Interview: Russell Carroll (Airport Mania)

Today we get the chance to talk to Russell Carroll from Reflexive Entertainment about their upcoming WiiWare project, Airport Mania: First Flight.  It’s one of my favorite PC games that is similar to other titles like Diner Dash.  This time, though, you get to take on the role of an air traffic controller. 

Thanks so much for joining us today.  Can you introduce yourself and tell us how you’re associated with Airport Mania?

Absolutely, thanks for having me. My name is Russell Carroll, and I’m the creator/producer of Airport Mania.

What can you tell us about the game?

Airport Mania: First Flight came from me thinking about the work that air traffic controllers do. Their work is often listed as one of the most stressful jobs you can have, and so I thought, wouldn’t all that intense action make a great video game? So that was the beginning of Airport Mania. In the game you play as the coordinator of an airport, takings planes from the air to the ground and then back again. As well, you personally oversee the airport itself, deciding on upgrades such as more or better gates and runways in addition to larger planes.

Since you’ve had time to revisit the game since its original launch what, if anything, is going to be in the WiiWare version of the game that wasn’t present in the original PC release?

The WiiWare version very closely resembles the PC version. The main thing I wanted to do was focus on the social aspect of the Wii.  At my house we play the Wii nearly every day, and I really appreciate games that allow us to play together. With that in mind, Airport Mania on the Wii allows 4 people to play simultaneously in a cooperative fashion.  I really like same console multiplayer due to the conversation that can occur while playing. Watching people discuss as a group the best way to handle a level in Airport Mania has been fun to see.

Will we be seeing new vehicle types or different models of airplanes this time around?

Not in this game, no. We’re saving that for the sequel J.

One of the things that drew me to this game was the fast paced nature of it.  People tend to label games like this as a casual game.  Do you feel that to be true or even a fair representation of Airport Mania?

I think games are called casual for one of two reasons. Either their theme is casual, or the game play is casual. If you look at music games, for example, they have gameplay that is fairly casual and easy to grasp, though the theme is a bit more hardcore. Airport Mania definitely has a casual theme. I worked at a comic book store while in high school and came to really enjoy characters. Partially as a result of that background Airport Mania has very friendly characters. Those same characters can be a turn-off for some people who think the theme is too casual for them, which I think is too bad, because I do think the game play is not as casual as they may think. Just passing a stage isn’t too hard, but staying on top of all the planes AND getting really high point combos takes a lot of fast thinking and quick reactions. The game was built around the idea that we want to reward the player, not just for playing, but for really excelling, and when things get really busy at the airport, it can be very challenging to keep up with, let alone to maximize your combos!

There are a lot of little hidden gems and secrets for people who are paying attention.  One thing I noticed is a little tune that the planes whistle that sounds very much like the theme from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Am I completely off base with that, and what are some of the other little hidden things people might find?

There are a ton of secret gems inside the game, I’m glad you noticed! Each level has an ‘Easter Egg’ that can be revealed by the touch of your pointer. Additionally, there are some interactive items in the background such as the sailboats and zeppelins that can earn you awards if you handle them properly.  In fact, there are a good number of awards in the game, some of which are there just for the challenge. The game has an awards room that shows each of the awards as a shadow until you earn them. If you click on each award’s shadow, you’ll see a riddle that gives you a hint as to how to earn the award. Getting all the awards, not to mention the gold level on all of the ribbons, is challenging and provides a lot of fun game play. In regards to the tune you noticed, it was not intended to sound like Star Trek, though notably we did work on a Star Trek game some years ago.

The art style for the game can only be described as cute.  It reminds me somewhat of movies like Cars.  What was the thinking behind that style rather than a more realistic approach for the planes?

I talked a little about this one before, but let me add to it here. In the game there is a paper plane mode that can be unlocked. If you turn it on, it will replace every plane in the game with a paper airplane equivalent. I really liked the idea, but usually when people turn on this mode, they immediately feel the game isn’t as fun. The reason for the ‘cute’ planes is that they are fun. When making the game I kept saying that the game was made to make people smile (which is a Miyamoto-ism). There are a lot of different types of games out there, but in the games I make I tend to gravitate to things that make people feel good while they are playing them. The visuals sprung forth from that general idea.

Were there any games that inspired the development of Airport Mania?

There were two that were fairly inspirational. The first is an old sim game by KOEI on the SNES called Aerobiz. I loved that game. It’s pretty brutal, as was the case of most of the old KOEI games, with an interface that was nearly as difficult to comprehend as the game, but it was really a lot of fun to play if you were patient. Of course Diner Dash would be the other game that comes to mind. It wasn’t the first, but it was the most popular of the games that are now typically lumped together as time-management games. I haven’t been a fan of the sequels, but the original game I felt had a great ‘feel’ to it. I really focus on ‘feel’ when I make games. I want a certain feeling in the player as they play through the game, and I personally will redesign levels over and over again until they ‘feel’ right. It’s a hard thing to quantify, but something that most people will recognize if you play a lot of games. Of course making the right ‘feel’ for everyone is impossible, though we always try. For example, in Airport Mania, there are two versions of every stage in the game. One if you have the plane upgrade, and one if you don’t. That’s a rather labor intensive way of trying to get the right feel as it means I made 2 levels for every level in the game! I really care about things feeling right though, so it’s worth putting in the effort.

How has the process of bringing the game to WiiWare been?  Have there been any challenges you didn’t expect?

It’s been great! We’ve had a few hick-ups on our, but we’re really excited about the game and how well it plays on the Wii. Playing one-handed with the Wii Remote is great fun. The biggest challenge in the game that we ran into was with the size of the screen. When we first tested on a big-screen TV it looked great, but when we tested on smaller TVs, it could be harder to distinguish some things you were seeing and to select items. We made changes to a lot of the visuals to make them clearer and easier to see so that wouldn’t be an issue, and made the buildings and planes enlarge in size when you point at them to resolve this issue. Most of those changes weren’t things we’d expected when we started, though we were happy to make the changes, and honestly felt that after they were implemented that they really improved the game. Some of them will be incorporated into the sequel of the game when it is made.

Or even things you expected to be hard that maybe weren’t?

Not really. Game development is always hard. It’s kind of like giving birth (or so I hear ;). During the process it’s painful and there is sometimes a lot of screaming, but when you see the end result, you sort of forget about all the pain because the result is so worth it.

What is one thing you’d like people to say about the game before they’ve played it, or even after they’ve played it?

The game is meant to lighten up your day and be fun. If you’ve played the game before, and I know many have, I hope you’ll look forward to playing it on the Wii together with friends and family. If you haven’t played it before, I’d hope you’d try it out now. The final price will be up to Nintendo, but we hope the price is low so that everyone can enjoy the game! I always worry when I read comments on the internet where people dismiss a game before they’ve even played it, or form their opinion based on someone else’s opinion. I strongly advocate people play games for themselves and have their own opinions. After all, isn’t playing the games what it’s all about! We made Airport Mania with the game play in mind, and the hopes that it will create an irrepressible smile on your face while you are playing!

Thanks so much for joining us today.  Is there anything else you’d like to add before we finish?

Nope, thanks so much for the opportunity to talk about Airport Mania. We hope you’ll be enjoying it on WiiWare very soon!

I’d like to thank Russell for taking the time to talk to us today about Airport Mania.  The game is scheduled to come out for WiiWare later this year and you can check out Nintendo Okie for more coverage on the game as it gets closer.

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