I love Super Amazing Wagon Adventure. Not only does it have a really good name (you can’t fail when you hook two adjectives together, you just can’t), but it’s also a wise and wonderful homage to eighties game design principles. And it’s on Xbox Live Indie Games without being a Minecraft clone!
I needed to know more about this silly and surreal pastiche, so I done interviewed its creator, Sparsevector. And here is what Mr Sparsevector said.
So I read in an interview with The Verge that you have an academic background. Did you study game design at an undergraduate and post-graduate level?
I didn’t study game design or anything related to that, but I’m flattered that was your guess [Well done, a research failure in the first question, you're fired – imaginary Hookshot editor]. I studied a non-game-related area of computer science, specifically machine learning. Game development came about as sort of a side project and a fun distraction from research. I actually think there is potential to mix machine learning and games, but so far I haven’t had any concrete ideas for that.
Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is a kind of pastiche of the educational game, Oregon Trail – did you play that game in its original form? What attracted you to writing a parody?
Yes, like many Americans my age I have quite fond memories of playing Oregon Trail on school computers. I think there are a couple of factors which made me want to make a parody. First, there are many parts of the game’s design that still feel pretty interesting and exciting today. In particular, the randomisation, party customisation, and the high difficulty of the game. It’s really fun to name all the party members after people you know, and then roll the dice and see what happens to them. It’s almost like a fortune telling machine. When you allow for this sort of basic customisation, players also sort of naturally embellish the game’s narrative using the personalities of their friends. With the parody I tried to take and exaggerate these aspects of the original game but replace the slow strategic gameplay with action.
Second, a more cynical motivation, as a first time game developer it’s really hard to get your game noticed. I wanted to make a game with a good “hook” to draw players and the press in, and “Oregon Trail on speed” is not a bad hook.
Indeed, it’s a good hook even to those of us from Britain who weren’t forced to play Oregon Trail at school. What would our version have been? ‘Industrial Revolution: the Text Adventure’? ‘British Empire invaders?’ Anyway, you’ve mentioned that you originally planned to structure SAWA as a series of mini-games – I know there’s a Warioware parallel there, but were you also influenced by 80s home computer titles like Beachhead, which often used a variety of different mechanics on each level?
I haven’t played Beachhead, although it looks pretty cool.
Wha… what? You haven’t played Beachhead?! … The defining multi-stage combat game of the eighties?! No.. no it’s okay carry on, I’m fine.
…I don’t think I was in particular trying to reference early ’80s computer games with the structure of the game. However, I do think that early computer games had sort of a more free spirited approach to game structure and design which I admire. I think that many modern games get too wrapped up in genre conventions. In the early days of computer games, there weren’t as many conventions, so games had to be innovative by necessity. I think there’s still a ton of room left for innovation, but many developers get stuck in conventions.
The game has a really gory sense of humour – I love the highly descriptive deaths. How did that come about?
Thanks! I wanted the death descriptions to be a sort of reward for dying. Your characters die a lot, so I wanted to make dying fun and funny, so that people kept playing. I think this also ties into the Oregon Trail. When your friends died of cholera or dysentery, for whatever reason, it was hilarious. The idea was to take that kind of humor and ratchet it up a bit.
There are also lots of surreal sequences – the ability to orbit the planet, the tornado… again, were you referencing the weirder aspects of early game design, or did you just want to make something slightly surreal? What were your influences here?
My main goal with the more bizarre and surreal sequences was to surprise the player. I like to imagine people coming into the game without any expectations and then stumbling into all these strange events. I wanted for it to feel like anything could happen in the game. I don’t think I was consciously referencing early game design, but I was trying to recreate a sort of childlike sense of wonder that I associate with games from my childhood. One negative YouTube comment I’ve gotten was that the game is just “some random crap made by some bored kid”. That comment actually made me really happy, because that’s exactly the tone I was going for.
The structure is really interesting – there are certain set sequences, but within them, there are a number of variations. Did this come about through development or was it always planned this way?
It was planned from the start to have random variations and sort of a branching structure. I wanted it to be sort of like a choose your own adventure novel, except that the choices are – mostly – made for you at random. The game is actually a bit more linear than I’d like it to be, but that’s just because the amount of content you need explodes when you have deep branching structures. The current game structure is sort of linear but with shorter branching and random bits spliced in. It’s sort of a compromise, but it’s as close to the original idea I could get without spending years on the game.
What made you decide to put the game on Xbox Live Indie? It has been largely criticised over the last year. Has your experience there been good?
I decided to go with Xbox Live Indie games because it’s a semi-open platform – basically any game is allowed on the service so long as it doesn’t crash and doesn’t contain prohibited content. And it also seemed like a good service for creating a first game. It’s a much smaller service than, say, the iOS app store, so there’s much less chance of your game getting lost in the crowd. However, the flip side is that very few games sell well. I think it has gone very well for me; my goal for this game was not to get rich but rather get experience releasing a game and hopefully reach some people. For that, it’s not a bad marketplace at all.
Have you been surprised by the critical reaction to the game?
Yes! I was hoping for some sort of reaction obviously, but I’m surprised by the extent of the reaction. Even more than the press response, I’ve been blown away by the response from players. Not everyone likes the game, but some people really enthusiastically like the game, and I think that’s the pretty much the best possible outcome.
How is the Windows version coming along? Will it be a straight port?
The Windows version is going well and should be coming out this month. It doesn’t change anything dramatically from the Xbox game, but I’ve used the extra development time to add in a handful of new random bits. The new content is also going back into the Xbox game via a free update.
Can we expect a smartphone translation?
I’ve thought about doing a smartphone or tablet port, but I’m not sure yet if it will happen. Releasing a mobile game is sort of a gamble. I’d also need to actually buy a smartphone and probably a Mac.
What other games are you playing right now? Are you interested in the whole ‘indie scene’?
I try to follow indie games just because that’s where all the exciting games are coming from these days. I’m currently about 500 lives into Spelunky. I love that game and think it should be required playing for any game developer.
I think we’d agree with you there. Are you working on any other projects right now?
I’m still focused on the Windows version at the moment, but I have a few ideas for what I want to do next.
Thank you Mr Sparsevector!