Podcast Interview: Tom, developer of the Google Maps Real World Racer Game...
Tom, developer of the Real World Racer game, talks about the challenges of making a game for Google Maps and the creative process behind making indie games...
You can download the podcast here...
or listen to it here...
Here is a video of the game...
Tom Scott. Hello.
Interviewer: Hi. Welcome to the Indie Game Development Podcast show. How about you introduce yourself?
Tom: Well, hello. My name is Tom Scott. I am from York in England. I designed Real World Racer and a load of other games. I am currently and accidentally Student Union President at the University of York.
Interviewer: How did you get into Indie Game Development?
Tom: Mostly by accident as with most things I do. I tend to get ideas rather than trying to go into certain fields. One day some idea will spark itself into my head, and I'll think, OK, I'll build that. I'll spend a few hours or a few days putting something together. If it works, great. If it doesn't, well such is life. Something else will be along in a minute.
Interviewer: So, you got some game ideas, then, I take it? How did you motivate yourself to do stuff quickly because I know that some other game developers, they get an idea. They'll put it on hold, or they'll just work on other stuff instead of the actual idea that they had.
Tom: I tend to find that's a good barometer for whether the idea is good enough. If it's a good idea and it's something that I should go with, then generally I find myself kind of compelled to code it.
And so, that's where I did it when I had very little else to do for a while.
Interviewer: For the audience, can you talk about what Real World Racer is?
Tom: It is a racing game designed around the Google Maps engine. It's got a Google Maps interface. You normally see those little red spikes that get driven into the ground on Google's maps. They are replaced with cars, and the poly lines that normally make up street directions become the actual race track.
Interviewer: So, you were in Helsinki. When did you get inspired by this idea, and what compelled you? Why did you feel that it was going to be really interesting to do?
Tom: I'm not entirely sure. I never am with ideas like this. I had been working on the Google Maps API for something else.
The initial thought was a kind of a battleships Risk-type game, Naval Command. After a couple of minutes it changed itself into a car racing game because that was sort of the driving directions, API and all these other things. And everything just came together. I thought, ""Yes, I'm going to build that. It's going to be great.""
Interviewer: And so, you had a week there and you just spent a week then building it or what was the process?
Tom: Pretty much. Where I was, my girlfriend at the time had gotten an internship at a company in Helsinki because I'm from England. She said, ""Do you want to go for the ride?"" I thought, may as well. So, I basically had an apartment to myself 9 to 5 each day. Nice little island off the coast of Finland to walk around, which is lovely but it did mean that I had plenty of time for ideas to spark into my head and for ideas to get written.
When you do have a net connection - by the way, the Finnish broadband is amazing. It was something like 10 megabits a second for some stupidly low amount. So, anyhow, a really good Internet connection and a laptop and nothing to do for a few hours. Then, yeah, I put it together.
Interviewer: You mentioned that you were traveling at this time when you got the idea. I mean, do you find that traveling and just getting out of England actually helps you with the creative process? Or how does that work because some of the other game developers I've interviewed have mentioned that some of the breakthrough ideas that they have gotten have come from when they are actually just traveling around?
Tom: Yeah, there are two places that I tend to get my ideas from. If you had asked me this a couple of years ago, I wouldn't have known the answer. But, the two places are travel, for one. That obviously is really expensive so I don't get to do it all that often and from friends.
The most important thing I can find to sparking off creativity is just being with people and just shucking ideas back and forth. If you think of something, run it past them and see if it works. If it gets a laugh, if it gets some interest go for it. If it doesn't, then don't worry about it.
Interviewer: So, your friends have to laugh at it for it to be passable.
Tom: For a lot of the video stuff, I do. It's not just getting development but just interest in things like that. I did a talk - Have you heard of Bar Caps?
Interviewer: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Tom: I help run Bar Cap leagues. I've been to a lot of the London ones over here in Manchester and Sheffield and all over the place. I did a talk about getting new ideas out of your head and onto the web.
The idea I've come up with is something called ""The Effort to Awesome Ratio"". Along the 'x' axis you've got not much effort, a little bit of effort, a lot of effort and on the 'y' axis you've got a little bit awesome, kind of awesome, really awesome. If the effort outweighs the awesome, you don't do it. If the awesome outweighs the effort, you do do it. It's a really fuzzy subjective way of doing it, but that's generally how I work out whether to do something or not. I mean, there are wonderful ideas. Someone came up and said, ""That was it"". So, I wanted to do a version of Portal. You know the game.
Tom: I wanted to do it as kind of a video thing. So, rather than a game I think I wanted to do Jackass with Portals. I obviously staged scripted CGI stuff and that would be really cool. But, the amount of effort required to get the CG looking good isn't worth it.
