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Puppy Dog Tales

Caspian Prince on Steam and Humble Bundle sales, working on the Panasonic Jungle and his hand in Minecraft

Caspian Prince's Puppy Games is a veteran of the indie scene, having been quietly releasing ambitious, lo-fi strategy games for the PC and Mac for over a decade. They didn't earn enough to keep Prince away from day jobs in programming, however - until late last year, when latest game Revenge of the Titans was made part of the second Humble Indie Bundle. The pay-what-you-want collection went on to bring in over $1.8 million ten days, which made a profound difference to Puppy Games.

Here, GamesIndustry.biz chats to the British developer about just how much the Bundle and Titans' recent appearance on Steam have brought in, the perils of programming in Java, why Minecraft might not exist without him, and about his work on the infamous, cancelled Panasonic Jungle...

GamesIndustry.bizWhat was your background before Puppy Games? Were you part of a larger studio beforehand?
Caspian Prince

Well, not exactly. My personal background is the typical 80s, pre-teen, Commodore 64, BASIC kind of thing. Then I ended up going to university in 1991, going straight into CompSci then straight into industry from that in 94. And I thought very little of games from about that point onwards, although for my final year thesis I actually submitted a game for the Amiga called Xap! I got on the cover disc of the 94 Christmas edition of a magazine. A piece of history. [Laughs] I spent all my time in industry doing database stuff for insurance and all kinds of dull stuff like that, and then an accident got me involved in Java. So I got involved with that, and thought it was quite good - it's like hard programming but easy. I'm not very clever, you see.

Whereupon another complete coincidence ended up with me working on the general elections for the BBC in 2000, so all the results for the last few local and general elections have been going through my system there. Still nothing game related, but then we found out the contract price for the graphics for the BBC's election systems. They were charging about £600,000 to do the laser swingometer with Peter Snow, the 3D virtual studio. And I thought "just a minute, we can do better than that with our Java results system." But Java was rubbish at the time, so I tried to make some live television graphics happen with Java. To cut a long story short, I got interested in doing games again once I'd got this graphics library done. So in 2001 I bumped into Chaz again, my erstwhile colleague from way back when we were 12 years old. He'd disappeared for a few years, having been a wonderful 2D artist, and came back as a wonderful 3D artist. In a twist of irony, we no longer do 3D games. So we wrote a game in 2003, called it Alien Flux, and the less said about that the better.

There was a time about in 2000-odd when you would submit any old shitty game to download.com, and money would flow in.

GamesIndustry.bizWas the plan always to be indie, or was this a stepping stone into joining a studio?
Caspian Prince

We had absolutely no intention of ever joining a studio. One of the reasons was, back in about 2001, there was a big thing going on in the indie games scene, set up by a guy called Steve Pavlina. He's an interesting chap to go and Google - he's got his own self-help website now. He did indie games, and kind of lured a whole lot of people to his forums to build his business when it comes down to it. 'There's gold in them thar hills!' but it was all snake oil and things like that. But he was almost right. There was a time about in 2000-odd when you would submit any old shitty game to download.com, and money would flow into your coffers, and it was a golden age. Of course, like everyone else we started just after the golden age and we made about £1000 on our first game, having spent six months on it. That then carried on for the next ten years. [Laughs.]

GamesIndustry.bizPresumably it's changed in the last few years though?
Caspian Prince

Well, I wonder. It's always been there, bubbling under. Some of the reason indie exists is indie press, effectively - TIGSource, RockPaperShotgun, Indiegames.com, that sort of thing. Before they weren't mainstream enough for anybody to care about, but now they're actually getting proper coverage. The strange thing is the lesson we learned back in 2001 - by the time you hear about the goldrush, whatever it is that was making people rich has been milked dry. In the last ten years, several fads have come and gone. There was Facebook games, that came and went because Zynga sewed that up. Casual games was the big thing in 2004 or 2005, but BigFish sewed that up. Hidden object games shortly after. I think iOS is the latest fad, but of course now we've heard about everyone getting rich on it, it's a dead cert that if we port anything to iOS there's going to be no money in it.

GamesIndustry.bizSo you're worried you're damned to forever be the bridesmaid?
Caspian Prince

Well, we've got a slightly different tactic now. We're going to get more and more weirdy and nichey, I think. Specifically we're going to exploit the things that you can only do on the PC. All our games are unashamedly aimed at the desktop. While everyone else flees the desktop to chase these new fads and goldrushes, they're leaving a big space behind. There's not an awful lot going on in the PC space. It's getting something of a renaissance now thanks to Steam, I've lots of praise for Steam.

GamesIndustry.bizNot at all tempted by tablets, then?
Caspian Prince

I've got a message here from someone hassling me for Revenge of the Titans on iPad actually, but he doesn't really realise that the amount of sprite-flinging going on is way beyond the capabilities of the iPad. Even the iPad 2. Right now I'm looking at a really simple scene with not much going on, and there appears to be about two and a half thousand sprites, running at 60 frames per second. I don't think tablets are going to cope with that for a while yet, so bah. And there's lots of little things like feedback - when you move your mouse over you get feedback, which you don't really get with a finger. I've a feeling there are quite a lot of things like that which will be tricky to overcome.

GamesIndustry.bizYou're still using Java at the moment - any interest in HTML5?
Caspian Prince

Well, yeah, but it's slow. It's going to remain slow for quite a long time - I can't see it catching up for another ten years, to what I've got at the moment tech-wise. Which is Java - we're famously an exponent of that, but not many people use it. Although there's a couple of other famous ones around: Spiral Knights, they've been using Java since the beginning. In fact they use the library that I created.

GamesIndustry.bizDo you get royalties from that?
Caspian Prince

Well, no. This BBC election thing goes back quite a long way, you see. The graphics library I wrote to do all this was basically an OpenGL binding for Java. This became open-sourced and became known as the lightweight Java game library, or the LWJGL. This is basically the de facto platform for writing games for Java. Minecraft is a LWGL game - so I've known Markus Persson for a very long time, but he wasn't rich or famous for most of that.

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Alec Meer

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A 10-year veteran of scribbling about video games, Alec primarily writes for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, but given any opportunity he will escape his keyboard and mouse ghetto to write about any and all formats.

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