XBLIG Spotlight: Square Off

Every week we shine the spotlight on an exceptional XBLIG and the developers behind them in what we like to call the XBLIG Spotlight.  This week we take a look at Gnomic Studios’ Square Off, a top 20 finalist in the 2009 Dream Build Play competition.  Check out an trailer video below, one of our most in depth and I think interesting conversations with the guys behind the game, and as always, I give you my perspective as well.  Also, as usual on CBR, reading has rewards as you may even get a chance to win a copy of the game. Add Square Off to your download queue!First, the Square Off  trailer:


First, tell the readers a bit about yourself, who you are and how/why you decided to start getting involved in making games?

Aranda: Gnomic’s core team on Square Off comprised of Aranda Morrison as Programmer, Scott Millar as Character artist, Adam Matera as Level artist, Jeremy Prestwood on Sound effects, Joel Taylor on Musical composition and Josh Stewart as QA Lead.

Most of us work together at a 3D simulation company in Perth, Western Australia. We’re always playing games after work or discussing game ideas at lunch so eventually someone just said “Right, let’s stop talking about it and make a game then”. Scott and I tinkered with various prototypes until he suggested we enter a competition for motivation. I was using Xna at the time so we decided we’d target the Xbox and have a crack at entering Dream.Build.Play. This was around January 2009.


Adam: My name is Adam Matera and I created the 3D environments for Square Off. I decided to get into game development originally because it combines 2 elements that I love; playing games and 2D/3D art. Once I gained some experience in game development, I found that I also really enjoyed working in a team with passionate, like-minded people striving to achieve a common goal. It’s a great feeling finishing and releasing a game, getting feedback from users about their experiences playing it and what they thought was good or bad.

Tell us about your history as a game developer, previous efforts, etc.


Adam: I first started developing PC games, then I had a few short 3D contract jobs, after which I moved into Mining simulation creating 3D environments. This is where I met Aranda and Scott Millar, our character artist and we decided to form Gnomic and create a game for XBLIG.

Aranda: I’ve been trying to make games since I got my Commodore 64 at the age of 10. Mostly it’s just been a hobby but I did gain some valuable experience working for Bungarra Software making a surfing game for PS2. Unfortunately this game was never released so Square Off on Xbox is my first shipped title.


If you had to pick one specific game to describe as your inspiration, what would it be?

Adam: Hard question to answer, it almost changes daily. At the moment, it is definitely Portal 2.  This to me is now the benchmark of great game design. Last month it was Dead Space 2.  I absolutely love the atmosphere and suspense this game has. The month before; CastleCrashers. Obviously big influence on our game and the amount of content from such a small team is phenomenal. I also have to mention Red Dead Redemption. Every time I play it I have to keep stopping every 5 minutes to take in the amazing amount of detail that is in the game both technically and aesthetically (probably the reason why I STILL haven’t finished it, lol).

Most of the time I actually enjoy just watching other people play games. It gives me a chance to sit back and admire all the small details that are in the game that I usually don’t see while I’m playing. Doing this usually gives me the most inspiration.

Aranda: I’d like to talk about the specific inspiration for Square Off. The art is often compared to Behemoth’s games such as Castle Crashers, but the gameplay mechanic was really inspired by zombie defense games such as Call of Duty: Nazi Zombies. The alien-attracting bomb was unashamedly ripped from the zombie-attracting pipe bomb in Left 4 Dead. I’d also like to put the record straight: one specific game that Square Off was not inspired by is Rocket Riot.

The game has obviously been released as a XBLIG, but have you in the past, or do you currently have plans to work in any other platform?  What made you decide to develop for XBLIG?


Adam: We do plan to target mobile gaming and possibly PC. We chose XBLIG because it was a great opportunity to develop a console game in a short amount of time without having to outlay large sums of money for a console development kit.

Aranda: We’re excited to say that Square Off for Windows Phone was released on the 4th May. We tried to stay very true to the XBLIG version and thankfully the WP7 platform is powerful enough to manage it. We had to spend a lot of time optimizing the code and levels to keep the frame rate up and tuning the controls for touch screen. It took us about 6 months to port it over, so tell all your friends with Windows Phones to check it out!

