Interview: Turtle Rock Studios's Chris Ashton on trading zombies for sheep


Interview: Turtle Rock Studios's Chris Ashton on trading zombies for sheep
| Leap Sheep

Turtle Rock Studios will be a familiar name to PC players: the studio is well-known for its collaborations with Valve on the Counter-Strike and Left 4 Dead franchises. But iPhone owners are likely less au fait with the developer (despite Meridian’s efforts to repackage Left 4 Dead’s core mechanics in the cheekily named, Alive 4-Ever).

This may be about to change, as Turtle Rock has set up a new subsidiary, Turtle Rock Garage, which will focus on casual and experimental games for the iPhone and iPad.

Its first effort, Leap Sheep!, has now been released on the App Store. We decided to have a chat with design director Chris Ashton about entering the casual market, encouraging talent from within, and Scrabble.

Pocket Gamer: Turtle Rock Studios is known for its hardcore credentials, and mature output – why did you decide that it was time to explore more casual projects?

Chris Ashton: Building casual games gives us the opportunity to try new genres and art styles, explore new ideas, and experiment with game mechanics. We have good game ideas popping up in the studio all the time and we created Turtle Rock Garage so that these ideas have a place to become reality.

With the initial cost of producing a game for iPhone being so low, there really wasn't any reason not to try it.

How has the process of developing a game from start to finish on the App Store differed to doing the same on Steam, your usual digital platform?

We believe in our game design and build processes, and find that they work pretty universally. It may sound crazy, but we developed Leap Sheep! with a lot of the same methods that were used to help create Left 4 Dead. The tools changed, but the process remained the same.

And how has developing a control scheme on the iPhone’s touchscreen been, compared to the far more traditional mouse and keyboard or control pad?

A keyboard and mouse offers the most flexibility, which is great for complex games, but this also comes at a price. People who are unfamiliar with playing games on a keyboard and mouse have a lot of adjusting to do.

It's a learned skill. Apple's touchscreen is at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is intuitive and simple. So it works great with simple games and has been a pleasure to work with.

The WiiWare title, LostWinds, was the result of Frontier Developments encouraging one of their team to develop their own ideas. Do you see Turtle Rock Garage as a way of encouraging internal creativity?

Absolutely! Everyone at Turtle Rock wants to make their own game. We have always encouraged that kind of thinking, and now Turtle Rock Garage offers everyone a way to make that happen.

Leap Sheep!, our first title, was Jaime Sue's brainchild. Jaime is a level designer here at Turtle Rock who has spent the last four or five years working on Left 4 Dead and wanted to do
something at the opposite end of the spectrum. Everyone on the team embraced the idea and Leap Sheep! is the result.

Do you think this model of internal showcasing is likely to become popular with more developers in future?

No idea if others will do the same, but it has been a great experience here so we would like to continue moving forward with the idea.

You have given the two studios different names – do you see your core and casual audiences as entirely distinct, or is there any bleeding between the two?

Certainly there is some crossover, but generally speaking, we think of them as two different audiences. Even if we are talking about the same gamer, they are in a different mindset when playing a casual game versus a full blown PC or console title.

And do you see Turtle Rock Garage as a potential way to introduce brands you have created in the core market to a more casual audience?

Possibly. It could also work the other way around. There is definitely room to share ideas between the two.

Which App Store titles have impressed you recently?

Scrabble on the iPad is super awesome when you use the iPhone or iPod as your letter tray. Pad Racer, although a bit rough, is a cool idea for much the same reason that Scrabble works so well.

Vector Rally is a cool revival of an old idea. There is so much good stuff out there that it's hard to keep up!

What are your thoughts on Meridian's homage to Left 4 Dead, Alive 4-Ever?

I bought it and had some fun with it - it's flattering isn't it? It feels good to know that we inspired someone [smiles].

Are you able to tell us about any other projects Turtle Rock Garage is currently working on?

Not too many details yet, but the next one will involve blowing stuff up!

What are your thoughts on the iPad?

Love the iPad, although I think/hope that people are still figuring out what can be done with it. Because the touchscreen is so large, I have this big desire to get in there and push and pull things around.

For some reason it is different than using the iPhone with one finger. There's room to get your whole hand in there. The ability to feel like you are interacting with stuff directly is huge for me. I think the best stuff has yet to be seen.

Do you have any plans to create a bespoke iPad game?

Leap Sheep! is coming in HD, but other than that, no plans at the moment.

And finally, which member of your team has the highest score on Leap Sheep!?

While Leap Sheep! was in beta, I ended up having the highest score, though it did pass hands
several times along the way.

Since the official release, we have been a little hands off so that we could see what everyone else does. We are all itching to play though, so you may see some really big scores posted soon…

Thanks to Chris for his time.