SpeedMath Developer Interview

I managed to catch up with Michael Lee, the developer of SpeedMath and Matchem and ask him some questions. Here’s what he had to say:

Q : Though the name SpeedMath is fairly self explanatory, please explain for anyone who hasn’t played it, what they can expect from SpeedMath.

It is basically a party Math game meant to be fun first and educational second. I know that sounds ironic but I’m a father and I was tired of all the crappy ‘edutainment’ games. They always take an educational game and try to jam a clone of some fun game into it and it ends up being crappy. I actually based this on the NTN games one finds at any local bar. Basically you have 10 seconds to answer a question and the faster you guess it, the higher score you get…which is based on the countdown timer. I made it all math (not trivia like NTN) and 4 player and it ended up being a lot of fun! It’s obviously great for kids learning their basic math, because you HAVE to be good at it to win. But the game had 2 surprising side effects.

1) If buy the full version you can set the number range between 10-20 and choose multiplication and division. This ended up being a lot of fun to play with other adults.

2) Every kid that played it ended up wanting to play it again! They didn’t even think of this as an educational game! Success! This is not just with my kids. I’ve read a few reviews out on the forums and other parents have said the same thing. I was very surprised when I was putting my 5 year old daughter to bed when she first played it and she said ‘Daddy, can I play the math game again in the morning?’. I was obviously so excited for the game and for her.

Q : What was the inspiration behind SpeedMath?

I know I mentioned this in my previous response, but the inspiration was basically we’re homeschooling our children and the lack of fun, teachable tools out there is downright sad. I looked to make a fun game first and found inspiration in the NTN trivia game.

Q : How many of you worked on SpeedMath?

Myself and my wife. I did all the coding and she did the graphics. I co-wrote the song with my 8 year old Daughter Annabelle. We used some freeware sounds and images also. XNA is an awesome framework for development. Couldn’t have done this without such great tools. Almost as good as the Commodore 64 and the fat C64 Programmers guide.

Q : Now, SpeedMath isn’t your first game. I see that you also created a game called Matchem. Care to tell us a bit about that?

This was another inspiration because of our kids. My daughter and I play a lot of memory games and I was surprised at the lack of memory games. I was relatively new to XNA, but not coding, so I decided to tackle this, primarily because I wanted it! It is currently the only 4 player memory game on the XBox. It’s not the flashiest though. I learned a LOT making that game.

Q : What was the development time taken to complete SpeedMath?

The development time for SpeedMath was not NEARLY as long as for Matchem because of 2 factors;
1) I had just learned my way around the XNA framework, API and community process. This was just ramping up on the learning curve.
2) I wrote a lot of code in a reusable way so I was able to take a lot of the code for Matchem and use it in SpeedMath. This is huge for new developers to learn. Getting through review can be hard so if you have a solid framework to build upon that handles most of the ‘gotchas’ then you’re already half way there. Total time was probably 40-80 solid hours. It’s hard to tell because I would just work on it a bit here and there after work. My wife probably has a similar number of hours in it with the graphics, game publishing, logistics, etc.

Q : Are you a big gamer? If so what games do you normally play.

Oh gosh yes. The reason I even code is because I used to write video games as a kid. Now I do boring stuff to pay the bills. I actually got a decent invitation from Nintendo a few years ago and that was hard to turn down but my wife was pregnant and I got a job offer that paid almost twice as much with fewer hours. It was doing point of sale systems (cash register software). Whoopie. There’s a reason you get paid more. Had to think of the family more than myself. Also, I’m primarily a south eastern USA guy and the Nintendo job was in Seattle. Long story short, I love shooters. I love Gears of War, Counter Strike Source (PC), Call of Duty Modern Warfare (PC). Keyboard/Mouse is just better for shooters.

Q : How did you get into games development?

All you have to do is be awkward socially, smart and have access to a computer and it should come naturally. That is what happened to me. I actually started early in middle school and won some computer science awards. My parents then ‘invested’ in a Commodore 64 and I got that fat C64 Programming Guide book and was off. Loved it. I would spend my Friday nights coding games. I was cool.