How long did you spend on development?  Can you explain, roughly, how the development process worked for you? What tools and programs did you work with?

Adam: The main art development cycle was hammered out in a short but intense 7 week period, however it took about 1 year of prototyping to get to that point. We basically restarted the game late in the project since the core game mechanic of the original concept required too much time to refine.

The process started by Aranda spending time adding and refining features for the engine, while Scott and myself drafted the game design. Once the engine was at the stage where we could iteratively prototype, we started with basic graphics and ‘grey-boxed’ levels to find the right balance of game play elements we wanted to include in the game. This was by far the hardest part of the development process. Once we had something we felt flowed well and was fun, we started adding all the more detail.

Aranda: On the coding side, Visual Studio Express, Notepad++, Paint.Net and Beyond Compare were the only tools regularly used. Luckily they’re all free, or very cheap. We also relied heavily on Farseer for physics and collisions.

On the art side, Adam and Scott were able to make use the professional software packages they use at work. Flash was used to create the characters and export them to sprite sheets to be used in the engine. A custom tool was built to animate and link the sprites and add collision data. The environments were modelled in 3ds Max, and textures were created in Photoshop. The levels were exported as .x files with level collision data exported to xml using a custom script. It was all held together by xml files that defined the objects, zones, enemies and AI nodes in each level.

If you had to pick one thing that you would improve or simply do differently in regards the game’s development what would it be?

Adam: Online Multiplayer. This was the one big criticism about the game. We had to cut this feature as we felt we couldn’t do it justice in the time we set ourselves to release the game. But If we do a sequel, we definitely want to include this ;)

Aranda: More and better custom tools. Much of the development was done using hand editing of xml files. This works, but to get the artists to be productive, you really want to give them something that allows them to be creative without having to worry about too much of the technical side.

Many gamers dream of starting to make their own games, and it is obviously easier than ever for them to do so.  What advice would you give someone hoping to make the jump from gamer to designer?


Aranda: Get your hands dirty (figuratively speaking!). From a coding perspective, the hardest thing is finishing a game. Set yourself small goals at first so you have a chance of achieving them. You also need to find the passion and the inspiration. This can be hard on your own, so it really helps to find some like minded team members with complimentary skill sets.


Adam: For the graphics side of development, an understanding and appreciation of  traditional art and design (such as human and animal anatomy, sculpture and even industrial design) can be very useful for character and level design. By knowing how organic forms move and react and real world objects are designed and built, it provides a strong base to create more believable characters and immersive environments.

One especially important lesson I learned is the importance of team communication and giving/receiving constructive feedback. I found this the best way to improve your technical skill and learn from your mistakes and other team members. After working on something for a long time, it is amazing what other people see that you can’t in your own wor

Have you found the XBLIG process to be a particularly easy or difficult one?

Aranda: Making almost any game for any platform is going to be a challenge. The XBLIG tools do really stand out though. Xna with c# and Visual Studio is as smooth a development environment as you could ask for. Many people complain about the peer review and playtest aspect of XBLIG, but we thankfully didn’t have any problems with it.

One other big complaint is the lack of exposure that most games get. Your game can sink into oblivion very quickly if it doesn’t make the Top Downloads list. I think placing in the 2009 Dream.Build.Play top 20 really helped us out with this. It gave us a long term spot in the Competition Finalists dashboard list, which along with the Top Rated list has helped us to sustain decent sales even now, nearly 18 months since release.

Adam: It’s amazing how easy Microsoft has made it for almost anyone to develop a game for a console! 15-20 years ago, unless you invested a significant amount of money it was close to impossible to get a dev kit for a console. The closest thing back then for hobbyists was the Playstation Yaroze.

XBLIG have had a mixed result so far, what is one aspect/idea/change you think would better solidify the platform as a contender in the gaming industry?  What one thing do you think would improve the service as a whole, from designer to consumer?

Adam: More help and information about marketing your game on XBLIG would be of great benefit. Once you release a game you realize how important marketing for a game is. You could make the best game in the world but if no one knows about it, it will just fade into obscurity.

