Recently the 12th Annual Independent Games Forum (IGF) was held and several independent developers walked away with prestigious awards as well as gaming community spotlights cast upon them. But what about the developers that are smaller still; the developers at the start of breaking in to the scene, rethinking pre-existing forms of game structure and to find ways to improve upon them without the big name publishers tightening the money market thumbscrews? After all, that’s some of the idea behind being an independent developer; to be pragmatic in the approach to concept and execution without having to give up artistic license to publishers. These are the true field magicians of development; they don’t need fancy computers and spiffy lab coats to fly – they fly because they refuse to believe that they can’t.

That’s been the overbearing issue on the development end of gaming lately. Large publishers like Electronic Arts (EA) and Activision tend to use their massive weight to encroach upon the developer’s artistic vision and instill the  publisher’s own visions upon the artists and developers creating gaming vacuum, leaving gamers with a choice between handfuls of generic clones that offer nothing new to the culture of gaming and discredits arguments made that games are art. In the end it breaks down to a variant of an old adage: “Those who ‘can’t’, publish; those who ‘can’, develop.”

Independent developers tend to observe things under a different rule set that allows the user an opportunity to explore more basic core ideas in a simple and intuitive way. Eschewing the observed constraints of typical rhythm games, Jason Wishnov and his small team of Los Angeles based developers, Iridium Entertainment,  have taken it upon themselves to rethink rhythm games and add RPG concepts to it as a result of a thought experiment which may underhandedly serve to resuscitate a genre seemingly beaten to death by other industry giants while also sort of ‘cross pollinating’ gamer archetypes.

The fruit of their labors is the forthcoming Sequence, a rhythm roleplaying game and is to be available tentatively in the summer of 2010 as part of the Indie Developer initiative set forth my Microsoft (formerly “Community Games” changed to “Indie Games” in July of ‘09). This year Jason Wishnov and Iridium Entertainment hope to add to the list of games with critical acclaim.

With Sequence the idea is to take the sleepy button pressing action found in most rhythm games and expand upon that by engaging the player with other activities and actions. In the case of Sequence, players are using the ability to “get the notes right” as a means of gaining experience by in turn dumping that experience into learning new spells and abilities that players can use to battle other characters in the game.

Aside from Wishnov and Iridium as the technical workhorses behind Sequence, other contributing artists include Ronald Jenkees, Wendi Chen and Michael Wade Hamilton a.k.a. DJ Plaeskool. All three are people who take personal pride in their work and have a love of their craft. The selection of them as contributors speaks loudly of the value the developers have towards making Sequence a game that greatly distances itself from simple shovelware, esoteric proof of concepts, or a recycled 8bit legacy mutt in HD clothing.

So what is Sequence about and how does it work? Wishnov writes:

“Sequence is, at its core, a game melding roleplaying and rhythm game elements. Instead of one stream of notes, as is typical in games like Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, three separate streams exist at once. The player, unfortunately, can only hit one of these at an given time, and must switch rather frantically to-and-fro to manage the battle. The offensive stream allows you to cast spells (direct damage, drains, healing) by hitting the notes inside. The defensive stream consists of the enemy’s attacks; by hitting these notes, you mitigate the damage done, and finally, the mana stream allows you to hit notes and recoup mana in order to cast further spells. It’s a much more chaotic experience than any rhythm game before it, and even Dragonforce-loving, rhythm-game veterans will find plenty of challenge here.

The game’s story revolves around a Tower. (Despite the real world’s general lack of towers, they seem to be quite prevalent in gaming, I think.) A young man named Ky awakens in this setting, and is guided by a mysterious voice from an intercom above: she says her name is Naia, and it’s her job to lead him up and out of this very odd place. A large part of the game is the strange relationship these two very intelligent characters forge, and the secrets being kept from each. The game’s tone is kept relatively light, focused more on banter and comedy than some sort of epic quest. This is a story about characters, and though I’m quite proud of the twists and turns along the way, Ky and Naia remain at the heart of the game.”

This definitely sounds like a unique experience that an array of gamers should find enjoyably addictive. On a personal note I’m drawn to RPGs not because they afford me the opportunity to live vicariously through the characters, but because I’m given an opportunity to explore the unique strategies involved to win the game as well as read or hear a story and work to see it unfold. Whether or not players wish to view the game as more of an RPG with rhythm elements or a rhythm game with RPG elements, the game melds two genre philosophies to give players a metal option on how they wish to view the game itself.

