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Interview with Super Amazing Wagon Adventure dev Sparsevector

We chatted with Sparsevector, independent developer of Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, available on the Xbox Live Indie Games for 80 Microsoft Points ($1). But this is no ordinary tribute to The Oregon Trail. Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is something new entirely, and as this game maker's debut, it's guaranteed to rekindle your love of oxen, buffalo, and ... ninjas? Giant spiders?

Read on to learn more about Sparsevector's game and what went into creating it.

GameZone: Your website says you’re an “aspiring independent developer,” so I take it Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is your first game? It’s great! How did you come up with the idea?

Sparsevector: Thanks! Yes, this is my first game. The idea for the game came from a remake of The Oregon Trail that I created for a group project way back when I was college. One of my jobs in the group was making the hunting and rafting minigames, and I went way overboard turning them into little violent arcade games. People really liked the minigames, so the idea of making an action-oriented Oregon Trail sort of stuck with me since then.

GZ: Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is basically a modern remix — not a remake — of The Oregon Trail. How did you view the game back then, and how do you view it now?

Sparsevector: When I first played it as a kid, I think I was just excited to play a computer game in school. Looking back on it now, I think there are couple of things that people really remember fondly. People like that you could name your party members after your friends and then watch them die off in different ways. There's just a great dark humor to seeing your friends die of cholera or dysentery. People also like that the game was randomized. Finally, they liked that it was difficult and unforgiving. It was actually exciting and felt like an achievement when you beat the game. With Super Amazing Wagon Adventure, I tried to [keep] these aspects of the original while basically removing all of the slow, strategic gameplay and educational value.

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GZ: I love that Super Amazing Wagon Adventure is so much fun, and yet it's short and easy to get into. Why make a short and quick game, rather than a longer one?

Sparsevector: I wanted to make a game that was quick to play mostly because those are the sorts of games I like to play. When I was younger, I loved long RPGs and games with massive single-player campaigns, but as I get older I find my patience for these kinds of games is getting shorter and shorter. I'm not sure if that's because I have less time for games or if it's because the internet has killed my attention span, but I think this is a sentiment shared by a lot of other gamers. It's also a fun challenge as a game developer to make games that are quick to pick up and play but also have some replay value.

GZ: Every time you play the game, you see parts that are familiar and parts that are new, and you have different ways of handling them. Do you have any favorite scenarios?

Sparsevector: My favorite part of the game is probably the scenario that unlocks the "modern" wagon. I won't spoil it, but as the description in the game suggests, it involves time travel.

GZ: The game really has its own rhythm — not only the background music, but the music you create by doing things like shooting. What made you decide on that kind of style?

Sparsevector: This was intentional, so I'm glad you noticed it! I wanted the sound effects and the music in the game to mix together so that the game felt like a fast-paced music video. The sound effects are tuned to match the music's key, and in certain parts of the game, the rhythm of your pistol also matches the tempo of the music — for example, in quarter notes or triplets.

Actually, I wanted to go much further with this idea. Originally, the transitions between scenes were supposed to be timed to the music, and the music was supposed to start and stop with the scene changes. However, getting that to work turned out to be really time consuming. I would have had to make dozens of little snippets of music, and it would have been tricky to sync the transitions on screen to the music. I had to abandon that idea just because it would have made the game's development time much longer.

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GZ: What kind of reactions have you had to the game? Has anyone gotten into a really crazy series of events? How many are there to discover, roughly?

Sparsevector: For the most part, people like the game, and some people really enthusiastically like the game, which is awesome. Probably the craziest playthrough I've gotten to witness was watching someone at the Seattle Indie Games Expo beat the game on their first try. Keep in mind it took my girlfriend, who playtested the game, months before she could beat it. It was really exciting to watch. It's a little hard to count the number of events in the game just because it's hard to define what exactly qualifies as an event. If you count each "screen" of the game, the count is somewhere between 100 and 150.

GZ: Great decision to rename the game, by the way. It’s a lot catchier than “Adventure Trail,” and I agree with what you said on your blog about how it could be misconstrued as a simple remake of The Oregon Trail. Is the new title catching on with other gamers, as well?

Sparsevector: Yes, I think people like the new name. I like that it sounds sort of off-kilter and strange. It also has the benefit of being much easier to Google for, and the importance of that can't be understated.

GZ: I was talking to someone about how this would make a great party game — perfect for playing with others, especially if you name the characters after yourselves. What do you think about that?

Sparsevector: I love that! I think this is absolutely the ideal way to play the game. It's always more fun when the people getting trampled by buffalo are in the same room. I've also had people tell me they play the game with their significant other, which is also great.

GZ: I know you wrote on your blog that you don’t want to jinx it, but … any word on sales?

Sparsevector: I still don't want to give out hard numbers just yet, but it's doing well for an Xbox Indie game, especially considering it's my first game. It will probably not sell enough for me to make a living off it, but that was never my goal, so I'm quite happy.

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GZ: Either way, your game is a success for you, and reviews have been widely positive. Are you thinking about doing other games? Is there anything in particular you’d like to attempt?

Sparsevector: Yes, I'm definitely planning on making more games. I'm still working on the PC version of Wagon Adventure, so I haven't settled on my next project yet, but I have a few ideas. There's one project I'd like to do that is much bigger and more ambitious than Wagon Adventure, but I'm also considering making another smaller game. I've also had people express interest in an iPhone or Android port of the game, so I have a lot of projects to choose from.

GZ: You’re planning the game for PC, as you mentioned. Are you looking at Steam or other digital distribution services or simply direct purchases through your website? Any new content you can tease for us?

Sparsevector: Right now I'm hoping to have the game on Desura, which seems to be the unofficial home of PC ports of Xbox Indie games. It seems like a great platform for smaller indie games. I would love to have the game on Steam as well, but it's much harder to get a game on Steam, so I'm less optimistic that will happen. For whatever reason, there are very few <$5 new games on Steam. I may try to get it on Steam through the Greenlight service they're debuting at the end of the month, but it's too early to say how that will go.

The PC version will have a new survival mode, a new unlockable wagon, and a handful of new random scenes sprinkled through the adventure mode. The new wagon is called "The Glitch," and the name suggests the events that unlock it in the game. I should also mention the Xbox version will get a free update with this stuff too, so don't worry if you've already bought the game.

GZ: You submitted the game to Dream.Build.Play, and the judges will be listing their top 20 soon. Now that your game is doing well, are you nervous?

Sparsevector: I've heard a rumor that the top 20 have already been contacted, in which case I'm not one of them — but so far that's just a rumor. It would be nice to be a finalist just for the extra media exposure, but the game has already gotten a fair amount of exposure, so I'm not worried either way.

Follow @wita on Twitter for tales of superheroes, plumbers in overalls, and literary adventures.

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Stephanie Carmichael Twitter: @wita
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