Now, on the other hand when someone says, ""We should do Mario cart in real life"". Well, OK, we can do that because that just requires a few coupled together carts, a few banana skins and mortar balloons. I think I can probably pull something together in a day or so.
If it doesn't work, there's not been that much effort invested. Unless it's an incredibly awesome idea, unless it's the best idea I've had in years, it's got to pass that test.
Interviewer: Going back to the Google Maps game, did you run it by your friends before you got started, or did you just make it and then show it to your friends? How is that process?
Tom: Well, because I was on my own traveling at the time, I had the spare time to do it. I thought I'll chuck this out. The worst thing that can happen is that it gets ignored, and I've wasted a few days putting it together. But, it kind of had all the signs from the start. Occasionally, if you get an idea you kind of know it's probably a good one. Do you get that?
Interviewer: Yeah. Exactly.
Tom: That just hit me. I thought that's a brilliant one there. That's going to spread. For a while it didn't. For a while it just sat there on my site despite getting a couple of links. Then, after about 7-8 months, something like that, it got linked to by - how can I phrase this delicately - an adult oriented site in Spain. That got something like 50,000 hits in a day which was ridiculous.
I'm not entirely sure if there was a connection, but two days later it showed up in a German newspaper. I'm not sure if those two are connected. I don't know if someone in Germany was kind of looking at some parts of the web that maybe they shouldn't have been at work came across this. And it was Der Spiegel, I think, apologies to any German listeners. I'm no doubt completely mispronouncing that. They linked to it in one of their web columns and, of course, then it went from there.
The trouble was I had all this traffic coming in. I had all these people playing the games, and very few of them spoke fluent English. So, I got very little feedback on the game other than this hit counter that was going off the charts.
Interviewer: You're saying that once you finished the game, it just stayed on your site and really nothing happened for about seven or eight months.
Tom: I got a few links from a lot of the Google Maps blogs because I'd done a minor multi-play Google Maps game before. That had a lot of technical issues. I was trying to run it off a shared host, and it really wasn't up to what was needed. I got a few links off that. All I did is I got rid of that game because the tech back end had started to break down. So, I'll get rid of that and I'll replace it with this. So, a few Google Maps blogs linked to it. I got a few links in. It wasn't until basically a Spanish porn site came along that any of this became popular.
Interviewer: So, it gets picked up by the German newspaper. Then, what happens?
Tom: And then, it just seemed to get linked around the web, mainly Europe, mainly in languages I don't understand. There's probably a lovely writer written in Hebrew somewhere. Obviously, that's completely unintelligible to me. I really wish I did speak other languages. It would make my life so much easier.
Tom: Well, it is Internet Explorer. It really is Internet Explorer. I don't know if you do any web development.
Tom: But, if you've ever tried to get anything kind of Ajaxy working in IE it's a nightmare. I'd get something working in Firefox and working in Opera and working in Safari, perfectly laid out, and you test it in Internet Explorer and it just failed - the number minor work arounds in the code and hacks that just had to be put in.
Interviewer: Did you ever think of trying to use Flash or using the Yahoo Maps API and using Flash and then just building the game on top of that?
Tom: I have developed stuff with that before. I've done all sorts of things like that. I would have had to start from scratch with a new API. I wouldn't have known if it had the capabilities I needed.
Interviewer: You mentioned a multi-player Google Maps game beforehand. Can you talk to me about that and what inspired that?
Tom: That was called Tripods. It think it basically was going from War of the Worlds or something like that. I had three-legged Google Maps marked as attacking Manhattan. You had a little green marker. You could give commands, north, south, east, west and fire which was good, but at the time I was using the Version 1 API of Google Maps which was many, many years ago. I say, in Internet time, many, many years ago, and it just wasn't up to it.
It did work, and it worked for about three months. Then, Google came out with a Version 2 of the API, completely defecated the old one. I would have had to re-write from scratch, and even then it would have the same problems. I just thought, no. I'm going to replace this. It's going to be a much better game. A multi-player just isn't possible right now. It would be possible if it had some kind of turn-based play by email thing, but I think some other people have stepped in to formulate that one.
Interviewer: Going back to the racing game, once it started taking off did you start thinking that you might make another racing game and actually try to make money off of it? What were your thoughts at that point?
Tom: It's finding the time to do it, that's the trouble. I'm all one of these people that isn't - I'm sure there's a psychological term for it or something - complete to finish it. I'm not a complete to finisher. There'll be about a dozen people listening who are just nodding and understanding what I mean by that.
