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December 18, 2015

Introducing Element Games and ‘Evil Robot Traffic Jam’. Q&A with Marcin Szymanski

There’s a new studio on the block from a talented ex Ensemble Studios member. Introducing “Element Games” headed up by Marcin Szymanski, a programmer from Ensemble Studios who has worked on many titles from Age of Mythology through to Halo Wars. Following the closure of Ensemble Studios, Marcin worked at Robot Entertainment on Orcs Must Die! and Hero Academy, the latter where he was both lead programmer and lead designer on the highly successful and award winning project. Following his time at Robot, Marcin worked at Playful Games for the first half of 2014. At Playful Marcin learnt the ropes on virtual reality game design, working on Lucky’s Tale, a VR platformer for Oculus Rift. Now Marcin is setting out on a new adventure with his new founded studio Element Games who have just released their first title for the Samsung Gear VR.

Virtual Reality

Before we get started on talking about Evil Robot Traffic Jam, the first thing to discuss is the platform that Marcin has chosen for this game, the Samsung Gear VR. This is a virtual reality game which can be played on the Samsung Gear VR (pictured below) with a compatible Samsung Android smartphone. You may of heard of “Oculus Rift“, the Samsung Gear VR has been created in partnership with the same people behind that project.  This represents the latest in cutting edge VR technology being readily made available to consumers. Available at around $99 the Gear VR is an affordable piece of equipment to extend virtual reality video games on mobile devices. Its great to see an ex-Ensembler being right at the forefront of VR technology.

What is Evil Robot Traffic Jam?

Evil Robot Traffic Jam, or ERTJ for short is tower defence game built for virtual reality gaming. Players go up against evil robots who’s goal is most evil, disturbing the flow of traffic! From the Element Games website:

You know how you’ll be driving down the highway, minding your own business, when suddenly you encounter stop and go traffic? Often, it magically clears up without any indication why it ever got so bad.

The answer is simple: Evil Robots!

For no apparent reason, they love to create horrible traffic jams all over the world, and they’ve set their sights on your towns with the aim of creating Total Gridlock!

Players take the role of being part of the Evil Robot Defence Force and must place strategic defences around the city to help contain the flow of traffic to keep things moving smoothly and avoid total gridlock. Players place defences in the form of Missile Towers, Frost Towers, and Rail Guns to help keep the evil robots at bay. The robots get tougher as players progress through later levels and includes bosses.

Q&A with Marcin Szymanski

To find out more about the game, the studio Element Games and the main man behind it all we posed a few questions to Marcin Szymanski, founder of Element Games about the game and its development process.

  • How did Element Games come about?

            [Marcin] I often thought about striking out on my own and seeing what I could accomplish in an indie capacity. Totally a bucket list item. I figured I’d do it at some distant point in the future, but many things fell into place in 2014 to make it the right time to start my company and develop a game for virtual reality. We only get a few chances in life to be part of something truly new, and as a long-time dreamer about the potential of VR, I simply couldn’t resist the opportunity.


  • Where did the idea of Evil Robot Traffic Jam come from?

[Marcin] I started by evaluating the strengths and limitations of the Gear VR tech as well as of VR as a platform. On a mobile phone, you have to constrain graphical fidelity and processing load. And in VR, you don’t want noisy textures or visuals that are too distant, nor do you want an experience that gives players motion sickness. So I decided to go for stylized and colorful visuals, ones that incorporate simple shapes like cars and buildings because they look good with a low polygon count. And I chose the tower defense genre because it allows for a fixed camera position, can present lots of objects in the mid-field VR sweet spot to make the 3D really pop, and also allows the game to “play itself” part of the time — a significant benefit because it allows you to look around once in a while and enjoy the VR ambiance in the game without worrying about your character dying. I also liked tower defense because my experience working on the Orcs Must Die! series would jump start the game’s development.


  • What made you choose Oculus VR technology?

[Marcin] I chose Oculus tech primarily because it has such a mature ecosystem. It’s important to have good hardware, but it’s just as important to have a good software stack, to provide extras like a good engine integration or binaural audio plugin, and to have a good support structure via forums and direct contact. Additionally, Oculus tech was always going to be first to market via Gear VR, and of course it would also easily enable a Rift version of the game.


  • As an experienced developer, what lessons have you learnt from working at Ensemble and Robot that you have taken forwards into ERTJ?

[Marcin] Experience in the tower defense genre was a big help, as was experience with difficulty tuning, game balance, and moment to moment feel. I also learned the importance of polishing a game early instead of saving that for a polish phase near the end of the project — by that point, it’s too late to make most changes because of the risk to the project, even if those changes would make the game substantially better. Finally, I obtained a deeper understanding of project scope and schedule estimation, which helped during development of ERTJ greatly because it kept the game from getting too big to finish in the time I’d allotted.


  • What challenges did you face as a small indie developer?

[Marcin] The biggest challenge was not a big surprise: not being able to parallelize all the different things that go into making a game. I’d always appreciated game producers before, but I didn’t realize just how much until I was interacting with multiple contractors, integrating dozens of pieces of content, setting up my company’s website, running playtests, demoing the game, and a host of other things on top of actual development. In addition, one of the big things I love about working with a good team is that your teammates cover your shortcomings and provide another set of eyes when you’re unsure how to tackle a problem. Thankfully, I know many developers in the area, and we like helping each other out with whatever we’re working on.


  • Do you have plans for add-on content?

[Marcin] Yes, the game would benefit from more maps, as well as new ways to play. I’m already receiving lots of good ideas for new content!

  • What are your top tips for new players to help keep the evil robots at bay?

[Marcin] The biggest tip actually applies to most tower defense games, which is to place towers near (but not inside) U-turns and loops so that enemy creeps pass by the same tower multiple times. Also, the hacker drones can either be used to deal a bunch of damage as the hacked robot drives through his robot pals, or to cluster enemy vehicles together to set them up for area damage, or to keep vehicles in a “kill box” near your most upgraded towers. Finally, it’s possible to use the Close Call bonus (destroying a vehicle near the exit) strategically to get several back-to-back uses of that map’s VR Power.


  • If you could sum up Evil Robot Traffic Jam in three words, what would they be?

[Marcin] Hmm, let’s go with “Stylized Vehicular Mayhem” :).

Available Now

Evil Robot Traffic Jam is available to download now from the Oculus Store! A video trailer for the game will be available soon. If you have the Samsung Gear VR, be sure to check it out. To learn more about the project and Marcin you can also check out his recent Reddit ask me anything.


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