Robin Hunicke from thatgamecompany (developing Journey) moderated, with Matt Gilgenbach (24 Caret Games with Retro/Grade), Tyler Glaiel (Eyebrow Interactive with Closure) and Rowan Parker (Q-Games with PixelJunk 4AM) on the panel to answer questions, as well.
It’s a super-awesome time to be a gamer. What you might not know is that the retail landscape for games has changed quite a bit in the last two years. It used to be really difficult to make a game and get it into the hands of players, but it’s really easy these days and it’s getting easier every day. Everyone on the panel here is making a game currently that will be distributed through the PlayStation Network, downloadable through the console right at home on your TV. You can download games on your phone, you can download games on your PC, you can download games on other consoles if you own them.
This makes us really happy because we are allowed to distribute content to people in a way that’s totally new and different, and this new model for distribution has led to a totally awesome explosion in the creativity that games can express. New, fun people are making games every day, and that means better, more awesome and more interesting games are being made every day. The community of game developers is growing, and we’re a fun group. We’re a little crazy. Some of us have left more stable, mature companies to jump into the fray and make crazy games. So what we’re going to do today is tell you about who each of us is, what we’re working on and take questions. And this is us. The first person who’s going to talk to you today is Matt. He’s at 24 Caret Games. He works on Retro/Grade, which is playable out at the front.
24 Caret Games - Retro/Grade
But then time itself starts flowing backwards because of all of the explosions. The idea of the game is that you’re traveling backwards through time, undoing your actions in order to protect the health of the space-time continuum. So you have to get in the right position and unfire your player lasers, which are timed to the beat of the original music that Pat composed for the game. You also have to avoid different types of enemy fire because, basically, if you stop the enemy’s shot before it returns to the laser that fired it, it creates a paradox that damages the health of the space-time continuum.
Robin: I’m going to interrupt you Matt and tell you you haven’t actually mentioned the one awesome thing about your game that isn’t shown in this video.
Matt: Oh yeah, you can also play it with a Rock Band or Guitar Hero controller. It works with a Dual Shock, as well.
Robin: So Retro/Grade recycles unused game guitars.
Matt: Yeah, finally you have a use for those. You can clear off the dust or pull it out from under your couch.
Robin: [Speaking to the audience] How many of you have an unused game guitar in your house? [Most of the crowd raises their hands] See, if you have a PlayStation, you just download this title and suddenly it has value again. It’s like a game that makes your crap valuable. That’s awesome, right? And look at it, it’s gorgeous. It’s so beautiful. [Speaking to Matt] You guys are doing an amazing job on it.
Matt: Thank you very much.
Robin: You’re welcome. So why did you become an indie developer?
The problem with big budget titles is publishers want to be sure they can make their money back. Because of that, they want to play it safe, and so it’s really difficult to do something new and crazy and off the wall.
Matt: Basically, I wanted to be able to make something new and fresh because previously I was working in - I don’t know if you’d call it AAA - big budget titles. The problem with big budget titles is publishers want to be sure they can make their money back. Because of that, they want to play it safe, and so it’s really difficult to do something new and crazy and off the wall. So we decided to become independent so we can do things our own way and make something truly revolutionary rather than just evolutionary, and add features to previously defined genres and stuff like that.
Robin: Well, I think this is one of the first games that actually has a real recycling feel to it. I mean, your t-shirts are recycling themed. [Speaking to the audience] They have t-shirts, if you go over and play the game, you might be able to get one today. Anything else you want to say about being an indie before we move on?
Matt: Well, it’s definitely been a lot of fun being able to work on my own terms, do things the way we want without having to answer to anyone. So it’s been liberating working as an independent developer. It’s also been a lot of work learning about all these aspects of game development that I previously didn’t do, but it’s definitely been a really great experience.
Robin: Many hats.
Matt: [Pointing to his yellow miner’s hat] I wear many hats, not just this one.
