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Interview with Nathan Fouts of Mommy's Best Games

Brad Gallaway's picture
For those of you who've been paying attention, a great little game called Weapon of Choice hit the Xbox 360’s Community area, and it's been on fire ever since. After spending time with it and doing the research on where it came from, I was a little surprised to discover that this title was essentially the work of one man—Nathan Fouts, formerly of dev studios Running with Scissors and Insomniac. Having worked on games such as Postal, Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, and Resistance: Fall of Man, I had to know more.

(And for those of you who haven't played the game yet, you can check out my review.)

What can you tell us about yourself?

I love donuts, long distance running, and any movie that starts with "a group of scientists".

 What's the story behind being a part of Running With Scissors and Insomniac, and then going solo with Mommy's Best Games?

Downloadable games seemed like they could sustain a small company. I started Mommy’s Best Games to make the weirdest, funnerest games that I could squeeze past the censors. The best part is that on Community Games, while they do have ratings, there is no overbearing, money-hoarding publisher trying to rain on your game design parade. Consequently, no one stopped me when I started adding udders to the Teat Walker or various strands of drool to Pitcher Mouth.

Your wife is listed as the game's producer. How has going independent affected your life and your family?

Well it’s definitely neat to hear words like "side-scroller" and "laser orbs" being spoken by your wife. She’s not professionally trained as a producer, but she was definitely able to help me prioritize at times and keep somewhat focused. Having her more involved on the project also means she had a real interest to make sure I was doing my best and could focus. If she just thought it was a hobby or there wasn’t that much to gain from it, I probably couldn’t have gone full-time with the project.

The 16-bit influences on Weapon of Choice are pretty obvious, but are there other influences outside of games that had an impact?

Certainly, influences come from all over, even outside of games. For instance, I help my dad harvest pumpkins in the fall for his fruit and vegetable stand. He drives his tractor with a large, side-walled trailer that has a low ramp on the back. He slowly travels up and down the rows of pumpkins and gourds, making stops to load them up. Sometimes, rather than getting on before he starts up the trailer, I like to wait till it’s moving, walk along side it, then hop on board.

I think that trailer was a template for the Teat Walker (the massive, udder-laden creature in the first level of the game). I wanted a lumbering slow moving creature that you could hop on and off, that pretty much doesn’t even notice your existence (unless you shoot it in its soft spot). Of course… the pumpkin trailer didn’t have milky strands having from it, or spider-like legs… but it was definitely an inspiration.

Not to intentionally stroke your ego, but there are several elements in the game which really shake up what a player would expect from a 2D shooter of this sort. It's instantly familiar, but at the same time a complete revamping of traditional formula. Did you come up with the new elements solely based on your own personal experience, or what was the creative process like in this aspect?

Thank you, good sir! I love the genre so very dearly and I wanted to play a new game! Unfortunately, the 2D, run-and-gun genre doesn’t get contributions too often. But I’d been building up ideas for a while, so I had a lot I wanted to add. It was a blend of saving ideas over time, but also seeing how the game played and being inspired to add new things along the way.

Some of the weapons are truly inspired and bizarre. Were there other ideas for weapons you had that didn't make it into the game? If so, what were they?

Yes! Dozens and dozens of ideas didn’t make it. Honestly, I’m saving the good ones in case I ever get to a sequel. I’ll give you some we may still use, but they just didn’t make it in to this one. Some examples:

Lens gun: Floating lens focuses various laser beams on to a single point. You can vary the lens focal distance by squeezing the trigger.

Burn ring: Ring of damage/effects appears around you. It can also change enemy shots to work for you, causing them to orbit the player and damage enemies.

Spectral Flower: Giant energy sunflower forms at the tip of the gun. Shoots off exploding petals in each direction, successively which fly out quickly then slowly fall to the ground.

How was Weapon of Choice actually created? Did you use only the XNA development tools, or was there other technology involved?

I exclusively used XNA to make the game. Actually everything is completely factory—the retail Xbox 360, XNA and even my copy of C#. I don’t have a fancy paid version of Visual Studio; I used the free Express version. The big difference is I spent over four months writing proprietary game creation software. The two programs are Mommy’s Best Level Editor and Mommy’s Best Object Editor. The latter also has a built-in animation suite.

It’s a little wacky to make your own tools, but I knew what I wanted to do, and after looking at lots of software out there, the benefits of making my own tools won me over. I now have a jump on our next (secret) project, with full control and intimate knowledge of my tools.

How long did Weapon of Choice take to come together? Can you describe the creation process and how outsourced talent played a role?

Weapon of Choice took over a year to develop. I spent the first four months building the tools to make the game. The last eight months were making the actual game, but I spent a good while coming up with ideas before I started writing any code. For several weeks in advance, I would figure out the specifics in terms of what I was to be working on. Since I did the design, animation, texture work, programming, and sound effects, I had to juggle a lot of things, but it was great because I knew exactly how everything was going.

