Olu Interview

Interview with Daniel Frandsen about Olu and Game Development

February 8, 2011

We had the chance to interview, Daniel Frandsen about his video game development experiences. Frandsen is the creator of Olu, an Xbox Live Indie game and also co-founder of Red Button Games.

Could you tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up here in Kalamazoo playing video games as long as I can remember. I entered WMU as a Medallion Scholar, focused on game programming and design whenever I could, and graduated in Spring 2009 as a Presidential Scholar in Computer Science - Theory and Analysis. Since then I've been working at BlueGranite as a Business Intelligence consultant, and continue with game development on the side.

How did Red Button Games get formed?
I took a course at WMU in game programming my Junior year, and really enjoyed it. I met other students in the course who felt the same, and we decided to start an student organization specifically for people who wanted to make games. Altogether there was myself, Aaron Brandt as the Vice President, Sasson Jamshidi as the Secretary, and Philip Rowan as the Treasurer. I was the first President of Red Button Games and put a lot of effort towards it - but because of work, school, and Olu I really struggled to get the organization off the ground. Since then Red Button Games has had Presidents with much more passion towards building the organization than I did - first Jeremy Doorbnos, and now Chris Atkinson.

What were some of the first games you created as you learned?
It really depends on how long the "learning" phase is. You never really stop learning - and games are what drove me to learn to program in the first place. I've made plenty of "games" (that aren't finished) from platformers and RPGs to puzzle and action games. As far as what I dabbled in before starting on Olu, I remember a 3D Pacman game that took place on a cube, a ninja platformer, and a top-down stealth shooter...without much stealth.

Could you tell us about Olu?
It's a rhythm-based rail shooter. For anyone who's heard of Rez, it's the same concept: floating through a virtual world, shooting at enemies, and everything in the world is in sync. For Olu, I stuck to the formula for Rez very tightly, so much so that it hurt the game in some cases. In the end I added a duality to the enemies and weapons, which helped add a unique feel to the game, but still leaned heavily on the concepts of Rez.

What were some of the major challenges in creating this game and how did you overcome these obstacles?
The biggest challenge for me was maintaining motivation. When there's no deadline or person barking over your shoulder, it's easy to choose more fun things to do than making games. Don't get me wrong, I love making games - but there are times when you have to slog through something you really don't feel like doing because it needs to get done. In the end, I just had to set a schedule for myself: set aside 10 hours a week to work on the game until it's finished. 10 hours doesn't seem like much, but you'd be surprised how much a simple decision like that can affect a project.

How does it feel to have published a video game?
It feels really good. Don't get me wrong, I didn't turn a profit on it, not even to break even for some art and music I contracted for the game. However, just to have that feeling of accomplishment and experience to bring with me to new projects, it's worth it. I remember a feeling of relief when I finished, which didn't last long since I had to worry about marketing my own game as well.

Could you tell us how you went about licensing the audio for the game?
The short answer: I didn't. I created all the music for my game except one track, which I contracted through Gordon Van Gent. The long answer: I tried to. for about 90% of the development time, I used a techno song which worked perfectly with the game, but I found out too late how difficult it was to track down the needed companies and how expensive it would be. I spent over a year contacting and dealing with 1 company for the rights to use the music and lyrics, and another 2 for the recording. At the end, I decided it wasn't worth adding to my game for the cost and time they were demanding from me.

What things go into game development that some people may not realize and how do you go about them?
This is quite a big question - but I think a lot of people still thing about 1 person tapping away at a keyboard for months and out comes a game. In some cases, that's still true - but nowadays so many different skills are needed that a smaller team is usually a detriment to the end result. Minimally, you need the skills to program, create music and sound, create art, and design/create/write. It's rare when all these skills are found in a single person, and the best work usually occurs when people who excel at each skill work together. I fully admit that I'm an excellent programmer, but I only consider myself adequate in the other areas.

What types of things have you done with AI in your games?
I've barely scratched the surface. Most of my games have very basic AI - but designed that way. For example, in Olu most of the enemies move straight toward the player. This works in this case, because the player needs to quickly dispatch enemies before they overwhelm the player. In other cases, the movement and attacks of enemies are meant to be in sync with the music, so the AI you fight against is very simple.

I have heard that you have created a game like Pac-Man. What did you learn from this project and what was your favorite part of the game?
I believe the name of the project was "PaKuMan". The concept was to take PacMan, but put the board on a 3-D cube that would flip when you change sides. This was my first project using 3-D graphics, so the biggest thing I learned was how matrices work in relation to 3D graphics (an entire topic altogether). My favorite part of the game was seeing it all come together - even though the graphics were only rectangles and spheres, it still provided a fun experience.

What do you plan on working on next?
I have an untitled tower defense game I'm working on. Up until now, I've just been building a prototype, but I'll probably be diving deeper into development soon. All the details, screenshots, and future information about the game can be seen at http://dfrandsen.com

What advice would you give to people interested in getting into video game design/development?
The best thing you can do to give yourself the edge is to make games. They don't have to be very big, but make sure to make a game like you could sell it. Put in a menu, credits, make it easy to understand. The biggest thing that early game devs skimp on (including me) is polish. The more of these games you have, the better portfolio you have. With that, you have something to offer a game company that you apply for, and enough experience to start selling games yourself!

Is there anything else you would like to say?
Don't worry about the job when you make games - make games to have fun, and to give fun to other people. If you follow that course, success will find you.

You can find Dan Frandsen's previous work, including videos, screenshots, etc, at http://danielfrandsen.com
You can see his upcoming work at http://dfrandsen.com.
You can see Red Button Games (the company, not the student organization) press blog at http://rbgames.tumblr.com