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Road To The IGF: Pixeljam's  Gamma Bros.

Road To The IGF: Pixeljam's Gamma Bros.

September 22, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis

September 22, 2006 | By Alistair Wallis
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More: Console/PC, Indie



Continuing Gamasutras Road to the IGF feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007 entrants, todays interview is with Rich Grillotti and Miles Tilmann of Pixeljam, developers of Flash shooter Gamma Bros.

Grillotti, a Chicago based pixel artist, worked on the game for eight months with his then-roommate, Tilmann, who programmed the game. They enlisted the help of Mark Denardo, a New York based musician, for the games sound effects and music. Of the game itself, Pixeljam comment:

Gamma Bros. is a retro-style space shooter akin to classic arcade games like Galaga, Gradius and Robotron, but with a modern twist. Help your bros get through the most dangerous commute in the galaxy!

We caught up with Grillotti and Tilmann via email to talk about the game, its development process, and the decision to develop Gamma Bros. as a Flash game.

What is your background in the games industry?

Tilmann: Gamma Bros is our first big game, so I would consider the development of that game and the unfinished games that led up to it our only actual industry experience.

Grillotti : I've loved & played video games since the Atari 2600. I used to hang out in arcades in the mall with a pocket full of quarters. I've had ideas for making games for as long as well.

When was Pixeljam formed, and what previous titles have you released?

Tilmann & Grillotti : Pixeljam Inc was formed in Dec. 2005, but we've been working on games for a couple years now. Our first complete game effort was coming along really well -- a room to room adventure game, with Robotron style gameplay, but in the end it was a bit too ambitious for a first game. We had to move on after it was only partially complete. A lot of our characters, personalities and ideas have been coming from that original game.

After that, Ratmaze was the first mini game we released, which was actually a much scaled down version of the original idea for it. Then we took a lot of time off from our regular day jobs and focused on Gamma Bros. until it was done. Now we've got some more in the works. There's more info on our game blog about some other things that came before the first unfinished game.

What inspired Gamma Bros., and why did you decide to make it?

Tilmann: I had been flash programming web applications for years as a day job. I've always had a fondness for programming games but not too many opportunities to do so. Until sometime in 2005 when it dawned on us that we had a perfect combination for making online games. My experience at flash programming, Rich's pixel art, and Mark Denardo's 8-bit music, combined with our collective love and respect of old school games. It just seemed like a natural combination.

Like Rich said, The Gamma Bros. actually made their debut in a game that we started in 2005. They were the first boss characters that you had to battle in an adventure game that we never finished. We were a little burnt out at how long the game was taking to make, so we decided to focus our efforts on a smaller, simpler game. We liked the Gamma Bros. so much, we plucked them out of that game and gave them their own adventure. Gamma Bros. was supposed to be that smaller, simpler game, but of course as development continued, we got more and more excited about the Bros. and eventually the whole thing became much bigger than the original game they came from.

For me, the real inspiration behind the story and characters was just Rich's original artwork. One day he was just plotting these little pixel characters and all of a sudden the Gamma Bros. were there. There was something special about them but we didn't know what. We liked the fact that they were real blood brothers but somewhat racially ambiguous, and that they are basically just working class guys with real problems, like making an awful commute to and from work. They arent defending entire galaxies or making any sort of epic journeys, they just want to get home to see their wives and have dinner.

Why did you decide to go for such a distinctive look for the game?

Grillotti : The character design and our pixel universe started out in the form of Art, in a series I was working on for a fashion show. Pixel model scenes. You can see them here.

It took me a while to create the most minimal pixel characters I could manage that still looked pretty. The more I made successfully, the more I wanted to see if I could make other things in this minimal way. We both agreed it would be cool to see them move around. Miles was just about at the right place in his Flash programming experience to want to try to do some game programming experiments. I made a large assortment of characters and object designs, and a few simple motion study animations. Making a video game in this style seemed very exciting and like a good idea at the time.

Tilmann: Rich had been doing pixel art for a while, so it just seemed like a natural extension of that. Mark's music lends itself to the pixel style as well. Also, we didnt really have the time or resources to make state of the art graphics, and when it comes to flash, its better to go simple. So why not go as simple as you possibly can?

We wanted to make a game where you can really relate to the characters...to establish a level of empathy that you don't get in most games. And we figured if we could make a game where you could relate to a character that is just a collection of 15 or 20 large colored squares, then that would really be an accomplishment.

Why did you decide to release the game as a free online title?

Tilmann: We had considered selling it, but we also thought we had created something pretty special, and that selling it might create a wall between us and the player. So we decided to give the game away for free, so that everyone could play it in it's entirety. We worked very hard on the game's ending, and we wanted as many people to experience it as possible. We certainly went into a huge amount of debt to make the game, but I get the feeling that eventually it will all pay off.