Aranda: The real problem is the perception in the general populace that XBLIG is full of poor games. It’s not just a perception either. There are diamonds in the rough, but so many of them are lost it’s tragic, and the way the dashboard lists are set up is partly to blame. The New Release list is bombarded with poor titles while the Top Downloads list is self perpetuating, meaning once a game is on there, it stays on there. One solution has been proposed by Matthew Doucette of Xona games. The idea is to make the default list a completely new Digg style list where only new and high rated content is shown. Read about it here: http://xona.com/2010/11/15.html

What can fans of your game expect in the not too distant future?

Adam: We would like to get a few smaller projects out in the next 12 – 18 months and mobile gaming seems to suit that development pipeline well.

Aranda: We’d like to focus on the Square Off sequel, but that’s still in it’s early stages so probably doesn’t qualify as “not too distant future”.

Anything else you would like to say?

Adam: I hope people enjoy playing Square Off and if you have any feedback on the game, including what you liked or disliked, please get in touch with us at admin @ gnomicstudios DOT com!

Add Square Off to your download queue!

This edition of the XBLIG Spotlight features a first for us, a top 20 finalist in the 2009 Dream Build Play competition, Gnomic Studios’ Square Off. These feisty little squares are packing heat, but are they packing a good time as well?

Aliens have attacked Earth and things are desperate, like really, really desperate.  Things are going so badly for… well us, that a crazed and formerly institutionalized scientist has been granted access to a laboratory once again in the hopes of combating these alien d-bags.  The solution?  Combine the aliens with some mad scientist DNA, strap a jet pack on them, then give them a gun and see what they can do.  Thus is the premise and story behind Square Off, but other than being a humorous way to start the game it really isn’t all that important.

Square Off is best described as Castle Crashers meets Rocket Riot (I know the guys at Gnomic might hate me for the latter reference), featuring superbly drawn 2D sprites flying around in a map built on a twin-stick shooter game play model.  As usual, lets talk aesthetics first: Artistically I was reminded of Behemoth (the developer behind Castle Crashers and Alien Hominid) throughout the entire experience, while the 3D environments and the gamestyle reminded me of the frantic shooting and sometimes overwhelming hordes of Rocket Riot.  The implication of both of these statements is meant to be taken in a positive way.  Despite all reason to believe they shouldn’t, the 2D sprites fit perfectly into the 3D maps (note when I say 3D I mean in the sense that Splosion Man was 3D) and are just so well drawn that they proceed to add further proof that people are still doing amazing things with 2D gaming.  The game looks great and many of the maps, especially the later ones, are a lot of fun to fly around in.  Music is also top notch.  The Soundtrack isn’t particularly spectacular so much as it is just very fitting; I can’t really imagine anything else in its’ place.

Onto the game play.  As I said before, Square Off shares some resemblance to Rocket Riot, whether or not the developers intended it to be so (and let us be fair, Rocket Riot, while fun, is an easy game to have not even known about).  You use a jetpack to fly around, left stick, and shoot other flying enemies, right stick and trigger, till you have killed enough enemies to pass to the next level.  Also much like Rocket Riot, Square Off tries to overload you with enemies in some of the later levels, and at times can be quite challenging to complete.  Unlike Rocket Riot’s main campaign, the game sends the enemy waves at you in rounds, with certain rounds containing tougher boss aliens.  Once you have beaten round five of any level you are able to progress to the next or continue on with your level and see just how far you can go.  In this way the game plays a bit more like a horde mode.  The weapon pick-ups are also more, in a word, subtle.  You have your trusted bottomless clip pistol, a missile launcher almost as likely to harm you as any aliens, a shotgun, a classic tri shooting pistol and the alien attracting bombs.  Each weapon really does have its strengths and weaknesses, such as the shotgun being very effective when exploding aliens are among your attackers.  The bombs were probably my favorite though, great both offensively for wiping out large groups of aliens, or defensively by giving you some breathing room.  The campaign can be played with up to 4 players, all local.

