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Interview: Frozen Codebase’s ‘Screwjumper!’

Frozen Codebase haven’t been around long. Set up in 2006 with only a small team, they have expanded from a team of one to a team of three, going from six to twenty employees in the matter of a year. Now they are on the verge of releasing a new Intellectual Property, Screwjumper! (exclamation mark fully intended) onto the Xbox Live Arcade, and with not much known about the game, Xboxic thought it only right to catch up with the guys behind it to find out more. Xboxic got the chance to have a chat with Norb Rozek, the lead designer, and James Lupiani, the lead programmer.

Xboxic: What’s your job at Frozen Codebase, and what have you specifically worked on for Screwjumper! ?

Norb Rozek: I am now called the “Design Director,” which basically means…I’m not sure what it means, actually. I was the lead designer on Screwjumper…which means that i came up with the idea (such as it was at the time), wrote the design documents, did level design…all that designerly crap. I also did what passes for the sound! There is also a graphic of a zero in the game, that’s my art! It looks like this: “0!” All me, baby! But yeah, this was our game, and we started it out with a six person company, so in the beginning everybody did everything, more or less.

James Lupiani: I’m the lead programmer, which pretty much means I have to be the one to break it to artists or designers when they demand eleventy billion moving and animating objects on the screen at once. Sort of like Scotty from Star Trek, we’re in a morning meeting and I blurt out “she can’t take it, cap’n!” Like all of the programmers on the team, I’ve had my hands in almost every aspect of Screwjumper at one point or another.

Xboxic: So if the company started as six guys, how’s it doing now?

NR: Now we have three teams working on three games, plus side projects (these side projects have recently been announced by THQ).

Xboxic: What was the inspiration behind the game?

NR: I was learning the Torque game engine, and my task was to import an object, with an animation, into the engine. So i went into ‘3ds Max’, and they have these ready-made architectural shapes you can create, and I created a quick spiral staircase shape. I put a simple rotation on it, and imported it into Torque but the scale was way, way off, so this rotating spiral staircase shape, was, like TOWERING over the Earth. Spinning around, dwarfing the orcs, orcing the dwarfs…it was just this massive, spinning crankshaft poking into the clouds; I was not expecting a six-mile-high spinning thing. I was like…GASP!!! A SIX MILE HIGH SPINNING CRANKSHAFT THING STICKING OUT OF THE EARTH!!! So then I thought, ‘hmmm, wouldn’t it be a cool game if you had a little dude jumping down this spinning crankshaft?’ And that was the idea (and the origin of the name): that there was gonna be a huge pit, filled with these spinning crankshaft-corkscrew-spiral things, and the dude was going to jump from one to the other. But after about two days, we realized that the zillions of rotations required weren’t feasible, so we just had him blowing shit up instead.

JL: Of course, this was about six to seven months before Frozen Codebase opened its doors.

NR: Yeah, i was actually going to try and make the game as a pet project, by myself!

Xboxic: So how did you all come together with this idea then?

NR: We had planned on a different game for our first project, however, after showing the idea to a bunch of industry veterans, they all assured us that we were “on crack”. It was a bit “out there,” shall we say. In any event, we called an emergency meeting for alternate game concepts, and everyone gravitated towards Screwjumper!, and away we went.

JL: Generally, when it’s time to pick out a new project, we draft a bunch of ideas and choose the one that smacks least of crack.

NR: Which is unfortunate, because I’m very much pro- “what the hell are you guys smoking?” types of ideas; I am the token company freak. However, i also want to have a roof over my head and not be working as a greeter at Wal-Mart in six months, so I tend to listen to reason when i have to.

JL: The best candidates get some more detailed write-ups and/or prototypes, and we take it from there.

NR: We started off with Screwjumper!, and originally tried to get it on XBLA by ourselves, but it appeared the “Wild Wild West” era of XBLA was drawing to a close.

Xboxic: So you needed a publisher?

NR: Well… it was “strongly suggested”. We went out to Seattle to pitch Screwjumper! to Microsoft, and they liked it, but we failed to get ‘greenlit’ on our first attempt; they only let you fail greenlighting twice before they boot you out forever. So, had we failed greenlighting a second time, we would have been pretty much screwed. Basically the greenlighting process is much more stringent if you don’t have a publisher. Microsoft said, famously, that the original version of the game was “too Nintendo”, and they wanted something “more XBox 360″, which is an interesting concept. But, I mean, I see what they meant, I think. Microsoft had a lot of feedback for how this could be a better XBox 360 game.

Xboxic: What changed then?

JL: Everything. We did the only thing we could: we overhauled the game’s look as well as the game mechanic.

