Xbox Live Developer Interview: Signal Studios and Krome Studios, makers of Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp

It’s been a while since we’ve published an Xbox Live Developer Interview. We haven’t been resting on our laurels though, and today we present another exciting look behind the creation of an upcoming game. The title in question is Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp, a Windows Phone-exclusive companion to the Toy Soldiers Xbox Live Arcade games. Both Signal Studios and Krome Studios contributed to Boot Camp’s development, and we had the pleasure of speaking with a member of each studio.

Head past the break for the full interview and exclusive screenshots of Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp’s gameplay.

Please tell us about yourself and what you do at Signal Studios.

SLY (pictured at right above): My name is Steve ‘Sly’ Williams and I am Lead Developer at Krome Studios in Brisbane, Australia.  We have been working with Microsoft Studios and Signal Studios to bring Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp to Windows Phone.

Jason (pictured at left above): I’m Jason Ilano, and I am the Game Director for the Toy Soldiers franchise at Signal Studios.

Nice to meet you guys. Heyyyy Jason, did you guys name Signal Studios after Rush’s 1982 album Signals?

Jason:  I’m pretty sure that is not the case. But who knows… maybe a little Rush fanaticism snuck in subconsciously…

Ah ha. So what experience did you have in the game industry prior to starting the company?

Jason: I’ve been in the game industry for over 13 years. I started off as a programmer working on artist tools, but made the switch to animation shortly thereafter. Throughout my career as an animator and technical artist, I worked at both large and small companies including EA, Sony, and THQ. 

Since forming Signal Studios, your company has produced two Toy Soldiers titles on Xbox 360. Both games are filled with nostalgic references to past time periods and, obviously, toys. What kind of movies, shows, and toys did you enjoy as a kid?

Jason:  As a kid, I was a total media consumer. Growing up in the 80s, I was a fan of just about everything you would expect.  My friends and I loved watching horror movies when we were kids, but also the staples like Goonies, Red Dawn, Monster Squad (ok, maybe that last one is a little more obscure, but it’s still one of my favorites). As far as TV goes, I really watched just about anything that was showing. Toys are pretty much as you’d figure for the 80s:  Transformers, G.I. Joe, Hot Wheels… that sort of thing. 

Speaking of movies, Toy Soldiers reminds me a bit of the 1998 Dreamworks feature Small Soldiers. Please tell me somebody else besides me remembers that movie?

Jason: I totally remember Small Soldiers. While not exactly a great movie, I remember watching it more than a couple times as that was during the time that I was “reinventing” myself as an animator. It was often featured in CG industry publications and at conferences like Siggraph.

Getting back on track, the Toy Soldiers Xbox Live Arcade games offer an interesting mix of tower defense/strategy and action. Was it tough finding the right balance between the two elements?

Jason:  Finding a good balance between the different gameplay styles was certainly a challenge. All of us here at Signal play a lot of games, and as such, we know what we find fun and tried to incorporate a lot of those same principles into Toy Soldiers. We take a very iterative approach to game design, and firmly believe that there is no substitute for actually playing and experiencing a gameplay feature. This approach was integral to finding the right balance between all the elements. For Toy Soldiers, it was about ensuring that there was enough strategy in the gameplay to satisfy those types of players, while also creating enough visceral gameplay to keep even the staunchest of action-game players happy and having fun.

The first Toy Soldiers was promoted with a Facebook game called Match Defense: Toy Soldiers, a surprisingly fun match-3 puzzler. Was Match Defense developed by your company or an outside studio? Do you consider it a success, and would you revisit Facebook tie-ins in the future?

Jason: Match Defense: Toy Soldiers was not developed by Signal Studios. I did think it was fun and pretty addicting. I found myself spending a decent amount of time playing a preview of it during the development of the original Toy Soldiers. Facebook tie-ins certainly aren’t out of the question for future projects, though there are currently no tie-ins with Toy Soldiers: Cold War.

Your second XBLA title, Toy Soldiers: Cold War, premiered during the recent Summer of Arcade promotion. Is it on the road to surpassing its predecessor in sales?

Jason:  We had a fantastic opening week with Toy Soldiers: Cold War, and while I can’t comment on specific numbers, the community at large is enjoying the game a great deal and we are very pleased with the game’s performance. It’s hard to say if it will surpass the original Toy Soldiers in terms of sales at this point, but time will tell.  Of course, we would love to see every Xbox 360 owner pick up a copy J.

Cold War introduces full two-player co-op support to the campaign. Has the co-op mode received a positive response from gamers? How important is cooperative play in games today?

Jason: Co-op rules!  It was something we actually wanted in the original Toy Soldiers, but due to time and resource constraints, we had to cut it. The upshot is that in Toy Soldiers: Cold War, we got to implement co-op how we wanted to, and I think it’s a lot of fun.  When we showed the game at trade shows like PAX and E3, the co-op features got an incredibly positive response. Personally, I love games with good co-op, and I think the gaming community agrees.

Can you tell us anything about your plans for Cold War downloadable content?

Jason:  Great question!  We’ve just announced… the [upcoming] ‘Evil Empire’ DLC for Toy Soldiers: Cold War. In this expansion, we’ve added a new campaign where you play as the USSR soldiers defending against the American forces. In addition to the campaign levels, we have also added a new head-to-head multiplayer map, a new survival map, a new mini-game, and the “Lockdown” survival game mode.  There are also three new achievements worth 50 GamerScore to obtain, as well as 6 new decorations to earn.

