Long time readers will remember my first impressions of “Fragments of Him”, a beautiful story that was given a much more significant meaning by being in an interactive medium. Today, our guest is the one who created that interactivity, the thread that tied this narrative into an experience. Elwin Verploegen is the lead programmer at Sassybot, a Netherlands based studio that brought us Fragments Of Him, Small Bang Theory, Queer, and Dear Stranger, among others. We sat down and discussed his work, the past, and the future.
Influential Gaming: How did you get started working for Sassybot?
Elwin Verploegen: We originally started Sassybot back when I was still in university, with a few more people than we currently have. We knew that we wanted to start up something together, as we all worked well together during our university projects. A few years later (around the time of graduation) some decided to take a different route in life, leaving myself and Tino as Sassybot.
IG: Fragments Of Him has some very heavy themes, like sexuality and death. What was it like working on a game like that? Was it ever hard to stay motivated?
EV: Funnily enough, I didn't interact a whole lot with the actual story of Fragments of Him. Very early on in development I built some tools for the team (mainly myself) which allowed me to replace all audio with empty files. This allowed me to more or less never hear the audio lines/story unless I really had to test something in a specific scene.
Staying motivated wasn't really an issue for myself, although I did learn that the heating in our office cuts out at around 9PM at night, and that it gets really cold in the winter nights. Writing code with a small electrical heater, a blanket and a winter coat wasn't exactly the most exciting thing I've done in my life.
IG: It can be surprising to many what things are harder to program than others. Something like, say, the cord on a phone could be more difficult to get right than a character’s animations. What would you say was the hardest thing to program in Fragments Of Him?
EV: Most of the code is fairly straight forward and not that interesting. Especially in the early days of the project I mainly wrote tools to make the implementation of the interactions faster. The most 'difficult' part of the code is the black screen you see when the loading screen is done.
That's not completely accurate though, as it's only when you're playing on Xbox One. The Xbox requires some special loading that I had not anticipated, and as such I had to write multiple workarounds to get it all to run in our current codebase. There was a very rare crash which caused us to fail certification multiple times, but I was never able to replicate it or even able to capture logs whenever it did happen. This caused me to just make some guesses as to what it could be, and eventually I wasn't able to get it to crash anymore. I still sometimes get a crash report, but there are sometimes entire months where it doesn't crash once. This bug was actually the reason I spent so many nights in the office.
IG: If you could have been on the team for any game not made by Sassybot, which game would you have wanted to work on?
EV: I would've loved to work on Rimworld (Ludeon Studios). It's one of my all-time favorites and it seems like a great technical challenge to get everything to interact with eachother.
IG: What inspires you to work in this field the most?
EV: Just a pure love for games. When I was young I wanted to be a game designer (though that was well before I actually understood what that job entails), eventually I found programming and very much enjoyed the technical and logical challenges that it brings. Combining games and programming as a career seemed like a solid choice to me!
IG: Small Bang Theory is a pretty fun game that has a broad arcade style appeal. What are the odds of seeing some kind of elaboration on the idea in the future? Perhaps a sequel or a port to consoles?
EV: I wouldn't say never, but it's pretty damn close to 0% chance of us revisiting that. While I still think that the concept is quite interesting, it's not something that we'd look at again for a new project. Financially it was a disaster (although we mainly made that project to learn about the publishing process) and I don't think the game is deep enough for us right now (both in gameplay and other aspects). Maybe we'll do something with it during a Game Jam sometime.
IG: Where do you see the industry in another 10 years?
EV: As long as it's still around, I'm happy. Though I would be quite happy if we could drop this entire "Pay 2 win lootbox" thing. I'm fine with cosmetic lootboxes, but that's also where I draw the line. It'll be interesting to see what new business model will come up over the next few years though.
IG: This is important: Frozen, or Tangled?
EV: On our website there's a randomized title of the page, one of them being “LET IT GO, LET IT GO”.
(I've also never seen Tangled)
IG: Is there anything else you would like to add?
EV: New York Excelsior should really just put Pine in the standard rotation. Watching him on McCree has been the highlight of the Overwatch League for me so far.