Design and Desire: An Interview with By Implication

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On November - 30 - 2011
There are few things I enjoy more than speaking with passionate Filipino creators, and helping them garner the attention they deserve. The game designers of By Implication should need no introduction from me–as I mentioned in my post on Scram, they’re the Filipino game design team that won Microsoft’s prestigious 2010 Imagine Cup Game Design Competition last year. Since they just released their first commercial game, I thought this would be a good time to sit them them down (virtually) and get to know them better. Game designers are usually more anonymous than creators in other media, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t just as eccentric interesting as other artists, as you’ll see from this interview.
If you like what you see, do give Scram a try and support awesome game design that just happens to be from the Philippines.
Q: We know a lot about “By Implication” as a team, but what about as individuals? Tell us a little bit about yourselves, your lives outside of By Implication, and what your role in the team is–and by that, I don’t mean “position” such as artist or programmer. 

Kenneth: My name’s Kenneth Yu. I’m supposed to be By Implication’s writer and story director-guy, but because I studied Economics and Business in La Salle, I’ve seen been press-ganged into also being the team’s producer / project manager. This means, basically, that besides writing up copy and coming up with game concepts + stories, I have to do all the crap no one else wants to do. Like creating sound effects and ambiance, recording payments and purchases, bugging people to get stuff done, writing up hare-brained marketing schemes, buying everyone coffee and chicken sandwiches, keeping everyone on speaking terms, and beating down supervillains. The 2-3 hours per day I spend outside work go to reading, toy collecting and playing Batman: Arkham City (and, on occasion, eating and sleeping). All of these inevitably lead to new game and story ideas, and thus to more work in By Implication. Man.

Jim: My name is James Choa though I go by the nickname of Jim (or trigger-happy, if you play certain online games that are not considered as mmorpgs). Outside of being one of the programmers in the group, I also function as the resident Linux guy, programmer, non-teaching-guy-who-can-represent-programmers-in-most-meetings, hardcore gamer and programmer. My apologies, I think I left out the important detail of me being a programmer in the group.

Wil: This is the Wilhansen Li, self-proclaimed PROGRAMM_CAT, of the group. He smites anyone that dares defy the laws of Computational Complexity, using an Infinity (+1) Hammer forged from the very darkness of the universe. He has warped through the Universe-ity of Ateneo, obtaining the coveted combined degree of Computer Science and Math, only to end up back in the Universe-ity to bestow epiphany to those who are willing to accept the Enlightenment. He shall ensure and verify that all laws of any universes created by Implication neither explodes nor collapses to a singularity. The PROG_CAT balances; the PROG_CAT; the PROG_CAT listens.

Thomas: I’m Thomas Dy. I mostly do the other programming that neither Wil nor Jim particularly want (i.e. non-Apple and non-game programming). Like our almighty PROG_CAT, I’ve also taken up the challenge of bestowing Enlightenment upon those who are willing (to pay the Ateneo).

Philip: I’m Philip Cheang, one of the two designer-artists in the group. I graduated in Fine Arts, but have always been partly developer at heart, and continue to write some code here and there (though on a much smaller scale than our beloved developers above). In this regard, I sometimes mediate between the technical and non-technical sides of the team. I enjoy (and dread) nudging lines and shapes ten pixels to the left, then maybe five to the right, but wait-I-have-a-totally-different-idea-now- -I’ll-just-delete-everything, several times over the course of the day. Recently, I’ve also started teaching (like Wil and Thomas), but in Ateneo’s FA department.

Together with Levi, I work directly on graphic assets, art direction, and interface design. Together with Kenneth, I represent the team in events, press, and business meetings. Together with Wil/Jim/Thomas, I discuss technical and architectural decisions. By myself, I generally dick around and waste time, which is why it’s important that I’m together with someone. 

Wait, that sounded wrong. Can we omit that? Is this live? Hello— —

Levi: Levi refers to himself in the third person during interviews. He performs exactly half of design/art duties, leaving Philip to do the other half. Every now and then he brings the team to work, and the rest of the time he hitches; fuel economy is very important to the crew. When food needs to be ordered over the phone, he is often the one to do it, and he will do it in a foreign accent. He is also an unlicensed chemical engineer, and thankfully does not practice. Surprisingly, his training in this field has been helpful in a variety of unexpected ways in developing games—such as in threatening his teammates to work.

Kenneth: Now you see what I have to deal with every day.

Q: What was it like, winning Microsoft’s Imagine Cup Game Design Competition? How did your concept for “Wildfire” come about, and did it change much from conception to execution? 

A: Competing on a global scale, representing the Philippines, and winning first place against many other teams was simply a fantastic experience. In many ways, it was a culmination of our efforts since high school. As young, ambitious kids, we loved (and hated) all these different games, and so we tried (and failed) to create games we could call our own. Winning in the Imagine Cup gave us the validation that creating games was something we could seriously pursue. It’s been an interesting ride so far, and we look forward to the road ahead.