From the start I had a friend writing the story and the dialog. He’s a much better writer than I am, and it helped not having to worry about that. Along the way we picked up Hamdija Anajovic to do the music. He was able to bring the unbridled, head-banging fury we needed for the tracks but work with us on professional schedule, meeting deadlines appropriately.

Near the last few months, I had an old friend build the "Peak Bridges" level for me, which took some work from me to keep up with him, but it was really nice having him do all the layout work. I also had two texture artists help me on color and shade some of the textures. And along the way, I had another old friend program some of the enemies, which was fine, but I wished I could have offloaded more work.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about attempting to put a Community game together?

Don’t be afraid to let people play your game and give you feedback. You don’t have to do exactly what they want, but you should definitely consider everything that people have to say about your game. It may make it better. And take your time. There have been a lot of games that get slapped together too quickly. Polish the game for longer than you think you should.

How successful has Weapon of Choice been? Were your own personal goals for the game met, and what kind of return have you seen from sales?

Well I’ve been really happy with the great fan response we’ve gotten from the game. We get fan mail occasionally and the forums have been really positive. I wished the bigger game sites had reviewed the game but they seem to be unsure how to handle Community Games as there are some good games but lots of poor quality ones as well.

As for sales, we still don’t know yet. It’s been really painful not knowing but Microsoft says they’ll be able to reveal sales this March. I’m dying to know how it’s selling.

The good news is we’ve been in the Xbox Live Top Ten sales charts for Community Games since launch. The list for the week of Jan 26th was our 10 full week. I’m very hopeful we’ll make enough money to continue to make crazy games. Tell your friends about Weapon of Choice and help keep us on the Top Ten list! Buy war bonds too! And plant a Victory garden while you’re at it!

Are there any plans for a sequel, and what are you working on now? For any future project, are you staying with Community, or do you have other designs?

I would like to stay with Community Games. I like the freedom and the lack of red tape. It’s been great so far.

We are currently in pre-production for our next game, which just means I’m trying out some gameplay and art experiments and fixing up tools before we move forward on everything. The new game will be 2D, feature hand-drawn art, but fairly different from Weapon of Choice.

I have to know: games as art...? Discuss.

The mere fact that many books exist trying to define "art" makes it problematic for a new medium, such as video games, to be able to be critically considered art. Nevertheless, I’ll throw my opinion into the fray.

I think an individual’s acceptance of specific mediums as "art" is developed on a personal basis. With each medium, such as paintings, books, movies, etc. individuals have to evaluate each particular painting, book, and movie and ask whether or not it qualifies as art to them—that is if they’re even interested in doing this. With subsequent paintings, books, and movies they encounter, they can compare the new with those previously evaluated to more quickly determine if they qualify as art. Once someone feels comfortable with enough examples of a medium being art for them, it’s easier to label the entire medium as art. Generally though, when pressed, each medium contains examples of work that people concede do not qualify as art to them (at least when they are forced to consider things). For example, is the painting of a waterfall I personally painted considered art? What about a painting by a child? What about paintings done for advertisements?

Personally, I don’t consider every painting art. Some are simply pictures and but some are actually art. I feel the same way about games. Some are simply fun ways to pass the time and others are art. Beautifully, games get to be both fun and art sometimes. I can pass the time by staring at a painting, listening to music, or playing a game... and each of those things, in my opinion, could also be works of art. I consider many games to be art; a quick list includes: ICO, Lunar: The Silver Star, You Have to Burn the Rope, Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, and Rez. I’m sure something in that list probably offends just about everyone reading this. That’s my point. Each person will consider each game themselves and decide if it’s art to them.

My easy test for art, specifically in video games, is whether a game has any culturally redeeming value. For instance, does the game make me consider life? My relationships? Ethics? Society? Once a game makes me think about any of those issues or others, in a new or meaningful way, or sheds light on any particular area, I think it transcends a time-passing activity and becomes art.

As time continues, more people will more quickly and more easily be able to relate to even more games that they accept as art. As this number increases and more games are publicly acknowledged as art, I think the medium as a whole can eventually achieve that label. For some people, games are not yet art, but for me, I respond with a hearty YES!

That was quite the answer! Finally, how much gaming do you get in yourself these days? What titles are keeping you occupied, and what console gets the most play at your house?

I play a variety of consoles. I just finished playing some Space Megaforce on my SNES a moment ago. I’m also playing House of the Dead 2 on my Wii. I’ve been getting into gun games recently—Link’s Crossbow Training has been great. I also just finished playing The Maw. I’m looking forward to buying R-Type Dimensions on XBLA. Even though I think a 3D remake of all those tasty sprites is nearly heretical, watching it blend back and forth is mesmerizing.
 
Immense thanks to Nathan Fouts of Mommy’s Best Games for the interview, and as you can see, he's a man with something to say. So much so, in fact, that he's agreed to appear on an upcoming GameCritics.com podcast. We originally covered Weapon of Choice on Episode Nine, so check it out if you haven't already, and keep your eyes peeled for more with Nathan, coming soon.
 
Read more at Drinking Coffeecola blog.
Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360  
Developer(s): Mommy's Best Games  
Genre(s): Arcade  
Articles: Interviews  

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