Q : Now that SpeedMath is complete is there another game that you are working on that you wish to talk about?

I’m not sure if I will do another one. The XNA community is such a pain in the butt, the games don’t pay for squat, I have 4 kids and a full time job and spending all this time to make a game that doesn’t pay as much is hard to justify. It can be fun-ish, but not that fun. I talked to one of the developers of Twisted Metal (one of my favs) when I was thinking of getting into the industry and he said “I used to write database code for a bank and, in the end, its still just writing code.” and he was right. Might as well get paid. The XNA community, in terms of the process and forums, is what really ruins it. I do have an idea for a game. I want to make it. We’ll just have to see. It’s a 2d game from a birds eye perspective. I based it on a game I used to play on paper as a kid. You can have multiple vehicles and can have different game types like capture the flag, elimination, etc. I would love a game like that.

Q : What do you think of the whole idea of Microsoft introducing XBLCG?

I think it is revolutionary. This, to me, is up there with ID putting Doom out on shareware with 3 levels. I don’t know if people appreciate what a jump in computer entertainment this is. For basically one guy (or me and my wife) to be able to write anything he wants for a console, and then publish it??!?!?! revolutionary. I actually had a Yarozee. Remember that? The original Playstation development kit, except for the ‘masses’. It was about 700 bucks. Not bad. Problem is, it wasn’t good. It was such a pain in the butt to program for, poorly documented, no community help and most of all, no publisher! The fact that this is free and, if you want to publish, a mere 99 bucks for Microsoft to handle the heavy lifting should be the shot that rings around the world for all console makers; If you want to succeed in the future, you have to include this feature. It should be a given in all future console design.

Q : What do you think of the XBLCG Community as a whole?

I like a lot about it, and I hate a lot about it. I like the fact that you can post a technical question and get a great answer almost immediately. Most people are nice and helpful. The organization of the XNA CG website is fantastic and logical. It is really hampered by a few things.
1) No incentive to review or play test other’s games. They need a chip system where you have to review 3 games and playtest 8 to submit your game to review. As it stands now, most people just mooch. I play test and review a lot but have been burned out by the moochers, jerks and tyrannical mods.
2) Many of the mods are tyrants. Heaven forbid the community actually act like a community. Can’t just say hello to someone. The problem is too many 21 year old kids as moderators. I have almost 20 years of computer industry experience. They need more mods that have actually held a real job. There are a few, and they are good, but a lot just seem like beaten down miscreants who feel like taking out their frustrations on the only aspect of their life they can control.
3) Jerks and moochers. So many people flame and spam out garbage about how too many of the releases are ‘apps’ (emuse kicks butt, so who cares) or just go around flaming and being rude. These people never review or give back of course, and just come on to complain and tell everyone else what is wrong with them.
4) The process of waiting 7 days if you fail a review needs to be done away with. This was done because of a few bad apples but the rest of us have to pay. Rather than have the mods actually do their jobs, they make it hard for the rest of us.

I think I’ve complained enough :)

Q : If you could change one thing about XBLCG, what would it be?

One thing? That’s tough. Either require someone to review and play test a few games before they can submit their game to review or to get a few bad apples to lighten up on the forums. It’s a shame really. There are just a handful of these bad apples but they can really ruin the experience for so many.

Q : Is there anything else that you wish to share with us?

All in all I love the whole idea and, mostly, the implementation of XNA. I’m primarily a J2EE Architect (Java/Unix) guy and hear a lot of anti-Microsoft bigotry in my circles. This is my first foray into the world of Visual Studio ever. I also haven’t coded anything specific for Windows in over 10 years. I am impressed. From inception to publishing is so unbelievably easy and well designed I can’t say cudos enough. Anyone who deals with Java/J2EE knows what a headache the infrastructure is for getting an idea from inception to production. The debugging, infrastructure and design framework is so complicated it’s almost a miracle anything can make it to production. No such headaches with XNA. Any problems I ran into were with my own code and design. I never had problems with the tools or infrastructure. I cannot say that for J2EE.