I have a template in my head, don’t you know, that sketches out in rough all the things that will likely enhappy me. Items such as sex and Earl Grey tea feature prominently on it, which is to be expected. I did not know until I encountered the trailer of They Bleed Pixels, though, that creepy children with deathly claw hands of death – taken in combination with smug Lovecraftian grimoires and lashings of the old ultraviolence – would manage to click so firmly into place on this toyshop implementation of my pleasure centres, but who am I to argue with the evidence of my convictions?
Because I am not a patient child, I couldn’t exactly be expected to wait for the game without pestering the developers at Spooky Squid with petulant questions, could I? Imagine the pang of happiness that assailed me when Miguel Sternberg, who is a very interesting chap and one of the delightfully disturbed minds behind Spooky Squid, took the time to reply. Comprehensively.
His thoughts on narrative, the Zen of depth, and game design in general make for some fascinating reading, and the ideas that give They Bleed Pixels its thrust make me want to play the game immediately, and to hell with sleep.
It’s a fact, really: Game developers are fascinating people. Games are fascinating things. So let me shut the fuck up and give Miguel some damn space to speak, shall I?
1: Let’s start with the most important thing: cephalopods. I suggest Spooky Squid is actually an agent of Cthulhu. Defend yourself.
In fact much the opposite! We bring only a humble warning of his ancient cyclopean menace… if humanity is too naive to puzzle out the messages encoded within our games we cannot be held accountable.
2: I’ve mentioned my dismay at the fact that They Bleed Pixels is to be released on Xbox before PC. Why have you chosen this route, considering the success of indie titles on distribution platforms like Steam?
We actually picked the XBLIG marketplace first around a year ago and then decided what game we’d like to make for it that would fit well with the platform. They Bleed Pixels came out of that process. This was long before Meatboy showed there was a big demand for hardcore platforming on the PC. It’s obvious now that there is a very strong interest in having a PC version and we’re going to do our best to fill it. I am going to recommend that players pick up a gamepad to play it though, the controls really work best with one.
3: I like that you specifically mention polished “game feel” as a central goal in the development of They Bleed Pixels. What do you consider to be the most important aspects of getting the feel of the game right?
I’m using game feel roughly in the sense that Steve Swink does in his book of the same title (http://www.game-feel.com/). So how the game feels to control, the sense of weight and movement, the way objects in the game react, etc. It’s something that emerges from the physics simulation, but is also influenced by animation, sound, visual effects and other aspects in combination. If you remove any element the illusion is greatly reduced. We have a test mode that replaces all the character sprites with their bounding boxes. Without character animations the game feels significantly different to play even though it technically controls identically. It’s not one thing, it’s the combination of every aspect.
So, short answer, the most important aspect is how ALL the aspects combine rather then any individual part.
4: The Spooky Squid blog cites Niddhogg as an influence. Are there any other things you’ve drawn inspiration from (besides Lovecraft)?
The platforming is influenced by the approach taken in Knytt Stories which has a lot of air steering and little or no momentum, allowing for some very precise platforming puzzles.
We also looked at Super Smash Bros since it uses a combat system similar to Niddhoggs where the direction you’re pushing changes the attack that’s triggered.
5: Your blog also mentions that They Bleed Pixels will discourage button-mashing. How are you managing to achieve deep combat mechanics using a one-button system?
Using a reduced number of inputs gives us an interesting constraint to design within. We have to really focus and boil down the combat to its essentials, which has the benefit of making the choices between moves very clear to players. A lot of beat ‘em up combat has a huge number of moves that look and feel very similar. They may have precisely balanced timing windows and ranges, but they still become functionally interchangeable unless you’re playing at a high level, which most players aren’t. We’ve made our moves very distinct. Kicks let you throw enemies up or away but don’t harm them. The slash attacks are all similar but each targets a clearly different area: so low when ducking or a wide arc above the player when pushing up, etc. Throw in a few one-of-a-kind moves and the ability to use the environment against enemies in different ways, and a large expressive tactical range opens up. The scoring and checkpoint system then feed into this and encourage players to get fancy with their kills.