Grillotti : We wanted people to play it, as many people as possible without restriction. We also didn't know if it would be buggy or if it would even work at all in the end, since it was a complex brand new undertaking for just 2 people and Mark on the music side. It took the pressure off and allowed us to do it our way without thinking of it so much as a commercial endeavor. We thought we'd give this one away for free and maybe charge for future games once we found an audience, but I think we'd both like to keep our web and downloadable versions free if at all possible.

We'd also like to make a living making games so well have to figure that dilemma out - find other ways besides selling the games themselves. I wouldn't mind charging small amounts for mobile phone games, or games on a PSP or console system service like Xbox Live Arcade. I'd love to play Gamma Bros. with a real game controller. Making merchandise might wind up as a good way to support ourselves, if people are interested in t-shirts and other limited edition Pixeljam art, posters & stuff. We accept donations for support as well, but really, only a tiny handful of generous people have donated. Those donations have been very helpful in paying for things like entering the IGF competition. One step at a time I guess.

What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations?

Grillotti : We kept expectations pretty low, since it doesn't seem wise to expect much. We were more curious to see what would happen. We hoped lots of people including ourselves would have a good time. We wanted to make something that high quality and a lot of fun, something people who like this sort of thing would really enjoy. We think we did a good job with all of that. We know it's just the beginning as well, so if we are able to realize some of the games we've got in our heads, people are in store for some really good times.

Tilmann: All I expected was for people to have genuine fun playing it. The game isnt meant to break any ground, or blow you away with incredible visuals, it's just supposed to be fun, like games used to be. Judging from the response we've got from players, I think we achieved that goal.

What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is?

Tilmann: that something that looks so simple, with such a high level of visual abstraction, can be really enjoyable to play. I think Gamma Bros. proves that simple games can still be fun. I think its simplicity is one of its greatest assets.

Grillotti : The way it all works together really well. The music, the gameplay and the style. Also that it helps prove the idea that enjoyable gameplay is the most important factor, which gaming companies making new super-high-end-graphics games should remember at all times. Amazing graphics alone can't make a game fun or worth while for us to invest time and money into.

How long did development take?

Tilmann & Grillotti : About 6-8 months, with 2 people working almost full time. Mark Denardo also put in plenty of time on the music and sound FX.

What was the development process like?

Grillotti : Two guys constantly working in front of a computer. Miles and I were roommates at the time, so there was a lot of communication as we ventured through the development process. I'd design things and animate them, Miles would add them to the game, I'd get to play with it, would have input and suggestions and things would keep growing and getting better and better. The end result was definitely a product of much beta testing, step by step by both of us. We kept having to find the balance between fun, challenging & frustrating.

Tilmann: We were constantly more and more excited about the game as it took shape. And when we finally got Mark's music and sound FX in there, it took on a whole new character that got all three of us very excited.

What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry?

Grillotti : It's a good time for independent game developers. The best time ever I would say. It's all great potential. I'm happy to be a part of it and think we have a lot to add to it. I just hope people will really take their time and make quality games. There are too many games out there that aren't very good or fun.

Tilmann: As in any industry, I think the role of the indie developer is crucial, as it serves to keep the big guys in check. Music and film is the same way...we need the little guys to keep reminding us all why we started doing it in the first place.

Have you checked out any of the other IGF games?

Tilmann: A few of them. As a Mac user my options are a bit limited.

Grillotti: Not yet. I've been too busy. In the next couple months I hope to see what's in there.

Which ones are you particularly impressed with, and why?

Tilmann: The screenshots for Aquaria looked great. And Castle Crashers looks like tons of fun as well. I have a lot of respect for the Behemoth, as they really have taken the old school 2D aesthetic to an entirely new level that was never possible during the golden age of 2D.

What recent indie games do you admire, and what recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why?

Grillotti : I havent played too many, but I like Stick Figure Arena a lot. Online multiplayer with live people any time is a good thing. It's simple and fun too. For mainstream titles I like simple games like Katamari Damacy, SSX, Burnout, the GTA series -- I like games with all that freedom and so many non-essential things you can do.

I'm still influenced by old school mainstream titles a lot as well, like the Mario Bros. games, Zelda, Sonic, Atari 2600 Combat, Video Pinball,
Adventure, River Raid, Pitfall!
Why?? I'd have to think more. Probably because they're fun and interesting. The new Lego Star Wars looks awesome. I like a game with a good sense of humor that also has great gameplay. Loco Roco looks cool too.

Tilmann: I got pretty addicted to Katamari Damacy last year. Maybe that's both a mainstream and indie title? I'm also a bit of role playing game addict, and as far as that goes, I havent played much better than Jeff Vogel's Exile and Avernum series.

Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF?

Tilmann: Not much, except that Im really looking forward to meeting the developers and playing their games in San Fran next year.

Grillotti : Good luck? Maybe we'll meet at the conference if we qualify and win tickets!


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