Tactical Chat: Rebuild developer Sarah Northway

By Owen Faraday 11 May 2012 0
Legends of the Sprawl

I've called Rebuild the best city-building strategy game on iOS - but that's not exactly right. It's more than that.

Rebuild places you in the center of a zombie-infested metropolis with a motley assortment of survivors, and challenges you to take the city back one block at a time. Rebuild borrows tropes from more placid games like SimCity, but it also blends X-Com's squad management and David versus Goliath situation into its unique formulation. It's a game that is greater than the sum of its parts - quite an accomplishment, given the fine pedigrees of said parts. With a randomly generated map and cast of characters, Rebuild creates a sense of place stronger than most AAA console games.

The contradiction of the Rebuild story is that the game's bleak apocalyptic vision of the world came to a developer living a life of blissful international travel. Currently touring Greece, Canadian-born developer Sarah Northway and her partner Colin have spent most of the last few years developing games from hotels and hostels in four different continents.

Somehow, I managed to convince Sarah to tear herself away from the birthplace of Western civilization long enough to chat with me about what didn't make it into the final version of Rebuild, how developing for iOS compares to making Flash games, and Rebuild's recent jump from iOS to Android. Check out the interview after the jump.

Owen Faraday: Sarah, what are you and Colin's professional backgrounds? How did you get into game development? And for that matter, how did you get into game dev together?

Sarah Northway: We both have CompSci degrees from the University of Victoria, BC. Not a coincidence - this is where we met, and we've been together even since, about ten years. We both did web dev and made some games (both apart and together) in our spare time, but never finished anything.

We took 2005 off to travel in southeast Asia, and after failing to telecommute from Thailand (the internet there sucks), I wrote a rather ambitious MMO (also never finished). It became my resume when we came back to civilization, and landed me a programming job at game studio Three Rings Design in San Francisco, where I worked on Puzzle Pirates and a virtual world called Whirled. Colin got a more mundane job in web dev and spent his excess creative energy writing his physics puzzler Fantastic Contraption. When it took off, so did we.

A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book

OF: And when you say took off, you really mean that.You guys travel so much - were you in some exotic place when you were making Rebuild? Did that figure into your inspiration at all?

Sarah: Yep, I wrote Rebuild in at least 10 countries, including Turkey, Malta, Scotland, Honduras and Japan. There's something inspiring about foreign countries where everything is new and even the language is a challenge. I guess it helps get the creative juices flowing, although Rebuild takes place in a pretty boring North American setting.

OF: What were the games you were inspired by when you were making Rebuild?

Sarah: SimCity is one of my favorite classic games and a genre I think has a lot of potential. There's also some X-Com in there, or at least the way I used to play X-Com by naming my guys after friends and family and agonizing over their deaths. I think there's a bit of the Choose-Your-Own Adventure books in there too. The early versions of Rebuild actually involved a lot more reading before I dumbed things down and added those icons to the daily results.

OF: X-Com is one of those great that creates a framework for telling your own story, rather than trying to be an interactive movie. Is that what you were shooting for with Rebuild? Because I think you nailed that.

Sarah: Thank you! Yes, it's the emergent stories from those kinds of games that I was hoping to get with Rebuild. Another big inspiration from awhile back was Space Rangers 2, a pirates-esque trading game with rpg events told in Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style. I suppose the storytelling is the reason I'm hooked on Skyrim. I've played hundreds of hours of it while barely touching the main plot, just wandering around the northern wastes and making up my own reasons for being there.

OF: Going back to the earlier versions of Rebuild that were more text-heavy for a second. Is there any of that stuff that had to be left on the cutting room floor that you regret didn't make it?

Sarah: Actually most of the stuff I had to leave out of the original Flash Rebuild got put back in for Rebuild 2, [which was the basis for the mobile versions of Rebuild -ed.] like the plotlines and equipment and random character appearances. One thing I still had to leave out was having some sort of a mini-game for the attacks, but all things considered may be best that I didn't put that in.

Colin and Sarah Northway, somewhere in the world.

OF: How did publishing on the App Store compare to making a game for Flash portals? Has that business experience changed what you'll be doing in the future?

Sarah: Selling game sponsorship via FlashGameLicense is stressful and time consuming, but all the Flash portals and sponsors I've dealt with are run by very nice, approachable human beings. Apple on the other hand is a cold, uncaring monolith of a company. Maybe they'll feature your game and you'll be an instant success, or maybe they'll botch your release and you'll get zero sales in the first week. It's a crapshoot, and either way the only thing you'll hear from them is an automated response. I'll continue to port games to iOS, but I still wouldn't consider writing a game specifically for Apple devices.

OF: You're not the only dev I've talked to that has serious gripes about the App Store and Apple's relationship with App Store developers. How has the experience with Android compared?

Sarah: So far it hasn't had the same initial spike as iOS, but has the same ranking (#400 in paid apps) and is making about half as much. I was pretty worried about supporting all those different devices since there's no easy way to specify that the game needs so much ram and cpu power to run smoothly. I used the iPad as a kind of guinea pig and did a lot more optimizing before I braved the sea of Android devices.

OF: What are you guys working on next?

Sarah: While I was working on Rebuild and its ports, Colin prototyped physics game after physics game. He finally landed on a great design for a creature-building game called Incredipede, which is part Fantastic Contraption, part Spore, and part QWOP. The gameplay is solid so I'm coming on board as a programmer to write the server component and menu system and get this puppy finished. I guess it's the first time we've worked so closely on a game together besides some game jams. It's pretty fun!

OF: Am I right in saying that there seems to be Colin games (physics-based puzzlers) and Sarah games (puzzle-y RPGs)? Do you guys take turns leading the design process, or is it more organic than that?

Sarah: We definitely have different styles and like different games, but actually we haven't collaborated that much. Colin wrote Fantastic Contraption while I was working for Three Rings, and I could only spare a few weekends to help with the art. And likewise with Rebuild, Colin was busy writing prototypes for his own (yes, physics) games, so he helped test but didn't work on it at all.

Similar story for our other half dozen unfinished/less successful games. For Incredipede, Colin worked on it alone for a year before I joined on as a programmer, so it is thoroughly his baby and he's got full control of the design. It's always been great to have each other there to bounce ideas off of, but I'm happy we're finally working together on something for reals

OF: Are you done with Rebuild, or can you see yourself revisiting that game with more content or a sequel?

Sarah: Colin thinks I should write a Rebuild 3, but if I do it it's going to be a lot more work than the previous two, and I'm not quite ready to commit another year of my life to those zombies. Maybe a few more cute little flash games first.
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