Some of the things players can expect to see are hand drawn characters and digitally painted backgrounds:

I had an opportunity to sit down with Jason Wishnov and unload a volley of questions pertaining to Sequence and what went into this project, which he was gracious enough to answer for me.

Shawn Gordon (SG): To you, what is it to be an indie developer?

Jason Wishnov (JW): Complete and absolute freedom. When you’re the guy at the top, when every line of code is written by you and you alone, you control everything. The length of the scrollbar. The height of the text. So many things you could take for granted, that you could just pass off to someone else in a corporate environment…they’re all you. The game is an expression of yourself, of your ideas, first and foremost.

SG: What made you want to develop a video game?

JW: I’m assuming this question is for non-gamers, because every gamer has, at some point, wanted to develop their own video game. Some learn programming, and then they try to make a giant RPG in high school, and they quit after they realize RPGs take years upon years of dedicated, slavish work, and even then, they look horrible and suck.

SG: Your bio states that you graduated from University of Florida with a degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering, how did that translate to game development?

JW: Honestly, not as much as you might think. While I was indeed able to hone my programming skills to a razor-sharp, bleeding edge, a fair majority of my work was in the realm of hardware. That helps from a conceptual level when programming for the 360, I suppose, but realistically, it doesn’t have much of an effect.

SG: Often times when I’m tossing an idea in my head, it starts out as something completely different than what I end up deciding to do. Was “Sequence” an idea of evolution or one of spontaneity?

JW: The concept of Sequence came about fairly rapidly, in a few days. I wanted to try out this “XNA” thing, so I quickly combined every idea I could think of into one, dangerous amalgam. A month later I had a working prototype, and I thought, “You know, this might work.”

SG: Have you always had an interest in video games, and what’s the first video game you recall playing and what made it memorable?

JW: Oh, gosh, I don’t know. I’m young enough that the NES was out when I was born, so my parents had be throwing Italian fireballs at, at the latest, age 2. I’ve never not been a gamer, except for that whole “womb” phase. But we’re all so awkward in there.

SG: You mention on Kickstarter that you took hundreds of submission for contributing artists, how did you decide on Ronald Jenkees and Michael Wade Hamilton for music and Wendi Chen for art?

JW: The art decision was simple: out of a 150-200 submissions, Wendi’s art was pretty much more awesome than everyone else’s. We quickly settled on a reasonable contract and off she went, bringing my ideas to life. I would point out that a lot of what you see [in the game] is her design; I give feedback and suggestion, but she has an amazing eye for visual design, so I try to let her just go at it.

Ronald Jenkees and Michael Wade Hamilton were different stories; I was familiar with both of their work prior to development, and I wanted to reach out to both of them. Both were kind of pipe dreams, and both miraculously offered their existing work to the game. It’s amazing work from each of them.

SG: “Sequence” is a game that takes rhythm action and adds an RPG element to it, was RPG your first choice to implement and what about the RPG elements in your opinion make “Sequence” ‘work’?

JW: I love chaos. Or rather, I love gamers making sense from apparent chaos. It wasn’t that I thought, “Hey, really like both of these genres, I should combine them,” it was more, “How can I make a complex rhythm game, already a mind-numbing pattern of notes, into something even more advanced?” Of course, I think RPG elements can fit into almost any genre, so using them to enhance the rhythm experience just kind of a natural fit.

There are plenty of other mechanics to keep roleplayers satisfied: a traditional leveling system, spell acquisition, and a robust item synthesis system are in place to guide the player’s progression. In an interesting twist, the players are forced to spend their own experience points to forge some of the better equipment, potentially lowering their own level and stats in the process. It forces the player to make some interesting choices about how to best optimize their chances of winning, and I think there’s a lot of tactical and strategy depth to be found.

SG: Comparatively speaking, what would “Sequence” be most like that gamers may already be familiar with?

JW: The biggest influence on the game was most certainly Puzzle Quest. The structure of the game is quite similar; the usage of the Puzzle elements within an RPG framework is quite similar. Other heavy influences include The World Ends With You and, narratively, Portal. (Are the genocidal crazy robot ladies?! Maybe.)