Robin: Awesome. So, the next game we’re going to talk about is Closure. Tyler is here to talk about it. It’s also playable here, and so I’m going to let you go ahead and talk a little bit.
Eyebrow Interactive - Closure
Robin: When I first met you, you had just finished the first version of this game. You were still in high school?
Tyler: No, I was in college.
Robin: Just started college?
Robin: You came to show this game at the Game Developer’s Conference with your uncle who also works on the game.
Tyler: He’s doing the music for the computer version of it.
Robin: One of the youngest people to ever totally blow away the panel of judges for a session that I run called the Experimental Gameplay Workshop. We were actually so totally jealous that you had come up with such a great idea at such a young age. Why did you decide to stay indie? Because you were basically born indie, right? You didn’t know any other way.
Tyler: Well, after having seen people enjoy a game that was born from my own idea, it really wouldn’t be fun to go work for somebody else, to make somebody else’s idea. So I’m sticking with it.
Robin: So that’s what you’re going to do, and look at all these rewards. That’s really awesome. What’s been the most interesting thing about working on this current version of the game?
Tyler: Well, this is the first time I’ve actually programmed for a console so that’s kind of fun. Making levels for two years in a row gets a bit tiring, but it’s very rewarding and I finally finished making puzzles for it.
Robin: That’s awesome.
Tyler: It’s a good feeling.
Robin: Alright, so you guys should definitely check out Closure. It’s up there, as well.
thatgamecompany - Journey
We make what we call artistic, abstract, accessible games, which is our version of AAA
Our first game was called Flow, and was all about letting the user drive their own level of difficulty in a really exploratory, immersive kind of game. Our next game was Flower, which was even lusher. We really tried to bring the environment forward. In this game, you play the dream of a flower that’s moving through this landscape and opening its blossoms. It’s totally gorgeous. I did work at tgc when Flower was made. I was a huge fan, and I got super into this game. It still makes me cry when I play it, it’s really gorgeous.
Our next game is called Journey, and I’m going to just go ahead and play the trailer.
Journey features an orchestral score written by Austin Wintory. He also worked on our game called Cloak. The point of Journey is to build an online game where people feel connection with a stranger. So it’s a game you play online when there are people, but there’s no voice chat, there’s no text chat. When we pitched this game it sounded pretty crazy and we were super thrilled to get the rights to make it. Sony’s been super supportive of making it. You can go play it, it’s just around the corner from Retro/Grade. And now we have Rowan, who’s here to talk about PixelJunk 4AM.
Q-Games - PixelJunk 4AM
The idea is that we wanted to take the PlayStation Move and do something really different with the way you manipulate space in front of you, and use that space like a canvas using paint and music, and the space in front of it. The best way to describe it is to probably hit the trailer, which is right there.
We really wanted to make something extremely experimental, and to me that really embodies what being indie is about.
Our main inspiration (or the idea for 4AM) was to bottle or distill the experience of being a DJ, and taking a set of being a DJ and being able to broadcast your performance live to anyone else on PSN. We really wanted to make something extremely experimental, and to me that really embodies what being indie is about. We can do very, very off-the-wall things like this. It’s experimenting with the Move in ways that no one’s really used the Move controller before, using all of that space in front of you to manipulate the sound canvas and also to experiment with Baiyon’s music, Baiyon is the DJ who co-collaborates. He also did the music on PixelJunk Eden. So to be able to work together with Baiyon and create a really unique tool or really unique experience for people on PSN is for me what indie is all about, because there’s no way anyone larger would say yes to something like this. That’s pretty much what 4AM is about.
Audience Member: Is this Lifelike?
Rowan: Yes, this is a project that was formerly known as PixelJunk Lifelike, and recently we’ve rebranded it and renamed it as 4AM. The main reason for that is Lifelike was originally conceived as an extrapolation from Eden, and it had a lot of the natural imagery and a lot of the themes that Eden had and we were bringing that oven. But since we’ve worked with that, it’s evolved and grown to become this entire audioscape on its own. We wanted to capture that and move it away from Eden a little bit image-wise. So we went with 4AM, because we feel that time period really encapsulates what it should be about. You should be in a deep trance just playing the music with people listening, too.
