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Interview with Metanet's Mare Sheppard, co-creator of N

Brad Gallaway's picture

Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns

At the recent Penny Arcade Expo, a small table in the back corner of the exhibition hall had a long line of people waiting to try a game that looked like a few pixels thrown onto a blank screen. It was stunning, to say the least. After a little investigation and some quick Q & A, GameCritics.com is proud to present an interview with Mare Sheppard, one of the two great minds behind what's going to be an extremely hot property for fans of games from the indie circuit (like us).

To start off with, can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?

[Raigan Burns and I] met in University of Toronto, in a programming class, and immediately decided to join forces and develop video games. We both have interests outside of programming which are complimentary to game development and design, so it seemed like we could handle all the aspects required for successful game design.

How did you get started creating N? What was the original concept, or where did the inspiration come from?

There was a game which we wanted to play, but which didn't yet exist: a 2D platformer in the old-school style, but with modern movement/collision. That was the concept for N. We started with the basic technology (tile-based collision and physics-based movement) and just built the game around that.

Mostly we just experimented until things worked well; for instance, we initially intended the game to be stealth-based, where the ninja would sneak around. Once we had written the movement code, we realized that it was much more fun to run like crazy and jump all over the place, so the stealth aspect was abandoned.

Two people is extremely small in terms of development team size. What is it like to be a duo? Can you tell us some of the ups and downs, and how long a process has it been to bring N to fruition?

We learned quickly that you have to work within your means. That is not to say that your dreams can't be big, but sometimes you have to be realistic about your abilities, and the time it will take to realize your goals. We love being such a small team though, because it means we have complete control over our ideas and executions of ideas, which is ideal. You also learn to appreciate the tools that make your job easier—for example, N was built in Flash, so we didn't need to write an animation system.

One of the biggest benefits of having such a small team is that we're totally integrated—not that we don't disagree or have different opinions.

It's just that we understand each other, so that we don't need to spend a lot of time in meetings trying to "impart the vision" to the whole team. There's no bureaucratic overhead that you might find with larger teams, where communication/meetings/etc become just as important to development as actual work.

N Screenshot


Anyway, two people isn't so small historically—Lode Runner and Dark Castle were both made by one-person teams!

The first version of N took about 6 months to develop, including developing its engine. The game itself actually only took 6 weeks—we started with a tile-based collision engine, and just added stuff onto that until we had a game. There was a lot to fix and touch up (which we did in subsequent versions), but overall it took less time than we thought it would.

N won the audience choice award at the 2005 IGF, and again at the 2006 Guerilla Gamemaker Competition. How did it feel to be recognized for your efforts?

MS: Amazing.  We were shocked, both times—we do think N is a great, fun (if frustrating) game, but it's still awesome to hear that others share our enjoyment. We didn't really know if people would "get" it the way we do, it's sort of plain to look at—it does have style, but it's more understated and subtle than most games these days.

It definitely restored our faith in a gaming public which seemed to be succumbing to the industry-wide emphasis on graphics and hype, and perhaps overlooking the importance of simple, addictive gameplay.

Your website announced that N+ will be coming to the DS, PSP and Xbox Live Arcade. Can you tell us what the differences will be between N and N+?

If all goes well, the differences should be superficial. The '+' in N+ includes: different flavours of multiplayer modes in each version, a smattering of new enemies, next gen graphics, background music, and some nifty particle effects. Mostly just small things to accommodate the various platforms—for instance, pixel-art on the handhelds, since their low-resolution screens don't lend themselves to smooth vector shapes very well.

We made "a whack" of new levels for single player mode, and are ensuring the control and gameplay remain true to the original. You'll also be able to create and share levels using the built-in level editor, just like in N.

What was the process like going from an indie game to a "real product" with the big three? How is it to work with the studios that are helping you with the translation to consoles?

It requires so much paperwork! And also endless waiting and meetings. We decided to work with a developer instead of porting N ourselves mainly because we wanted to be able to work on Robotology.

For the XBLA version, we received funding through Telefilm, and were able to hire a developer and publish the game ourselves. The developer of the XBLA version is Slick Entertainment, out in Vancouver, BC. This has been amazing—they're super easy to work with, they seem to "get" N, and they've made great contributions to the project. If this is possible for our next foray into "real" projects, this is the way we'd like to do it: working with a small team which knows the console well.

N Screenshot


For the DS/PSP version, we licensed the title to Atari, and worked with them to choose a developer. Atari is the producer/publisher, and we provide consultation to ensure the finished game is as good as it should be. The developer of the DS/PSP versions is Silverbirch Studios, in Etobicoke, ON. This version is not progressing as well, but it's early yet, and we've got a great producer at Atari, David, who really understands N. So we're staunchly optimistic.

What can you tell us about your next project, Robotology?

Robotology is going to be another 2D physics-based platformer, but it will feature a more interactive world, a grappling hook, and physically simulated animation/movement. The entire game is going to be dynamic, where everything is simulated just like the player was in N. We will keep the graphics minimal, but will inject more detail into each robot's chassis. We're hoping to further explore our "vector-art" graphics style... too  many 2D games these days are stuck in a sprite-based way of thinking, which is so boring—you can do so many more things with graphics hardware!

