Cogs in the Hub: Interviews With Lazy 8 Studios and Codename

by Jersquall, HSM Podcast Editor

Think back to when you entered Home for the first time.

It was an awe-inspiring – if slightly bewildering – total immersion. The ultimate sandbox experience, utterly open to your every whim, yet daunting in terms of trying to learn a brand-new culture and set of social mores. Imagine being dropped off in the middle of Nan Madol, at the height of its glory, and trying to learn all the customs and cultural practices of the Saudeleur Dynasty in a single day.

And thus, as gamers confronted with the bizarre new world of virtual reality, many of us without keyboards to communicate with, we instinctively sought the one thing we were instantly comfortable with:

Games.

For many, their first game was Saucer Pop, in the middle of Central Plaza. And it’s easy to see why. Set in the middle of the hustle and bustle of theplaza, it was a charming, innocuous oasis for everyone to enjoy. And, on a direct line of sight from Saucer Pop, the new visitor could see the entrance to the bowling alley. Which led to pool tables and arcade games. And thus, through the familiarity of gaming, the visitor became a Home citizen.

All things evolve, but some remain the same.

PlayStation Home has always been positioned as a social platform; now it seems that SCEA is going to throw in even more social games into the mix. If Home transitions into more of a social gaming platform, and its population remains comprised of console gamers, will that not in fact help realize Home’s original goal of being a social network for gamers? To that end, independent label Codename is developing a series of exclusive games for PlayStation Home.

With the announcement of the Hub, which will be released in the fall, and to reinforce their evolution into the ultimate social gaming platform on consoles, SCEA and Codename will work together to gather indie developers from around the world who can create games for Home on PlayStation 3.

The focus seems to be on the social and gaming element, highlighting the ability to “share, interact and communicate with new and existing friends.”

Keep in mind that while this is not a new trend in the gaming industry, it is something which only Sony had the courage to pioneer with video game consoles. You won’t find a virtual reality application on any other gaming console out there.

And, further, this is far, far from being just a fad – and woe to those who think of Home as some trivial curiosity with no real teeth.

Example. Less than century ago, it was commonly-accepted belief that the most powerful military force in the world was the naval battleship. And, indeed, battleships had an amazing run. Yet only five years after the battleship’s last shining moment in the sun – Jutland, 1916 – Billy Mitchell turned everything inside-out when he demonstrated that a rickety biplane could take out an entire ship with nothing more than a single bomb.

The basic concept that dropping something on your target rather than throwing something at your target completely changed warfare tactics. As a result, not only was a new (and gigantic) industry born – military aeronautics – but a brand new type of ship was created: the aircraft carrier. Meanwhile, the battleship is no longer a part of the active U.S. Navy.

And, today, we all know that the carrier is the ultimate naval force in the world. Just as we all knew, a century ago, that the battleship was.

Home is the aircraft carrier of the video gaming industry. And its games are its fighters. Sure, a Sopwith Camel isn’t nearly as visually or aurally impressive as a ship of the line engaging in full broadside – just as Home’s games have yet to rival the oohs and aahs of many of today’s top-tier gaming titles – but ultimately we all know that the carrier, with its fighters, is where the power is.

So now then. The Hub. What sort of gaming experiences will it provide? What will it do better than the old Central Plaza when welcoming a new citizen into its midst?

Home will host a 3D version of Lazy8′s gear-based puzzler, Cogs, as the featured game in the Hub. Cogs is an award-winning puzzle game where players build an incredible variety of machines from sliding tiles.

I had a chance to interview Lazy 8 Studios founder and Cogs creator Rob Jagnow, as well as the developers of the Home Hub Cogs game, Codename.

Jersquall: Hi, Rob; thanks for taking time for an interview.

Rob: It’s my pleasure.

Jersquall: Cogs — it’s coming to Home! For those who don’t know, what is Cogs?

Rob: Cogs is a puzzle game where players build machines from sliding tiles. When players get started, the puzzles are relatively simple — you’ll slide around gears on a 2D playing board to complete a simple mechanism.  But it doesn’t take long before the machines get quite complicated.  Pretty soon, you’ll find yourself working with all sorts of 3D contraptions using pipes, gears, hammers, chimes, wheels, propellers and more.  Every machine is a little different.  On one puzzle, you may need to power a vehicle.  On the next you’ll need to get the timing of several gears just right to play a musical tune.

Jersquall: What can first-time players expect? Massive addiction?

Rob: That all depends on you.  Some players find the puzzles frustrating.  But for players who want a real challenge set in a beautiful steampunk environment, then Cogs has
proven to be really addictive.  One fan just wrote me and said he’s spent over 45 hours on the PC version of the game.  Players write me all the time asking how they can erase their saved data so that they can start again from the beginning.

Jersquall: How was Cogs created? From idea to finish.

