We talk to the developers of Jam City Rollergirls, releasing today on WiiWare.
Today is release day for Jam City Rollergirls, a new action-sports title from developer Frozen Codebase. The game spent more than a year in development, and with the title finally releasing, we talked to president Ben Geisler and Producer Reverend Norb about their experiences and decisions making a game based on such an unusual sport. Although the developer has worked with Konami to deliver a previous WiiWare title, Sandy Beach, this is the first title on the console that they are releasing under their own name.
Nintendo World Report (NWR): What led you to pick Roller Derby as the sport you wanted to make into a game?
Reverend Norb, Frozen Codebase Producer (RN): Well, we had this great idea for a full retail football game, involving all the names and likenesses of the NFL, but, when we did some research, we found to our great shock that EA had already beaten us to it! Can you imagine?! Uh, okay, seriously, I can assure you that the concept of making a sport-based videogame was pretty much the furthest thing from our mind. I watch a fair amount of sports, but I really don’t enjoy nor play sports games, except to see how the developers handled all the uniforms and players and venues and stuff. I think this goes to underscore roller derby’s uniqueness – it’s a sport, sure, but it’s all these other things, too. After attending our first bout in August 2006, we were just like OMFG, WE HAVE TO MAKE THIS AS A GAME. We were totally frantically doing research, trying to see if someone beat us to it or not. No one did! We couldn’t believe it. Roller derby has everything we wanted for a game: It was fast, it was fun, it was edgy, it was weird, it was sexy, it was outsidery, it was goofy, it was violent - it was a slam dunk. Wait, that’s a different sport. Well, whatever.
NWR: Do you think the game could be appealing to people who aren't familiar with the sport?
Ben Geisler, Frozen Codebase President (BG): Absolutely. Believe it or not, we do have some people in the office that didn't get caught up in the whole roller derby trend. It was a constant thought in our minds to make sure that gamers could play the game without knowing the intricacies of derby rules. Also we turned this game into more of an arcade sports game with more fantasy elements. But, at the same time, stats gamers will like the ability to balance their character’s speed, agility, and fan love through upgradeable items as the single player mode progresses.
NWR: Are there any other lesser-known sports you'd like to bring to gaming?
RN: Well, like I said, we’re not truly a sports game type crew up here. We found out with Jam City Rollergirls that lesser-known sports can be a pretty tough sell; publishers already have all the sports games they need in their quarterly portfolios, and nobody is going to put less copies of Madden or NBA 2K11 or Tiger Woods Golf on the shelves to make way for State Championship Lacrosse or something. But, I mean, you never know – if other sports are like roller derby, they have a modest but fanatical fan base and are hungry for media exposure of any kind, which is not a bad place to start. I think we’re going to Minneapolis next week for a roller derby/lacrosse double header; maybe we’ll have to cop a squint at the slam-bang lacrosse action as well as the derby.
NWR: How close does your game come to resembling the rules of Roller Derby?
BG:In some aspects it comes pretty close; in others it's light-years away. Any sport has core mechanics, central tenants that should not be changed. The core components we identified were: passing other skaters for points, establishing "lead jammer", working with your team on strategy and timed "jams". The sport is similar to a race but becomes a whole lot more when the athletes are asked to play offense and defense at the same time. Comparisons to Road Rash are aplenty since, for example, you can knock out opposing skaters as you round the corner.
Once we setup the core rules, we added to the top, to make it fun and arcade like. In real life there are penalties. But games aren't meant to be real life, games are art. It's no fun to sit in a penalty box, so we removed that aspect. It's also incredibly fun to occasionally feel so powerful that you can blow through the entire pack, so we added powerups to enable this.
NWR: Are any of the players in the game directly based on real life rollergirls?
RN: Yeah, thirty of ‘em! We have five real-life teams: the Rat City Rollergirls, the Texecutioners, Gotham Girls Roller Derby, the Mad Rollin’ Dolls, and the Brewcity Bruisers, and six real-life skaters from each team. So, if you’ve ever been mad at Bonnie Thunders or Suzy Hotrod because Gotham beat your team, you can play as them and skate them into a wall or something.
NWR: Are any of the rollergirls in the game customizable, in terms of outfit or appearance? What about a character creator?
BG: Yup! In Season Mode you groom a skater from the ground up. Your first equipment choices are pretty basic, but as you beat bigger and better foes, you get "sponsorship cash" which can be spent on helmets, skates, fishnets, we even have some easter egg purchasable items in the game. Many of these purchasable items will also upgrade – or at least alter – your stats. Also you can change your character’s looks - body type, hairdo, etc...
NWR: Is there an option to play banked (sloped) track or is the game solely based on flat track Roller Derby?
RN: There is no banked track action in the game per se – but there are bigger, more fanciful tracks that are not entirely flat. When we struck the deal with the Women’s Flat Track Derby Assocation, we agreed, for obvious reasons, that there would be no banked tracks in the game. We have some bigger tracks, like the Dairyland dairy barn track, with side walls that you can skate up, or sloped walls rising up out of the curves, or other skateable areas that aren’t flat. Basically, there are no banked tracks in the game, but not all of the tracks are completely flat, if that makes any sense.
NWR: Is there any sort of campaign mode, or is the game focused on the exhibition-style gameplay?
BG: There is a Season Mode where you play teams similar to a real life derby schedule - these opponents become more and more difficult as the season goes on. It leads up to a championship and if you win you get a trophy and get to watch the girls hold a "dance off." There is also a Quickplay mode which can be used for both single player and multiplayer.
NWR: What modes are you putting into the game for multiplayer?
