Double Up: An Interview with James Brown of N E U T R O P I A

Double Up is a monthly series spotlighting independent game developers in New Zealand. Each month an article and an interview will focus on a new and interesting gaming experience.

Read the first part of this months Double Up over here


Where did the idea for N E U T R O P I A come from? Were there any major inspirations that prompted you to start making it?

JB: The original idea came to me about 10 years ago, long before mobile gaming really got going and before I had ever thought of coding myself. The key mechanic in the game is one of chain reactions caused by value exchange. This was actually part of an idea I had had for sort of neural net, just an idea of course I’ve never been involved in any sort of programming until about this time last year.

Fairly quickly I re-purposed the idea for a social dynamics end. Original visions of the idea were of a Sims-­like environment, with a clumsy protagonist who accidentally creates negative feeling to a neutral Utopian world and has to use positive chain reactions within the population to restore balance, and in doing so actually ends up making the place happy instead of merely neutral. But the key idea of value exchange and the resulting chain reactions was what was most interesting to me. Before I had even thought of practical measures like reducing­ scope I wanted to simplify the concept to make it visually clearer to the viewer what was happening to better illustrate the value exchange system at the core of the game. This resulted in the simple, 2D top down graphical style of the game today.

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N E U T R O P I A is a game that deals directly with emotions, happiness in particular. Was it always your intention to have these ideas featured prominently in the game?

JB: Yes, the game was always going to be about social dynamics. My family and friends would probably describe me as an optimist, I have a firm belief that we can make the world a better place, that people can be more content and yes, happy. So, naturally, I wanted to create a world where optimism can overcome. There is a concept in economic theory called the zero-­sum game, where any interaction will result in a cancelling out of interests, or where any win comes at the direct expense of another’s loss. This is the model for much of traditional gaming, goodies and baddies facing off, one winner, one loser. I wanted to make a game that used another model. Non zero-­sum games exist all around us in the real world, when people cooperate and act in each others interests, and of course co-­op games use these real world dynamics. In N E U T R O P I A there are no bad guys or good guys, just characters temporarily grumpy, happy or neutral. The flip side of this model is that one cannot win without everyone winning and if you lose… everyone loses.

What would you like players to take away from your game? Or is it just meant to be a fun experience?

JB: Principally, I want people to end the game happy and wanting to spread that happiness. This is a difficult thing to craft, and I am still working on a number of strategies to do this. One issue is that people often leave a game and go back into the real world after losing a round, and giving up. As I mentioned, a loss in N E U T R O P I A is a crushing, world-wide loss; not a great feeling to go out into the world with. So, my goal is to craft the game in a way where the player, as much as possible, exits the game after a win, and perhaps is left with a message, a call to action in the real world.

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From beta testing it, I can see that the game has undergone lots of dramatic changes. What is your design process like? Do you start out with an idea and work towards it, or do you prefer to see how the game develops organically?

JB: The core of the game has always remained the same and in fact the design process has been more about honing the game back further and further to the core. That being said, there are always a million and one ways to execute a core idea, so through an iterative process I’ve tried to allow the best­ possible execution to arise organically. In this project in particular I’ve been very open to experimentation because I’ve been learning everything for the first time. So, of course when I think of an idea that fits with something I’ve just learned I’m going try it out. I must admit, not many of these experiments have made the cut, but I’ve learned a lot through trying them.

At one stage the world was a dungeon type setting, complete with cracked paving stones, robotic characters, dramatic lighting and an eerie soundtrack. In the end that just didn’t feel right. It was essentially an awkward skin for a game that didn’t need a skin, because of the visible value exchange dynamic, the game was at it’s essence digital, so real world visuals felt superfluous. At one stage I even had an alien main character, but philosophically that didn’t feel right. The game is not about a messiah who has come to save people, it’s about people cooperating to overcome the mess they are in together.

One of the big surprises has been just how much craft goes into how your controls interact with your player, the level of detail required to create something that feels simple and intuitive. I’ve tried a number of control methods, digital joystick, accelerometer, swiping, tapping and have settled on one that best suits the touch medium, so you are able to choose from multiple characters in a direct touch relationship pulling them around or tapping.

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N E U T R O P I A is one of your first games, how have you found game development so far?

JB: This has been my first game and my first time coding, so I’ve been learning everything at once. While I come from a media and fine arts background, I wanted to build something that was primarily code­based, in order to learn, rather leaning on my art skills and using an engine like Unity (what a fool, I know ­ notes for next project include “develop in Unity”). It really has been a steep learning curve, but one that has been immediately satisfying. I am 34 and now that I’m doing this I can’t believe I lived a 3rd of a century without discovering my love for coding. In terms of development, I’ve been a film editor for
10 years, and there are many similarities between the creative process that goes on in editing and in developing a game. In fact, I’m going to be delivering a seminar on the subject of Game Editing at NZGDC, so I’ll have more to say about that then.

One thing I have to say is, while I am working alone, I have been astounded by the level of support there is out there between developers, whether it’s the forums like Stack Overflow or the community on Twitter, and especially the local community of game developers here in Auckland. I am a late­comer to the local community, but it’s exciting to have been welcomed with open arms into a group that feel like they are at the verge of something really big.

What can we expect from N E U T R O P I A in the future? Are there any new ideas or features you’re excited to add?

JB: Where do I start? First of all, I’m still working out which features are going to be included in the initial release. But at the moment, I’m looking to create a simple template, evenly sized levels and common obstacles, with some initial collectible special characters. With each update I plan to add levels and new special characters. There are also a number of game play modes I’ve been experimenting with, each with their own benefits, and would like to incorporate those into future releases if they don’t make it into the first release. I’m looking at a speed­runner mode and infinite ­runner mode and eventually multi­player and social. While the initial levels are small, isolated worlds, as the game grows so will the N E U T R O P I A universe.

N E U T R O P I A is planned to be released on iOS, follow @NEUTROPIA on Twitter for the latest news.

Victoria Smith

Victoria Smith

Victoria is an Auckland based game artist who loves writing big words about small games. Intrigued by the power of interactive media, she loves to merge language, art and games into something that is hopefully interesting.

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Victoria Smith

Victoria is an Auckland based game artist who loves writing big words about small games. Intrigued by the power of interactive media, she loves to merge language, art and games into something that is hopefully interesting.

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