Rowan: We may or may not accept personal questions.
Matt: I’ll answer risqué questions.
Rowan: There you go, Matt will do it.
Robin: It’s always the freak with the bowtie. So what do you guys want to know? Anything?
Audience Member: What’s with the hat?
Matt: When we started 24 Caret games, no one knew who we were, we didn’t know who we were. So one of the ideas I had to attract attention was I would dress up really goofy, because people would ask me, “What’s with the hat?” And that would start, “Oh, the hat is because I work at 24 Caret Games and we have sort of a gold miner feel.” It’s goofy and it’s stupid, but I think it’s helped us in that people come up to us, they want to know. I’m sure I scare away some people, so it’s not 100% effective, but I think it does help start the dialogue, and get people interested.
Robin: It’s an icebreaker. Like being a girl.
Matt: I’m a little introverted, although I try to put on a public persona to varying degrees of success.
Robin: I think you’re doing great.
Matt: It helps me. Now I’m in my 24 Caret persona. I have my costume, I have my outfit, secret identity.
Robin: It’s empowering.
Matt: It helps me break out from being introverted, I just want to sit in front of my computer and code.
Audience Member: I have a question for Tyler. One of the interesting things was seeing the character evolve. Can you speak at all about the concept of what your character changing throughout the game is, and how that’ll play?
Tyler: At first we had a cut scene there that was the Mario 1-1 intro screen, and we couldn’t have that for PAX so that cut scene was sort of made in a day. It’ll probably be more clarified when we figure it out ourselves.
Audience Member: In the trailer for 4AM, it describes being able to broadcast your performance live. Does that mean you can perform for four parties at once in different places of the world?
Rowan: The tech we’re looking into using will allow you to broadcast your performance live on PSN, and we’re considering probably doing a free viewer for 4AM, as well. The idea will be people can jack into your broadcast and watch your performance live, and that’ll be multiple people. But it’s a 2-way stream as well. The idea is thinking it’s not just for the benefit of the viewer, but the person that’s broadcasting as well. When a DJ does his set, he feeds off the audience feedback. It’s a circle. If he gets a response out of the audience, he might change his set on the fly to satisfy them.
So the idea of having a viewer and having an audience in 4AM is important for us, because if there’s that feedback – if you’re playing and you pull in some loops or some sequences and you get a thumbs up from some people who are viewing it, you’ll think, “Oh, I’ll keep going with that because these guys are happy.” We want to get that feeling that you’re really distilling that experience of DJing a set, and yet multiple people can view your set live wherever they are provided they’re logged onto PSN.
Audience Member: How does that feedback work for the audience?
Rowan: The feedback loop we’re thinking of is something similar to Facebook’s “Like” button so you can just hop on and give people a “Like.” It’s simple. There’s no negative feedback. But we’re also exploring giving slightly more detailed feedback, as well. We want that to define different performances; sort of their profile or how they define themselves as a player. As you gather more feedback from the audience, people start to identify you. This guy’s a more electro-house kind of player, and this guy’s a little bit more minimal techno-style. We’ll let the audience and feedback decide what sort of performances you put out. So we’re still exploring other ideas of more complex feedback that we definitely want to have, but the Facebook “Like” type thing is also something we’ll probably have in there.
Audience Member: [In reference to Journey] How are you going to deal with the jump online?
We wanted to create something that allowed people to collaborate and explore together in a way that was really genuine.
Robin: Journey was inspired by the idea that when you play online games, and generally when you think about playing online games, you’re usually shooting at stuff. Often you’re shooting at each other. We wanted to create something that allowed people to collaborate and explore together in a way that was really genuine. Which means that we had to think a lot about people griefing each other.