Xboxic: The game is through the certification process now; have you got a release date for us, and were there any hitches along the way other than what you’ve mentioned? Jeff Minter was quite vocal about the trials and tribulations of the process in his blog, did you experience much the same thing?

NR: The game is coming out on a Wednesday in November.

But yeah, certification was stressful, to say the least. The thing is that the Screwjumper! team is already on another project, with milestones and deadlines of our own. So, to get the game back required at least half the team pulling off the current project to fix and test and test and test Screwjumper! It’s like somebody tacking 20 or 30 extra hours of work into a workweek which was already 45-50 hours to begin with. There was a butt-ton of XBLA networking type things we had not adequately tested, such as:

“Sign in with a profile on a memory unit, now put out the ethernet cable and hit seventeen random buttons to the tune of ‘Yellow Rose of Texas,’ now sign out and sign back in with a profile saved to the hard drive, OBSERVE THE POPUP SCREEN! IT SAYS THE WRONG THING!”

Just…crazy stuff, like “what happens if I have two controllers connected and one is signed in to a profile with no previous saved game data and the other player is not signed in at all, then one player signs out and the other signs in, now how many private slots are left?” “A HA! TWO! IT SHOULD BE FOUR!”

JL: I’d have to say that the certification process is hard on the nerves, but it ultimately results in a more solid product. On a higher level: One of the more difficult parts of the process was that we’d go through pre-certification and a number of issues would be flagged. When we went to fix them, it wasn’t quite clear who the authority was on whether or not it was fixed. We could post on the newsgroups and get hearsay, or we could try to get the publisher to talk to our account manager, who would have to talk to MS developers and cert. Additionally, the requirements changed between the months where we were addressing pre-cert issues and when we went for final cert. Like all things in game development, it was a moving target.

Xboxic: The price point: 800 MS Points? Did 1200 ever cross your mind?

NR: Uh, yeah, I believe 800 Points is the case.

JL: I think it’s safe to say 800 points, although I’ve heard some say otherwise; we didn’t want to get greedy.

NR: I don’t remember having any input on that, but I like the 400 point games.

Xboxic: But a lot of 400 Point games are retro games that nobody likes…

JL: I’m kind of bummed out by all the ports. It’s saturating a market that would otherwise be an excellent venue for original ideas. It does seem to be getting better, though.

NR: Yeah, i don’t know about that retro stuff. I like the idea of XBLA being somewhat cutting edge, I’m not at all a triple A, go pay sixty dollars for a game kind of guy. I really enjoy XBLA, but who the hell wants a port of Pac-Man? It sort of undermines what I imagine the appeal of the whole space to be. Then again, what’s the best selling game? UNO, last I heard. There seemed to be the vibe when Ben (Geisler, head of Frozen Codebase), and I met with Microsoft last year, that they wanted to get away from the retro ports and into a more leading edge thing.

Xboxic: Have you ever considered doing something for the Playstation Network then? That’s pretty new….

NR: Nope, not to my knowledge, although we’re not opposed to it.

JL: I’m curious about the PS3, but not nearly enough to go out and buy one. But if the opportunity arose to get our games on more platforms without a massive investment, I’m sure we would. I liked the PS2, but then so did everyone else.

NR: Like everyone else, I think the PS3 is predicated upon the hope that Blu-Ray isn’t the new Betamax. We are licensed XBox 360 and Nintendo Wii developers, but we have no such claim as far as Playstation goes. We do hold the IP rights to Screwjumper! so, as best I know, we can put it anywhere we want. But, I mean, out of the 20 developers that work here, I think there is one intern who owns a PS3. That’s it. That is not a large buy-in rate. As a player, have never liked the PlayStation because the thumbsticks give me blisters.

Xboxic: Back to Screwjumper!: Who’s the big bad boss?

NR: We have no bosses. You blast your way through twenty levels of increasing danger and difficulty, and if you get through the 20th one, you win! Huzzah for you.

JL: Unless you count Billy (another developer) and Norb, whom I hold responsible for the insane arrangement of lava tubes in the final level.

NR: Yeah, the last level is the de facto boss. “Molten.” FEAR IT! FEAR IT!

Xboxic: OK, so explain the game mechanic then.

NR: Okay, you play a “Screwjumper,” a renegade outer space ex-mine worker turned mercenary. These dudes used to work in these mines, but got technologically unemployed, so they got jobs as mercenaries. Anyway, the planets hate the mines, and want ‘em gone, so the Screwjumpers now have jobs to destroy the mines they once worked in. Your Screwjumper dude gets dropped out of an airship into this huge, long, gaping mine. He will fall at a certain rate, which he can increase by using his jet boots.

