The UnderGarden Interview – PSN 2011 Preview

January 25, 2011Written by Sebastian Moss

The UnderGarden is a relaxing 2D fantasy game where the player controls an undersea gardener. Their goal is to color the underwater caverns he resides in by blooming all the dormant flowers in the area. It’s a simple premise, often times compared to Flower, but despite their similarities the two are very different games. In The UnderGarden you can’t die, and the only real goal is to finish the level you’re in, which if done straight can make for a very quick game. However, the pleasure of the game resides in the exploration of all 14 levels, blooming all the flowers possible within, and finding the hidden collectibles as well. There are also a few puzzles scattered throughout the levels, which are never very difficult, and serve primarily to break up the pacing of the game.

The UnderGarden is a very visually pleasing game, treating the player to explosions of fluorescent colors as they cut a path of flowers within the caves they journey through. It also features a soothing and relaxing soundtrack to accompany the pacing of the game, which can be altered upon finding hidden musicians throughout the levels. Each musician plays a specific instrument, which can be heard as you drag them around the level. Any flowers they are near grow and alter as a result, which can make it a little more interesting to bring them with you. As players progress they can also be rewarded with alterations for their character’s costume, offering some more motivation to explore and find everything. There’s a 2 player co-op mode as well for those of you who enjoy playing with a friend.

The UnderGarden released late last year on XBLA and PC, and is now journeying over to the PSN with new levels. In anticipation of game’s PSN début, PlayStation LifeStyle talked to Antonio Santamaria, Head of Engineering at Vitamin G Studios about the game, the improvements over the 360 and PC version and the future of “Zen Games”.

Hi, could you start by introducing yourself, and telling us about your work at Vitamin G Studios?

My name is Antonio Santamaria. I am Head of Engineering at Vitamin G Studios (part of Artech Studios) and have been in the games industry for over 15 years. I’ve been working on The UnderGarden since we started making our first prototypes over a year ago. On this game, I work with the development team to manage and coordinate the project, solve problems that come up, and also work closely with Atari to go through QA and get the game up on PSN.

Why is the studio called Vitamin G? Is it related to the aviation term for pulling g’s? If so, that seems rather inverse of the calming message of The UnderGarden.

That’s a great definition, but unfortunately, the truth it is not quite that exotic. The G stands for Games. We chose the name Vitamin G because vitamins are things you typically take to make yourself feel better. We think games can also be used for the same purpose; to make you feel better, boost your spirits, or just to prevent all around bad feelings. Of course, there are other “G” terms that are also associated with feeling good, but we prefer to stick with vitamins!

The UnderGarden is already out on the 360 and on PC, why did the PlayStation 3 take longer to develop for?

This was our first PlayStation 3 project, so it did take a little longer to get things up and running. We also wanted to make sure that we didn’t just try to do a quick port. We spent extra time up front making sure we developed our PlayStation 3 code properly, taking advantage of the hardware where we could. In the end, we actually developed most of the game simultaneously on both platforms, though there were a couple more levels on the PlayStation 3 that added some extra time.

Did sales meet your expectations on the 360 and PC?

We don’t have sales numbers, but the feedback we’ve been getting has been great. We’re happy to see people enjoy the game, and especially enjoy the change of pace from playing some of the big first person shooters that came out late last year.

Do you find it hard to convince gamers to try something less conventional, that doesn’t conform to the standard template of a shooter or a racer?

In some cases, yes. There are people who are used to jumping in and immediately shooting and killing everything in sight, so trying something different was harder for them to accept. Here’s a place where the PS3 gamer, especially those who play some of the downloadable PSN games, really shines though. PSN is already home to some great games that try to do something different; games like Flower, Flow and even more offbeat games like Noby Noby Boy. PS3 gamers have been very accepting of them, so that made us feel better about creating a different type of experience for the PS3.

Do you think that “Zen Games” should be considered a separate genre altogether, and do you believe that more and more developers will make zen titles?

I’m not really sure it should be considered a genre; maybe more like a qualifier or a sub-genre, though this probably depends on how one defines a “Zen game”. I think it is more about the experience; the feeling you get while playing, rather than the type of game. People often equate “Zen” with calm, though more generally we think a “Zen game” really provides a different type of stimulation, rather than a lack of stimulation. These often have a certain quality about them that encourages the player to kind of “zone out”, and just absorb the whole experience without regard for time, or even specific goals. This might include something like Flower, or maybe FlOw, or Auditorium. These all play quite differently, but the fact that they are more accepted now tells us there is demand for something different, beyond first person shooters and sports games, for example, and this seems to appeal to both core gamers and non-traditional gamers. As developers we are always looking to try new ideas, so as long as this is true, I think more developers will be looking to experiment with these types of games.

The game seems to have taken inspiration from games like flOw and Flower – would you say that is a fair comparison?

That comparison keeps being made, and we would definitely say we are in good company there. Both of those games tried something different. They eschewed the fast, hectic pace that most games live in, and instead went for something a little slower and more fluid. We think they succeed at delivering a different kind of experience, and that is definitely something that provided inspiration for us to make The UnderGarden.

Are there any plans to bring Aces of the Galaxy to the PSN?

That would be something we would certainly love to do, especially if we had a chance to add in some of the extra features we didn’t have time for the first time around (for example, Boss Battles!). When Sierra disappeared, Activision picked up the rights to that, so that’s a question best left to them.

Vitamin G Studios is developing several other unique looking titles, will they also be launching on the PSN?

We haven’t announced our next title yet, but when we do we will definitely be looking at bringing it to the PS3.

How does the PSN compare to similar services like XBL and Steam?

They all provide very similar experiences, but there are a few key differences. On XBLA, all games come with a demo. This is not always the case on PSN, but we felt it was important to provide one and so we made sure we did for the PlayStation. Steam is perhaps the more flexible when it comes to Indie games, but PSN is very open to different types of experiences as well. All 3 services have their strengths, but for us it is more about making sure as many people have a chance to try out and hopefully enjoy our game on whatever platform they choose

The PS3 version of The UnderGarden will have some extra features, can you explain what those entail?

There are 2 extra levels included in the PSN version right off the bat. One of these makes use of a new fruit type that only makes a brief appearance in the other levels, so it provides a slightly different type of experience. There are also Trophies throughout of course, along with Scoreboard support.

Are there any future plans to support the PS Move, or even 3D?

Move is something that we have discussed. If there is enough interest, it is something we would like to consider. We’ve got some ideas we’d like to try out with it.

And finally, when will The UnderGarden release on PSN, and what price range are you aiming for?

Atari will be looking at the exact release date and the price, but we can say that we expect the game to appear on PSN in the very near future.

PlayStation LifeStyle would like to thank Antonio Santamaria for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer the interview questions.