Boss battles for science- Talking with the creators of ‘Pluto’s Revenge’

Pluto's Revenge Opening Screen

Credit: Angry Squid Games

ROM for the Holidays is in full swing at the Royal Ontario Museum and this year’s theme is “Escape from Planet ROM”. With a prototype Mars rover from the Canadian Space Agency, a star lab, and earthbound aliens there’s something for everyone. But no talk of space exploration is complete without bringing up video games. The ROM game arcade is back and this year the Holiday Space Arcade features five fun space-filled games.

The video games were created during the ROM’s annual Game Jam back in October. The ROM invited around 100 game developers at all stages of their careers to get together for one weekend and create video games about the ROM’s collections. Many games were created, but five were selected for their completeness, content and, frankly, short play-time. The ROM Game Arcade works best with short video games so that no one’s stuck waiting to play for too long.

As a ROM volunteer, I got an opportunity to play all of the games. (How else would I know how to help visitors to the arcade?) I also got a chance to speak with Craig Thomas and Britney Coates two of the creators of ‘Pluto’s Revenge’ one of the arcade’s touchscreen games. In the interview, we discussed the team’s brainstorming process, the joys of the ROM Game Jam and orchestrating boss battles.


Who are you and what do you do?

Craig: My name is Craig Thomas. I am the programmer for Angry Squid Games, and we made ‘Pluto’s Revenge’.
Britney: My name is Britney Coates. I am an artist, and I did the 3d art for ‘Pluto’s Revenge’. I am also a part of Angry Squid Games.

Who else is part of the team?

Britney: We tend to have guest artists and programmers who come in; they’re usually our friends. For ‘Pluto’s Revenge’, the 2d artist was Leisha-Marie Riddel and our animator was Bryce Hallett.

Tell me about ‘Pluto’s Revenge’?

Britney: ‘Pluto’s Revenge’ tells the story of Pluto, who we’ve decided to give a character and consciousness. He goes on a mission to reclaim his title of ‘planet’ by clearing his orbit around the sun. It’s a 2d, side scrolling touchscreen game where you play as Pluto and you’re clearing asteroids and satellites and stuff that come in your path. You eventually reach your boss, Neil deGrasse Tyson. He, in full earnest, convinces you to accept your fate of being a dwarf planet.

What was your inspiration for the whole idea ‘Pluto’s Revenge’?

Britney:  The three artists got together at a pub, and we had a few beers, and we talked about the theme of the ROM Game Jam, which was ‘space rocks’. Unfortunately, Craig wasn’t able to be there because of work. But the artists came up with blue sky ideas, anything we could think of. Pluto was very interesting, with the news of him being degraded from a planet to a dwarf planet. We wondered how we could turn that idea into a game. How could we make it interesting and fun considering how many people have an emotional attachment to Pluto as a planet? How could we ride that relevance and pop culture status in a ‘science’ kind of way?

I believe it was Leisha’s idea to have Neil deGrasse Tyson as the final boss. She knew that he was very involved in the rhetoric around Pluto, and we were like, “Done! That is amazing.”


Credit: Angry Squid Games

We had a few other ideas that we bounced back and forth. But Craig and all the rest of us thought that ‘Pluto’s Revenge’ was the most fun and the most light-hearted. So we went with that one.

What was is like to take part in the ROM Game Jam?

Britney: The brainstorming was literally two sessions where we went to a pub, had dinner and talked about it. We talked and bounced ideas back and forth, and it was super fun. What I felt helped us be successful in this jam was that we were so well-prepared. We had worked out all the details of how we wanted the game to work, and so the Jam was just actually doing it. The ROM Game Jam was amazing.
Craig: Yeah, one of the best jams we’ve done together.
Britney: The ROM treated us so well. They took care of us: coffee, tea, muffins pastries and stuff. We got to spend the night which was amazing. They set us up in the most beautiful gallery space.
Craig:  They had all sorts of experts on hand. So we could ask them questions. We could get any information we needed to make sure it was accurate. It was just a fantastic place to work.
Britney: Yeah. They even brought in a Unity guy (Unity’s a game engine). So they had an instructor in case anyone needed any help. We felt very appreciated. Not that we feel unappreciated in other jams, but working with the ROM was a completely different experience. And oh my god, the midnight dinosaur tour was amazing. A paleontologist… What was his name?
Craig: Dr. David Evans.
Britney: Yes, he came in, and it was almost midnight. Nuit Blanche was happening outside, and he was talking to us about the dinosaurs at the ROM and answering all of our questions.

So how long did it take to get the programming sorted?

Craig: I was working for most of the Jam. I was the only programmer and did all the programming. We got decent amounts of sleep…for a jam. We got a full night’s sleep on the Friday night, and I got five hours of sleep on the Saturday night, which was pretty good. And the rest of the time I was just programming non-stop.
Britney: Because we were so well-prepared everyone knew what they were doing right from the get go. So as soon as something was done I just handed it off to Craig. And in the meantime, he used like…placeholders?
Craig: Yeah, placeholders.
Britney: They were like cubes, and I’d give him something that’s actually a satellite, and he’d just swap it. So as all the different art pieces were being done we just handed it to Craig immediately, and he put them in and we kept going with whatever else. It was really fun working with two other artists this time because we were able to make an art-heavy game. A game that had more visual polish on it. And Craig handled it like the pro that he is considering that all three of us were like, “Here! Take it! Make it look good!”

So a question for Craig, you’ve been tweaking the game as you go. Can you tell me about that?

