folks, but they also wanted to do sweet things, too.
DE: We are really open to any idea; if it's something that is easy to do and beneficial, we'll usually add it right away. We appreciate all the feedback we receive. Sometimes it only takes one person to stand up and ask for a feature.
GS: What do you think the future looks like for independent developers?
JS: I think the future is great. There has been an independent movement for years that started before the Internet became big. It's oftentimes called shareware, but it's really just a friendly way to market your products on the Internet. You create a great game, place a demo all over the Internet for players to find, and set up a way to accept orders from your Web page.
The Internet is where a truly independent game developer should be. Independent in my mind means to be free to create what you want to and market directly to your players yourself.
DE: I think there are plenty of niches out there that need filling. There are more and more users getting computers every day, so those niches will grow large enough to support a business. Time and time again people are proven wrong, and a new game comes out that defines a new genre, usually from a smaller company.
GS: Any tips for other independent teams who want to publish a game on their own?
JS: One pitfall that new teams need to consider is not to try to make some huge project right from the start. Even the card games we make can take a real long time. Try something really small and work your way up.
Another thing to keep in mind is that free help is often flaky, so you need to help them stay on task if that's the route you go, and [it's] another reason to make small projects. Find folks that are going to be in it for the long haul.
Next: The last 10 percent and Top Ramen noodles
Search the Net for other projects. Many of them have valuable lessons they can share with you.
And last, work real hard and make sure you finish what you start. The last 10 percent is the hardest, but until it's finished, you don't have a game.
DE: The Internet is an awesome tool, so use it every way you can. From meeting people to help you, to finding new ideas, to marketing and distributing. I don't think we could've got where we are without it.
GS: Do you have time to play other computer games? If so, what are your favorites and why?
JS: Right now I'm working through Icewind Dale. Great game. I'm an RPG fan and love those long single-player games. The last game I played through was Diablo II. Although I think RPGs are my favorite, I also enjoy 3D shooters and RTS games like Half-Life or the Command & Conquer series. I sometimes wish I had more time to play, but then again it's more rewarding to make a great game.
I couldn't tell you the huge amounts of time we played Duke Nukem or Descent years ago while working on Hardwood Solitaire. I remember the big quantum shift of realizing that the mouse was a hell of a lot better than the keyboard on 3D shooters. Our poor Wingman joysticks both broke playing Descent, and nope, superglue isn't good enough to glue the little hat control back on, nor is trying to melt it back on with matches.
DE: Yes, I used to be a really avid gamer, but it is getting harder to find the time to play. I mostly enjoy real-time strategy games like Warcraft, Age Of Empires, and Command & Conquer.
GS: Are there any other projects in the works that you'd like readers to know about?
DE: We'll continue to do the classics with more and more features and enhancements. Next is euchre, a new version of solitaire, and backgammon.
GS: Do you have any war stories about the development of Hardwood Spades you'd like to share?
DE: Nope. It went pretty smooth; most of the hard stuff was already done in Hearts. The war story is that we always think that something is going to take us a few months to complete, and it ends up taking a year.
JS: War stories? Yeah I'd have to agree, with Spades it's been smooth sailing. Geez, I guess we're getting good at this stuff--no more flights of terror. Our biggest frights now come from deadlines like submitting to the Independent Games Festival or getting stuff to the folks that manufacture our CDs.
I'll tell you what, though. In the first year Dan and I really had to tighten up our belts and had a lot of meals of Top Ramen (chicken flavor). Pretty tasty stuff, though, and [you can buy] 12 for only a buck.
GS: How many people were involved in the development of Hardwood Spades, and what were their roles?
JS: We have three folks on our development staff: Dan Edwards, King Coder, keeps the servers going and is in charge of making things work; Manny Suarez, Second Coder extraordinaire, who works on lots of the gizmos and neat stuff; and Jonas Stewart (that's me). My main purpose is to try to create the overall feel of the game and to create all the artwork.