Screwjumper Interview

The first Xbox Live Arcade game from Frozen Codebase, Screwjumper, is all about explosions and moving fast. Following the exploits of rogue mine workers, the game has players diving into an open mine shaft and causing as much destruction as possible, mostly by throwing dynamite and running head-first into obstacles.

If players do enough damage during their descent, as indicated by a bar on the right side of the screen, they detonate the mine's core when they get to the bottom. If they fail, their in-game avatars are gassed to death. Assuming they are successful, they are then rocketed through the shaft at a frantic pace, forced to outmaneuver obstacles and the tailing explosion in a race for survival.

To learn more about Frozen Codebase and Screwjumper, which is due out on Xbox Live Arcade in November and on GarageGame's InstantAction.com at some point, I spoke with producer Ben Geisler and the energetic design director Norb Rozek.

Shack: I have to ask how the name of Screwjumper came about.

Norb Rozek: Do you want the long story?

Shack: Sure.

Norb Rozek: Okay, this dates back to the paleolithic era.

Ben Geisler: Also known as 2005.

Norb Rozek: I believe I was a student, I think I was a student of Ben's, and I was working with the Torque Game Engine and I had homework. The homework was to import a model with an animation into the Torque Game Engine, which at that point and time in my life was like brain surgery. So I'm working on this brain surgery thing, I'm trying to import a model with an animation into Torque and I go into [3D Studio] Max and they have those architectural shapes.

I made one of those quick spiral staircases shapes, which was kinda cool, and I put a simple animation on it, which was just a big rotating thing. I don't know if you've ever exported a lot of stuff out of Max from Torque, but the scales are horribly screwed up. Intead of this thing being ten feet tall, like it was supposed to be when I imported it, it was this gigantic thousand foot tall spinning staircase. In the middle of this, it was just like this this gigantic Torque screw of the gods.

I was like, "oh my my goodness, this gigantic Torque screw of the gods has humbled me." If you had a spinning thing, and you had a guy jumping on this thing, you could call it Screwjumper because it kinda looks like a screw and he'd be jumping down these things. Eventually, the screws left and there's just the jumping.

Ben Geisler: But hey, they're mine workers, so they use screws to fasten things.

Norb Rozek: Or something like that. But anyways, this idea was in the back of my head, I never actually made the game. We were actually going to launch this company with a completely different game idea, but then we had everybody that we know tell us that we were on crack for thinking of this idea, so we said "wow, gosh darn, we better get a different idea." I was like, "I have this idea called Screwjumper," and everybody said "alright, let's do that." Thus was born this weird figure of darkness, this avenger of evil, the Screwjumper.

Ben Geisler: At the time, we had three concepts that we really liked and Screwjumper ended up being the one that emerged. Kinda when Wideload Games talked at IndieGamesCon (IGC), where you try a bunch of different things and whichever one sticks you go with, that's the phase we were going through, same kind of model they were using.

Shack: How long have you been developing Screwjumper?

Ben Geisler: Ten years [laughter]. It's very hard to answer that question because we were theoretically done with production in July, we started in, if you don't count the time of us fooling around, we started probably in August. Realistically, it's about an 11 month timeframe. However, there was also certification kickbacks we had to deal with.

I had shipped Xbox games before and GameCube games and PS2 games, all of which had technical certification requirements, but Xbox Live Arcade has quite some hefty nuances, like invites and friends lists and private lists for multiplayer games versus public, that previous versions of Xbox never had. All that stuff, every once in a while we kept spending time on even after July, so when all is said and done, it was probably a 13 month project.

Shack: How long did you spend in certification?

Norb Rozek: Seems like about 17 years.

Ben Geisler: Our first submission was probably July and we just got certified a week ago. Mind you, a lot of this was not like Microsoft--they're actually really good in terms of giving pretty quick feedback, but we'd submit to THQ, they'd bang on it for a little while, we'd fix some stuff, come back. We do our own internal testing, one thing we really found was that we really had to ramp up our own internal testing because THQ had a certain amount of resources but we wanted to go beyond those resources in terms of testing.

I think first submission was end of July and final submission approval was middle of October, so three and a half months.

Shack: So when does Screwjumper release?

Ben Geisler: All I can say is that it is definitely going to be in November. I can't say the exact date because there is another title that THQ is trying to figure out if they're going to flop it with that one. They have two titles coming out, I can't say which the other one is, but they're deciding which one they're going to release first.