SG: Can you tell us a little about the main character, who they are and how they end up in the game?

JW: I’m not going to say he’s an ‘Average Joe’, because he’s not: he’s blindingly intelligent, sarcastic, and pragmatic. That said, there’s really nothing inherently special about him; no secret past, no ancient lineage. He brushes his teeth, turns off the lights, and wakes up in a very strange Tower. Finding out exactly why he’s there is the primary driving force behind the narrative.

SG: Is there something about Sequence that makes it more approachable in terms of playability and fun than another game on the market today?

JW: Difficulty is always a key point in rhythm games. The World Ends With You, a significant influence, gave players the rather unprecedented option to change difficulties at any point during the game; while allowing the player to smoothly progress through the story, that also allowed the player to essentially “dumb down” any fights they found particularly challenging. At the same time, not allowing the player to switch difficulties during the game could lead to massive frustration, as an incorrect choice before the game is even started would force the player to completely restart the narrative if they wanted to make the game easier or harder. So, I decided on a compromise: the player may freely switch difficulties up to the end of the second floor, maybe, a few hours in, and then it becomes locked in. This gives the player a good amount of the time to find the right level for them, while ensuring that later areas test their abilities to the utmost.

SG: Iridium, what you and the other members of the dev staff call yourselves, are independent developers, but who exactly IS Iridium?

JW: Honestly, for the most part, it’s me. Or rather, the only full-time employee is me; I have several people (including my artist and musicians) doing contract work, but for the most part, Iridium is a name I use to cloak myself in an aura of mystery and wonder.

SG: Iridium is actually an interesting element, albeit kind of nerdy of me to say so – what was the basis for “Iridium” as the name of the development staff?

JW: Iridium is a name with the Latin root “iri-“, as in, say, iridescent. It’s meant to imply a wide spectrum of ideas and concepts in the games we create. Additionally, Iridium is a pretty sweet element: not naturally occurring on Earth, our only samples are from meteorites, and it has an atomic number of 77, which is rad.

SG: What were some of the challenges that Iridium was faced with as ‘Indie developers’ and how did you get past them?

JW: Cash. Isn’t that always the problem? Learning to stretch the dollar is one of the biggest things you can learn as an indie dev, and I’m proud to say that the total budget for Sequence…not counting the endless hours I could have spent actually getting paid, I suppose…is well under five thousand dollars. Take that, Grand Theft Auto! I also happened upon a website for funding independent development (and really, any sort of creative project) called Kickstarter, which is a fantastic platform for anyone looking for a bit of financial aid.

SG: Approximately how long have you been at work on this and was it ‘easy’?

JW: I started development in the summer of 2008, after a friend had recommended XNA as a programming platform and distribution channel. I found (and still find) it remarkably easy to use. The code is also compatible with Windows, so at the very least, I think indie developers should spend a few days playing around with the libraries. I spent that summer making a barebones prototype, just to see if the concept would work. For the most part, it did. And, despite my senior year of university to be the academic equivalent of suffering through a Uwe Boll film, I was able to work on it fairly frequently.

[EDITORS NOTE: For those fortunate enough to have never heard of Uwe Boll, he directed "House of the Dead", "BloodRayne" and "Far Cry" - not the games... the "movies".]

SG: Has Iridium talked about possible expansions, or do you guys feel it best to stay focused on the task at hand (what’s the development philosophy behind “Sequence” or for Iridium as a whole)?

JW: Well, offering the title on a downloadable service does offer the possibility of small expansions, you know, sidequests, here and there. But this will probably be done as a measure of thanks for those who purchase the game, you know, Valve-style, not as paid DLC. For now, development is solely focused on Sequence, but who knows? It’s open for a sequel.

SG: XBLIG (XBox Live Indie Games)  is your platform of choice for “Sequence”, how did you decide which platform to develop for and how did the platform affect your ability to bring your idea to life?

JW: Even the new downloadable content services are very tightly arbitrated; the content is very controlled. It’s difficult for smaller, first-time developers to output their titles, but Microsoft’s Indie Games initiative is an absolute blessing. Peer-reviewed content goes up for download, developers keep anywhere from 60-70% of the profits, and joy is had by all. It was really an obvious choice.

SG: Are you considering being cross platform in the future, like to Wii Ware, PSN and Steam?