I have a tendency to do new products in this burst of massive enthusiasm, and then when they're in an acceptable form just kind of put them out there and see what the reaction is. That said, there is actually some progress on this. While the game itself hasn't been updated in a while, I think it's going to be perpetually in Beta like a lot of things.
So, they came out with help from me, and they licensed the game. I created a new version for them. What they did is they emailed out to 10,000 people a personalized version of this game that went from their own home to their closest store. I utterly, utterly sold out, but frankly it paid my rent for the next couple of months so I'm not going to complain.
Interviewer: Sure. Did you know how that campaign worked? Did people like the novelty of the idea?
Tom: From what I've been told, it went very, very well. Some of them said they'd love to work with me again, so I don't think there are any complaints.
Interviewer: Awesome. How you thought of making any other Google Maps games then in the future?
Tom: I haven't come up with a killer idea yet. What will happen, possibly after this interview because you've now got my mind in the kind of place where it's making those connections it needs to. If something comes along, I may well think about it.
There's a wonderful idea someone came up with where you had to identify satellite photos on a non-satellite map. So, you get this kind of vaguely recognizable bit of coastline or something like that, and you have to drag the other map of the world close enough to it. That's a great idea. It doesn't have to be an action game or something like that. It can just be some kind of thing that uses the API.
As much as I'd love to, I can't force ideas. I've never been able to. Chances are I'll be in the shower at some point and inspiration will strike, and I'll be coding it the next day. Trouble is I've got a 9 to 5 job now which is really annoying. It really puts a crimp in your style for this kind of stuff.
Interviewer: You were mentioning that the games don't have to be action based or whatever. Are you then thinking of maybe something that is more multi-player that's more possibly strategy-based or even a...
There are possible ways to do it. There's Comet. There's Live Connection to the server. You could even, if you really wanted to play about with it, go for some kind of Flash communication server or whatever the replacement for that was. But, at that point you might as well just do the damn thing in Flash.
Interviewer: Yeah. Exactly.
Tom: The advantage of Real World Racer is that it has that novelty value. That's the only thing that's selling it, to be honest with. Apart from that, it's a very, very rudimentary game, but it's the novelty value playing something like this on such a work-like, business-like interface.
Interviewer: Yeah. Exactly. Aside from Google Maps games, are there any other types of games that you are working on?
Tom: The one I'm working on at the minute is a video game. I just realized how silly that sounds when I say it. It's a game involved video. It's kind of a throwback to the old CGI games where you have a video sequence and click on a certain area of the screen or push to one side or push a button at the right time - something like that which is a nice thing to go back to because you've got finally broadband speeds in enough places in the world that you can do streaming video. I think that's a great way to progress at the minute.
Interviewer: When is this game going to be out, and how is that development going?
Tom: I'm trying to launch new things every Wednesday at the minute, so a lot of things are just quick ideas. It will probably be in a few Wednesdays time. So whether it's a video or a game or something like that, I try and put it up.
I was just thinking there is actually a wonderful kind of genre emerging on YouTube at the minute. You know, YouTube has added video annotations.
Interviewer: Yeah. Exactly.
Tom: You can put those little boxes up that pop up and do these things. There's an entire series of choose your own adventure games popping up on YouTube from people who have filmed them and then used the annotations as link boxes. So, it will say click here to go to this part. Click here to go to this thing. It's just this small branch in choose your own adventure that's evolved out of technology that was never designed to do this. It's a fantastic way of doing it.
Interviewer: So, you're saying that people can put in these annotations, and when you click on them it'll go to a different part of the video?
Tom: It won't go a different part of the video. It will go to an entirely different upload. So what they have to do is upload all the videos and then add the annotations that jump between them all. There are people putting days and days of effort to use this. That's great.
What we need is a platform for this. Someone could pull together some kind of interactive gaming platform where you upload the video. You select the area to click and it goes to this section of the video. That actually should be a really good way to get these things up that wouldn't require YouTube. But, of course, by doing that you are away from YouTube. You get one tenth the hits. You pay your money; you take your choice.
See that's what I mean. That's an idea sparked off just by talking to someone. The most important thing that you can do is keep chucking ideas back and forth at people, and these things will spread out a bit. It's brilliant.
Interviewer: The games that you mentioned are very different than the traditional games, you know, that people are used to. Do you mainly play traditional games, or do you like to play some of these new media type games or emerging gaming genres?
Tom: Oh, I wish I had time to play computer games. With everything else I'm doing at the minute, I very rarely get time to play stuff. When I do, it tends to be really quick, casual Flash games. I've never really had the patience for things like Civilization. I know a few people who found an old copy of Civilization 2000 recently. And there are people who are carefully, meticulously building up cities and then eventually chucking tornadoes at them.
