Everyone knows robots are the coolest thing possible to appear in a cartoon or elsewhere. And in our latest interview we talk about them with Erin Robinson – the inventor of various types of Puzzle Bots and Nanobots.

Quick facts for dilettantes:

1. Erin “The Ivy” Robinson‘s tool of choice for building her creations is Adventure Game Studio.

2. On occasion she employs the services of Dave Gilbert‘s Wadjet Eye Optics and Vince Twelve‘s Xii Resonators.

3. She is a talented visual artist as well. Both for her own creations and those of other constructor’s.

4. Puzzle bots are easily confused what is a robot and what isn’t one and can make your life very difficult when left loose.

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Igor Hardy: It seems your previous games Nanobots and Puzzle Bots’ title similarity isn’t just a coincidence. How are the two games connected and what are the main differences between them?

Erin Robinson: A few months before we released Nanobots, I sent Dave Gilbert a build of the game. He wasn’t directly involved with that project, but he and I had worked together the previous year (I did the background art and sprites for his game Blackwell: Unbound). Shortly after he played Nanobots, he emailed me to tell me his ideas about adapting the idea of the game for a more casual audience. He suggested that we increase the difficulty of the game slowly, increase the length of the game, and improve the art. I thanked him for the advice, but I said there was no way we could make all those changes to the game so late in development. And then he offered to publish a brand new game based on what we had learned from Nanobots. It was a great moment for me. I thought I had made it.

IH: How did you decide upon the multiple controllable characters approach for your games? Was it inspired by anything in particular?

ER: Rather than having one character who could perform many actions, I decided to turn that around: have many characters who could each perform one specialized action. Suddenly there was this new possible game dynamic: who were these characters, and how would they interact?

From the start I had this idea for a hippie who created 6 robots that could love, but something wasn’t clicking. The original dialog was much more upbeat. The robots would say things like, “Affirmative!” and “Let’s try this together!” It didn’t work at all. One day, for no reason at all, it came to me: What if the robots hated each other? The whole thing got much easier to write. It’s always funny when cute little things are mean to each other (I don’t know why, but it is). After that revelation, the rest of the plot came easily: the robots had to overcome their differences and work together in order to save themselves.

While the robots in Puzzle Bots aren’t quite as vitriolic, they do have frequent personality clashes. The lead robot “Hero” always wants to go out and explore, but it’s usually the other bots who end up in peril.

IH: Items in Puzzle Bots seem to transform into some kind of tags during interactions – why and how does it work?

ER: The “tags” are how we decided to handle inventory items in the game. When the little robot Hero picks something up, it appears as a square icon over his head. Since he’s so small, he can only carry one item at a time, and has to drop what he’s carrying before he can pick up anything else. I felt that this was a more realistic way of handling inventory. Historically, adventure games have let you cart around just about everything that’s not nailed down, but I wanted the small size of the robots to be felt directly. Also, it was a limitation that forced me to design puzzles that weren’t strictly inventory-based. As a result, the puzzles in the game are all about lateral thinking: looking at what’s in front of you, and seeing how you can poke and prod things to make them work the way you want.

IH: Being a graphic artist yourself how much were you involved in the visual side of Puzzle Bots? Is managing and creating high res art a lot more trouble than the traditional low-res pixelart?

ER: My background in art is most closely tied to cartooning. When I was in university, I drew comics for our school’s comedy newspaper for four years. So I guess I developed a preference for clean outlines and the bright and colourful aesthetic of newsprint comics. I’m drawing and animating all the human characters in Puzzle Bots, so if you notice a lot of slapstick, that’s probably why.

The level backgrounds are being masterfully drawn by John Green, who also has a history in comics (he’s done work for Disney, have you heard of them?). It is more time-consuming to make high-res art, but I love the way it’s turning out and I hope our audience does too.

