Sportsball – an interview with game designer Auston Montville

Auston Montville is an indie game developer who started his own game studio Too DX. He is currently working on his second project Sportsball, set to release on the Wii U later this year. It’s a local four player competitive game. Sportsball is a follow up to Auston’s first game Bosses Forever 2.Bro which can be played for free on their website.

I got a chance to play an early version of Sportsball at Pax East and was blown away with how much fun can be had with such a simple idea. I was quickly becoming a champ, and wrecking face on the Sportsball field. Now that the game is almost out I sat down with the main man behind the project to see how things are faring before release.

 

Auston, what is the concept of Sportsball?

Sportsball is a combination of soccer, jousting, and flying birds. What that actually results in is a team multiplayer sports game where you are mounting up as a jockey on a giant flying bird with this lance and tackling your opponents. The actual gameplay mechanic is that when you tackle an opponent they’ll explode into a couple of balls, and you gotta kick those balls into the field net to score points. It’s a very ridiculous game that revolves around the concept that it’s as much fun to watch as it is to play.

 

What inspired you to create a game like this?

We are trying to make games that are as much fun to watch as they are to play. What kind of game would I make with that design goal. So that lead me to think of Joust with teams, and not the [Johann Sebastian] Joust that is popular from Sports Friends, but the 1982 arcade game. Which is a game where you have these knights riding on these ostridges and lancing each other and tackling each other to create eggs to get points. But it was a very combat heavy game, and although there was a two player mode it was somewhat competitive too. So adding the ability to have teams in there, making the focus not on tackling but on balls gave it enough change, and then you know an entire eight months of development completely changed the game. I made a prototype of this game and we had it running in a room full of people, and it wasn’t just the people holding the controller that were having a good time, everyone that was watching was rooting for their team, they were cheering when their last ball was making its approach to the net. People were getting excited when a whole swarm of balls were being carried by this one bird. Will it all get to the net or will it all get denied by an opposing team member? People were yelling and cheering about that. So that was the focus of the game for a long time.

 

What does Sportsball do that you can’t get in other games?

That crowd atmosphere. A lot of fighting games or a lot of competitive games have done this and focus on an individual player but Sportsball has four teams in it each team has its own personality and every team has four unique birds that are not on any of the other teams. So when you come into the game you might find a bird you like and that bird is part of a team. So then whenever you watch the game you are going to root for that team, like it doesn’t matter if they are playing your specific bird. Like if I’m a Ryu player I get excited when I see another Ryu player but in this game you see someone play from the Sapphire Skyhearts you are rooting for them to win, they are your team and that’s something we see in classic sports. You   know when you grow up your family likes a team or you just grew up in a certain area that has a team, you cheer for them unconditionally. And so because of that Sportsball, more so than other games, really creates this atmosphere to get people pumped up and excited when others are playing because of the support of teams, because you feel like you belong to a group whether you are holding that controller or not.

 

With a growth in the arena of couch competitive games in the past year such as Nidhogg, Towerfall, Samurai Gunn, where does Sportsball fit in?

So it’s actually kind of interesting, because when Sportsball was conceived couch-op was not the big deal it was actually all roguelikes back then. Everyone was making the roguelikes and the roguelike likes. It just is rather convenient that everyone is all about the local multiplayer and I think that it’s just something that a lot of people who grew up playing Goldeneye 007 on N64, having those four controllers, are making games right now. So they are very much yearning back to those classic times, you know those nights of Halo 2 playing for hours and hours with a bunch of people in a room. They want that experience again, and now we can all make games so we are just bringing that back. And online is really great because it allows you to play with anyone at any time but anonymity brings a certain kind of baggage to it. And its just not quite as exciting, when you own your friend sitting right next to them you get to look at that person in the eye and they have to know they were beaten by you, and that connection is really deep. That’s the stuff that forms really deep friendships. It’s a better night when you get together with a couple of friends and ‘okay we are going to play a game together tonight’ and you focus on that and that’s your evening. It’s an experience that you don’t get online. Online people are sort of serving your need to play the game, where playing local co-op is serving your need to be around other human beings. And the fact that we have some games that encourage that, all the better.