I've never had the patience for that. I've always been one of these people who wants to go in, kill something - ideally, something controlled by another player on the other side of the world - and then get out about five minutes later having to de-stress for a while and go on to do something else.
Interviewer: In terms of Flash games that you play, are there any specific Flash games that you play online that you find really addictive or is it just any kind of Flash game that just takes a little bit of time?
Tom: It'll be generally whatever pops up in my RSS feeds. I'll just kind of flag it for having a look at later. What have I been playing lately? There was some game that really startled me and now I've forgotten which is not particularly useful for this interview. So, never mind.
Interviewer: No biggie. Have you played any of those YouTube games that you mentioned?
Tom: I've never played through. The reason I found out about it was I jumped to a related video, and it happened to be in the middle of one of these. It was a magic trick. Someone was doing the old magic trick. There used to be a web page somewhere on slopes.com [sp] or something like this.
You have been presented with a choice of six playing cards, and it would say: pick one of the cards, and I'll magically remove it. So, you wouldn't actually click on the card. You'd have six cards. You'd say, go to the next page and hey, presto, the card you chose would have magically disappeared.
Now, actually what they did because all the cards were picture cards is they just changed the six picture cards for five entirely different picture cards. So, no matter which one you chose that one would have gone. I've fooled a hell of a lot of people, surprisingly. What they did was they jazzed this up with video and put six cards out in front of the player. They wouldn't do as much hand gestures as I do this one. It's utterly useless for this interview as well.
They put six cards out, but the camera pointed down at them and said click on one, and the six video annotation boxes come up and say, click one of these. All six of them link to exactly the same video, but in the page refresh loading time your brain doesn't keep track of the five cards that you didn't choose. So, all five cards change and hey presto, they're psychic.
Interviewer: Cool. Aside from YouTube and Google Maps, do you see any other spaces where you think there is a potential for gaming to mix traditional game play or even game play with some of this with information or...
Tom: Oh, absolutely. Nearly anything that has an API can be turned into a game. I realized as soon as I said this there's three or four examples that can't. Take, for example, the Flicker API. I know people come up with Flicker games which are something like what this photo is tagged or something like that which is great. You just take the API and you make a game out of it.
Here's an idea off the top of my head. Someone can go build this because I'm not going to have time to. The Twitter API, you can use semis which are now searched on twitter.com. What it tells you every day is the currently trending topics.
Here's an idea. Actually, I might build this myself if I have time. Guess what the next trending topics are? Spot them before anyone else does. So, you register on the site. In fact, you can even use it as the Twitter API. You send direct messages to a certain user name. It logs your guesses and the time. If that shows up in the trending topics, it gives you more points the earlier you've spotted the trend. How's that sound?
Interviewer: Sounds good.
Tom: There you go. And then you've got a player ranking list based on actual Twitter ideas. Immediately, you've got the user base there. You don't have to get people to register. You can just use their existing Twitter accounts. So immediately, you've got a user base. You've got the inter-activity. You've got a scoring system that can't easily be cheated because people tend to stick to one Twitter account. Actually, that's a great idea. I may want to go and build that now.
Interviewer: Have you looked at other SMS games or using SMS to make interesting games?
Tom: There was someone at the Bar Cap Conference I went to. I'm trying to remember the name of his company. You are going to hear me typing now because my microphone is actually built into my laptop. There we go. It was MGami.
What they are trying to do is create a platform for games like this. They're out of Sheffield in the UK. They are trying to create a platform for mobile applications, like ultimate reality games, like things like that so that people who try a set of games like this but who aren't necessarily wanting to invest in all of the hardware. You can just come along and use their API to run the short games.
That's a fantastic idea. I love the idea of social gaming, iPhone games, things like that. But, the trouble is it's really, really expensive to run. If you want to do a location check on a phone in the UK, I think it's something like 20-30 pounds to check?
Interviewer: That is the main issue with SMS is that - in fact, does Twitter even work in the UK now?
Tom: No, it doesn't. You guys never liked it. You pay to receive text messages, or it is included in the plan. Sends and receives is included in your plan. You can even - I think, on some networks and emails.
What a lot of American developers don't realize is that in the UK the entire phone network is based on caller pays. So, you will find that if you are calling from a land line it will cost you more to call a mobile - sorry - call a cell phone. And we have entirely separate area codes for cell phone numbers so you know what the number you are calling is going to cost.
