Plotz Developer Interview


Demo Screenshot

There certainly is a lot of Flash games out there, but the ambition and the “with consequences” part of this farming game intrigued me, as did the fact that said Flash game was having a Kickstarter so I contacted the creator for an interview.

May you introduce yourself, Jason Whisler?

I’m the lead developer for Nuclear Compost Game Studio. I’ve been programming games for over ten years now, primarily in Flash and Java. I’ve been a gamer for my whole life going back to the Atari, although these days I spend more time doing development than playing. I enjoy systems theory, software architecture, and game design.

What can you say about your new game, Plotz?

It’s the farming game I always wanted! Plotz does a great job of achieving what I want with all of my games, which is to be easy to pick up and play, but also have the depth to be played forever. The game is really a system of systems. The plants, soil, and weather are all highly detailed and interconnected. The player can experiment with different strategies and let the systems reveal what works and what doesn’t. It’s a game that rewards long-term planning, detailed observation, and adaptation to current conditions. Overall my goal was to make a game with a lot of realism based on natural systems, but tempered with solid game design principles.

I’ve put together a public demo with the core systems so people can try it out. My hope is to continue to grow the game outward so that your farm will become part of a whole community instead of acting as a stand-alone entity.

Why do you need the Kickstarter?

Well as I said, I’ve been programming games for fun for many years now. What this looked like in practice was me programming all day for my job, then programming all night for fun. I enjoyed doing it, but I think it’s important to stay well rounded. To be creative you need lots of outside influences. To stay balanced and fresh, I really can’t code every single night. That means progress on my personal projects was always slower than I really wanted. After making a lot of little games I finally got better and started feeling like the stuff I was making was going to be fun for other people. But there’s no way to know for sure without actually putting it in front of people.

So I arrived at a pretty simple plan. For Plotz I decided I would build the foundation of the game and then use a Kickstarter campaign to see if it was the kind of thing people were interested in seeing get developed further. If I’m able to raise some funds then I can work on the game full time so it gets done a lot quicker, and I’ll be delivering something that people like. I think it’ll also be amazing to have more people giving input as development goes on. I’ve already gotten some public feedback and it’s helped a ton.

How is it making a relatively large game project like this in Flash?

It’s a really fun challenge! I’m not sure if it’s the biggest or most complex thing I’ve ever attempted, but it’s up there. Flash has its own set of challenges and advantages like any other language. I got into Flash because the drawing and animation tools were easy to use, and because it could play on anybody’s computer. ActionScript 3 is such a huge improvement over previous iterations that now it’s pretty similar to developing in more mainstream languages.

Right now Plotz is hovering at around 90 different class files and over 10,000 lines of code. I guess I stopped counting. I’m a pretty disciplined programmer, so I have all of my code maintain a consistent style and format. It’s the only way to stay sane with a big project. I made my own unit testing framework for Plotz to help avoid breaking existing functionality as I add new features. It’s saved me a few bugs so far!

With a project this size, some kind of version control is also critical, I can’t recommend it enough. I also archive all my code pretty much every day, both locally and in the cloud. I haven’t had any disasters yet but I think it pays to be paranoid.

Anything you can say about the expansions?

I’m super excited for all of the expansions. There are so many amazing features that can get built on the solid foundation I have for Plotz. I tried to group all of my ideas for new features into themed expansions. A lot of games seem to try to do everything at once and end up as either complete games or nothing. With Plotz, the demo itself is already a fully playable game. Every feature I add in is just one more fun thing to explore, and there’s no risk of ending up with nothing in the end.

I’ll try not to gush about everything and only highlight my favorite features.

For the first expansion I’m most excited for the CSA program. It will change your whole strategy from just producing for profit and force you to really focus on the timing of your harvests because you’ll need to deliver different types of crops all fresh on specific days. This is the kind of thing I love in a good strategy game – using the same core elements, but in whole new ways and with very different strategies.