Rob: One of my favorite games as a kid was The Incredible Machine.  In it, players built Rube-Goldberg-style contraptions to achieve a particular goal.  I wanted to capture that feeling of invention and experimentation in a more polished 3D environment.  When I started prototyping, sliding tiles made sense as a way to constrain the game mechanics and offer an extra challenge.

It started as a part-time side project and took almost five years to see Cogs through to completion.  Since its April 2009 release on the PC, I have since ported it to iPhone, iPad, netbook and Mac.  Now, of course, Codename has brought it to life in Home.

Jersquall: How has Cogs changed your life?

Rob: It took a while for it to get some attention, but at this point, I can say that Cogs has been a huge success. In fact, last year, it won the $100,000 grand prize in the professional category at the Indie Game Challenge.  This has given me enough of a budget to allow me to take a huge risk on my next project and do something experimental.  The new game is called Extrasolar.  It will still be months before it’s done, but we’ve launched the teaser at http://www.exoresearch.com

Jersquall: Codename has developed Cogs for the Home Hub. Tell us about team Codename?

Rob: I already knew a bunch of the folks at Codename through our mutual connections at IndieCade, a fantastic annual independent game festival near Los Angeles.  When they approached to see if I was interested in getting Cogs on Home, I was really excited about the idea.  They have a talented team and I think they’ve done a beautiful job.

Jersquall: Do you still play Cogs?

Rob: Of course! Even after working on the game for years, I’m still not tired of it.

Jersquall: Rob, HomeStation Magazine wishes Lazy 8 Studios’ continued success; thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

Rob: Thank you!

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Sony and Codename will bring more attention to PlayStation Home and the PlayStation 3 for indie developers.

Codename itself began development on Super Awesome Mountain RPG for PlayStation Home, which is described as blending a board game with fantasy RPG elements. When reached for comment, SCEA PlayStation Home Community Managers said that both parties had currently put the project on hold to focus on development of other content.

I had the chance to talk to Codename CEO Jesse Vigil about developing games for PlayStation Home and more.

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Jersquall: Tell us a little about Codename? 

Codename: Codename is a new business model in the game space. We call it a “label” for independent games. Practically what that means is that we care passionately about bringing independent games to a larger audience and about creating new and exciting kinds of play experiences. We work with established talent like Rob and try to find a cool thing to do together. We discover and nurture new talent, like the guys at Peanut Gallery who are real superstars and who we paired with Rob to adapt “Cogs” for Home. And we have our own small internal studio of multidisciplinary ninjas who do everything from concepting and design to the boots-on-the-ground work that gets the game on the console and in your living room.

Jersquall: Tell us about Codename and its partnership with Home. What will Codename do for Home? 

Codename: The people at Home have been AMAZING. I’ll admit they took a big chance on us, but it’s been working out really well. We have an ongoing partnership with them to bring a wide variety of independent games to Home in increasingly near future. A lot of those are for the new player experience they unveiled recently which includes launch content like “Cogs.”

One thing we’re really proud of in our relationship with Home is the team-ups and partnerships we’re putting together. For one of our upcoming games, we put together a talented designer from the mainstream industry — who has since gone indie — with an up-and-coming toy designer. We thought they’d make a cool game if they put their heads together and we’re all very excited about what came out of that. This isn’t just porting indie games to Home. Even Cogs, which is such an amazing game, has some surprises planned that are unique to Home and really take advantage of what’s different about the platform.

Jersquall: Indie games have come a long way. Do you get tired of being called an indie game company, or is it a badge of courage? 

Codename: Game folks (and Wil Wheaton) make up about 90% of my follow list on Twitter. Someone crossed my feed last week who said something to the effect of, “I hope my game doesn’t get too popular or I won’t be indie anymore.” Really? What the eff, dude? You hope millions of people don’t fall in love with something you made and want to play it all the time? I have news for you, dude: you’re not an independent game designer. You’re a snob.

I have a huge issue with the idea that “indie” means “fringe” or “not commercially viable.” It means independent. It means you made it the way you wanted to make it and it’s the product of your unique perspective, experience, taste, or whatever. That’s it.

The fact of the matter is that we at Codename are thrilled with the growing popularity of independent games. We love these games, and we love the people who make them. When our friends and family members tell us about how they discovered this thing called “Flower” or “Braid” and say, “is that the kind of thing you’re doing? Because that was an amazing game,” how could we feel anything but pride?

Jersquall: You are partnering with PlayStation Home to create and develop games that step outside the parameters of traditional game development. Not an easy challenge? 

Codename: Correct! And I’ll be the first to admit that we’re learning as we go. A lot of the challenge is being the intermediary between a large publisher that is used to games being made a certain way on one end and a designer used to making games a decidedly different way on the other end. One of the reasons I’m so glad to be working with someone like Jack Buser is that he gets that we’re playing the long game here. We’re going to try a lot of different stuff together. Some of it may not work the way we hoped, but some other stuff is going to really click and that’s going to be amazing.

