Wall Street Journal Interview

August 1, 2009

A few weeks ago, out of the blue, the Wall Street Journal interviewed me about my game Hanna in a Choppa. I'm still not entirely sure why, but you can read their edited article here.

The article is quite cut down from the responses I gave, and modified to make little sense in a couple of places, so here's the full unedited text, for the terminally bored:

WSJ: Do you have a minute to talk about your game? Thanks!

I think I could manage a minute for you, yes.

I saw your tweet about Hanna in a Choppa by the way - you're too kind!

WSJ: When did you make this game and why?

Hanna in a Choppa begun life as a short experiment in physics, about 2 years ago. An idea for a fast-running physics engine just kind of sprung into my mind, and after a few hours was a basic working demo on the screen. That engine wasn't really for anything other than play at first, but it found its way into loads of projects I was working on. Each project would need something a bit different from the engine, so it slowly got upgraded over time. It grew more features, became easier to deploy and performed better and better.

One day I had inspiration for a feature that allowed flat surfaces in the physics world. After adding it, my test code included a sort of one-screen room with surfaces at all sorts of angles, and you could control a basic losenge shape to try out collisions against all the different angles, corner conditions and so on. It struck me as being a bit like being on a space hopper, which would be an interesting basis for a game. Being on a space hopper is clearly quite a silly way to spend time, so it would be have a quirky comedy angle. It's name would be Hannah on a Hopper, because it sounds silly and intreguing enough to draw people in.

Unfortunately, whilst it was a fun sounding concept, the gameplay prototypes just didn't play all that well. It seemed that whatever I tried there were big flaws in the way the hopper moved about and bounced that just didn't feel all that good to control. I shelved the idea, until inspiration struck again...

WSJ: Why choppers?

I was reminiscing about old games with a couple of friends, and brought up Zeewolf on the Amiga. It was a 3D helicopter game where you controlled the chopper with the mouse, and flew about completing wartime missions. I was wondering how you'd go about implementing such a thing in code (as all programmers do), when it struck me that the Hannah on a Hopper engine would actually cope with it really well. I put a prototype together that night, and it worked beautifully. Hanna was suddenly in a chopper. The quirky humour element remained in my mind, and persisted through to the final game. Likewise, the forgiving gameplay I was looking for in the space hopper game remained, and I was determined to build a helicopter game where you don't have to be careful of the walls and where you can make mistakes without penalty. For example, the helecopter is only destroyable due to a technical limit in the physics engine.

WSJ: Who's Hanna?

Back at the start, it struck my rather cynical mind that a girl on a space hopper would likely generate more clicks on the game than a boy. Hannah on a Hopper reads with a certain rythem and bounce that prepares you for the sillyness to follow. Dropping the 'h' and modifying the 'er' to 'a' helps emphasise the wordplay: Hanna on a Hoppa. And thus Hanna was invoked into the world.

If you look into the cabin of the chopper, you can see Hanna made up of very primative shapes. This is partly because the game as a whole deliberately uses that style for the graphics, but also because one of the gameplay prototypes of Hoppa portrayed Hanna as a sort of ragdoll with primative shapes for limbs. The idea was that she'd bounce around in a pretty silly way on top of the space hopper as you moved about the screen, but it didn't really work that well. I did like the way she looked there though, so transferred the style into Hanna in a Choppa.

WSJ: Have you ever ridden a helicopter before?

I have apparently ridden in a helicopter, but I honestly can't remember it at all. I was pretty young, although I'm told I was old enough that I should remember it. Plus it's something you'd expect to remember. I'm suspiscious that my mother made it all up. After all, she seems to invent new relatives I've never heard of quite frequently.

WSJ: And could you explain the color scheme?

There's not a lot to explain! There's a generous helping of black, and everything else is orange. Except the wonky border, which is meant to blend in with the site so the game window doesn't look square. The illusion is rather broken by Kongregate's big gray frame they put round it, but the idea was there. The simplicity of the colours came from trying to find something that would stand out and beg to be played, whilst also hiding my inability to draw properly. It's also quicker to produce monochrome graphics, and they render faster in Flash so everything plays smoother. One final bonus of monochrome graphics is that they help hide any overlapping objects when the physics engine throws a wobbly. Like a lot of physics engines, it doesn't deal with tall piles of things very well and items at the bottom can get crushed into the scenery.

Plus it's fun to think I've made over a million people see orange spots all day long! To anyone I've given eyestrain, erm, sorry.

WSJ: Also, I'd need your age, location, and occupation.

I'm 32ish (it's so easy to lose count), live near Bristol in the UK and am a freelance programmer. I specialise in games, but also do websites and other webby things.

If you liked Hanna in a Choppa, you might like it's spiritual successor developed in conjunction with Aardman Online: Invention Suspension.

WSJ: How far do you live from Aardman?

I'm really close to Aardman - their online department is in a studio in Bristol, and I live just on the outskirts of Bristol. It's maybe a quarter of an hour on the motorbike, tops. I've done a few games with them now, they're a brilliant bunch of people to work with.

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  1. stephenw32768 says:
    August 1, 2009 @ 17:53 — Reply

    Woot! Fame at last!

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