Shack: Would that other THQ game happen to be SpongeBob SquarePants: Underpants Slam?

Ben Geisler: I can neither confirm nor deny that allegation. Allegation, I say!

Shack: Within Screwjumper, the descent to the bottom of the shaft is in third person, whereas the race back up is in first-person. Why is that?

Norb Rozek: That actually wasn't an idea, that was just a functional thing because people were finding it very difficult to direct that guy back up the shaft in third person, I'm not sure why that was. Time and time again, when we had people test it, they just couldn't do it third person.

Ben Geisler: It was just an iteration during design. It just wasn't fun, frankly, [in] third person, we were like, "forget it, let's make it like Descent." You know, Descent was first person, you're going through tunnels very similar to that. That was kinda the mantra for ascent mode, make it sort of an homage to Descent. Kinda ironic that ascent mode is an homage to Descent, but whatever, that was unintentional.

You go faster in ascent mode, so it's hard to figure out, based on the camera angle, which direction you should move your Screwjumper. You've seen it played, right?

Shack: Yeah, I saw Norb almost beat endurance mode at IGC.

Norb Rozek: Yes, that is correct. I could have beaten it on a better day.

Ben Geisler: We have two people at our office that have beat endurance mode--

Norb Rozek: Three, we have three.

Ben Geisler: I'm personally against the whole hardcore idea, that 'play better' sort of thing. But this mode, since it's optional, I'm cool with it. It's kinda like a nod to old-school arcade games that were quite difficult, where you had to be really awesome to get through these levels. That's what endurance mode is supposed to be. If you think the game is too easy, then play endurance mode and try to get through it [with a set amount of lives].

Shack: How does multiplayer work?

Ben Geisler: Basically, it's a race to the bottom and then back up and you get ranked. There's four people total that can play. You still have to blow up the shaft, in other words whoever gets to the bottom first gets the chance to blow it up. Unlike destruction mode, you don't have to destroy a certain percentage of pieces of mining equipment on the way down, you just essentially get to blow up the shaft, that's your reward for getting to the bottom first.

Norb Rozek: Multiplayer is essentially a race where you're trying to use your jet boots as much as you can without blowing up, but then you're also trying to hit stuff strategically to get your health back so you can keep your jet boots going, and you also want to blow up stuff that is ahead of you just to stop your opponents from being able to go through it and thereby increase their health and get their jet boots going. So yes, it's a race, in short.

Turn the page for more on Frozen Codebase, the games it has in development, and the company's views of the independet development scene. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: What's the story behind Frozen Codebase?

Norb Rozek: We met in an elevator.

Ben Geisler: I had a bottle of tequila and Norb was next to me. We just passed it back and forth.

Norb Rozek: And now Ben will really answer the question.

Ben Geisler: I was out at Radical Entertainment working on Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, and I started working on their new game called Prototype, and then I had kids. Essentially, my wife really wanted to move back home, so I moved back home, taught for a while, got really bored. One of my students was Norb, and there was another student or two at ITT Tech in Green Bay that was very promising.

So I walked in and essentially said, 'We can make great games literally anywhere, why not make them here?' I pitched to a venture capital group that's based in Green Bay and got a bunch of money to start doing game prototypes and actually pay people. At that time, I basically said to Norb, "what would it take to get to work at Frozen Codebase?" and he's like, "you know, a job."

After that, we started looking for people that had done this before, other than me. We found Justin Kovac and James Lupiani, both of which were associates at GarageGames. That first started to form our little "veteran team" that had at least made a game or two before and kinda knew how to do it, conned them into moving to Green Bay with promises of lots of cheap beer and women.

Norb Rozek: And we delivered on fifty percent of those promises.

Ben Geisler: Correct, and that's where we're at. We pitched directly to Microsoft at first, this was for Xbox Live Arcade. We ended up partnering with THQ based on some early feedback from Microsoft, which basically said "hey, we like this, but you should really consider getting a publisher so you have QA support and marketing support and this, that, and other things." We took that to heart, found a publisher we liked.

Shack: Did it seem odd to you that Microsoft recommended a publisher given that Xbox Live Arcade is billed as a premiere destination for independent developers?

Norb Rozek: Uh.

Ben Geisler: I think "ah" is kinda the good answer there.

Norb Rozek: "Uh" is kinda a good answer. I think Xbox Live Arcade has gotten to the point where the dreaded realities of business models are setting in and so on and so forth. The wild wild west period is over. It's sort of like 1978 when all of the punk bands started getting managers and started going nu-wave. Actually, it's not like that.

