Interview with Joe Rheaume of Chronotron

September 6th, 2008 by

Joe Rheamue

Joe Rheaume
Photo by Katie McKiernan

Joe Rheaume is sole developer of the flash game Chronotron, and we had a chance to talk with him about his time-traveling robots. Chronotron is actually a tricky game to describe, though we did give it a shot in our earlier review. It turns out that Joe is better at it.

The game is free to play at Kongregate (and many other venues), but read on for more on what it is, how it works, as well as Joe’s thoughts on business models for Flash game developers.

Pixelsocks:The first thing to do is to try to explain the game. It’s easy to pick up and understand by using it, but it’s kind of tricky to put into words, but here’s what I have:
In the platformer Chronotron, you play a time traveling robot while the game records your actions. When you return to a particular point, the time pod, you can use the recorded copies of what you’ve done as little minions to go out and do your bidding.

Joe: Yes. It’s basically a co-op game you play with yourself. You go into the level and you manipulate the level in some way, like you stand on a button and it will raise up an elevator. Then you go back in time, and since you recorded your movements, your guy will go back and do exactly what he just did. But you also have another version of yourself, which has a green arrow over its head so you know who you’re controlling, and so you’re able to walk on top of the elevator as it moves up.

But it records the control input. It doesn’t record your position. So if a previous self walked over a floor and then you hit a button to make the floor disappear, the past self will still try and do all the controls, which might not necessarily make sense in the level anymore. If you can’t get back to the time machine at the exact same you got back to it when you were controlling him, it creates a time paradox, the other element of the game.

Pixelsocks: So it’s not just if you can’t get back at all, it’s if you can’t get back at the same time.

Joe: Yeah. So if you move the guy a little bit to the left when you first entered the level, you might want to walk into a wall for a few seconds to realign the two timelines.

Pixelsocks: So, looking at other games in the PAX 10, I’ve been able to pick out games that were kind of similar, or at least have similar concepts in them. I’ve actually been having a tricky time with that for Chronotron. Where did you come up with the idea?

Joe: I wanted to do a game about time travel. I heard about Jonathan Blow doing Braid, a game that was going to use time manipulation. He didn’t really give a lot of details about it. So I thought, ‘What would I do in a game that used time manipulation?’ I thought of the idea of recording input and going back looping on yourself.

It’s not the only game out now that does that. But I think they all came out around the same time. The gameplay itself is really inspired by an old Blizzard game called The Lost Vikings. A Super Nintendo game. In that game you controlled three different Vikings, and each one had a special ability. And you could switch between them, and the three guys had to cooperate to get through the level. So it’s like that, but I wanted to make sure there was absolutely no limit to how many times you could go back in time. So if you wanted to solve a level with forty guys, you could.

Pixelsocks:: So it will actually scale all the way up like that?

Joe: It scales pretty well. It depends on your hardware. It’s a web game, so if your processor’s kinda slow, it’s gonna chug. Now, none of the levels require you to do that. So you’re able to go through and do what you want.

Pixelsocks: It’s an unusual game because it has a pretty serious memory load. In order to look at a level and think to yourself how you’re going to do it, you have to map out one run for your first copy, another run for another copy of you, and sometimes that can actually lead up to a lot of copies. Have you had trouble getting people to grasp the concept?

Joe: It sometimes takes people a couple of levels to get the concept. Watching people play at PAX, it’s fun to see the people who get it right away. It helps to explain it as time travel. A lot of people sort of see it as a clone, and say, “Okay, how do I control him now?”

It helps to tell them to imagine what you’re going to be doing in the future. You’ve got to make sure you’re opening the level up for that version that’s going to be you, as soon as you go through the time machine. A lot of the levels, especially when you don’t know what buttons controls what, doors and switches or whatever, you have to go in and experiment a little bit. But once you’ve got down what the controls are going to do in the level, then you can make your plan. I don’t want it to be about planning and thinking ahead.

Pixelsocks: Something that actually distinguishes the game is that it’s the only game in the PAX 10 that is based on Flash. Why did decide to go with that particular platform?

Joe: My day job is developing educational games in flash. I work for a company called Web Course Work. We do educational training games. I’m the lead game designer there. We do a lot of client work, and you can’t always do our dream idea of what we want to do. We have to work on a budget and a deadline. But I have a lot of ideas that don’t necessarily jive with what we’re trying to do at work. They kind of spill out, and I write them down. Hopefully I come home and have some time to prototype some of the ideas. Chronotron was the one that I thought really had legs, so I developed it further. People were expressing interest in it, so I kept going.