Wildfire’s inception sat at an interesting intersection: we had just come from two competitions, we had been playing with these cool algorithms for autonomous agent behaviour and crowd simulation, and we had just experienced this terrible typhoon called Ondoy. With the drive to win and accomplish something, the technology to build something upon, and an inspiring story to share with the world, we set out to create Wildfire.

The Imagine Cup’s theme was the Millennium Development Goals (poverty and hunger, environmental sustainability, global partnership, and so on) — really big problems. What we saw after Ondoy was that big problems like these can be solved by the collective effort of many individuals. In the Filipino spirit of bayanihan, people from all walks of life volunteered their time and effort in helping their fellow man. The thing is, it’s normally difficult to directly address real-world problems with a game. Other utility-style apps are easier to link to a theme, because you can do directly useful things like aggregate information, offer networks and connections to interested parties, and open lines of communication.

With a game, you generally have to just teach people about the reality of a problem, by inserting that problem as your game’s main theme. Now, many games with a “theme” are, sadly enough, detached from it. The theme is nothing but a layer slapped like a sticker on top of an existing mechanic. “The game will be like a Tower Defense, except it’ll happen in someone’s organs, and will teach people that diseases are baaaaad.” (This was actually one of our earlier ideas, which we ran with for about a month or two.) We had the opportunity to create something that was genuinely inspired.

Wildfire was designed as a “volunteer movement” simulator, from the very start. The idea was to portray the movement of a single good intention, as it “spread like Wildfire” across a population. From the very beginning, we had grid-style cities, crowds of people moving about, and “bad-guy” agents getting in the way. The idea was always for the main character to “inspire” crowds of citizens, and lead them around the city to complete a variety of tasks.

Our initial version of Wildfire was a 2-D affair with only dots for characters. (You can still see traces of this early version in some of our promotional / trailer videos for the game.) When we go through the elimination rounds for the Imagine Cup, we had the opportunity to expand Wildfire, turning it into the full 3-D version that people can download and play today. Along the way, we attempted to implement additional mechanics, like bullet-hell style opponent dodging, and strategy game-style territory control, but many of these features were dropped, for the sake of clarity.

Q: Why are video games important to you? Why do you think they are important to society at large?

A: We’ve been playing video games since elementary school, and never really stopped. Part of the reason we believe video games are so important is the simple fact that they provide entertainment. The entertainment we consume and create reflects and influences who we are as individuals, and as a society, and video games are steadily becoming a large part of that. 

Furthermore, we believe that video games are as valid an art form as cinema, music and painting. They can make us think, laugh, cry and cower in fear; they tell stories, help us learn new things, and allow us to create. Good games, like good books, or good movies, pull us into their world. And they are interactive. They demand player skill, and player choice. There is no way video games can be unimportant. They are just too powerful and diverse, too amazing.

Q: Does being Filipino and living in the Philippines affect the way you approach or design your games? If so, how?

A: This one is a little bit difficult to answer, as we’ve never really not been Filipinos living in the Philippines, and we haven’t yet had the chance to join or observe game developers from other countries. But the creation of a game concept and story is often very personal. Your attitudes and beliefs will always bleed into the thing you’re creating. Most of us grew up living in the reality of the Philippines, but consumed media that was mostly foreign (Western or Japanese). So we love all the classic tropes: the one-man-army, the huge explosion, the transcendent martial artist, the giant robot. But, we believe in the things a Filipino would: People Power, bayanihan, passive-aggressive distrust of authority. 

Wildfire, for example, was in some ways inspired by the volunteer movement that rose up in response to Typhoon Ondoy. We wanted to take that experience, process it, and pass it on to the rest of the world. The result is a game with a very stark, simple, almost cold aesthetic. The city portrayed in that game is meant to function like a blank slate. The game’s look isn’t really very Filipino at all. But the fundamental experience is. Wildfire is all about volunteerism, bayanihan. It tells the story of one of our country’s greatest triumphs.

Q: What would you say is the state of game development in the country today, and where do you see it going in the future?

A: While game development has been around in the country for a while, there hasn’t been much attention given to the creation of original IP. Most companies in the industry are outsourcing providers and BPOs, and this is something we’d like to change. 

There’s a lot of fantastic talent here, both creative and technical, and it’d be awesome if these energies were directed towards original world-class Filipino content. Hopefully, people will see what we’re doing, and think: “Hey, we can do original stuff too!” and begin putting their own stories, their own ideas out there.

Q: Tell us about your newest game, “Scram“. Most games are about empowering the player, allowing him or her to indulge in fantasies where he or she can save the galaxy, or defeat the Big Bad. You decided to focus on “flight” instead of “fight”. Why?
A: We like to refer to Scram as an “atmospheric 3-D running game.” In it, you try to run away from something that’s haunting your dreams. You see the game from the perspective you’d have if you actually were stuck in this situation: first-person. You’re running through these unusual places, dodging past debris. There’s buzzing in your ears, or the echoes of water droplets, or a warning message too garbled to understand. The lights overhead dim and die one by one. And you don’t dare look back. 