 

 

From watching people play your game, what do you think makes it fun for them?

For a lot of players its the fact that they can just get in and start having fun right away. It doesn’t require learning a lot of complicated maneuvers. Besides movement there are only two buttons to the game, its fairly easy to jump into so a lot of people aren’t necessary intimidated by the game. Theres a bunch of small details in the game that give players a fun experience to watch. So for example one of the things we put in was, during the last moments of a match the entire world will slow down. And this is a very exciting moment because at this point anyone could still win right? A ball could be knocked out of the way and the match keeps going or this could be the final point that makes everything matter. And because the whole world slows down everyone knows this is an important moment. Everyones paying attention. Additionally because the world slows down players can actually play better in these few moments than they used to be able to. The buttons still respond just as quickly but now you have four times as much time to respond. You can maneuver balls in ways you were not able to before because you are basically moving four times faster. This creates an insane amount of drama and tension at this moment and everyone gets engaged at that one point. The first time people see slow down their eyes light up and everyone gets really excited for this really important moment. And Sportsball has these really important details like that. These things typically aren’t insanely difficult to implement into a game but they often get left to the wayside because of larger features like making sure your game systems work and your save data is reliable. Those things often take the bulk of development. but these little details, these little bits of polish they often make or break an experience. It’s the difference between a good game and great game. So we’ve taken time to put in a few of these and they really set the game apart from other games that might be trying to do the same thing.

 

What sort of tweaks have come along the way that you think really make the game more polished and standout over the course of development?

Its been a lot of these little details, for example one of the things that we put in when you select a bird or select a team the announcer shouts out its name. The reason this feature is in is because I was playing one of the more recent Mortal Kombat games with a friend and he kept selecting and unselecting the same character over and over again, so it was like ‘NoobNoobNoobNoob Noob Saibot’. And it’s a really annoying thing but it’s hilarious and when I saw it I said that needs to go in the game. So we put this in and it actually adds a lot to the atmosphere of the game you have this big announcer coming in with this booming voice getting everyone pumped up for the match ‘Chickadee!’ and you picking the cute little adorable bird but you are like ‘yeah its time for Chickatee to wreck it up in the Sportsball match.’ It gets you pumped up for the feel of the game. Because the game in completely ridiculous right? You have these jockeys holding these massive lances riding on unrealistically sized birds, most of which can’t even fly in real life and everyone is getting into this really intense serious match. It’s all just ridiculous, like when you tackle a bird there is a fiery explosion. That’s crazy, that would never happen, and we have an explanation for it. It involves time travel, but there is basically all these little tiny bits of the game that give the game a very honest aesthetic. Everything from the futuristic menus, to the color of the uniforms, to the style of the logos, this has all happened because we have created this sort of mythos, this sportsball history. And every decision in the game is based off that. So it’s very easy to get swept up into the experience of sportsball even though it’s this ridiculous game about birds flying, you get into it. It’s taking itself just seriously enough for you to laugh and say ‘ok ill drink the koolaid, I’ll play with this.’ In doing that, in entering the magic circle, you’re getting a more enjoyable experience and that is sold by all these little details around the game the whole time. Everything from the font, to the speed the birds move, to the sound effects that we play, that all creates the experience of Sportsball.

 

What’s the best compliment you have gotten about Sportsball?

There have been some things that people have said that have made my heart melt. But it’s when we were showing it off at RTX down in Austin Texas and this mom was bringing her son around the convention and he stopped by and he wanted to play this Sportsball game, it looked like a whole lot of fun to him. So he grabs a controller and then Ned, who is the other half of Too DX, he knows lots of people like this game, and the mother was like ‘no no I dont play games, I’ll just let him play.’ He convinced her to at least hold the controller, and the child is basically speechless at this point ‘like oh my god my moms going to play a game.’ And they play that game and they both have a riot. By the end of it she is laughing and hollering and they just have this great time. And the fact that we were able to give a mother and her son an experience that they were able to enjoy together, thats the best thing that Sportsball can do.