The second expansion will introduce competition in the form of AI farms, and it will connect your farms to nearby towns which will grow and change based on how you supply food to them. This is where the game really gets to expand and have your farm feel like a force in the world. The AI farms will also add another dimension to the decision of what types of plants you should grow.

The third expansion is all about making new types of challenges to contend with. It’s safe to say I want Plotz to be the most challenging farming game ever. With plant pests, diseases, and soil depletion, you should have plenty of things to contend with.

With the fourth expansion I’m definitely most excited for plant genetics. Plants will finally become individuals with slightly different stats. You’ll get to cross specific plants and try to swing your breeds towards specific traits you might desire. It’s going to be huge fun!

What are your inspirations on the game?

Various systems in Plotz

The Harvest Moon games are definitely the most direct inspiration. I played some of them quite a bit, but I always wanted them to have more depth, and that’s really where the seed of Plotz came from. Then it was my days of going to farmer’s markets and my increased awareness of the importance of local farming that kept the idea going and made me realize I was on to something more important.

The design got to be quite a challenge because I wanted to make something that was first and foremost a fun strategy game, but something that would also hopefully get people thinking about important issues. I didn’t want to force the player to be a “good” farmer and use all organics if they wanted to do well or anything like that. Instead I wanted it to just come out of the game naturally.

As an example, I want to show people the value of growing a wide variety of crops, rather than just growing as many of the most profitable crops as necessary. But I don’t force you to do it. So if you mono-crop, you’re going to run into problems eventually, but it’ll be because of system interactions. If you experiment with a more varied set of crops, you’ll figure out that they survive where certain mono-crops might all fail. You’ll just figure out that it’s the smarter way to go through experimentation.

How are you going about updating people on development?

I’ll be making regular updates, probably both videos and blog entries. They’ll be up on nuclearcompost.com, and I’ll echo them through Facebook and Twitter. I’ve been doing a monthly status update for the studio as a whole for quite awhile now. It’s helpful even for me to keep track of just how much stuff I get accomplished over time.

Beta-level backers for the Kickstarter will also be getting new builds of the game throughout development so they can test new features as they’re being worked on. I’m going to have a forum as well so people can voice their opinion about whatever is on their mind.

Any tips for aspiring game developers?

Hmm, what are my top pieces of advice? I have a lot!

First, making video games is really two totally different disciplines melded together – game design and programming. Art skills probably help too, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t have any (for Plotz I got a real artist to help me out). If you want to make games, I would advise starting off by focusing on game design, and you can do that with pen and paper, cards, coins, dice, etc… Programming adds a huge level of complexity to even the simplest games, and it’s much slower to prototype something with code than pretty much any other way. When you get an idea for a game, try to prototype it as much on paper as possible. Capture the core concepts and play it, see if it’s really as fun as you thought. Then start thinking about coding.

Second, find your own style and your own way to do things. There’s absolutely no one right way. I like variety in life. Everybody has unique ideas and ways of seeing the world. Use your games like any other form of art and shine your unique perspective through them.

Third, start small and be persistent. OK, maybe that’s two for one. It takes a lot of experience to make a big, complicated project that works well. But the process of making a solid, playable game is the same for games large or small. You’ll get more practice by making a wide variety of small games. And really try to push every one towards completion. Focus on all the lessons each one taught you, because you’ll be using them again! You have to enjoy the process of making games more than the end result, because you’ll be spending most of your time in the creation bits where things are messy and challenging.

Anything else to say?

Thanks a lot for the interview! And thanks to everyone for reading about Plotz. Try out the demo and let me know what you think!

Sure thing, and thanks!

Official page: http://www.nuclearcompost.com/plotz.html

Kickstarter: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1752244962/plotz-a-farming-game-with-consequences?ref=live

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nathan prefers his last name not to be known. He’s probably a high-class superspy, but we don’t mind. Point man for interviews, and occasionally he takes a blowtorch to a game to see whether it measures up to his standards. Visit his game development blog: http://wonderlandgamesblog.wordpress.com/ and his game design blog: http://fordevsbydevs.wordpress.com/

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