The way we handled it is we played with each other a lot and tried to grief each other a lot on the team. There are twelve of us total, so it’s a small team. We will play games where I tell everybody, “Okay, you can’t look at the cheats, you can’t see who you’re playing with, but everybody has a role.” Some people are lovers, some people are fighters, some people are solitary, and we try to really play that role with each other. If you’re a griefer and you’ve really tried to grief someone else, but the person that you’re griefing is a lover, they often perceive it as a lot of positive attention. So we’ve tried pretty hard to grief each other in the game. We hope that that’s enough.
We generally don’t talk that much about what we expect, because we expect the unexpected.
Generally, you can walk in the other direction or unplug your kit if it’s really bad. But one of the things we’re excited about with Journey is that it’s an experiment. All of our games are experimental in that they ask questions about what gaming can be. When we release them, it’s really the players that let us know. We generally don’t talk that much about what we expect, because we expect the unexpected. We’ll see when it gets released.
When you play online, you can only ever play with one other person at a time, but you can cross paths with multiple people as you move through the environment. It actually gets difficult to stay together as you move into the later reaches of the game. Togetherness is not always easy, so it’s pretty hard to get all the way through playing with the same person.
Audience Member: This one kind of goes for everyone, but how do you organize your disbursement of information or PR? I assume working for PSN, you have some kind of agreements of when you can or can’t release certain things. Do you agree with sharing everything, or is it just game to game?
Robin: That’s a good question. We should go down from the end and answer it.
Tyler: I don’t share everything because it would spoil the game for people, but I do share a lot of what’s going on development-wise in the game while trying not to spoil it.
Audience Member: [Speaking to Tyler] Do you get feedback from your players or people that are anticipating the game?
Tyler: Most of the feedback we got was because we released the Flash version online two and a half years ago. That got around two million plays, so we got a lot of feedback from that. That’s all outdated feedback now, since they fixed all the issues people complained about in about the first couple months of development on the new version. The rest of the feedback is just showing it off at PAX and stuff.
Rowan: Well we’re Q. We have the whole PixelJunk series and multiple projects running in parallel. We’re fairly in control of our own IP, so we decide when we want to give out information on games and when we want to throw out teasers and that sort of thing.
We keep a tight deal with Sony. But I think, too, we sort of do our own thing. When we want to put out teasers, I think Dylan puts stuff on Facebook and Google+. We like to tweet stuff out. So it’s more PixelJunk is closely tied with Q.
Matt: Well basically we’re self-publishing with Sony, and because of that the only agreement we have with Sony is that we can’t reveal their confidential information. But since the game is ours, we own the IP, we can say anything about it at any point in time. So we could be very open. We’ll blog every day about what we’re working on, assuming we don’t say, “Oh, these are the technical details of the Playstation 3.”
Rowan: That’s the best part of being indie, I think. Because we own what we’re working on, we can do what we want with it.
But, and because Sony is a great partner, the advantage is that Sony supports the independent developers; they’re there to help us.
Matt: Right. Unfortunately, I personally don’t get very much time to be open with developing. I don’t get enough time to do marketing and PR and all that stuff. But, and because Sony is a great partner, the advantage is that Sony supports the independent developers; they’re there to help us. So if I say, “Hey Sony, I’m doing this cool thing for PAX,” like when we had this little ID card system that would track their high scores and we printed up these custom IDs for people with their pictures on it.
...Sony is a super multinational corporation with a lot of resources and they’re willing to work with us.
I talked to Sony and I said, “I’m having trouble getting the word out about this, I don’t know who to talk to.” They said no problem, and they put it on the Playstation blog, which basically a lot of press follows and reads the copy. I don’t know what the press term is, but essentially they mirror. They write a similar story referencing the Playstation blog post. So it’s a really great deal in that we get to do whatever we want, but Sony is a super multinational corporation with a lot of resources and they’re willing to work with us. With something like this [referencing Fantastic Arcade], for instance, Sony set it up for us. It’s really great.