JW: Sure. WiiWare and PSN require invites, though, so we’ll be in contact with Nintendo and Sony after release to see what we can do.

SG: Lots of young gamers aspire to be part of the gaming industry, do you have any advice for future developers?

JW: It’s perseverance, really. Anyone can *start* a project. Can you finish it? Are you willing to spend a year, two years, three years of your life working on a project that might never even reach fruition? If you’re passionate enough, and the answer is yes, this industry has a spot for you. The road is long, but the clearing at the end of the path is pretty cool.

For more information on the hand picked artisans tapped to lend their talents to the production of Sequence, read on.

wchen Interview: Indie Developer Jason Wishnov of Sequence, A 
Rhythm Roleplaying GameWendi Chen, an illustrator who has a wealth of digital illustrations and conceptual designs on her blog, has done the character design and background art for Sequence. Her blog features the progression of the protagonist “Ky” from concept sketch to final sprite as well as some of the backgrounds to the game. Take note of the free flowing natural feel of both the characters and the background images while also noting the deliberate lines and poses of the characters. Her use of rich and sometimes muddy muted colors and the general cohesive composition of the elements add depth to the environment without taking it beyond intangible for the dreamy feel of the game. It’s this level of keen detail and artistic enthusiasm that keeps a user tuned to the game world being operated and demonstrates very clearly something created unique for Sequence.



plaeskool Interview: Indie Developer Jason Wishnov of Sequence, A 
Rhythm Roleplaying GameThe first of the two major audio contributors is Michael Wade Hamilton a.k.a. DJ Plaeskool. Hamilton finds himself immersed in a world of ambient sounds, riveting DNB, various facets of House and the occasional Breaks track coming together to create atmospheric sounds befitting the visual settings. For a complete list of DJ Plaeskool’s personal works visit the music section of his site.

rjenkees Interview: Indie Developer Jason Wishnov of Sequence, A 
Rhythm Roleplaying GameFinally, the other major musical contributor is Ronald Jenkees. Playing by ear, Ronald has stated he’s never been one for taking lessons and plays for the sake of playing. He creates his own music from base sounds rarely using samples if ever and draws heavily from hip-hop but isn’t constrained to any single genre or style. For the unfamiliar few, he’s acquired huge internet fanfare and an ever growing fanbase for his musical talents across YouTube, released two full length CD’s, is listed on iTunes, is the man behind ESPN’s Bill Simmons podcast opening titled “Derty”, the subject of many video interviews,  as well as been involved in collaborative work with STS9. To see and hear what Ronald is capable of, check him out playing on his YouTube Channel.

Wishnov’s project has been enabled as a result of, in which he merely stated his goals and discussed his methods finally asking for a collective donation of $600, ranging anywhere from $4 donations to $500 donations, each with a nice incentive to do so which also range from a chance to audition for a voice acting part in the game to signed artwork and a copy of any game Iridium ever makes.

Wishnov has written about his use and experience with Kickstarter, stating:

Beyond the sheer (and, honestly, staggering) opportunity cost of working on an indie game for 500, 1000, 1500 hours of your life (oh god, oh god), there’s the actual cost that goes into these assets. I was willing to pay these people out of my own pocket, but let’s be honest: Los Angeles in an expensive place, and times are tough. Serendipitously, I saw a post on NeoGAF about this thing called Kickstarter, an online venue for fundraising various creative ventures. I wasn’t too sold on the idea, you know, I had never heard of the site, but the poster (who turned out to be David Galindo, developer of a few indie games himself, [to] include the upcoming Liquisity 2) had achieved some success, so, why not? I set a very modest goal of $600, not to fully fund the game, of course, but to help out, you know, maybe I could hire some professional voice actors here in LA. I spent a whole day setting up that page, really, a ton of work. And I let it fly.

Currently the donation window remains open for a limited number of days and any further contributions to the project serve to make the title bigger and better so if you’d like to see exactly how far this can go and how detailed it can be, support Iridium and their project Sequence or at least let Wishnov and the team of developers, musicians and artists know you’ve seen and appreciate their work and dedication to the gaming culture. I know that we at Fairchild VI do and hope to see the success of Sequence in the coming months.

Iridium 620x255 Interview: Indie Developer Jason Wishnov of 
Sequence, A Rhythm Roleplaying Game