 

Myself being a gamer who is color blind, when you bring up color and how that defines your team, what sort of design decisions did you come to when it came to real world limitations?

I will not soon forget the experience I had when I showed you my previous game that I was working on at my last company and you told me you could not play it. That made me understand to the best of my ability what it must be like to be a player who like has some sort of disability that makes it so you can’t enjoy this experience that your friends are enjoying. That sounds awful, so I was like ‘not in my game, I’m not going to let that happen.’ So color blindness was always something that I was conscious of and said ok im going to deal with this at some point. But in Sportsball the teams are a big deal, it’s a core component of the game. I had done some tweaks to the colors, there are a couple of filters that you can use in photoshop to be able to look at your game as if it was being viewed through the eyes of someone that is color blind. They have all the different types. I made tweaks on it and got to the most extreme on these colors, and was like let me see what it’s like and some people were like ‘these are fine, but these look bad.” and then other people are like ‘those two are bad.’ I discovered that as I made one thing work in one type of colorbind it would be incomprehensible in the other type. I learned that it was a losing battle. I was a little worried because I didn’t know what I could do but then someone suggested symbols on the balls, and I didn’t think they would fit on the balls because the balls were already kinda small like its hard to put a lot of detail on them but it ended up being the right call. Because not only was a able to put the symbol on there I was able to add that too the team. So now not only did the teams have colors but they also have an icon and this icon actually appears next to the birds name when they spawn. So it was interesting and then people told me ‘yes I have no problem telling the difference between these balls.’ We had already done work with the silhouettes of the birds so that wasn’t a problem. So it was cool that when we actually took the time to work on this feature, when we eventually got to this point, it actually added more to the game as opposed to taking something away. So not only am I glad that another 10% of the population can play Sportsball but its actually better than it was before. And I think that would just continue to be the case if we were to add in more features. Basically its a lot of an awareness thing. We are a small team, I am the game developer, we have a couple other people working on it, when I become aware that certain players have issues playing a game in a certain way, that’s when I will be able to fix those problems specifically. Fortunately there is a bunch of avenues to become aware about these issues and I hope that people bring them to my attention if I missed them. But it seems to be my experience that when we try to solve these problems it doesn’t distract or take away from your game, it makes it better.

 

 

What is your plan for Sportsball post launch? More content? More platforms? More anything?

Right now we are entirely focused on getting this game shipped on the Wii U so we want to support it continuing on the Wii U. We don’t know exactly what that is going to look like. There are some sort of restrictions on what we can and can’t do but also we want to pay attention to how the game evolves. We have some ideas, some things we want to do to the game, I think the most obvious and the most likely are going to be additional maps. It’s very easy for us to put in some new maps and we’ve seen that levels make a huge difference in how people play the game. Very much like [Super] Smash Brothers, levels make a big deal on what characters you play and what characters are viable. So that’s something we are definitely looking forward to, but really we want to see how the meta game evolves if the game starts becoming a more competitive game, then we might want to look at tournament feeds, or online features even though that’s a very difficult thing to do. If we find out the game is really fun but some of the birds are unbalanced we might want to be focusing on that sort of aspect. So we are going to make the game as solidly as we can right now and focus on this one platform. Then depending on what happens, basically what the fans want, is sort of what we are going to look towards. So I don’t want to make any promises yet because we don’t know exactly what they want but we want to make Sportsball the game that is enjoyed the most.

 

What other things do people not know about Sportsball?

Well little known fact is that sportsball is actually five players, four squawk jockeys and one announcer. You speak into the gamepad microphone and your voice come through the stadium speakers and thus playing through the speakers for the game and you get to announce matches. Which for some people is the way to play the game. It’s really exciting to point out the details of what’s going on or just completely ridicule your friends while they are trying to play the game. So there are a lot of opportunities there and I think it is something that we don’t see in a lot of games, and it even more so adds to that experience of it’s as much fun to watch as it is to play because now you have an entertainer there and not just fierce competition.

If you want to see more about Sportsball check out toodx.tumblr.com or follow them on twitter @too_dx and be sure to download Sportsball later this year on Wii U.