It doesn't strike us as weird, but things aren't quite as "yee-haw, kick down the doors, let's going in with our guns blazing" as you would like to hope, but what the hell, that's just the way things are man.

Ben Geisler: We just gotta buy bigger guns is really what it comes down to.

Norb Rozek: Right, we just have to find people to front us the money so we can buy bigger guns.

Ben Geisler: Exactly. THQ provided a lot of value. That said, I think in the indie environment, as much as I like it, I think there's a lot of whining about how publishers are big, bad and evil. If you find the right publisher, there will be a benefit there. As much as we would have liked to have gone direct to Microsoft, it wasn't necessarily a bad thing that our first title had some people that, could at least, provide us the support of shipping games before. Double-edged sword, I guess you can say.

Shack: Spinning out of that, has THQ been the stereotypical "big, bad video game publisher?"

Norb Rozek: I think all publishers are going to have their ideas and how they'll rudder the ship of state, as it were. Some of them are going to be good, some of them are going to be not so good, and some of them are going to be a toss up. You've gotta steer them away from steering you towards the bad ones and accept the good ones.

Every game developer is going to get publishers saying, "well, we think it should be this way or that way" and you're going to go "what? You're crazy! How dare you suggest anything can even be improved upon with my perfect wonderful miraculous game!" and sometimes that's true, sometimes it's not. You take the good with the bad, I don't think they were tremendously overbearing.

Our publisher's weirdest request was that it kept wanting more and more dynamite.

Ben Geisler: Apparently they liked to blow stuff up so much that, at one point, we should have probably called it Dynamite Jumper.

Shack: You've also got a version of Screwjumper in the works for GarageGames and its InstatAction.com platform, right?

Ben Geisler: We secured that deal some time ago. It will be on InstantAction, [it is] unclear when. We're trying to work out the details on whether or not we'll put it as part of the open beta that InstantAction is talking about doing.

We're going to have some new bells and whistles for multiplayer, we really want to focus on multiplayer for that one. We feel that with InstantAction, that's just a given. People are going to be hopefully hopping on InstantAction just so they can dynamite their friends and laugh at each other, hell, maybe even form Screwjumper clans, that'd be cool but we'll see how far that goes.

Shack: Any other plans for Screwjumper? A standalone PC release?

Ben Geisler: Potentially. I'm working on some stuff now as we speak on that. I'd love to see it on more platforms, I think it's a game that could easily work on PS3 or Wii or anything really. It's just a matter of time, who's going to do it, are we going to do it, do we have the resources to do it, that kind of thing. We have 19 people working here, but we do have three other projects which are in progress, so it's not like we can really go on and get that all going. We're going to make our best effort to get it on the platforms which make sense.

Norb Rozek: Somebody once brought up the idea of doing it on a cell phone. I still like the idea of yuppies sitting there in Manhattan, playing Screwjumper on their Motorola Razrs or T-Mobile Sidekicks or whatever the hell you kids are on these days.

Ben Geisler: We're going for the yuppie crowd in Manhattan.

Norb Rozek: We speak in jest.

Shack: What about the other three projects you're working on? Can you say anything about those?

Ben Geisler: Unfortunately, not. I can tell you that we're working with Vivendi on one of them, but we don't have a press release on that or anything yet. I can't say what title we're doing. Hell, I can't even say if it's Xbox Live Arcade or not, I can just say we're working with Vivendi.

One of those [others] you did see at IGC is Planet 12. That's another InstantAction title. That's a PC product, let's put it that way, for InstantAction.

The Planet 12 game is something that came up out of--GarageGames really dug Screwjumper when we were there last year at IGC, which actually wasn't IGC last year, it was called Not IGC. That's when they were like, "well, you should give us some more pitches" and so we started going on Planet 12. Finally got into production on it about a month ago, so what you saw at IGC was only four weeks worth of work, but definitely going to be progressing as well.

Shack: Is there anything else you'd like to say? Norb, this is your chance.

Norb Rozek: I'd just like to point out the fact that regardless of what Jeff Tunnel says, Blitzkrieg Bop is played in the key of A, not the key of G. I'd also like to say that I rented Halo 3 and I played it for almost an hour.

Ben Geisler: We'll see where it goes from here, this is just the start. We've got a lot of people here that are really talented and creative, we'll get some cool games coming soon to a download channel near you.

Screwjumper hits Xbox Live Arcade in November and will arrive on InstantAction.com next year.