Q&A: Naked Sky founders on RoboBlitz

Trio of devs working on upcoming Xbox Live Arcade and Steam-distributed PC game talk emergent gameplay.

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While Microsoft Game Studios is releasing the Unreal Engine 3 showpiece Gears of War this week, not every game using Epic Games' middleware needs to be a high-profile, high-budget system seller. Case in point: Naked Sky's RoboBlitz, a physics-driven game set to be digitally distributed for the Xbox 360 via Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade and for the PC through Valve's Steam service.

RoboBlitz follows the story of the robotic hero Blitz, a maintenance droid working on an orbital weapons platform that comes under attack from enemy forces. The game challenges players to master action and puzzle elements to protect the station from invaders and includes a number of unique mechanics such as a beam that players can use to tether things together, tying up enemies to one another, creating makeshift nunchakus out of nearby barrels, or using the beams to manipulate parts of the level to the their own advantage. For a guided tour of some of Blitz's abilities, check out the developer's walkthrough demo.

Naked Sky cofounders Joshua Glazer, Sam Thibault, and Tian Mu recently answered some of GameSpot's questions about the game's development, working with Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade certification, and a possible PlayStation 3 edition of the game.

GameSpot: Where did Naked Sky come from? What previous experience do the developers have, and why did they choose that name for the studio?

Tian Mu: Naked Sky Entertainment was founded by three guys: Joshua Glazer, Sam Thibault, and myself. Josh and I have been childhood friends, and Sam and Josh met in college. I started in the games industry at age 15, working as a game designer at 7th Level. Josh wrote his first shareware game when he was 12 and teamed up with me on various projects at different game companies throughout our high school years. Josh and Sam both went to MIT and got their Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Computer Engineering.

When we founded the company over four years ago, I wanted the word "Sky" in the company name, but every type of sky was taken (e.g. Crystal Sky, Blue Sky, and so on). Suddenly, a giant baby dropped on Josh's head and he shouted "Naked" (as in cloudless and clear) and the rest was history.

GS: The physics-based gameplay you showed off in the first official movie suggested that players would have a number of ways to solve any given puzzle. How do you design a game to allow for multiple solutions like that without making things too easy?

Josh Glazer: Well, you could just as easily ask, "How do you design a game to allow for a single solution to each puzzle without making things too arbitrary?" There's a balance in there, and we're really interested in not forcing the player to think exactly like the designer. I don't think easy is too much of a concern because people aren't used to thinking about games working the way things do in real life. It's not often that you get to solve puzzles in a game using common sense. I'm not saying that's true about all our puzzles, but we're definitely trying to reach that point, and so far we haven't gotten any complaints about our puzzles being too easy.

GS: Have you encountered any emergent gameplay due to the physics-based engine--ways to solve puzzles or use the in-game actions that you hadn't anticipated?

Sam Thibault: Tons and tons. The point-to-point beam is particularly versatile and allows the player to make a springlike constraint between any two objects. It's great for solving puzzles, but we also had players doing unexpected things with it, like connecting two barrels together to make a nunchaku-style melee weapon. In one puzzle I built, where the player needs to rotate a conveyor belt into position, I was pretty happy when I knew of three different ways to solve it. Then testers came in and found four more ways to solve it I hadn't imagined--that's exciting!

GS: How common do you expect physics-based gameplay to be in future games? Is procedurally generated content a flash in the pan or something that will become standard?

JG: Everyone loves replay value and everyone loves creative gameplay. A very important contributor to both of those is procedurally generated content--be it physics-based animation, procedural textures, learning AI, or what have you. It's not going to be a requirement for all games, but I think in the near future, all triple A titles are going to use some form or another.

GS: We've heard Microsoft has a pretty strict 50MB limit on Xbox Live Arcade titles. How heavily do you have to take that into account when you start to design a game, and how did you adapt RoboBlitz to fit that size restraint?

TM, JG, and ST: First rule of RoboBlitz: DO NOT go over 50MB.
Second rule of {!! ERROR: OUT OF MEMORY !!}

Seriously though, we built RoboBlitz from the ground up with the 50MB limit in mind. Some of the game elements already lent themselves to the size constraint, such as using characters with physics-based movements rather than hand animations. For other needs, we utilized tools like procedural texturing to reduce the size of the title.

GS: The Xbox Live Arcade certification process has been blamed for a number of game delays and the lack of advance notice for games hitting the Marketplace. What's the big deal with certification? Is it any more difficult for a Live Arcade game than for a normal console game?

ST: I wouldn't say it's more difficult, but the certification process is certainly as stringent for a Live Arcade game. I think the differences are a result of how titles are released on Live Arcade, with Microsoft acting as the gatekeeper. If a title runs into problems during certification, then there could be some reshuffling that would potentially disrupt advance notices.

GS: You've said the PC game will run gamers about $15 on Steam. Does that mean the game will be 1,200 Marketplace Points ($15) when it arrives for the Xbox 360?

TM: That's correct.

GS: Are you expecting a simultaneous release on PC and Xbox 360?

TM: It will be available on the PC first, and XBLA soon after. We're very excited to finally show off our baby!

GS: Are you talking with Sony at all about a PlayStation 3 version of RoboBlitz somewhere down the line?

Unknown: Agent Smith is watching.

GS: Thanks much.

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