Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2007
entrants, today’s interview is with Jonathon Mak of Queasy Games, developer of Everyday Shooter
Mak is a Canadian programmer and artist who notes that, due to his shyness, he prefers to express himself via music and gaming. Everyday Shooter
has previously been exhibited at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at the 2006 Game Developers Conference, where Mak introduced the game’s hook – it’s more like a compilation album, made up of different shooters inspired by anything from games like Warning Forever
and Every Extend
to the film Porco Rosso
, and Mak’s “old childhood memory of worms emerging during rainfall”. Mak describes the game as “a music album except instead of it being a collection of songs, it's a collection of shooters.”
We caught up with Mak via email to discuss the game, his entry into the IGF, and the title’s organic approach to sounds and visuals.
What is your background in the games industry?
Well, I don't really consider myself in the industry but I've been making games since maybe '96. Those games are pretty embarrassing though, so I don't make them public.
Right now, I work part time with someone in the States on a more mainstream-y game. The other part of my time is completely devoted to personal projects like Everyday Shooter
When was Queasy Games formed, and what previous titles have you released?
As a kid, I started calling myself "Queasy Games" back in '96, but in terms of what's shown on the site, I guess it started in 2004 with the release of Gate 88
Recently, I took part in the three-day Toronto Indie Game Jam
in which I wrote a game called Bubble Thing
. I wrote it as sort of a single for Everyday Shooter
but it's not nearly as cool I think.
What inspired the game, and why did you decide to make it?
After working on Gate 88
, I realized that I only knew how to make video games from a purely technical standpoint. Gate 88
was a complicated mess of rules and controls, duct taped together using a design philosophy that was either non-existent, or extremely confused with itself. For my next project I wanted to do the exact opposite of this: simplify!
At that time, one of the simplest games out there was Every Extend
. It made me completely obsessed with chain-reaction style games. I absolutely love how one well placed action from the player would result in a symphony of feedback. For several months, I tried to make these types of games, but I couldn't do it! Finally, in a midst of curses and other vulgar profanities, I decided to just clone Every Extend
for the purposes of learning.
Shortly after that, I veered off the road and discovered many other ways to make chain-reactions.
Why did you choose to release a collection of games, rather than one particular type?
It all started when my friend emailed me daily, exclaiming ‘Jon, you have to play Lumines
! It's sooo good! Argh!’ Eventually I gave in. I went over to his place and checked it out. It's sooo good! Argh! Afterwards, he forced me to take his PSP and Lumines
game home so I could continue to play it -- one month of my life I'll never get back.
The thing I loved about Lumines
was how each skin was like a completely different unit of the entire package. Yet each skin was very much related to one another. It's just like a music album! But, I wanted to follow this album analogy beyond looks and sounds. I wanted to make separate games just like how an album is made of separate songs.
It wasn't hard to think of a common thread that would link each of the games. As I mentioned before, I desperately wanted to simplify, so why not take the most archetypal video game and make a bunch of those? For me, that would be the shoot-em-up.
What inspired the organic feel of some of the levels?
I'm not really sure how to answer this one because there were so many inspirations that could have contributed to the organic-ness of the game. I guess it came about after playing a bunch of vector style games and not being satisfied with the visuals. I mean, a lot of the games captured the inherent sexiness of geometric shapes, but for me, vector graphics can be much less cold and rigid. It's about the dynamics of the shapes, modulating the vertices, and gently morphing them into non-shapes. The idea is sort of like how a sound synthesizer breathes life and warmth into simple, mathematical waveforms to create wonderful sounds.
Speaking of sounds, I also like the idea of chance in music and everyday soundscapes. I mean things like listening to children playing in the school yard (chatter and giggles punctuated by shrieks and exclamations), the left and right window wipers on buses that weave in and out of phase, and the old style Chinese dim sum restaurants where they still push the cart (general chatter punctuated by announcements of which items are in the cart). You'd think that these soundscapes are entirely random but they're not. For instance, in a dim sum restaurant, the cart pushers don't just call out the items at random. First of all, the cart comes out at the rate the kitchen produces food. Second of all, they only call out items when they're not serving. Third of all, the names they call out depend on what the kitchen has made, which depends on the time of day. In other words, there exists an order in which things occur, but the order is not clear. It lacks the rigidity of a mathematical formula.
In the game, all the sound effects are notes from the song or guitar riffs, and none of it is beat synced. Despite this, the soundscape doesn't turn out to be some sort of random mess. This is because, much like everyday soundscapes, there is an order to the way sounds are triggered, and the order is directly correlated with the game. If you shoot one type of enemy, it plays one type of riff. If you shoot another type of enemy, it plays another riff. And if you shoot nothing, then no sound will play. So there is a lack of rigidity, which makes the soundscape more organic.
I guess those two things were the driving factors behind inspiring an organic feel.
The music is particularly interesting as well - how did the idea for that come about?
You mean how the sounds are all guitar riffs? The idea of making sound effects melodic and musical was heavily inspired by Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint
. In his work, Reich combines over ten
guitar parts into one of the most beautiful web of melodies I've ever heard. For many years, I've been trying to figure out a way to even approach that style of music. I thought that having melodic sound effects would be a good stepping stone to finding that aesthetic since sound effects trigger often and thus, create a web of melodies.
Originally I planned to make these sound effects using a synthesizer. So, one guitar for the song, and synths for effects. But somehow it felt very limiting, probably because I'm not a very good sound programmer. Then I remembered the theme of the game: simplify! The answer seemed obvious then. Ditch everything but the guitar.
