February 15, 2012 6:00 AM | John Polson
While the mechanics behind Damp Gnat's Wonderputt might be loosely based on real-world mini-golf, the game's aesthetic is anything but.
Using a refined, isometric style, the game combines seemingly random visual elements such as UFOs, submarines, natural disasters, and more to create a surreal golf course in which anything can happen.
With such a unique and charming visual style, the game has earned a nomination for an Excellence in Visual Art award at this year's Independent Games Festival.
Prior to releasing Wonderputt, the man behind Damp Gnat, Reece Millidge, developed games including Odyssey for the Amiga, as well as Flash games such as Icycle and the ad-based golf game Adverputt.
In honor of Wonderputt's recent IGF nomination, Gamasutra spoke with Millidge to learn more about his animation background, his approach to indie development, and much more.
What background do you have making games?
I was inspired by the fact that when I was seven years old my father created & self published an educational game for the BBC Micro. So I was exposed to games since the Chuckie Egg days. Growing up I made all sorts of half finished curiosities with AMOS for the Amiga 500. Thankfully I teamed up with friend Chris Mullender to make Odyssey for the Amiga while at college.
Unfortunately it was released just as the Amiga made way for the rise of the PC. After that, a fan letter to Peter Irvin of Exile led to work experience at Frontier Developments for David Braden of Elite, two godfathers of early games in the same place!
I dedicated the next 15 years to study and work in animated films and commercials where I was privileged to learn skills across most media. I soon realized I was incubating more ideas for games than animation, so it was only a matter of time before something accessible to the individual came along. Flash was the perfect tool, Icycle was the result and before I knew it I'd become a full time indie developer!
How long have you worked on Wonderputt?
Initially I had estimated a two month production period, but it ended up taking almost six months over a year period between contract work. This happened mainly because the game outgrew the initial concept and size.
How did you come up with the overall concept?
After the positive response to Adverputt and requests to host the game, it made sense to re-use the game engine to make a version for a wider audience with a rich and animated environment, free of integrated brands. So it started out as just a re-skinned version of Adverputt but with some customizable functionality.
The game seems heavily inspired by physics, biology, and other sciences. What attracted you to this aesthetic?
For an isometric look, I rummaged through all manner of isometric illustration such as old encyclopedia diagrams and their geographic cross sections, to bar chart statistics and air fix kit assembly info-graphics. This stuff was ripe for logic, cause and effect and the wonder of discovery. It just made sense to harness it as a theme for tying together my own adventure golf course and have some fun with it!
I don't think it's healthy to get all your inspiration from within the same industry. There's an abundance of source material at our fingertips these days, so why limit yourself?
What lessons did you take away from making games like Adverputt?
Adverputt was more of an experiment in hyper-commercialism. I wanted to see if it was possible to turn what was usually an ugly aesthetic into a thing of beauty and integrity. Visitors were quite split down the middle. Some found the advertisements obtrusive, while others really appreciated the concept. Unfortunately it failed to be lucrative since its exclusivity prevented its distribution and exposure, and I believe some potential sponsors were unwilling to commit without knowing who their interlocking neighbors might be.
If I was to do it all again, I would work with a marketing team or games portal to organize, promote and distribute the content.
At times, Wonderputt looks almost like an M.C. Escher drawing. How did you balance the stages so they wouldn't be too complex for players?
Each hole had to offer a unique challenge yet remain easy enough for most players to complete. The animated transitions proved enough to push players through, so I tried to keep the holes relatively easy. A second play unlocks a collectables mode for points-hungry players in need of that extra layer of challenge. This seemed to be the best way of maximizing the demographic. Admittedly some players found the isometric angle too extreme to gauge trajectory.
There's one hole that is homage to Escher -- isometric view really lends itself to spatial illusion, so I think that would make a great theme for an entire course.
How much has the final game strayed from the initial vision?
The initial intention was to create something that revealed written details and images, acting as a tour of a website and its products, but this soon gave way to the game's own direction and flow. I believe that sticking too rigidly to a plan seems to prevent a concept's true potential. You're always going to discover a stronger direction along the way, that's all part of the creative process.
What would you say was the most difficult part of developing Wonderputt?
The real challenge was balancing playability with aesthetics. Those two aspects of game design are constantly at war with each other. It was very important to me that the game held together as an illustration at any point in the game. My convoluted methods of level design made this agonizing at times. I'm in no hurry to make a sequel.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
Unfortunately, most appear to be in beta and inaccessible on the Internet. I'm very intrigued by the concept of Botanicula. Storyteller shows great potential. Dear Esther and Mirage look stunning. Luma shows a lovely tactile sensibility rarely seen in games. I'm really looking forward to seeing them all at the IGF expo.
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?
It's an exciting place! I'll be branching into mobile touchscreen later this year, so there's plenty of new territory to break into. The more platforms that become accessible to independent developers, the better. It seems to be a fertile ground for innovation, allowing individuals to experiment with the latest range of mediums and devices with feasible overheads!
The rate of growth is a little scary, with the risk of markets becoming even more swamped. It's a good thing campaigns such as indie bundles are opening up marketing methods for indies!
[This post originally appeared on Gamasutra, written by Tom Curtis.]