All of our system is great. It means that if you are sending out a SMS to a thousand people in the UK regardless, if you send the absolute cheapest way possible a thousand text messages are going to cost roughly 40 pounds or about $25-30. If you've got to send 100 of those for the game, that's a $3000 budget gone. I think my math is right, my arithmetic. No, it's $30,000. Yes, a $30,000 budget needed. It really does.
Interviewer: Well, you talked about iPhone games. Have you done any iPhone games recently?
Tom: I don't actually have an iPhone. I still have really a five or six year old brick of a phone that doesn't nothing apart from calls and text messages simply because I tend to abuse technology like that if it's in my pocket. My phone has been dropped at about 20 miles an hour onto concrete, and I would love to see an iPhone survive that.
So, I don't have one. I know a lot of people who do. I think the idea of having 3G and edge everywhere really opens some really fascinating possibilities, the idea that you can log onto a game whenever you want.
Obviously, the iPhone doesn't have - I was going to say that shows how old I'm getting. The iPhone doesn't have terminate and stay resident programs which is an old term from about DOS 4, I think, something like that. God, that makes me sound old.
Because you can only run apps in the foreground, it would be that you'd have to explicitly log on to the game. That's a great idea. Imagine if you're in a city like London or New York, you log on to this game and immediately reports by 3G where you are. And it says, find this player near you. Exchange this password. Go to this place. It would be a fantastic way of doing this. I'm sure, I'm absolutely certain that some corporate sponsor is going to come in in the next few months and release something like this. It's just the case of whoever gets there first.
Interviewer: What's in store then for the next three to six months in terms of development? Do you have any specific plans or are you going to do your weekly Wednesday release?
Tom: I never have any specific plans other than I'm going to try and put something out every Wednesday. The trouble is the job I've got. The back story is somewhere on my website.
I accidentally got elected as Student Union President at York which I have a job that goes anything from 9 to 5 until 8 to 8 which means I don't have much time for development any more over editing video or for doing any of the other things that I do. I'm desperately trying to fit in as much as I can, and all I can say is that as soon as the idea strikes I'll build it.
In fact, I may as well spend a few hours tonight trying to put together that darn Twitter game. If I do - when is this podcast being released, by the way?
Interviewer: Probably in about a week or something; a week or two. I'll set it up to do it next Wednesday.
Tom: [laughs] In that case, have a look. One of two things will get released next Wednesday. It will either be that, or it may be me trying to see if I can climb a wall using nothing but duct tape. It's going to be one of the two, one or the other.
Interviewer: Sounds good. Do you have any advice or suggestions then for other Indie game developers out there who want to make some of these emerging genre games?
Tom: Yeah, I guess. It's not particularly positive advice when you first hear it, but it's the kind that's helped me through. If you spend 10 pounds on your game - sorry - if you spend ten bucks on your game, whatever, it's likely to fail. I'm just saying there are so many people chucking so many ideas out onto the Internet that you're likely to get lost or somebody else would have gotten there beforehand or the public just won't be interested.
There are a million people chucking a million ideas a day at the Internet and for most of them just by the laws of probability are doomed to fail. If you spend a million pounds on a game, it's still likely to fail. And this is what big companies don't get about the web. It's that the odds of a million pound project succeeding aren't much greater than the odds of a 10 pound, $10, project succeeding simply because of that same weight of numbers.
You don't know what's going to capture the public's imagination. I used to think that people had a magical corporate influence detector, and that anything that big companies put out on the web was going to fail simply because people could detect that it was corporate. It's not the case. It's just the fact that corporate games are outnumbered so so greatly by the millions of people putting ideas out there. The odds are that the million pound games are going to fail just as much as the 10 pound ones.
My advice is don't worry about it. Chuck out as many ideas as you can. The only way to improve your odds is not to spend a year of your time working on that one perfect project. Put out a quick version of it. If it's successful, spend the time and the budget on that. If it isn't successful, chuck out the next idea instead.
The big bit of advice I always have is put as many ideas out as fast as possible. Be in as many places and as many times as you can, and then, maybe, one of them will be in the right place at the right time
Interviewer: Cool. We're talking with Tom, the developer of the Real World Racer game for Google Maps. Thanks again for your time.
Tom: Thank you very much. Can you give the website a quick plug?
Interviewer: Absolutely. What is the site, and what's the URL?
Tom: It's tomscott.com, s-c-o-t-t. Thanks very much.
Interviewer: And there will be a link to the game right there.
Tom: Of course.
Interviewer: Sounds good. Thank you very much. Take care.
Tom: Thank you very much. It's great being on here. Have a good night.
Interviewer: Yep. Take care. Bye.
Here is a link to the Twitter game he made...