BG: Multiplayer doesn't have a Season Mode, it only has Quickplay. This is primarily due to space limitations with the WiiWare 40mb rule. But that said, Quickplay turns out to be a lot of fun. You can pick a team to play in your home town, and have your friend pick a team to play in his/hers. Then for bragging rights, if you win, you should go onto www.jamcityrollergirls.com and report your scores!
NWR: Does the crowd interact with the players at all during gameplay? How have you managed to work the excitement of the crowd into the game?
RN: Actual crowd members were one of the casualties of WiiWare’s 40mb file size limit – we just couldn’t fit five teams and thirty licensed skater likenesses in the game and still have room for random bystanders. We have the venues set up to imply the presence of crowds – crowd noise ebbs and flows as you navigate certain portions of the track. We also have Dumptruck, derbynewsnetwork.com’s 2010 Announcer of the Year, doing the P.A. announcements and working that imaginary crowd into a lather! We have one track that is based on the Seattle Underground, so it’s kind of this rainy underground catacombs – we decided that, if anyone was really skating there, there wouldn’t be any crowd watching, so we removed the crowd noises and replaced it with the sound of the rain, which is way more atmospherically appropriate. In an earlier incarnation of this game, we had crowd members sitting around the track, and you could skate into the crowd and beat up the fans. It was fun for a few minutes, but it was really off-target as far as gameplay goes – people would go skating into the crowd and bodies would be flying and ragdolling everywhere, meanwhile their opponent was scoring points and they weren’t, and when they tired of messing with the crowd they were way behind, got bored with the game, and quit playing, so I’m kind of on the fence about crowd interactions anyway, even if we had the bandwidth for them.
NWR: Why did you decide on WiiWare as the platform for this project?
BG: We went through a bunch of iterations on this game, tried a bunch of things. The XBLA version ended up being much more simulation based, since we didn't have space concerns. But we like arcade sports games as much or more than we like simulation games, we're huge fans of NBA Jams and Road Rash, for example. So the move to WiiWare was more about going towards an arcade representation of the game. That said, we do plan to take this game onto other systems.
NWR: How much assistance have you had from Nintendo while working on the game?
BG: Nintendo has been great! We've been working with them pretty closely, we've been in Seattle a couple times and they always give us a warm welcome. I am really impressed by their staffs knowledge and expertise.
NWR: Why did you decide to make the game more into an arcade sports title instead of a straight-up sim?
RN: The right tool for the right job! As we said about a dozen times already, WiiWare games are restricted to a 40mb file size limit. That ain’t much. Providing a life-like, realistic roller derby experience in a WiiWare title is, well, I don’t want to say it would be IMPOSSIBLE to do it, but it would be pretty damn CLOSE to impossible to do. You have to know your audience, and whom you’re trying to get to give your game a try. People that want realistic sports simulations aren’t going to go browsing the ten dollar WiiWare games to find them. They’re just not. Further, people that want realistic sports simulations have certain expectations that, to be frank, can’t be met with a smaller title like Jam City Rollergirls. If somebody is looking for the next Madden or NBA 2K11, they’re not going to find it on WiiWare. You’re simply not going to get that type of product to fit in 40mb with a ten-dollar price tag. WiiWare games need to be pick-up-and-play, they need to be fun, they need to be able to be enjoyed by players from all walks of life, whatever that means. They can’t involve complex rules systems or require a long learning period. If you go looking for a game on WiiWare, you want something fast, fun, and immediately enjoyable – and that’s what we think we’ve delivered with Jam City Rollergirls.
NWR: What were the biggest challenges in making Roller Derby into a video game?
RN: A lot of it was figuring out what to keep and what to take out. At first, we thought we would just basically take the rules of roller derby and transpose them more or less one-to-one into the game, but we quickly found that there are a TON of things in real-life roller derby that are harder than hell to pull off in a videogame – critical things like being able to turn your head and see who’s coming up behind you, or avoiding skating into another player’s back for a penalty. If you are playing roller derby in real life, you’ve got bodies all around you, you’ve got a pretty good sense of your position relative to everybody else and your relative momentum, hell, you can probably feel the body heat of the people near you. You can probably SMELL them! In a video game, you’re looking from behind at a massless avatar, trying to gauge position and momentum and distance from a relatively small set of contextual data. It was tough to transfer every nuance of the sport from real-life to the game, simply because the experience of playing real roller derby requires the engagement of your senses in a way a video game can’t replicate.
Another big point that is specific to roller derby is that, in just about every other sport, there is a ball. If you’re making those sports into a videogame, you’re probably focusing on controlling (or stopping) whatever character has the ball. Well, there ain’t no balls in women’s flat track roller derby, that’s a fact! We don’t have that nice logical be-all-and-end-all of a ball to determine where the focus of the action should be, we have skaters all over the track and nary a ball to be found! Eventually, we decided that we would maintain focus by always having the player playing as their team’s jammer, the only point-scoring skater, with the ability to choose general defensive strategies each time they approached the pack. I think to really and truly replicate the strategy of roller derby, you’d have to have a top down game, and be able to toggle control to any player on your team at any time, which would be a MASSIVELY complex game to play – our approach was more at keeping the core concepts of derby, then applying proven gameplay concepts from other successful games to those concepts.
NWR: How many people were involved in the making of the game?
BG: We had a core team of 5-6 people making this game, which is fairly small. But most of them were veterans from larger studios (e.g. Naughty Dog, Raven) and long time inmates of Frozen Codebase.
Thanks to Rev and Ben for taking the time to talk to us!