An Off-Road Interview with the Raptor Safari Creators

I love Flashbang Studios.

This small Tempe, Arizona-based studio combined my appreciation of both dinosaurs and safaris into a brilliant time-waster in Off-Road Velociraptor Safari.

True to their collaborative spirit, Flashbang tag-teamed the first batch of my inquiries. On the second page, I go one-on-one with company founder Matthew Wegner, where we talk about everything from the state of web-based games to Flashbang's plans for console development.

Shack: First of all, I have to ask--how the hell did you guys come up with the idea of pulling Velociraptors around by a spiked ball and chain?

Flashbang: The original game design was going to have weapons, but we needed some way to collect the corpses after they were killed. Matthew did the setup for the tow chain, which was a simple spike-chain placeholder. He played a lot of Carmageddon back in the day, so it was an obvious solution. We see a lot of comments that the game has a very Carmageddon vibe to it, which is a pretty fantastic compliment.

We had intended to replace the chain, which was there just to visualize the joints, with a skinned rope. But after we had it up and running we decided to keep. The plans to create weapons were scrapped, too, when we realized the chain was destructive enough as is.

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Shack: How long did Raptor Safari take to whip up, from conception to final product? Take me through the development process.

Flashbang: We had a guy working on the raptor and jeep models pretty soon after Splume, but we didn't get rolling full steam on the project until December. Two of core our guys also manage the Independent Games Festival, which ate a lot of their time in the fall. Actual development ended up at about eight weeks of work.

As for our creative process? Alcohol > Joke > Prototype > Art > Holy Crap This Is Fun And Pretty > Game > Internet Glory.

Shack: What's the post-release reception been like on your end?

Flashbang: The internet response seems to be a mix of exuberance and utter confusion. We're pretty pleased with that.

Technologically we bolted on leaderboards and achievements in the last few days of the project, which has turned out really well. We'll be launching a unified website for all of our indie games soon. One login will cover leaderboards for all of the games.

Shack: Where does your inspiration for these games come from?

Flashbang: Inspiration for our products comes tightly packed into the interactions we have with each other--jokes, random comments, and the general ambiance of the office. JB started out with a drawing on a white board. The drawing sat there, day after day, until we realized it pretty much had to be the next game.

Shack: We're eagerly awaiting Jetpack Brontosaurus over here. What can we expect? Any juicy gameplay details you can leak?

Flashbang: Not quite yet. We're slowly posting teaser footage and concepts to jetpackbrontosaurus.com, so keep an eye out there! We're aiming for an end of April launch date.

Shack: Favorite dinosaur?

Flashbang: Ravens. We take a cladistic standpoint and demand our taxa be monophyletic, so "dinosaurs" must include Aves, the modern birds.

Shack: Favorite dinosaur video game?

Flashbang: Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis is hands down the best dinosaur related game ever created. Not even kidding.

Shack: What's next? Tyrannosaur Bungee-jumping? Triceratops Tricycle Racing? Mammalian Monster Truck Rampage?

Flashbang: Ah ah ah, you didn't say the magic word! We have about a month left on Jetpack Brontosaurus, so we haven't thought too much about the next project yet. It might be something smaller to mix things up, like oh, say, Ragdoll Olympics.

Shack: The dinosaurs in Velociraptor Safari are feathered, which shows an interest in contemporary paleontology. And now the Apatosaurus game is set in space. I can only assume this design decision was required by the scientific fact that if an Apatosaurus' neck were set at 90-degree angle on Earth, not enough oxygen would reach its brain. However, in the zero-gravity environment of space, our hero can fly at any angle he pleases. How much scientific thought goes into the design of these games?

Flashbang: Actually, it takes place in a dream. As far as how much scientific thought goes into our games, it's more than you would ever know. This isn't a joke, the skeleton for the Apatosaurus is disturbingly accurate--we've even consulted paleontologists online.

Shack: I'm detecting a decidedly Marxist worldview in the universe you guys have created thus far. If the proletariat Velociraptors are doomed to commit genocidal acts in the effort to export their own for simple profit, are the Apatosauruses then their technologically-superior bourgeoisie masters? Are the dead raptor exports--presumably converted into oil--fueling the very jetpacks the Apatosauruses use to travel to their next colonization effort?

Flashbang: Who said that the Velociraptor as a whole is doomed to commit genocide? See, this is the very problem with the world today. The act of one casts a shadow over many, and we find ourselves demonizing entire cultures and races. You have now just done this to an entire species. Way to raise the hate bar.

And besides, everyone knows that the Velociraptor is from the Cretaceous period and Apatosaurus is from the Jurassic. The notion that one serves the other implies a social link and management infrastructure that would have spanned 70 million years, which is economically asinine. At any rate, the game is clearly a commentary on 19th and early 20th century British imperialism--pith helmet, epaulets, monocle. The technologically superior raptors are exploiting the defenseless native populations who live in undeveloped areas.