When we first read about the new Prince of Persia game (Sands of Time) prior to its release, we were really excited—they were talking about fluid movement and how you could just move the player around the environment in a really smooth way. Then the game came out, and it was like... WTF?! It's the exact same sort of thing found in every other game: the player is just a box that translates around the world, and behaviour is driven by a finite state machine that plays back pre-made animations. This is the same old technology that's always used; they just added lots of "polish" to hide that fact!

We were expecting something a lot more like NaturalMotion-type movement—the player should be able to point the controller in the direction they want to move, and have their character do whatever makes sense in that context (i.e. slide, run up the wall, etc).So, this is one part of what we're trying to do—player movement that feels very fluid and fun. N was sort of a first attempt at this.

A natural extension of this idea is then to simulate all the behaviour in the world, so that all the interactions are smooth and natural-feeling rather than the rigid/discrete/binary types of interaction you normally see in games.

That's the plan anyway ; )

At this point, what does the future hold for Metanet? Are you to the point where you can devote yourselves to games development full-time? Do you intend to stay small, or are you seeking other opportunities?

Ideally we'd like to be able to work on our own games full-time. We can't be sure, of course. So far we haven't actually made any money!

Our initial business plan was to simply release shareware downloadable games. Now that we've had the opportunity to make a console game, another idea we're toying with is to release downloadable freeware games, and then make commercial/console versions of whichever of those Nintendo/Microsoft/Sony are interested in. Hopefully one of these plans will work. Certainly we intend to keep making games somehow.

One thing we'd like to avoid is the typical thing small developers always do once they've gotten their foot in the door, which is "get a big advance and grow the company". We'd much rather just do contract work to finance development of our games. Or turn to a life of crime... basically anything other than become a "professional" studio.

The problem with growing your company is that you end up spending all your time managing a business rather than making games. What publishers want and what publishers think gamers want becomes more important than what you the developer want to create. It just seems like a counter-productive and vicious cycle to get involved in. It's fine if your goal is to just sell off the company, but at that point you're not really a game developer, you're just a businessperson—your company could be anything. We'd much rather stay small and continue to make our own games independently, rather than play real-life "Viva Piñata" fattening up our company.

Of course, this is only until we're ready to execute the world domination phase of our business plan.

Before creating N, what were some of the games that inspired you? What games inspire you today?

We were inspired by Lode Runner, Super Bubble Blob, Puchi, Soldat, Super Mario Bros, all of Kenta Cho's games, and many more. We find tons of games inspiring—and now we have the benefit of knowing of a many more small teams whose games are always motivating us to be more creative, and giving us reasons to continue. 

It seems like many more people are making their own small games or possible there are just more marketing/press opportunities now for small teams, so that they're easier to find out about. Queasy Games, Cryptic Sea, Data Realms, Iteration Games, Introversion. It seems like there tons of great, small indies doing their own thing. Hooray for us!

This wouldn't be a GameCritics interview without asking how you feel about the topic of games as art. Without getting into a tangential discussion about the definition of what "art" is, do you feel that video games can be art?

Sure.  That was definitely something we tried to do with N, too—N's graphics adhere to the minimalist style, and serve to shift focus from the superficial "window dressing" to a deeper, more intrinsic message: good "gameplay" is the essence of games. Like anything else games can be a vehicle for expressing a certain style or aesthetic, or presenting ideas, but the interactive part, movement and simulation, is what sets games apart from other media.

N Screenshot


It's really sad that games seem more and more entrenched in the idea of narrative as "the ultimate form of art". This is exactly what happened to film—these days "film" means "Hollywood narrative", but the actual medium of film has so much more potential than simply telling stories. This is what really drives us crazy about people like Ebert, they're so indoctrinated in this one narrow view of the world—"Serene Velocity" is about 975425x more interesting than "Titanic", but it has nothing to do with narrative or emotions or story-telling.

Humans seem to have a built-in affinity for story-telling, so it's inevitable that companies leverage that—adding a narrative to your product is an easy way to make it more appealing to consumers. But it's false, it undermines the actual game—the story has nothing to do with the game—the game code itself isn't even aware of the story at all! How can the story really matter in a game, when (as far as the game world is concerned) it's just a bunch of arbitrary text and graphics and sound?!

We need to get back from "videogames" to "computer games": computers are incredibly useful modeling/simulation tools, and games should be all about the models created and explored by the developers. Film has already become hopelessly trapped in the commercial morass of narrative despite its other uses... it's disturbing that the same thing is happening to games.

Imagine if using film to capture moving images had never even caught on, and instead movies were used as a way to display text sequentially—so that the audience could read a written story projected on the screen. Wouldn't that be totally, obviously stupid? And yet this is the exact sort way that games are being used—as a bastardized version of some other medium rather than as an entirely different creative platform/paradigm. Braid and Everyday Shooter are two great examples of what games should be about.

Mostly we feel like both sides of the "can games be art" debate are totally missing the point and framing the debate in a really restrictive, narrow way. In case you can't tell, this is definitely something that we intend to address at some point on our blog!

Thanks very much for speaking with us, Mare. We look forward to seeing N invade every platform on the market. For readers wanting more N-ness or to download a full version of N, check out http://www.metanetsoftware.com/blog and http://harveycartel.org/metanet. And tell them GameCritics sent you.

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Mare totally gets it.

I never considered movies could be art in a non-narrative way. It completely changes the way I compare movies to videogames. Both mediums can be independent of storytelling, completely undermining my idea of what entertainment is. Thanks for the enlightenment, and best of luck with your games.
~KWarp

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