It’s really this semi-experimental thing that we came up with one day. We wanted to cram as much atmosphere, as much strangeness as we could, into a game with very simple mechanics, which could be created with a relatively small team.

In a way, “flight” is a simpler game mechanic than “fight.” If you fight something, you have to consider attack and counterattack; a punch versus a kick versus a block. You have to think about aiming, and weapons. You have to think about health, and hitpoints, and enemy types. We love all of these things, but we didn’t want them in a game that was meant to be simple.

So we went with an endless runner. All you do is run, as fast as you can, and dodge the things that get in your way. It’s not a traditionally enjoyable power fantasy, but it’s still a valid, universal experience. One way or another, everyone knows what it’s like to have to run away from something they can’t fight, can’t outwit.

Q: If you can answer this without spoiling anything–do you ever find out what exactly is chasing you?
A: Not… yet. ;)
Q: Why did you choose to develop for the iOS platform in particular?

A: Scram is a small, quick project, and the concept fit a mobile game very well. Most of us (except the Linux guys, Jim and Thomas) already have iPhones and iPads handy, and it’s easier to develop for something you have. We’ve also done development for other platforms, and iOS is generally nicer to work with. 

Android is pretty cool too, but we can’t officially sell stuff from the Philippines yet. (We also toyed with the idea of putting Wildfire on Xbox Live Indie Games, but couldn’t for the same reason. It’s a legal / country coverage issue, and it’s rather annoying.)

Q: What do you think set “Scram” apart from other games?

A: There are a lot of endless-runner games on the app store, but only a few of them offer that immersive, first-person point-of-view. And out of those, it’s only Scram that goes all-out in terms of atmosphere. Scram isn’t just about the running and the high-scoring. It’s about the disorientation you feel when you’re dropped into an unfamiliar place. It’s about the disquiet roiling inside as the environments shift around you. It’s about the fear that overwhelms you when it’s dark, and there’s something coming for you. 

We also like to think that we’re pretty responsive, as developers. We’re always working on updates and improvements, and ready to answer any questions. We like feedback, and we’re willing to go to unusual lengths just to get one sale. The other day, I think we actually helped a customer fix some issues on his phone’s installation, because he said it was preventing him from buying Scram!

Q: What have the reviews been like so far?

A: Most of our early reviews have been amazingly positive, and it was received much better than we expected. Once sales picked up, we received a few low ratings, but those came with some pretty interesting user requests and feedback, which we’re actually working into a future update. We fully welcome any reactions to our work; our only actual problem now is getting more people to check the game out and review it. We’re having to work double-time now to market the game and to get the word out.

Q: After “Scram”, what’s next on your plate?

A: Now that Scram’s out, we’re working really hard on… well, making Scram better. Right now we’re putting together some interesting new features to include in our next couple of updates. We can’t really talk about them in-depth right now, but we’re just going to say that these are going to make existing customers very happy, and potential customers very interested. 

Aside from that, we have a huge load of other stuff coming slowly down the pipe. We’ve got enough original game concepts to last us ten years or more; the title we’re currently working on is a mind-bending action game for PC / Mac / Linux. We’re developing this cool media distribution system for Filipino creators. We’re working with another startup on technologies that’ll empower the bottom-of-the-pyramid. We’re even trying to put together a comic!

Q: What advice would you give to Filipinos who would want to become involved in game development?

A: I think we could fill up an entire new article just writing up the stuff we’ve learned in the year and a half we’ve been working. Figure out what you’re good at. (Programming? Art? Writing? Management?) Know a lot about what the existing companies are doing; you may want to join them. Don’t depend on what you learned in school. Always prototype. Play games. Read comics. Watch movies. Brainstorm over food. Buy a whiteboard. Learn to say “no” to potential clients. Run away screaming if you have to. (Do it courteously.) Figure out how to price your work-hours. Keep in contact with all your friends (You can make ‘em your playtesters.) Always make sure that you’re loving what you do. And no matter what happens, be responsible for your work. That’s the most important thing in this or any other industry.

Q: And last, of course, in light of your recent promotion for “Scram”, I need to ask this: What are YOU running from? 

Philip: Witty interviewers who turn our own questions against us.

Levi: Wil, after making an unreasonable feature request.

Wil: Constant barrages of feature requests from our very dear designers.

Jim: Seeing Apples in every direction in the office/meeting place.

Thomas: Wil’s words of wisdom.
Kenneth: Well, we have to remember that Scram is really just a game. It’s fiction. In reality, there is absolutely nothing out there in the dark to be affC???T?H??UL?H??U? ??F??’???TA?G??H??N???

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Rocket Kapre is an imprint of Eight Ray Sun Publishing Inc. (a new Philippine-based publisher), dedicated to bringing the very best of Philippine Speculative Fiction in English to a worldwide audience by means of digital distribution. More info can be found at our About section at the top of the page.