6: Last time we spoke, you mentioned a hidden reference to interactive fiction in Night of the Cephalopods. Having grown up around it, how do you feel the medium has influenced your thoughts on game design? And does it have anything to do with the inclusion of dynamic narrative in Night of the Cephalopods?
I think it’s made me less suspicious of including narrative in games than many other indies. I feel like there’s definitely an indie game contingent that feels story and games shouldn’t be combined, or that doing so somehow dilutes the “purity” of games. Some of the best and most interesting experiments with narrative and games have come from IF, particularly the newer games that have come about since Inform was created. IMHO game designers who haven’t played at least a few modern IF games can’t really have a very informed opinion on narrative in games.
I don’t know if there was a direct influence, but I think the fact that I’d played so many interactive fiction and adventure games helped give me a sense of how to use the dynamic narrator in Night of the Cephalopods effectively.
7: Will They Bleed Pixels feature much in the way of plot? If so, how are you going about narrative representation?
It will feature plot, but it’ll be basically the opposite of Night of the Cephalopods. We’re using silent comics with some minimal animation. So it’s very visual, which I like since it allows us to hint at things without being explicit about them, something that works well for the setting and mood we want the game to have.
8: I like the way the game is set to encourage skill and creativity through assigning checkpoints as rewards. What prompted this development?
We can’t take credit for that feature. The original concept was a suggestion from Mathew Kumar (who writes the excellent .exp zine http://www.expdot.com/about/ ). A few months ago we had the game at the point where combat and platforming were both working and really fun. However, because you’re so manoeuvrable, we found the player would be tempted to avoid land-based enemies in open areas, or to use dull, unvaried attacks.
We knew we wanted to give the player a reward for engaging in combat in interesting ways. However, the traditional rewards all tend to encourage disengagement from complex combat once they’re earned. For instance, giving her a temporary super attack or letting the player level up and do more damage both undercut the core of using interesting, varied attacks. The message those rewards give the player is, essentially, “You’re very good at the core mechanic of this game; because of that we’re giving you this thing that means you no longer have to be good at that mechanic anymore.” Even if it’s only temporary, it didn’t sit well with us.
When Mathew suggested rewarding players with checkpoints, it was a eureka moment. It fits really well with the underlying gameplay and leads to all these interesting situations and choices. At a basic level, once you earn a checkpoint there’s this pressure to just get a little further in the level before putting it down… but the longer you do that the more chance you’ll die and loose all that progress. It’s an interesting risk-reward situation.
9: Will the game feature sequential levels, or will they in some way be tied into exploring the academy hinted at in your site’s screenshots?
It’s a linear progression of levels, though you’ll be able to go back and replay any level you’ve unlocked to try for a better ranking. That ties into the checkpoint system, since you earn much higher points if you play through holding a checkpoint without deploying it. So “S ranking” a level would require playing through without dying while maximizing your combos. We’ll also be tracking speed runs for people who want to run and dodge through the level. In short, lots of optional challenges for perfectionist players.
10: You appear to be exploring new territory with each of your games. Are you doing this to map out the possibilities for a top-secret megagame imbued with everything you’ve learned from prior projects?
You’ve caught on to one of our secret rules at Spooky Squid. We always try to challenge ourselves and make sure there’s something different we’ll be learning with each new game. This keeps us excited about what we’re doing, and what we learn from each project often feeds back into the others.
It’s also a way to make sure that every game is at least in one critical aspect a success. As any game developer (or artist in any other medium) will tell you, you can’t predict what will be a hit, and not every game will be one. You can up your odds by making a something of high quality and making sure you get it out there into the world, but after that there’s a lot of luck involved that’s out of your control. If you are conservative with your design, you don’t try doing anything new and it flops, you get nothing. But if you test yourself with each design and try something you’ve never done before, then it’s still a success in some sense because you have a whole new toolbox of game design tricks you can bring to the next thing you do.
All that said, there are several ideas in past games we want to go back to and expand on because we feel we haven’t explored them fully. I think that’s a good spot to end… with a contradiction ;)