TA Interview With Misfits Attic

By Rebecca Smith,
Misfits Attic is a studio that is hoping to become a well-known name on the Xbox LIVE Arcade scene. The developer is planning to release their debut action-puzzler game, A Virus Named TOM, on XBLA within the next few months. The aim for players to help Dr X spread a virus called TOM and bring the City of Tomorrow to a grinding halt will involve a lot of clever thinking and quick wits if you are to succeed. The help of a friend (or three) is optional, but if you just want to cause mayhem on a small scale, you can sabotage your friend’s game instead – instructions on this can be found here.

The concept of ‘Pipe Mania with an added twist’ has us intrigued here at TrueAchievements, so we snagged an interview with Company Founder Tim Keenan to talk about his studio and the game’s development.

MisfitsAttic logo

First, tell us a bit about Misfits Attic and how the studio came together.

The story about how we got started is a long one with less explosions and car chases than I'd like. So let's just say I was working at DreamWorks Animation and a friend told me about XNA, and the fact that you could get a game running on the Xbox using a retail console instead of a dev kit. Suddenly I had the chance to make video games with a small team, on a limited budget, and still reach a large enough audience to possibly keep a studio afloat. Then I looked at all the other tools that were out there. I saw a perfect storm of digital distribution, accessible development tools, and a handful of amazing indie titles that have blazed the way into the mainstream gaming consciousness. From there it was just a matter of convincing Holly (my wife) that I should quit my good job and not make any money till launch (hopefully). Ironically, later when we found out she was pregnant, it was her convincing me to still go through with it.

You’ve chosen to create games as your career. What were your inspirations for making this choice?

I've always loved games: board games, card games, video games. I mean, it's hard not to, they're GAMES! However, my love went beyond simply consuming. I started wondering why they were made a certain way, and how they might be better if I changed certain rules or made different versions.

I've also always loved complex problems, and games are certainly that. Video games are a combination of challenges from so many different mediums. They're interactive, tell stories, they're very visual, usually have AI, the list goes on and on. So many faces have to come together as a succinct whole, and in that way I feel they're unique and amazing.

A Virus Named Tom appears to be the studio’s first game. Why did you choose the action-puzzle genre, and did your previous gaming history play a part in this decision?

No, when I worked at Rainbow Studios we never really made action-puzzle games. I think I’ve always loved action-puzzlers, and I knew I needed to keep the scope of the game down. So I decided to create a 2D game with two simple core mechanics. I actually got a lot of guff from this decision in the beginning because I had spent my entire career in games and film in 3D, but I think it was the right decision.

No, Splashdown and ATV Offroad Fury 2 don’t really lend themselves well to a 2D gaming experience. However, I feel that A Virus Named Tom would look odd with 3D visuals. Your game has quite a distinctive art style, but it has changed significantly since the start of the development process. Here are some examples of the change:

Main Menu - before and after
Main menu before

Main menu after

Level One - before and after
Level 1 before

Level 1 after

Territory Mode - before and after
Territory mode before

Territory mode after

Player Select screen - before and after
Player select before

Player select after

What inspired this change in direction?

Originally TOM was supposed to be a very small game. As such the story was completely told through clever little dialog screens between TOM and an “MCP” type enemy. After watching friends play the game and blatantly skip the text (and these are my friends!) I realized I needed another solution.

In the second iteration TOM became a virus that infected a city controlled by a giant corporation. Now you were able to see a Sim-City style depiction of the city, and therefore you could see your progress as you infected it. One major problem was that you were too far away from the action. Half of the fun of watching “Gremlins” was seeing the horrible yet hilarious things they were doing to this little town. We were too far away from all that and I wanted to get closer. But infecting our current technology of social networks and cloud computing just wasn’t tangible enough. So I thought, how can we infect technology, and yet see the tangible thing we’re infecting? The answer was the imagined future of the 60s.

In the 50's/60's most technology was envisioned as mechanical, like robot butlers, houses of the future, moving sidewalks, etc. These were very tangible things that we could see in a schematic, and watch go haywire first hand.

Now that we had two worlds, we could create two contrasting art styles for them. The inner world of infecting circuits became somewhat geometric, with hard solid colors and a Tron inspired glow. The outside world took on a softer style inspired by Pascal Campion and the future as imagined in the 50's and 60's. We used brush strokes to texture it in contrast to the hard glowing lines of the circuit world. However, we tied the two together with clean lines. Both worlds feel very two dimensional and graphic. Both have clean lines and colors. In both worlds blue represents "MegaTech" and the "City of Tomorrow" while green and yellow represents TOM and Dr. X. Finally, we use schematics as a level map, to visually and literally tie the worlds together.