Robin: I was actually going to say, I didn’t expect to be at Fantastic Fest. I hadn’t even heard of it before. It was a similar situation with us at thatgamecompany. We don’t necessarily spend a lot of time thinking about how much PR we can get or how much buzz we can get on something. There are a lot of people at Sony who are really good at that. Then when we get a good opportunity like this to meet the fans, they always alert us, like, “Hey, this would be a good opportunity for you guys.”
So in a way, it’s actually great to have a partner who can actually attack you and let you know to look up from your desk, there’s something great happening. Of course, there are always times you wish you could have even bigger presence, like at certain events or this or that, and those are times you need to negotiate. But for most of us, it’s about figuring out what’s the best thing for our particular title. Journey is like Closure. It’s not something you want to be blasting screenshots out for all the time. In fact, for a long time, it was pretty hard to talk about it.
Audience Member: The beginning of Journey that I played had a strong sense of narrative. Can you tell us a little bit about the process for developing the narrative and how iterative that was?
Robin: Extremely iterative. When thatgamecompany started working on Journey, it was a four-person playable top-down Flash game. It was a totally different concept. It was called Dragon, and you could push each other around and move stuff and open doors. It was much more like a dungeon crawler.
Audience Member: You should release that. I’d play it.
Robin: Yeah, it was actually a pretty awesome prototype. It was the first thing I play-tested as the Producer. It had really interesting dynamics in a four-person top-down game. However, it was totally beyond the scope of us to turn that into a 3D experience. What we did was we took what we learned from that prototype and started working on the Playstation and developing a game that would still stay true to the core inspiration, which was to create a sense of still feeling small but also part of something bigger.
The narrative that’s come out of that work has evolved in layers, in much the same way you paint in the background colors then you pull forward the shapes and eventually you’re really putting the details on something you’re painting. That’s how the narrative comes out in Journey. We’re just putting the final touches on the narrative as we get close to the final part of the game.
They say if you write a book, you never really write the beginning chapter and end chapter until everything else is written. That’s kind of where we are.
They say if you write a book, you never really write the beginning chapter and end chapter until everything else is written. That’s kind of where we are. It’s a super iterative process and incredibly collaborative, and particularly the lead artist in Genova, Matt Nava, and the creative director work together quite a bit in collaborating to create visuals that tell a story, and that’s a lot of hard work.
Audience Member: For Rowan. You use the Move controller for 4AM. Usually we see that when moving for multi-control games. It’s pretty easy to tell how it works, whether you’re sword fighting or shooting basketball, but with 4AM, how exactly is the Move control used to manipulate the tracks and layers and all that stuff?
Rowan: That’s a good point. We’ve been struggling to communicate that exact point, because we’ve found still images and videos sometimes don’t do justice to how much control the player has over the music that’s playing. It uses the entire 3D space in front of the player like a cube, and it uses all of the x, y and z axes. It uses a rotation axis on z, as well. It uses the accelerometer, the gyro, the camera position; it uses absolutely everything. We exposed all of the parameters available to us on the Move and took all of it and said, “What can we make as an interactive piece of art with this controller that no one else has tried to do before?”
So when you see Baiyon playing it in the video, what he’s doing is he’s pulling in those loops or sequences of music out of the air and he’s adding them into the song and painting with them. Then he’s able to add DSP effects, things like a reverb or low and high pass filters. And he’s adding these filters onto different tracks in real-time while he’s playing. So it’s kind of like a cross between like your Ableton or your other sound editing software, but we’ve managed to distill it down and let you do it with the Move.
It’s kind of hard to describe. The best way to do it would be to go try it near the door after you’re done. After you’ve got it in your hand you can understand where it vibrates and where it comes to life, where there are different bits of music when you’re touching it. Touching the AR canvas that’s in front of it.
Robin: We had a similar problem with Flower, it was the same thing. You can’t really describe it unless you play it. If you see screenshots of it, it just looks like a pretty screenshot.
Audience Member: This is for Rowan. You said there would be co-op play on this.
