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Interviewer: I’m here at the Game Developers Conference Online in Austin, Texas and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
David: My name is David Sushil. I am the owner of a small independent game studio called Bad Pilcrow, and we have a game called Vanessa Saint- Pierre Delacroix and Her Nightmare which has been selected as a finalist in IndiePub’s Game Developer Contest.
Interviewer: So, what inspired the game idea?
David: You know, it’s kind of funny. This is the first time it’s ever happened to me, but I actually woke up one morning with the name of the game and the concept fully formed in my head. I’ve been developing games for a long time, and that’s the first time that’s ever happened. So, that day I actually decided to cancel all my other projects that I was working on and threw myself into putting together a prototype.
After about four weeks, it seemed as though the mechanic was fun enough and the game could be marketable enough that I decided to go ahead and throw my full weight behind it. Six months later, here we are and we’ve been recognized by IndiePub, and we’re very pleased.
Interviewer: OK. When you say you woke up and you had this idea formulated in your mind, can you talk about that moment? Was it just so clear, or was it…
David: It was very strange. I’m guessing I was probably dreaming about it, or I must have been thinking about it in and out of sleep, I guess. My first thought was Vanessa Saint-Pierre Delacroix and Her Nightmare, what kind of game it might be?
Interviewer: And you said you spent four weeks prototyping it. Can you talk about when did you decide that it could be fun? What were some of the issues you had when you initially prototyped it, and what popped up?
David: I knew initially that it was going to be a two dimensional platformer game mapped to a 3D cube. I’m still not aware of any games that have precisely what we’re doing, so it seemed unique and novel enough. And that really is part of the indie spirit that I was trying to gel with really, with our company.
After about four weeks, once we had the rotation mechanic on the cube and we could navigate Vanessa from face to face on the cube, we knew that we had developed something that was kind of special and wanted to make sure we did the best job we could with it.
Interviewer: Were you play testing during the prototype phase, or did you save that for after when it was more polished?
David: I’m a firm believer in always play testing your games, and programmers should be your first line of defense when it comes to making sure that a game is fun and it’s bug free. And there are no instances in the game that will cause people to rage, quit or break their controller in half. It’s definitely an iterative process of trying to figure out what works as early as possible.
Interviewer: And so, at the booth it’s kind of like where you have something like Rubik’s Cube meets a puzzle. Can you explain that?
David: Yeah. The easy way to really describe the game is it’s like Mario Meets Rubik’s Cube. So, we’ve got standard platform mechanics, like moving blocks and avoiding spikes and enemies and things like that. But it’s mapped to this three dimensional volume.
So, if you’re on the front of the cube and you look up and you see on the top of the cube there’s an exit and you can’t get there, well, that means you could go down. You could drop through the bottom of the cube, and eventually if you fall down enough you’ll arrive up above.
David: So, it’s what we jokingly referred to as cube physics.
Interviewer: Once you decided to go through with the game, what were some of the other challenges that you faced as you’re working on completing the game?
David: Well, there are definitely some technical challenges in putting together the cube where the game takes place. But, really, the level design was the most problematic because normally when you design levels the critical path is pretty clear and it’s mapped out to a two dimensional plane or within a three dimensional world.
But in this case with a cube that you can rotate individual faces and navigate from face to face, the critical path very quickly becomes incredibly complicated. So, sometimes we’re kind of throwing things into the game to see what works and what doesn’t, and then it became a process of trial and error.
Interviewer: Yeah. Did you then get a sense of intuition about how you have to design good puzzles for this design space?
David: I actually have some training in usability from my graduate studies, and so that kind of played a large part in trying to figure out the difficulty curve and what players are expecting.
Interviewer: Your game is really polished in the sense of it’s very clear about what you need to do, what keys you need to do. The thing is though, you do require keys. Is there any reason why you didn’t try to just stick purely to the mouse versus actually having people use keys and arrow keys and stuff like that.
David: First of all, I appreciate the compliment about the usability. That really means a lot, but part of my design philosophy is trying to simplify games as much as possible. I can’t stand these triple A titles that require 12 button presses to get your character to do everything within the game. To me, it’s just overkill.
So, very early on it was OK, what’s the least number of buttons that we can use in order to make this game fun? In fact, we even cut out some features. Early on, you could rotate the cube using the right thumb stick on your Xbox controller to see what’s behind it.
But what we found was gamers were getting hung up trying to solve the puzzle without actually moving the character. We decided they’re getting frustrated, so let’s cut it. So, there’s a feature that we had, that was in place, got rid of it to make the game more fun and more simple, and it worked.
