Indie Interview: Do Better Games
After seeing the divisive nature of the discussions surrounding the release/gameplay of their first game, Pendulous, I became very interested in finding out about the people behind the scenes were really like. Due to scheduling conflicts and the random things that come up in every day life, we chose to have a chat by email which would be very convenient for all involved and give as much time as needed for everyone to think everything through.
(This was my first email-based interview so, please, go easy on me.)
1: What brought together the team of Do Better Games?
BEAU: Adrian and I were both in the Microsoft Windows Phone group at the time. I had a couple control scheme ideas for use on the phone. I asked Adrian if he would help me out with writing a game using this control scheme. Adrian and I then brainstormed after work over several weeks until a steampunk-driven platformer came out with basic elements such as anchors, walls, and bumpers (which are so far only in the playground area of the final game).
ADRIAN: Yeah, Beau and I talked a lot about the bad control schemes for mobile touch games. For an internal contest, he made a really interesting prototype game that had a fascinating control scheme that took full advantage of a small touch screen. He pitched me the idea of what eventually became Pendulous based solely off the control scheme. It wasn’t a hard decision to partner up. Matthew, I’ve known forever and his knack in both test and design make him a cozy match to Beau and I.
MATTHEW: It was a surprise when I was brought in because I wasn’t aware they were looking to take the game beyond the contest stage. Still, Adrian and I have known each other for nearly twenty years and have gamed together through most of it: Marathon during high school lunch, late nights of Twisted Metal, and more games of Risk than is probably healthy. I’d been in video game QA for three years—largely due to his encouragement—but he knew I really wanted to design. So, when they said they wanted to make a full release with my help, I jumped at the chance.
2: What types of games typically inspire the group?
ADRIAN: I try not to pull inspiration for creating a game from other games, but Moonbase Commander from 2002. That’s still one of the best constructed games I’ve come across.
MATTHEW: This might sound bad, but lately I’ve been getting a lot of enjoyment from simple and gimmicky games. Just like my favorite pieces of science fiction are those that thoroughly explore all the different facets of some speculative technology, some of my favorite games take a single premise or an innovative gameplay idea and execute it well while testing the bounds of their design decisions. For example, Jetpack Joyride is a simple, one-button, go-for-distance mobile game, but I’ve pumped over 24
hours into it because the mission system is sublime. For me at least, I no longer care about achieving long distances because the character abilities meld with the missions so well they result in something more interesting. That game absolutely transcends its genre.
3: What drove the creation of Pendulous?
ADRIAN: I wanted to release a game for the phone that had a control scheme that didn’t use soft-buttons or simulated d-pads. Pac-Mac Championship Edition for Windows Phone has a fantastic execution of this idea. I at least wanted to show that you could have something be fun and intuitive that wasn’t trying to turn the touch screen into a Nintendo controller.
BEAU: I wanted a game that you could get better at over time, games like pinball, pool, or golf. Having a gear swinging with different momentum and different release angles allows a large amount of freedom to the player. I also wanted to create a game that was challenging to the player. I really like old classic games like Mega Man and Zelda where the player isn’t told exactly where to go or what to do.
MATTHEW: For me, learning has been the biggest drive. Developing, releasing, pitching, and updating Pendulous has been an amazing education. Throughout development, we experimented with different ideas, keeping some (parallax backgrounds) and discarding others (gear power-ups). When we put the game in the hands of players, we found there were things many of them liked (riding steam jets) and things many of them didn’t (extra-precise release-and-attach mechanics). At every step in the process, there has been something to learn, both about Pendulous as we built it and about the indie game process in general. I haven’t tired of it yet.
4: What was the biggest obstacle between the concept and the finished product?
BEAU: Time, everyone has day jobs and other things going on. I was moving to a new house, remodeling, and helping my pregnant wife and watching/taking care of my new son while Pendulous was in development.
ADRIAN: Definitely what Beau said—TIME. There were a few times I was burnt out on developing the game, but reminding myself of the goals we set in the beginning and that we were achieving them helped greatly. It helped having a playable prototype throughout development so I could always stop developing and just play it for a while to refill on inspiration.
5: If you could pop back in time to any point during the design/build of Pendulous, would you change anything? Is so, what?
MATTHEW: I might try to convince our former selves to more strongly consider bringing an artist into the group. Big love to Mike Young for providing us with all the principal art for Pendulous, and a special nod to Adrian for his work on the effects. Those said, changing anything about the art often required more effort than we were excited to expend. For each new gameplay element that didn’t have art, we had to ask ourselves not just if the concept was solid, but if it was worth the time and energy to fashion our best digital kludge out of the graphical elements we already had. I’m proud of what we pulled off, but it would have been much easier if I could have sent an e-mail to our resident artist and said, “Oh amazing art person, we’re introducing zero gravity fields. Whip something up, would you kindly?”
ADRIAN: I’m with Matthew on this. I suggest all indie development teams find an unemployed artist to join the project for its entirety. Mike was fantastic, especially for his first time doing graphics for a game, but he went and got himself employed and married and all kinds of good life stuff. Planning for change is always important in software, and not having an artist to help make the changes put the onus on the developers to be all graphic-y.
6: Would you consider making another platformer game with a social angle in the future?
MATTHEW: Sure, I think both of those genres still have enough space for exploration that would interest me.
ADRIAN: Sure, I could fire into another platformer/puzzler. Though, I think mobile touch platforms can go beyond that these days and bring the player deeper into the game. I like the idea of bringing the user in as a first-class part of the game rather than having the user control an avatar in the game world. You can see whispers of that idea in the “Hello, Operator” captions in Pendulous.
7: What can we expect from the Pendulous update?
MATTHEW: There are two planned updates, and the first should be arriving any day now. In that first update, we tackle a few bugs and feedback items, namely: Pendulous should display properly on standard-definition televisions, camera settings throughout the levels are hand-tuned and additional text pop-ups have been added to ensure players have a better understanding of where to go next, some level elements with unclear edges have also been cleaned up to make it more obvious when the gear is in peril, and we spelled “principal” correctly this time.
The second update, which we’d like to release before autumn, will have more levels and potentially some other system-level feature additions that we can’t promise and therefore won’t detail. For the new content, it should be of slightly increased difficulty compared with the existing levels eight through fourteen. Players will tackles some new elements (bumpers, moving anchors, timed anchors, switch puzzles, etc.) but we’ll keep mixing in the preexisting elements as well. People love their giant anchors, after all.
In an update that was necessary since there was a lapse in communication (on my part due to illness):
MATTHEW: Our focus for a while was bug fixes, the biggest of which was a display issue with standard-definition televisions. Now that those fixes are in gamers’ hands, we can get down to what we really want: more content. That update, which we’d like to release before autumn, will have 7 or 8 more levels and potentially some other system-level feature additions that we can’t promise and therefore won’t detail. For the new content, it should be of slightly increased difficulty compared to the last half of the existing game. Players will tackle some new elements—bumpers, moving anchors, timed anchors, switch puzzles, etc.—but we’ll keep mixing in the preexisting elements as well. People love their giant anchors, after all.
8: Is there another game being tossed around on the Do Better Games whiteboard or is that a little further down the line?
MATTHEW: Since our output is largely based on our amount of available spare time—and we still have that Pendulous update we’d really like to release—it’s hard to say when we’ll start on the next game. You can be sure the whiteboard is crowded with ideas, it’s just a matter of having the time to pick our favorite and say, “Shall we conduct another experiment?”
From here, we can only wish the team good luck on future experiments and hope that they release on the same platform in the future so that we can get our hands on the game. Even if it does ‘only’ cost a dollar.
Indie Interview: Do Better Games,