Jersquall: It was announced several months ago that Codename has a handful of games in development for Home. Which games can you talk about? 

Codename: For just a little while longer, I can only be maddeningly vague. Here’s what I can say: you can look forward to a pretty diverse slate in the coming months. There are a couple of pick-up-and-play things in the works that are a unique take on arcade and casual. If you want a solid action game from a pretty neat perspective, we’ve got you covered. And the thing I alluded to earlier from the unique game/toy designer pair is also coming very soon, and we should be talking about pretty quickly.

Jersquall: Home has been more of a social community enjoying single-player games, but over the last year more multiplayer games have been introduced. Will Codename bring both single and multiplayer games to Home? 

Codename: Yes, though something we learned from “Slap Happy Sam’s Stage Show” was that our games need to be fun if you’re the only person in the room who wants to play it. That game is SO fun with six people, but being multiplayer-only made it hard for the game to stay popular. A great single player experience that gets even better with multiplayer is where we’re looking for lately.

Jersquall: Will these games have rewards for Home users? 

Codename: Oh heavens, yes. I want to tell the longtime Home veterans that we’re new on the block and we’re still learning what you want out of rewards and what you’ve gotten sick of, but we know it’s important and are working on making the rewards a more integral part of the design process in some of the games we do next. We have some great producers over at PlayStation Home who are helping us with that, too.

Jersquall: Free to play, pay to play and purchasing of full games have become the norm for PlayStation Home users. Can we expect a little of each from Codename team games? 

Codename: Yes, and it really varies from game to game and what makes sense for the game. Some of them are going to have a mix, some are going to be straight-up free, some are going to favor one more heavily than another.

Jersquall: What do you think about PlayStation Home? 

Codename: The thing that I always say when I get asked this question is this: It is a unique platform. When we first met the Home producers I logged in one night to look around some more because I really wanted to play everything and know all there was to know about Home. I ended up in Sully’s Bar and after ten minutes I realized there was a group of people in that bar who met there every night to shoot the breeze. I played the arcade game in the corner and then sat on the bar and talked to them and I remember thinking, “this is not the rest of the PlayStation 3. This is a different audience. Of course they want different games.”

Jersquall: Do any of the Codename team’s games look like they have the possibility of sequels or even DLC in their future if successful? 

Codename: If successful, hells yes. And some stuff is already planned. When the new districts go live, there are a few subtle signs in our stuff that should hint that we’re not done with some of the games or worlds we’re creating by a long shot.

Jersquall: Thank you, Codename. We are looking forward to seeing your games in PlayStation Home. Will we see Codename hanging out and playing games in the very near future in Home? 

Codename: Yes. You will. When the games go live, we’ll tweet (@codenamegames) when we’re playing. And we want to get to know the Home players. We’re a small studio and we’re in this for the long haul like I said, so we care about your feedback and want to make things that will entertain you and that you feel good about spending money on them.

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Looking back at a few of the other social games in Home — SlapHappy Sam, Sodium 2, Novus Prime — and special social game event hits like Killzone Plaza Defender and recently Dead island TGI, these games have caught the attention of regular Home users and have even made the hardcore gamers pay a visit to the Home community to see what everyone’s been talking about.  This is a necessity, because the PS3’s installed user base is a population full of gamers. And, right now, this industry is in a transition no less significant than the aforementioned example of the battleship to the aircraft carrier.

Ninety years ago, all it took were some small, unassuming biplanes to change the course of military warfare forever. Ninety years later, all it took were some small, unassuming games to change the course of video-gaming entertainment forever.

Cogs is no less significant than the Sopwith Camel. And Home is the aircraft carrier to the industry’s majestic array of battleships. All it takes is the right fighters – the right games – for the carrier to inevitably win.

In five years, Billy Mitchell rewrote the rules of large-scale armed combat.

In five years, Jack Buser rewrote the rules of large-scale console-based gaming.

In time, it is conceivable that the names of the game developers arrayed with the emerging future Home is bringing about will become as prominent as Lockheed, Grumman or General Dynamics are today to the world of military aeronautics.

Or, let me put it to you this way: five years ago, who the hell had ever heard of Zynga?

And, today, who hasn’t?

With event more social games coming from Codename in the fall, the newest addition and reimagining of Home is and has been underway for some time now. Not only will Home be taking care of its user fan base, but it will encourage new users to come Home sit back turn on their cig herb maker and play.

Home has been turning heads lately, and soon will also be welcoming the prodigal sons and daughters who have left to strictly game to come back Home to game. In the process, they just might find they want to talk to each other. And thus the dream of a social network for gamers will have been realized.

Funny how games were the key to making that happen.

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