Craig: One of the nicest things about the ROM Game Jam is all the support they’ve given us after the jam. So a lot of other jams are like, “We’ve organized this space for you to be and do all your work in.” And then after the weekend’s over that’s it. But with the ROM they’ve invited us back for so many events and had us in a nice public space showing our game and getting feedback. And having that feedback lets us see what people who play the game think, and we get to act on that. For me game development is a passion, so hearing people give feedback and seeing them struggle with controls or not quite getting it…I just want to make it better. So I will come here for a day and make notes in my notebook all day and go home and work on it all night.
I did that yesterday. I was here [at the Holiday Space Arcade], and I saw that people were having trouble with the controls. I went home at night, fixed it and brought it back today. And it went better today. I’m way happier with it.

 Would you guys take part in the Game Jam again?

Britney: Yes.
Craig: Absolutely.
Britney: We’ll do other jams anyway because we enjoy it so much, and we work well together. But if the ROM is going to hold another one I’d be the first one to send in an application.

Just so I’m clear, the ROM Game Jam is just the weekend? You guys get together and go for two days straight?

Craig: Yeah. It’s a great atmosphere to work in.
Britney: It’s so productive and encouraging and exciting.

Your ultimate inspiration for doing ‘Pluto’s Revenge’ was because it was part of the ROM Game Jam and they were doing space rocks as the theme. But are games with science focus or science content something you guys have done before? Is that anything that’s of particular interest to you or has this been the first time you have done this sort of thing?

Craig: So, for my day job I work for a company that makes games. And we’ve been working with a different museum making educational games and experiences for them. So this was something I’m very used to. They’re a little more strict on content. They give us a little less artistic leeway.
Britney: They’re a more historical museum, so they have to make sure the dates are right, and the names are right.
Craig: But it is very much a similar idea; we’re trying to teach children in new and interesting ways. Ways that engage them instead of just throwing facts at them and having them read textbooks.  It’s exciting to see museums starting to embrace this and try to branch out and evolve and keep up with the times. Because they have to. And I think this is a step in the right direction.

Now do you find that people are reading the text in the ‘Pluto’s Revenge’ or are kids just smashing the rocks?

Craig: It does vary a lot by age. Some of the older kids, you get eight, nine, ten, around there, they’ll start to read it a bit. Some parents are really good, and they get involved, and they read it to their kids and paraphrase and make sure they understand.  Then you’re always going to have kids who just smash it.
I think that it’s important that ‘Pluto’s Revenge’ is a fun game on its own but the learning is there for people who want to learn. I don’t think you can ever force learning down people’s throats. They’ll never absorb it so you have to do what you can to just expose as many people as possible and maybe they’ll pick up something new.

Neil and Pluto are BFFs

Credit: Angry Squid Games

Does Neil deGrasse Tyson know that you’ve got him as the villain… Well, not even the villain because they’re adorable at the end. But does he know that he’s the boss battle?

Craig: A few people have tweeted him about it. I don’t think he’s responded yet.
Britney: We’ve been trying to get his attention, but there’s been no acknowledgment yet. At least no public acknowledgment. Maybe he does know, but he hasn’t reached out to us. Any feedback would be amazing. I know that he is coming to Toronto in February, though. Which is very exciting. So maybe if I go I could ask him, “Did you know we put you in a game?”

But I guess the issue is that the game’s not up yet apart from being playable at the ROM. So he doesn’t have any proof until the game’s publicly available online.

Britney: Right. It’s not publicly available yet. We’ve just been tweeting at him.
Craig: With screenshots.

And the comments and science facts in the game, were they his tweets?

Craig: Yes.
Britney: We didn’t want to mess it up, so we decided that we were just going to quote him.

So the last question: What advice would you give to budding game developers?

Britney: The thing that helped me the most was getting involved in the indie game community here in Toronto. It’s scary as anything to put yourself out there. To introduce yourself and say, “Hey, my name is Britney, you wanna talk about games?” But there are so many opportunities to meet people and it helps. So go to the Unity Developers meetup. If you’re interested in virtual reality there’s the…?
Craig: The VR Meetup, the Oculus meetup.
Britney: Yeah and Torontaru, which you have to be nineteen or older to go to because there’s drinking involved. It’s at a bar. But just start talking to people. It’s scary, but once you get over it, you start making friends.
Craig: Everyone in the Toronto scene specifically is so nice and so welcoming. And they will welcome you in regardless of who you are and how much experience you have. Just go and put yourself out there.
Britney: And you start making friends and making games together, and that’s what gave me the motivation to learn.
Craig: Game jams are also a great way to start making games.
Britney: Totally, because you can also go as a floater. You don’t have to be a part of a team; you can just jam by yourself. There are a few game engines out there that are easy to use, and you can do it on your own.
Craig: But game jams are good because it forces you into a time constraint: “Make your game and finish it by Sunday.”  It doesn’t let you balloon out the project and six months later you haven’t even started, and you don’t have anything to show for it. You will make something, and you’re in an environment where everyone’s being productive, and everyone’s supportive, and it’s a great place to learn.
Britney: And if there’s something you don’t know its very likely that someone sitting right around the corner will know, and you could just ask around.
But yeah just do what you love. If you want to get into this, just keep hacking away at it, and you’ll make it.

Craig nd Britney Angry Squid Games

Britney Coates and Craig Thomas in the ROM Game Arcade.

Did you guys have anything else you wanted to add about the entire experience the game? Learning? Video Games? Science?

Britney: Science is awesome. Games are awesome. Learn as much as you can, about everything. And we love Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The Holiday Space Arcade will be open until Sunday, January 3rd so if you’re in the Toronto area be sure to check it out. Pluto’s Revenge and the other 2015 Game Jam Games will be available through the ROM’s learning portal soon. The games will also be brought back out for some of the ROM’s 2016 events.

Happy New Year!

Dr Ash Signature


No Comments

Leave a Reply