Continue reading for a more serious look into the history of Flashbang, as well as founder Matthew Wegner's thoughts on the burgeoning web-based platform. _PAGE_BREAK_ Shack: What's the story behind the founding of Flashbang?

Matthew Wegner: The company began five years ago. At the time we were just a few years out of college, and working together as a small team on various game projects. I was at a local IGDA meeting when someone mentioned that you could take a small team of guys and actually create a business. He was talking about the casual market, which was just getting underway at the time.

So four of us founded a company to give casual games a go. At the time casual games seemed like one of the few ways a small, green team could have a chance of starting out on their own. Today's climate is much more supportive of teams doing indie work right out of the gate.

Shack: What lead to the decision to branch out from traditionally casual web games?

Matthew Wegner: The plan all along was to create a casual game, earn profit beyond its development costs, and invest that profit into an unusual, quirky idea. We would then return to casual games as required to keep our salaries going. Unfortunately, we never quite had a runaway casual title, which didn't produce piles of cash for us to play with. We ended up doing some other things in the years since inception--a Sealab 2021 game for Cartoon Network, some corporate "serious games", affiliate sales--and now we're at the point where we can pay five guys full-time to work on whatever the hell we want. It's great!

Shack: Do you plan to keep all of your indie games free to play on the new site?

Matthew Wegner: For now, yeah. We're releasing games like Raptor Safari and Jetpack Brontosaurus for two reasons: We're in a financial position to make whatever games we want, so we will, and we want to see which of our ideas players enjoy. We're going to keep cranking out games in four to eight weeks of development just to see what people think of them. After awhile we'll take whichever game was most successful and continue development on it for WiiWare, PSN, XBLA, or whatever platform makes sense.

We aren't monetizing Raptor Safari at the moment, at all. At some point we may try selling a downloadable version of a game with some extra features, or putting ads on our site, but for now we're totally happy with just putting ideas out there and reaping the spiritual rewards of people having fun with something we made. It's very liberating to not think about revenue in the game's development process. Even small things, like running advertising, can leak into design decisions. "Maybe we would have individual pages for achievement status just to get additional pageviews."

So the short answer is, yes, the games will always be free to play, but at some threshold we will being to explore monetization too.

Shack: Off-Road certainly caught the attention of the hardcore gaming community. Do you see the line between hardcore and casual audiences being blurred as web-based games become more sophisticated?

Matthew Wegner: Definitely! It's already being blurred. Today the "casual" demographic-middle-aged women-are playing games like Tradewinds. Granted, it's not quite Port Royale, but it's certainly much more complicated than their casual stereotypes give credit for.

Raptor Safari is a reasonably hardcore experience if you just look at what the player is doing: Driving a jeep around a 3D world, finding and hitting moving targets, all while managing physics interactions. It'd be easy to produce it into a hardcore game. Just slap on an upgrade path, some missions, multiple enemies, and more play space. You could easily close off the game's accessibility with "hardcore" complexity.

But we can present it in a very casual way through the web: 4-minute play time, simple scoring, and no failure states. We didn't intentionally design that last point; it's just how it turned out. You can't get zero points in Raptor Safari--there's an "A for Effort" bonus if you do. The game never punishes you.

Shack: On that note, I assume you've all been gamers for a while. Are you excited about traditionally-styled games like Fallen Empires: Legion making their way to the web? Do you think we're on the cusp of a browser-based boom?

Matthew Wegner: The boom has already begun, although there are different philosophies happening at the same time. Some projects are using the web as a mechanism to create a controlled platform--this is what InstantAction is doing. We even did this with Raptor Safari to some degree--we never released a standalone build because web deployment allowed us to update multiple times a day without any downside.

Other projects are collecting the output of hundreds of developers into one destination. Kongregate has over 3,800 games. This is the boom most people think about, where the best game is going to float to the top through raw popularity.

Shack: Do you find a group of five to be a good size, or would you prefer to be larger? What's the dynamic like within the team?

Matthew Wegner: Five people are a great number, both for skill distribution and manageability. Three is kind of the ideal size for communication--you can only have one simultaneous conversation at any time (unless the third person is talking to themselves). You need a few simple processes with five people to stay in sync, but it's not like you need a dedicated manager or anything.

The dynamic is fantastic. We have a lot of fun in between all of the work.

Shack: Do you see Flashbang sticking to pick-up-and-play titles, or would you ever consider tackling something of a grander scale in the future?

Matthew Wegner: We won't be able back to larger projects for some time. We've done bigger projects in the past, and there's nothing worse than running out of motivation on a larger project and forcing yourself to slog through it. Of course, the right grand project can be fantastic. We'll probably stick to short 1-2 month projects for all of 2008, though.

Shack: Finally, how was your trip to GDC?

Matthew Wegner: Pretty amazing! Flashbang organized another indie developer party, which we sponsored along with thatgamecompany, Gastronaut Studios, and the Independent Games Festival. That was a huge success and a great cap to the Independent Games Summit.

Shack: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.