JL: Explaining the concept to people was somewhat difficult until we gave the very basic instruction: “Green good, red bad.” As you fall down the shaft, some items will glow green, indicating you can destroy them by smashing into them. Using the jet boots allows you to destroy more robust equipment.

NR: Falling at ‘X’ mph will allow him to destroy certain objects by smashing into them; falling at ‘Y’ mph will allow him to destroy bigger things. You have to destroy a certain amount of mining equipment on the way down the shaft because, if you fail to destroy enough stuff, the mine’s automatic defenses will kick in once you land at the bottom of the shaft, and you will be fatally gassed. If you have destroyed enough stuff on the way down, you lob a stick of dynamite into the conveniently-placed nuclear reactor at the bottom of the shaft, reverse your jet boot polarity, and blast like hell back to the top of the shaft before the whole thing explodes. The mines are also filled with various hazards, and you also have dynamite which you can throw at stuff that is too far away from you to bash into. Also, if you use the jet boots for too long, you’ll burn up.

JL: I have no idea what a nuclear reactor is doing at the bottom of a mine shaft.

NR: We had piles of explosives down there, but someone in a position of power said that explosives were undignified or something, so we have a nuclear reactor.

Xboxic: Tell us about the multiplayer: how many players will you support? Anything about the modes?

NR: Four of ‘em! We have two-player split screen, for that same-couch touchie-feelie fun and 2-4 player networked multiplayer, which is basically a race. Then the main game consists of Race Mode, where you race three bots down the shaft; Time Mode, where you don’t need to destroy that minimum amount of stuff to survive, you’re just trying to make the best time down and back without fatally burning up or getting blown up; and Endurance Mode, which, to me, is the ONE TRUE MODE of Screwjumper. You have three lives to last you for all 20 levels, and you cannot save your game. You can gain one bonus life, I think at either 35,000,000 points or 30,000,000.

JL: Just keep blowing stuff up, you’ll get an extra life.

Xboxic: Complaints about XBLA games in the past have been leveled at poor implementation of lobby rooms; does Screwjumper! have a proper lobby system where players can remain together after the match?

JL: Alas, it does not. Starting a new mission immediately was almost put in, but would have brought in a lot of other tasks and thus was left out.

NR: Um… I believe you can sit on the scoreboard and yak for a while? When the game is over, you can sit around gazing at the scoreboard and chatting, but if you want to play another match, you have to create a new match. Which you can do using private slots, of course.

Xboxic: What have you got planned for DLC at this stage?

JL: No plans yet, although ideas have come about. I think additional characters were going to be available separately, but we ended up making them available once you purchase the game.

NR: At one point in time, we were kicking around the idea of additional levels. I don’t know that that’s anything that’s been hotly pursued in recent months, it was an idea early on.

Xboxic: What are your plans for the future now that Screwjumper! is all but out there? Will there be a sequel or does that depend on the uptake of the game?

NR: If people really like the game, I’ve already got the document drawn up for the sequel. As stated previously, the Screwjumper! team is already well into another project… (not Screwjumper! 2). But, if people like it, I’ve got the high concept for the sequel sitting on my hard drive right now. If people don’t like it, screw it, we have lots of other games to make.

JL: The possibility of a sequel depends on the uptake of the game. We’d definitely love to take advantage of retaining our IP rights. At the moment, we’ve already got some other really excellent original games in development. Screwjumper! is just the beginning.

NR: Yeah, we can continue it, abandon it: we’re not at all locked into anything at this point.

Xboxic: Frozen Codebase is definitely a developer to keep an eye on then?

NR: Basically, our one caveat is that we want to do games with original IP, and retain those rights, ’cause that’s what all the cool kids do. You’d better keep an eye on us, we’ll steal your beer before you even know what hit you.

Xboxic would just like to thank James Lupiani and Norb Rozek for their time once again, as it was much appreciated. The game will be hitting the Xbox Live Arcade in November, although we cannot yet reveal exactly when.

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3 comments on 'Interview: Frozen Codebase’s ‘Screwjumper!’'

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Comment by Rico Tubbs on 2007-10-27 05:58:12 | Reply

Love all the original Games coming to XBLA

Comment by asdf on 2007-10-27 12:04:19 | Reply

WOW!!!! An XBOXIC interview!?!? And a lengthy one at that. Good get Rossko. If and when I finish reading I’ll post thoughts. Congrats!

“I have no idea what a nuclear reactor is doing at the bottom of a mine shaft.”
hahahahaha thats gotta be one of my fav responses someone has given ever! Especially since its comin from the guy that made the game :D

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