Jacking up

Save Jack was one of last year’s honorable mentions in Microsoft’s annual DreamBuildPlay game development competition, made by a pair of South African devs with a penchant for interesting ideas and a desire to put them into action. We decided that it would be a good idea to interview these good folks for their take on what it’s like devving for a competition like DBP, and how they feel about the progression of the “South African game development identity”. This is one for all you southern hemisphere locals out there: read on and be enlightened!

Q. Let’s start at the basics: what’s Save Jack about? What did you hope to offer with this game?

Roger. Save Jack was an attempt to make a game with collects that have more than one meaning. In the game there are two collect types; Gazoolies and Robot parts. To play the game, your avatar runs around the game world collecting each. When the player collects Gazoolies (harmless gooey creatures), they serve as ammunition and can be blasted out of the avatars weapon to destroy robots. Robot parts fall from the sky and are harmless at first. After a couple of seconds they become activated and are then dangerous. If the avatar collects the robot part before it becomes activated, it gives the player build points. Build points go toward the player building towers with suction vents and turrets. These turrets suck in Gazoolies and blast them out the turret. Gazoolies also serve as the method to turn on portals. Build turrets to suck in Gazoolies and send a steady stream of them to activate the portals in the game. Portals serve as a method to move from one part of the level map to another and eventually complete the level.

When the robots activate, they seek other robot parts out and endeavour to join up to make a bigger robot. When a robot reaches a certain size it can start to shoot lasers at the player. The player can’t die but is penalised in build points.

To be honest, all I was trying to do with this game was to find something wild and unique to wow the DBP judges to win.

Save Jack screenshot

Save Jack screenshot

Q. How did you two meet up? What was it that made the pair of you sit down and make a game for something like DBP?

R. I met Jarred through a mutual friend and we both have a passion for making games. I had entered DBP the previous year with a top ten result and really wanted to win this one. All the planets just seemed to align, we were both free to work on the entry full time and Jarred is probably the best at what he does in KZN [Kwa-Zulu Natal, a South African province] if not SA.


I had met Roger through another developer friend, and when I heard he was leaving his job to take up this competition full time I didn’t hesitate to jump in the air and shout “Pick me!” I had no idea what I was getting into.

Q. Did you meet your own expectations for this project?

R. It’s really hard to say. I think we were both really bent on winning and thought we did a really good job. The plan was to get the cash and the contract and get a studio up. The honourable mention (5th or 6th) was cool but no money meant that the exercise was not really successful. The work itself, yea, I think we did really well.

J. Well our expectations were obviously to come first. But we were happy with where we came none the less. From an art point I could have done better if I had more experience at the time. It was a good learning curve none the less and all the learning was invaluable.

Q. What was the single toughest component for the team to work on?

R. For me (dev) it was the learning curve with the console. I spent countless hours and lots of hair trying to optimise for the XBox. That is no reflection on XNA, just the differences between the console and the PC.

J. The hardest part for me in the competition was definitely the conceptualisation stage. I wasted a lot of time by doing a concept, then making it in 3d, then doing another concept. It’s better to do all of the conceptualising first, then move onto 3d. We had problems with style and setting a lot because of this.

Q. There’s been a lot of local chat recently about the “SA dev” identity: would you specifically describe yourselves as South African developers, or do you find such branding unimportant?

R. Not really. South Africa is a great country but it’s not gamer or geek focused society in any way and it’s really hard to carry national pride as a game developer when it seems like the country stacks the odds against you. Most of the talent gets plucked or leaves, we have ridiculous bandwidth limitations, very small demographic with enough disposable income to buy games and the fact that Microsoft hasn’t launched Live for SA. I was quite bummed with Microsoft SA, I have placed twice and would have loved a phone call to say well done for representing the country. Saying all that, it’s awesome when you find another SA game developer here, it’s like you found a long lost member of your tribe.

J. I don’t feel that it is necessary to go around boasting how South African you are. I think that it’s more important to get involved in the international community, learn as much as you can, and then when [you’re] at the top of your game, then boast about how South African you are. As a developer I don’t think that we get judged on where we come from but rather the amount of money we make (which is a result of how awesome we are) .

Q. How important was the concept of community during your development? Did you show your work in progress to a lot of people, or was it more secretive than that?

J. To be honest there really wasn’t any time. We were going for first place and we had no idea what the competition was going to be like, so we just buckled down and did the work.

R. Um, we probably should have shared it with people but we were honestly too busy. We did have usability and testing sessions with our friends though and that was invaluable! You learn so much from just watching people play your stuff and tell you what is working and what is not.

Save Jack screenshot

Save Jack screenshot

Q. Do you feel that you’ve marketed yourselves well enough?

J. Marketing? I don’t think we have even touched on that subject. It’s hard enough making games, without having to worry about all the external factors.

R. No. We were so beat after completing the competition and when we didn’t get the cash or contract I kind of just gave up on it for a little while.

Q. What’s your opinion on the Xbox as an indie games platform?

R. Awesome. It really does allow for more expression with less work. Just being a console is cool because you have a single hardware set up. My only worry is that it might get a bit clogged up with remakes rather than nurturing new ideas. I really take my hat off to the XNA guys, thanks.

J. I believe it’s an amazing place to start out because the possibilities really are endless. It’s an amazing console and XNA is such a robust framework, that all you really have to do is just make a good game and upload it. That simple.

Q. What are your plans for the future? Are you working further on Save Jack or other projects?

R. We are working on another game for the Xbox Indie platform but are still writing the game design doc, concepting and prototyping. We are going to try to get more sleep this time 🙂

J. I am trying to get some freelance work in at the moment which is proving more difficult than I thought. Well, in the distant future I hope to have as many cars as John Carmack, and short term I plan to finish my degree and one or two titles out by Christmas.

About Nandrew

Rodain Joubert is a South African game developer based in Cape Town, currently working for QCF Design. He likes his job. He likes being opinionated on the Internet. He likes fighting evil with his heat ray vision. And he also likes cats. [Articles]