Toy Soldiers: Cold War features competitive elements too, including an online versus mode and Leaderboards. The people with the top scores on each of the Leaderboards clearly cheated as they have impossible scores. Any chance the riffraff will be expelled?

Jason: We have been aware of the issues with invalid scores on the leaderboards for some time now and have implemented a fix. Unfortunately, the process of clearing out the invalid scores isn’t exactly straightforward, and it is a bit out of our hands at the moment. Rest assured that they will be cleared, and we’ve taken measures to ensure that new “impossible” scores will not be posted.

Good to hear, and thanks for the great answers, Jason! Thankfully Windows Phone gamers would never cheat; we’re made of sterner stuff. Sly, your upcoming game Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp is the first portable entry in the series. How did the idea for Boot Camp come about?

SLY: Microsoft Game Studios, now Microsoft Studios, approached us in early 2011 with the idea for a Windows Phone tie-in that would take some of the minigames from the in-development Toy Soldiers: Cold War and bring them to the phone. We were finishing off the first release of Full House Poker for Windows Phone and Xbox 360 at the time, and saw this as a great opportunity to go from dealing cards to blowing things up. I suggested the title Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp as it is related and linked to the XBLA title, but it should not be confused as a full port to the phone.

Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp utilizes a number of Cold War’s addictive minigames. Please tell us how each game and its controls work.

SLY: Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp contains three minigames from Toy Soldiers: Cold War: Cardboard Theater, Flyswatter, and Thread the Needle. We made a very early design decision to keep the minigames as close as possible to those on the Xbox 360. Look at Boot Camp beside Cold War and the aim was to have each minigame look and play identically, just on a smaller scale. There have been a few minor changes to accommodate the physical differences and the different control methods. We support touch, tilt and virtual d-pad for camera control in all minigames, so you can choose which control method suits your playing style the best. As for everything else, we tried to retain as much as possible from Cold War, including the live high scores table, the scoring and the enemy paths.

How did you decide which of Cold War’s minigames to include in Boot Camp?

SLY: The original brief given to us by Microsoft was to bring three of the minigames to the phone. As to which minigames we brought over, that decision was based on which games we thought would be a good fit for the phone. Could the phone render the minigame without losing too much visual quality or gameplay? How will the touch-screen or tilt controls work?

Some of the minigames have huge numbers of animated characters running through the scene, and that is something that the phone has a very tough time handling at any form of playable framerate. Many of the other minigames could be done quite well on the phone, but given the short development time and small team we had to draw the line somewhere. If it sells well, you never know what may happen in the future.

As a fan of the Toy Soldiers series, I’m quite excited that you’re bringing it to Windows Phone. How far along in production is Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp, and do you have a projected release date yet?

SLY: The bulk of development took about six months.  It is pretty much completed now and going through certification.  Microsoft should be announcing the release date shortly.

Will Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp support the Windows Phone Mango update at launch? If so, does it include any Mango-specific features?

SLY: Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp will support Fast Application Switching (FAS), but no other specific Mango features. The original schedule had it due to be finished before the Mango release, so it was intended to launch as a 7.0 game. As usual with games development, there were some unforeseen issues that pushed the end date back a bit which then overlapped with the Mango release. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to add support for any of the new Mango features such as ringtones or secondary tiles for the initial release of Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp, but it does come with Japanese, Korean and Traditional Chinese language support for those new markets.

I found the Achievements in Toy Soldiers: Cold War to strike the perfect balance between challenging and fun. What will Boot Camp’s Achievements be like?

SLY: There is a psychology behind selecting achievements and keeping the player rewarded enough for them to keep striving to gain the next achievement. There are some easy achievements progressing up to more challenging ones. There are also a couple of hidden achievements to keep things interesting.

Will there be any connectivity between Cold War on Xbox 360 and Boot Camp on Windows Phone?

SLY: Gamers will be able to view the Boot Camp leaderboards in Cold War, and purchasing Boot Camp will immediately unlock the Commando Jetpack mode in the ‘Napalm Pack’ [the second planned DLC] for Cold War.

Gamers should enjoy that! Last question: what challenges did you face in bringing Toy Soldiers to Windows Phone?

SLY: One of the biggest challenges in developing Boot Camp on Windows Phone was how to get the minigames as close as possible to the visual style and gameplay that Signal Studios had created for Cold War and keep it at a playable frame rate. We were fortunate enough to have access to all of the models, animations and textures direct from Signal Studios, but they were designed for the graphical powerhouse of the Xbox 360 and SigEngine [Signal’s proprietary engine].

We had one artist who had the task of going through each asset and reducing the polygon count and texture size while staying as close as possible to the high visual bar that Signal had set on the Xbox 360. I believe we have achieved one of the best looking games on Windows Phone with Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp and it’s all implemented in straight XNA.

Toy Soldiers: Boot Camp should reach the Windows Phone marketplace later this year. Its big brother, Toy Soldiers: Cold War, costs 1200 MS Points ($15) and is available now for Xbox 360. 

Paul Acevedo

Paul Acevedo is the Games Editor at Windows Central. A lifelong gamer, he has written about videogames for over 15 years and reviewed over 350 games for our site. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRAcevedo. Don’t hate. Appreciate!