For the most part the levels are well designed and fun, even if their use is feels fairly short.  Yes you can continue to continue a level, but many gamers will likely click “Next Level” once they’ve beaten round 5 and move on.  There also isn’t a lot of variance from one level to the next.  The maps are roughly the same size and other than the number and types of aliens attacking you, all things otherwise stay the same. The level End Game, my personal favorite, is very hard but most of the other levels are passable with relative ease (and the first couple rounds of the first couple levels aren’t super exciting).  As a result, Square Off’s campaign feels shorter than it should.  That said, complaining because you wanted more game doesn’t really sound like much of a grievance.  The game certainly makes up for the relative shortness of the campaign though with up to four player local death match multiplayer that was clearly a big part of the game for the developers and in some ways where the game really shines, if you have people to play with.

Every time I review an Xbox Live Indie Game, I always think in the back of my mind, what reasons would prevent this game from being published as an XBLA game.  With Square Off the two most glaring reasons are the lack of levels and game play variation.  The game is without a doubt still fun, but you are also left wanting more in the “there wasn’t enough so they ran out early” sort of way.  The other downfall of the game is the lack of online multiplayer.  Normally I don’t harp on games for this fact, but Square Off is so obviously meant to be experience in a multiplayer setting and as most adult gamers know; it can be hell getting four people in the same room to game.  With both of these though they are more along the lines of things I wish Gnomic had been able to do better than something I think they screwed up, and that has to count for something.

I recently got called out a bit for rating the $1 XBLIG’s all pretty highly (despite that the highest rated XBLIG so far has also been the most expensive), and while I stand by the scores I’ve given out previously, it seems borderline ironic that said criticism came right before this review.  As a result I feel a need to emphasize that Square Off is just a downright quality game.  It looks fantastic and it plays almost as well as it looks.  There are certainly features missing that would make it better and undoubtedly the game is “over” a bit too soon, but there are every few ways to better spend a dollar than Square Off.  Download the demo, try it, and if you don’t love it? Well, that’s perfectly fair but I think you’ll be in for a challenge if you try to hate it.

Final Rating: 8.7/10

CBR Break Down:
Console Played On: Xbox 360 – XBLIG
Approximate Time to Completion: ~5 Hours
Gamer Score Earned: N/A
Price Bought at: N/A – Review copy furnished by Gnomic Studios
Current Price: 80 Microsoft Points ($1)
Recommend Purchase Price: Literally doesn’t get cheaper.
Add Square Off to your download queue!

We know how this works by now. Gnomic Studios has been kind enough to give us the very last of their download tokens (codes) so that we can give one of you a copy of Square Off!. Yeah, we don’t know why either.  Please read the details on how to enter below:

First entry: We want to celebrate XBLIG’s just a bit more, so this time go ahead and post a comment here and tell us your favorite XBLIG game.  That’s it! Don’t have one? Favorite indie game in general will also suffice.  Still don’t have one? Go find one and report back.

Second entry: Follow us on twitter and send the following tweet:

@ClearanceBinRev is giving away the #XBLIG Square Off! A top 20 finalist for the 2009 Dream Build Play contest. http://bit.ly/m39dV9

Remember that you have to follow us; any winner we attempt to DM via Twitter who isn’t, automatically forfeits their win. If you enter via Twitter include your twitter name in your post below, winners who have their twitter listed will receive their codes immediately after winning.



Third Entry: Like our Facebook page and then simply like the post on our wall for this article.  Simple as that. (Keep in mind the article may be lower on the Facebook page towards the end of the contest and it may take a minute or two to post on FB)

Contest will go until Wednesday at 8pm CST.  A pool of all eligible entries will then be randomly selected from and the winners will be notified. CBR reserves the right to disqualify any entry we feel either violated the rules or spirit of the contest, including attempts at duplicate entries. Winner selected with no twitter name provided will be notified by email and have 24 hours to respond.  We do not announce the names of contest winners, but do encourage them to post about their win.


About Tristan Rendo

I've made movies, written and performed music, and in January of 2011 got bored and started the awesome gaming site you see before you. My gaming roots began with the original NES, and endless hours spent spilling quarters into machines at the local arcade. I have a personal collection of over 200 Nintendo 64 games, and for many years it was the only system I owned. I re-entered the modern generation of gaming consoles when I decided to purchase a 360. I typically prefer the single player experience of games, so I’m usually playing through some single-player campaign, but can occasionally be found doing some damage in Halo Reach.