One of the most recent concerns for your team was making the cut-scene animations understandable, especially relating to the billboards. The team has created an animation taking the billboard advert for the latest invention and turning that into the next target, with the aim being a "planning a heist" feel:

Previously you’ve asked for fan feedback on the in-game animated cut-scenes. How big a part does fan feedback play in the development process?

In almost any creative effort I believe you need feedback. As the creator you're constantly millimeters away from the problem and it blinds you. Add to that the fact that you can absolutely ignore any feedback that you get and why would you not want any? The only reason I can think of is fear that it will steer you into making a "Safer", more diluted product in a foolish attempt to please everyone. I can see that happening, and I try to tell myself that it's ok to be a dictator sometimes. There are a few areas of the game that I've gone against popular sentiment at the time and I'm glad I did. However, there are countless areas where I changed things due to feedback, and I'm glad I did that as well.

Overall I'd say "fan" feedback hasn't played a large role since we have very few fans! However, feedback from other developers, various media folk, and play test sessions has had a very big impact on the game.

Do you do your own game testing, and if so, does this present any problems through over familiarity with the game?

In a word, yes. We tend to overlook things that are small to us, but when we send a demo out to get an opinion, people will inevitably be frustrated by these oversights. Needless to say, we're expecting to have a much more rigid QA process before we launch the final product.

What challenges are presented by working with a small team on this game?

Speed to market. Most of the team consists of contractors that are working less than 20 hours a week. This is a necessary evil since we can't afford to be anyone’s main source of income. This in turn causes everything to move slower than you'd like, and it feels like it's taking forever to get a product out. This is stressful when you have a limited runway.

Consistency has also been an issue. Due to our budget we haven’t always had the pull to keep people on the team throughout development. This leads to a lot of overhead and lead up time every time we bring on a new team member. I also can't assume they understand the context for decisions, because they may not have been [at the studio] long enough to understand the history of the games design.

Also, when your wife gets pregnant, it tends to affect the production a lot more. Not only because you're the only one working full time and you now have a baby, but also because your wife is the art director.

Screenshot 1

We couldn’t have an interview on TA without asking about achievements. When do you put the achievements into a game, and how do you decide the criteria for an achievement?

I believe achievements are a great way of extending the life of a game, and give gamers an excuse to delve deeper into certain aspects of a game. For example: my wife loved Fable II, and when she beat the game she wanted to keep playing. But sometimes we need direction (objectives) when playing, and achievements gave her that. I don’t know if my wife would’ve tried to get a threesome going in Fable 2 had it not been an achievement.

Fable IIThe SwingerThe The Swinger achievement in Fable II worth 7 pointsTake part in a debauched bedroom party with several participants.

As such I don’t want to just give an achievement each time you complete an area of the game. I feel it’s not only squandering achievements, but also somewhat breaks the suspension of disbelief when a pop up appears during a cut scene. Therefore we’d like to create achievements for things that you don’t need to do to beat the game. Also, I think half the fun is naming the achievement, so if we can come up with some humorous or ironic titles for the extra things players will do, all the more fun.

Of course they’ll be an achievement for changing your gamer tag to “buyAvirusNamedTom”, and it’ll be a big one, since that’s longer than gamer tags are allowed to be.

Your website states that you’re “targeting XBLA” amongst others, but that nothing has yet been confirmed. How challenging is the process of publishing a game on XBLA?

Challenging. You need to get in bed with a publisher, so you instantly have to sign away some of your profits. There's also a lot of hoops you have to jump through in legal, QA, and development. The flip side of this is that due to this sort of "editorialized" process, you know that your game will be one of only two the week it launches, and that gamers will take it seriously. It's the double edge sword of pain vs. exclusivity. I'll probably have a lot more to say on this when it's all said and done.

Finally, if you weren’t able to publish your game on XBLA, would you consider publishing through the Xbox LIVE Indie Games channel?
The short answer is yes, and personally I would want to, but it would depend on some politics as far as other marketplaces go. Some contracts you have to sign demand a certain amount of exclusivity, and due to the sales figures you can expect on XBLIG, it would get pushed around by demands from other marketplaces.

Thanks go out to Tim for taking the time to do this interview and providing an interesting insight into the challenges of developing your first game!

Schematic score screen
Rebecca Smith
Written by Rebecca Smith
Rebecca is the Newshound Manager at TrueGaming Network. She has been contributing articles since 2010, especially those that involve intimidatingly long lists. When not writing news, she works in an independent game shop so that she can spend all day talking about games too. She'll occasionally go outside.
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