IH: Your popular adventure game Spooks had a rather complex development history (intended to be a much smaller project, trouble with the original programmer…). Could you tell a bit about what really happened and how you managed to overcome the difficulties?

ER: Spooks was originally designed for a monthly game competition at the AGS forums. It became clear towards the end that we weren’t going to make the deadline, but I was quite fond of the game by then, so I wanted to finish it anyway. Then a couple of things happened: I started my semester at school, the dude who was originally programming the game disappeared into the internet, and my laptop crashed after being dropped too many times. The game very nearly died at that point. But people would occasionally message me to ask what happened to the game, and say that they were looking forward to it, and that’s what motivated me to finish it. I had to redo a great deal of the art, but the game ended up much stronger than before.

IH: In the Special Features Interviews in Blackwell Unbound you said to have been initially genuinely surprised one can make a living of developing indie old-school adventure games. A few years later, how do you see the reasons behind there being an audience for such games?

ER: While there is a hardcore crowd of old adventure game fans (I think I know a great number of them personally), there is a new audience emerging as well. What we’re starting to see, I think, is that the traditional casual game audience is looking for a more meaningful game experience. When I say casual games, I’m referring to the popular hidden object and Diner Dash sort of games: fun and addictive, but lacking in a real narrative experience. And while I’m not saying that a narrative is essential to making a good game (one need only refer to my impressive Peggle scores to refute that), I think there’s an audience for it. I love a good story in a game, and I think people who are new to games are starting to want that too.

IH: Somebody recommended me to ask this question to you: “How awesome is working with Vince Twelve?”. Also, could you recommend me a question to stump Vince if I ever did an interview with him about his own games?

ER: My running joke with Vince is that he’s actually a computer. We’ve been collaborating on games for nearly five years, and yet I’ve never met him in person. I just send him problems, and the next day they’re fixed. Like, I’ve learned not to point out a bug to him at 11pm, because I’d see him online at 3am and know that he was still working on it. In fact, last year I was able to write him a glowing recommendation for a job that he ended up getting, just because I knew his work habits so well. Anyway, I guess if you wanted to stump him you could ask him to take the Turing test.

IH: Game design jobs are still pretty much dominated by men. Do you feel that it shows in the games themselves? Are there any concepts that you think would be great to turn into games, but are either completely missed or misunderstood by the male game designers?

ER: This is a huge question, and I’m still trying to navigate the answer myself. I think everyone wants to know why females are underrepresented in both the gamer and game developer communities. But it’s important to remember that even though women make up a smaller percentage, there are still millions and millions of them buying games. So rather than listing specific examples of what I think games are “missing”, I’m going to explain why I think the types of games we play, and the face of game development, is going to change. Warning: anecdote ahead.

When I first told my parents that I wanted to make games for a living, they were very supportive of my decision. My dad saw it as a great opportunity, and he gave me some advice that I’ve taken to heart. He told me that historically, as women became more influential in the decisions involved in buying a house, or buying a car, it led to more women choosing jobs in real estate and car sales. Women could better predict which features of a house or car would appeal to a woman. And I do believe the same thing will happen in game development as more women begin to love games. There are also a good deal of female game developers (particularly in the indie scene) if you know where to look.

IH: As you partake in many indie game events and have many contacts in the indie game developers community, could you tell what is the general perception of adventure games among the other-genre-focused indie developers you’ve met?

ER: Heh, we do get teased a bit for being part of a “dead genre”, but the success of games like Machinarium and the new Monkey Island series (to say nothing of Dave Gilbert’s wonderful games) are enough to give us hope. I’m not sure I’ll stay with adventure games forever, but they hold a special place in my heart. And there are still lots of stories to be told.

IH: How do you see your future as a game designer? Will you stay indie? Would you like to work at a major studio?

ER: I have a few different things I’d like to try, but nothing to report yet. Stay tuned. 🙂

IH: Thanks for the interview. We are eagerly awaiting the quickly approaching release of Puzzle Bots.