Rowan: Yes, there will be two-player local co-op for 4AM. The idea is you and a friend together can author a song locally and you’ll be able to edit different parts of the track, the key climb or the high pat or the bass.
It’s something fairly new. There’s no way two DJs could be on the same turntable at the same time. You can’t have two DJs working a song together. But with 4AM, you can have two people running their own virtual canvases in space. And as long as you don’t get in each other’s way, you can both be editing the same song. We’re actually working on some effects that harvest that as well, so if you bring the Move controllers together, you can get an overarching effect. If you touch them like light sabers, as you bring them in range, you get warping effects on the sound specifically to encourage people to try two player as well.
Audience Member: Would there also be online or maybe a competitive live audience?
Rowan: We haven’t really considered it being competitive. As far as co-op, one of the biggest issues would be sound. For a sound or music-related piece of software, any lag at all is going to make the timing out on how you’re editing and adding music. So we haven’t really considered that at the moment, but we definitely want to have the two-player co-op local.
Audience Member: This one’s for Matt. What was the inspiration behind Retro/Grade? Did you just play a bunch of rhythm games and wanted to do something different?
Matt: Well actually, we started with the idea of, “Wouldn’t it be cool to play a game backwards?” Then we structured the design around that. Because we were originally working this little tech demo, and we had a thing where you could back up time just to repeat a section of game play so we could tune the parameters and tweak the design. And we thought, “Hey, that’d be neat if we did something interactive for the time you’re backing up, like that was actually part of the game.”
And for that game idea, it was sort of a Star Fox rail-shooter type thing. I’m a big fan of those types of games. It didn’t really make sense; I couldn’t think of an idea of how to work that backwards element into it. But then we decided to do something crazier. Something more indie, and revisited that idea. I thought, “How could I structure a game design around playing backwards?” And so the idea as it came to us is basically undoing stuff. Matching something that’s previously happened. And so rhythm-based game play seemed like a natural fit. Certainly I’m a huge fan of rhythm games, and then matching the timing, and then we thought, “How would we match the position?” I thought if we constrained it to a certain number of discrete positions, then it would be possible because matching a position in 3-space or even 2-space if you have unlimited variants is going to be difficult.
Robin: So you guys actually had a similar experience to us, where you had an idea for something, but maybe the initial inspirations for the prototype weren’t really going to work out. Then you end up really trying to figure out a way to make that a reality. It sounds like maybe you did, too? You already had a version in development?
Matt: Lifelike was originally pitched to be just a visualizer, then an interactive element crept into it, then it crept in a bit more, then before we knew it we were just like, “Well, just let people make their own music.”
Audience Member: I have a question for Tyler. If you have a 2-million hit Flash game, how did you cope with having that massive flood of exposure on your Flash game, and how did you eventually decide to go to PSN with that?
Tyler: 2 million’s not that much for a Flash game. If you want to know the ad revenue you get from 2 million hits on a Flash game, it’s like $2,000.
Robin: It still sounds like a huge number to us.
Matt: It’s a lot of players.
Rowan: It’s a lot of eyeballs.
Matt: 2 million players for Retro/Grade…Hopefully, but probably not, realistically.
Rowan: What made you bring that over to PSN?
Tyler: Well, we spent two months on that flash game. I really liked the idea we had for the game, but the execution was rushed since it only took about two months to make. I just had so many other ideas that could go into the game to make it large and something people would want to make money for and spend hours and hours playing. So I just wanted to take an idea and expand it fully.
Robin: Yeah, you wanted that time to craft it. That makes sense. Well, we just wanted to encourage you guys to continue supporting the indie games movement. There are a lot of indie games that aren’t here today, but if you check out indiegames.com or any Venus Patrol or any of the other awesome things that are going to be coming out, you’ll see that we’re a vibrant community filled with smiley-faced, loving people who just want to make games and make you guys happy. So thanks for taking the time to come out today and play our games and listen to us.