Pixelsocks: Something that comes bundled with Flash is the fact that you end up using a digital distribution model. Has that made you happy as an independent developer?

Joe: Yeah, it’s pretty good. I mean you have to use a digital distribution model with Flash because there’s no way to lock it down, there’s no way to do any kind of DRM. People just download it. If their web browser displays it, then they can download it, and can put it on their own website.

Then that becomes the revenue model. In my case, Kongregate paid to sponsor the site. So during the load of the game, while it’s loading all the assets, you see the logo for Kongregate appear. If you click on there, you can play it on Kongregate, and you can play all the other games on Kongregate, too. But that means Kongregate benefits because the game directs traffic to them. I benefit because I get paid by Kongregate. The other game portals benefit because they can have the game on their sites for free without any legal issues. Players obviously benefit because they get to play it for free.

Kongregate also doesn’t own anything about the game. They just licensed it. So they allowed me as part of the deal to have my own ads in the game, as long as the ads don’t appear when it’s on their site. So the Flash acts differently when it’s in the wild versus when it’s on their website.

The other thing I was able to do was to sell nonexclusive licensed versions of the game to other websites. The main one I sold was to Addicting Games.com, which is owned by MTV. They bought a version that has the ads taken out, the link to Kongregate taken out, it has the branding of Kongregate replaced with the branding for Addicting Games, it also has the bonus levels, which are also taken out of the game in the wild. It says, “There are bonus levels, but you’ve got to go on Kongregate to play these.” So they pay for another license and they get it. But that version of the game is site locked. If you try to take it off of Addicting Games and try to load it onto a website, it’s not going to work.

Pixelsocks: Wow, that’s very flexible. How long does it take you to do a new version?

Joe: A couple nights, maybe. It depends on how many assets they give me, and how many changes they want. I’ve sold a few more nonexclusive licenses and have a couple other deals pending with other sites.

Pixelsocks: It sounds like you’ve really got a grasp on how you can use the digital distribution model to your advantage. Based on your personal experience, what do you think the place of digital distribution games is for distributing games in the future?

Joe: I want to say the reason I have a grasp on it is because of a really cool community site, called flashgameslicense.com, created by a couple of flash developers. I’m pretty active in that community; I’m a moderator on the forums.

You can upload your game there. It’s locked out so the public can’t see it because there’s a login system. Other developers can see it if you want. You can give each other feedback, and sponsors can get on there and bid, so they actually have to compete for your game, instead of saying, “Take it or leave it, here’s what I want.” So it gives us a lot more control.

But digital distribution in Flash is very different. You say digital distribution and it means totally different things. The business model is totally different for someone like me. Where, your basically paying to download the game, but it’s locked, and you have to be able to log into a website to make sure that you own the game, versus “I pay to download this, and it’s on my honor not to copy it,” or a browser game, that basically sits in your cache. You can download it if you know how, but it’s also linked to the internet, so it’s going to load ads, and if it’s online it will connect to the sponsor site. It means very different things. I think we’re still feeling out how it’s going to work. I think the sponsorship model’s pretty good.

Maybe it could be better. I talked to the developer of The Fantastic Contraption. It’s a game where you build machines out of sticks and wheels to try and solve puzzles. He said his model was to release it as a free game, and it links back to his website, where you can buy a premium version, and the premium version is linked to his own database. You can design your own levels, store them on the database, and send them to your friends, and play levels designed by other people. That model seems to have legs, too. It really depends on what kind of game, and if you think the game is going to be so viral it will be good for sponsoring, or if it’s going to be something that’s going to really cause someone to buy a better version of the game. So there are a couple different models right now.

Pixelsocks: So, if you had to pick one design decision or one development decision that really typifies Chronotron, or makes it fun, what would it be?

Joe: I think the main design element that you are able to create as many copies of yourself as you want. Some of the time travel games limit you to one copy, or three copies, or say, “You only need this many to beat the level, and if you do it with fewer you lose.” I encourage you to do it faster with the score, but it’s a lot of fun to just overkill, and beat a level with an army of guys. Sometimes it’s harder to do it that way, too, because they get in each other’s way. But the ability to cooperate with yourself, once you learn that concept, makes you kind of think you’d like to be able to do that with yourself in real life.

Pixelsocks: Thank you very much.

Joe: You’re welcome.


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