As for the songs themselves, I don't think there's anything particularly special about them. I guess they're probably influenced by a lot of indie rock, but they really mean nothing if they're taken out of the context of the game.
What were your expectations from your game, and do you feel the end product lives up to those expectations?
Because I was so upset about the way Gate 88
turned out, I just wanted to make a game that I personally liked. Along the way, I hoped to educate myself about the fundamentals of video games (via the shoot-em-up). Everyday Shooter
is the first game I've ever made that I'm proud of on a level beyond technical engineering. And through it, I think I actually did learn something beyond how to use a new piece of technology. So, yeah!
What do you think the most interesting thing about your game is?
Yikes! Umm, I don't really know…I guess I really like how the game is constantly trying to react to your actions. I feel it gives the game a sort of life or personality. Also, I'm pleased with the way some of the chaining systems worked out.
I feel like I should be asking you
How long did development take?
Although I started working on a new game right after Gate 88
's last release in spring 2005, Everyday Shooter
, as it is today, was not born till October 2005. Since then I've been working on it about three days a week. The other four days are spent trying to pay the bills.
What was the development process like?
Liberating! Because the technology of the game is so simple, I was able to focus entirely on the creative aspects of the game. A lot of time was spent making different enemies react in different ways and then throwing out that code in favour of new ideas. It was a very fluid process in terms of going from idea to realization.
For the most part, the levels were made one after another in chronological order. Sometimes the level is inspired by the song, and sometimes vice-versa. I mean to use "inspired" very loosely though, because it's such an abstract thing. How does a song inspire a game? Maybe it's just a coincidence?
Sound effects, the majority of the visuals, and tweaking are the last to go into the level. It might be surprising that sound effects are the last to go in, but I think it makes sense since the sounds are obvious given the song and the gameplay.
What do you think of the state of independent development, and how do you think independent games fit into the industry?
I'm not sure if I hold much authority in these matters but I'll give it a shot.
I think independent games' relationship with the mainstream only goes in one direction. That is, the mainstream will take sale-able ideas from the indie scene, but the indie scene will rarely borrow ideas from the mainstream. This is because mainstream industry is setup to be just that, an industry. Its objective is to sell the product, generate revenue, and create jobs. So it if it sees something sale-able in the indie-scene (or in any scene for that matter), it will take it and sell it. This is great because it drives the economy but it's not so great because it dilutes ideas for the sake of accessibility.
Indie games do not have this problem because its only concern is the idea, or more specifically, your
idea. My fear is that my idea becomes diluted and distant from what originally inspired me. That's a big problem! All the little things that inspire me is what individualizes me. It dictates what I like, what I dislike, what I think ... it makes me different from the person standing next to me. If I lose my inspiration, I lose a bit of myself. Specifically, if my work loses my inspiration, then my work loses a bit of myself.
In terms of independent development, I think it's pretty exciting. Every year, there are fewer and fewer technical barriers to creating great games. Especially with utilities like Game Maker, Multimedia Fusion, and all sorts of other programming libraries, we're starting to get more non-technology oriented people contributing to the medium. It'll be great when the technology for the medium advances to the point where people from a wide variety of backgrounds can participate. For example, in music, imagine the difference between folk music and glitchy-electronic music.
Have you checked out any of the other IGF games?
I haven't checked out many of the IGF games yet, but I noticed Gamma Bros.
was entered. That game is really awesome! I just love how it presents a sense of adventure without useless narrative or cut-scenes. Even though I've played it only for a limited amount of time, it's one of the few games that's had a lasting impression on me.
I also noticed that Derek Yu's new game, Aquaria
, was entered in the IGF. Have you seen this thing? It looks absolutely beautiful!
I didn't get a chance to play Braid
much last year at the IGF, but from what I saw of the presentation, it looked really cool. I still need to check out Golf?, Eets
, and Steam Brigade
. There's probably a whole bunch more but my backlog of games to try is pretty long now.
Which recent indie games do you admire, and what recent mainstream titles do you admire, and why?
I'm pretty behind the times, but the last indie game I played was Ray-Hound
, by the guy who did Warning Forever
[Hizoka T Ohkuba]. Although it's still an early version, I really liked it. The parry system works very well.
But before that I played this game called Mr. Blocko
which is insanely amazing! It's sorta like Tetris
in that blocks fall down on the screen and you have to make lines, but you have no direct control over the blocks. Instead, you're this guy living inside the game board and you have push blocks into openings to form lines. Now, the great part about this game is the two player mode, where there's this great back and forth feeling as you both try to be the last person to push the blocks and score the biggest points.
The only thing I disliked was how it was so easy to die towards the end. There'll be huge lulls where you can't do anything but watch your guy get killed and then spawn killed again and again. So, if anybody from Perfect Run is reading, please, PLEASE update Mr. Blocko
! I don't know how, but PLEASE!
Probably the most mainstream game that I admire is Tetris
for the original Game Boy in 1989. I don't really know why I'm so obsessed with this game. I think it might be the feeling of control you get when, despite not knowing the future – ‘when's that next 4x1 piece coming?’ - you can still be in control of the game. It's sorta like saying, ‘even though I don't know what's next in life, I still have control over it because it's my life’.
Other mainstream games that I admire are Lumines
for obvious reasons.
Do you have any messages for your fellow contestants or fans of the IGF?
Some of you guys are just too damn good! Damnit!