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The Joystiq Indie Pitch: Pragmatica


Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We at Joystiq believe no one deserves to starve, and many indie developers are entitled to a fridge full of tasty, fulfilling media coverage, right here. This week, we unlock HiVE's apocalyptic puzzler, Pragmatica.

What's your game called, and what's it about?

This is Pragmatica. It's a programming-based puzzler set in a not-too-distant future, in which robots have, somewhat controversially, all but replaced humans as the world's industrial labour force. The largest and most powerful robotics firm, Pragmatica, hires you as a programmer, tasking you with writing programs to solve tasks using their expensive and highly volatile robots. Gameplay-wise, this means combine actions and conditions (SEE-WALL, TURN-RIGHT) into a program, then hitting the launch button and watching the robots execute it to complete the task, or crash and burn trying.

Do you feel like you're making the game you always wanted to play?

In many ways, yes – we don't release anything until it's exactly how we want it, so the feeling of things being "just right" is something we place a lot of value on in development. Usually, at the start of a project there's a bit of a struggle to see which of the tens of "best new game ideas ever!" in The Big HiVE Folder actually evolves into a real project, but Pragmatica, unusually, got started within a day or to of being proposed. There doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it, the time and place was just right to 'do robots'. We'd just finished a three-year-long hand-drawn adventure platfomer (Umbrella Adventure) and were eager to do something quicker, more immediate and structured, and (we naively assumed) far quicker to develop.

How long did it take you to create?

In the first few weeks, we managed – somehow – to build the entire engine. Program building, robot scheduling, switches, hazards, crates – everything. But that didn't stop the rest of the game taking nine months. Blame the 80/20 rule – it's true. Or maybe it was that title menu. Or the level editor. Not sure...

What are you proudest of about your game?

Pragmatica combines a lot of new and exciting things for us, as a developer – it's not in our usual genre range, has higher-quality visuals, audio and music than our previous work, and has a full – working! – level editor. These are all things we'd been wanting to challenge ourselves with for a while, and we're glad we did. What we're most proud of, though, is simply the feedback from players; both the praise and critical suggestions we've received have shown that players are engaging with the game in the way we hoped they would, whether it's by sharing and discussing their solutions to levels, or by finding unexpected ways to solve (and break) our puzzles. We've even received mail from people who are using it to teach basic programming in schools!

Our main goal with Pragmatica was to engage players' creativity and problem-solving in an entertaining way; of course, this is what any decent puzzle game should do, but we're overjoyed that some of the decisions we decided not to make, to trivialize or simplify certain aspects of the core gameplay, have turned out to be justified. The temptation to try to increase the appeal of a game, especially a puzzle game, by desaturating its character can be strong even for indie developers, but in this case it's the response from players that has given us the confidence to keep our games distinctly HiVE-flavoured, both now and in future.

Anything you'd do differently?

The spirit of indie development is the reason we keep making games, and why we usually give them away for free

Our biggest problem was that, in terms of internal complexity, Pragmatica kind of exploded out of control during development – sometimes tiny details, sometimes high-level design decisions – they all added to the time and effort cost. That, and making your first ever level editor is really tricky, it turns out. If we'd been working for a publisher we would have missed all our deadlines and had our game cancelled for sure. But, as an independent team, these aren't things we would do differently or avoid, they're things we needed, and wanted, to learn by doing. The spirit of indie development is the reason we keep making games, and why we usually give them away for free (or as near as), and it's the reason we can develop things without necessarily planning them all beforehand (or at all...) or knowing exactly how long or how difficult development will be. Building Pragmatica was equally frustrating, difficult, intensive, maddening, creative and hugely rewarding – and our goal remains to get people to play it and enjoy it, and fix anything they don't.

What one thing would you tell someone to convince them to get your game?

It's unlikely that you've played a game like this before (unless you're really into programming-based robot grid puzzle games) – that alone justifies the price tag: free! The graphics are hand-drawn and supported by a shedload of shiny effects, the sounds are all extra-high quality, and the OST is superb. Best of all, if you don't like the levels we made, you can make your own.

(And sometimes we give free stuff away.)

(Bring nectar.)

What's next?

In the past couple of months we've been moving our game development into a new gear, and expanding in a couple of new and different directions – we're porting our back catalogue to the Mac App Store (and improving a lot of it as we go), starting to branch into mobile game development, and of course, getting caught up in year-long hand-drawn epic-final-masterpiece games every so often. What's next will depend on which of our many potential projects somehow makes the cut and gets finished first.

We're also trying to spend less time locked in the game-dev basement, and more on building connections with players and other developers. The creative work itself keeps us extremely busy, but we're aiming to do more to reach people and provide more regular updates on our work, rather than waiting until a new game is released to send it out and disappear again. Our next project may well be commercial, so we're having to learn indie marketing face-first at the same time as developing it. We're still learning about our trade, day by day, but we don't plan to quit any time soon.

If you're ready to take on our futuristic robot overlords, download Pragmatica for free, find HiVE on Facebook or post questions on their FormSpring page.

If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email jess [at] joystiq [dawt] com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.

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