Interviewer: Where do you see this game going? Are you going to release it for the Web? Is it going to be for Xbox or what?
David: You know, the original plan was to develop the game for the PC. We’re just about done with that. I’m missing just a few small assets, but I expect by the end of the month we’ll have that wrapped up. And then, initially we were going to port it to Xbox Live Indie Games and release it there.
However, now that we’ve been recognized by IndiePub and we’re here at GDC that may change a little bit. We’ve had some people come up and talk to us and say, “We’re kind of interested, maybe, in pursuing this game and distributing it.” So, we’re going to kind of listen to what they want, and then we may adapt our plans accordingly.
Interviewer: Yes. So, what’s next in store then for your studio? Is it going to be finishing up this game? Are you going to work on another game? Are you going to work on puzzles, or is there another genre you want to do?
David: I’m one of those games as art nerds. Some people see games as business. Some people see games as art, and I’m definitely in the games as art category. And so, we’re going to finish up Vanessa, but at the same time I’m doing a lot of sketches. That’s the way I like to think about it.
If you’re going to do a painting, you do a lot of research. You take photographs. You make sketches, and so I’ve got three or four sketches that I’m working on right now. Maybe, one of those will becoming the next big painting that we do.
Interviewer: Can you talk about your design process some more because it seems a little different than how other people would perceive their game design. Yeah, what’s your process?
David: You know, I kind of split my time back and forth between being a very reclusive sort of individual designer and then working collaboratively. So, what I like to do in the initial stages, I very much take control of the entire process and try to just own the game as much as I can and then open it up to a handful of very trusted collaborators that I’ve worked with on a number of projects. It tends to kind of evolve from there.
We get more feedback, and we’ve got a great mind for design and great ideas as well. And so, it goes from just being this one man’s crack pot idea to suddenly a group of crazy people designing a game, and that works out well for us.
Interviewer: For sketching, what is the equivalent of, say, sketching a painting? When you’re doing research for a project, is it just playing other games? Is it researching that theme? What is it exactly? Is it just a lot of prototypes?
David: I really don’t play a whole lot of games. That maybe sounds awful, but I’m very busy in my full-time job teaching at DeVry University. And so, I don’t have a lot of free time to play games, but I do make games constantly, every free moment that I have.
Sometimes, I’ll start a project. I’ll get two or three weeks into it, and it just turns out, you know it, I’m not engaged in it. It’s not as fun as I thought it was going to be, and you set aside. But you learn from it. Every time you work on these little sketches, as I call them, you’re refining your design aesthetic.
And every once in a while, you’ll hit on a design that works, and then here we are at GDC being recognized for our idea.
Interviewer: Once you put a sketch down, do you just come back to it a year or two later, or how does that work?
David: That’s happened occasionally. I have some ideas that man, I’d really like to work on, but I don’t quite have the right team or the right budget. So, yeah, you kind of go back and forth, and when the time’s right an idea will be developed.
Interviewer: And what suggestions do you have for other smaller game developers or experimental game developers that do want to focus on games as art or being more innovative?
David: I just think partly it’s being open minded. There are really excellent triple A titles out there in mainstream games, and that’s all well and good. But I think if you want to be indie and you want to be more into the experimental games, you should, maybe, turn off the console every once in a while and figure out what’s important to you in terms of gaming and just follow your own instincts.
Interviewer: And where do you see gaming going then in the next five or ten years? You said you teach at DeVry. Maybe, it’s teaching game design or something else like that. So, where do you feel games are going, and what’s the potential?
David: I think games are going to get smaller, more portable and more intimate. I think if you look at massively multiplayer online games and something like World of Warcraft and how many millions of users you have on there, it’s a very impersonal experience. Even though it’s a social game, it’s very impersonal.
So, I think what you’re going to see is games scale back. You’re going to see them more on mobile devices. There will be smaller, more manageable teams. And they’ll be more intimate in the sense that you’ll, maybe, interact with just a few people instead of thousands or hundreds, or maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part and I’m completely off base. Maybe, that’s an ideal world, maybe.
Interviewer: Are you looking into mobile games? Is that a design space that you find compelling or interesting, or are you still focusing on mainly, say, the puzzle space online or the desktop PC space?
David: I’m really open to anything, but very recently I’ve been curious about developing for mobile games, Android, maybe, iPhone. I don’t know.
Interviewer: And where can people find out more information about your game and check it out?
David: You can visit our website. It’s www.badpilcrow.com. That’s B-A-D-P-I-L-C-R-O-W.com.
Interviewer: Thank you very much.