This week, Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel -- the two employees of developer 2D Boy -- released World of Goo, the already highly-praised puzzle game shipping out via WiiWare and various PC distribution platforms including Steam.
Gamasutra caught up with Gabler and Carmel to chat about the game's development process, 2D Boy's relationship with Nintendo, and how the studio's employee structure is based on brain halves.
So do you guys have titles at a two-man company?
Kyle Gabler: Right brain. Big design, art, music, story, basically dumping emotions out.
Ron Carmel: I'm the left brain, and that's programming and production.
KG: Together we make a whole person.
Do you guys have that on your business cards? Left brain, right brain?
RC: Business falls under left brain.
So you're the only one with business cards, then?
RC: I have two, maybe three, left. I slacked on that. There were more important things.
KG: We don't need business cards.
Are you guys officially the entirety of 2D Boy?
KG: Yeah, we're just two people for the bulk of this project. We don't have an office, but we're not allowed to say that, so we just work out of coffee shops and stuff.
Late in the project, we brought in Allan Blomquist, who's this genius programmer who made everything run faster -- he's really good at low-level stuff, like making sure the correct bits get stuck in registers.
Did you guys contract anyone else out for artwork or anything?
KG: The vast majority of work is us. We had a part-time Q/A guy on board for the last few months. Allan, we've already mentioned. We don't speak Spanish, French, Italian, or German, so we had to get a translation company to do that for us.
How long was the develpment cycle? You had the IGF and all that, but how long have you actually been making the game?
KG: A year and a half? That's true, right? Approaching two years?
RC: We've been so busy we forgot to count time, so it's actually a little bit over two years now. We started in August.
KG: No! It's been four months. [laughter]
RC: No, five years. [laughter] It's just magic. It just happened one day.
How did the development process on this work? Do you guys have design documents, or is it just, "This seems like where it needs to go now"?
KG: Design documents are for suckers. It was just really, "Eh, what's fun? Let's do that."
RC: Seriously. When we came up with a concept, we're like, "All right. What are we going to start developing?" And Tower of Goo, which was the original Experimental Gameplay Project game, seemed like people were kind of relating to it in some way. So we were like, "All right. Let's try to base something off of that, " and, "How are we going to turn that into the game? Oh, let's see if we can reach some sort of exit for them to run out of."
From that point on, everything happened as like an evolutionary design. We were still adding new ideas on how to play the game and changing features up until like a month ago.
So there was never a design document. And if there was, now that the game is done is the only time that we could have written it. Things changed; we tried things; we crossed them out.
I understand you guys did all the music yourselves?
RC: It's all Kyle.
KG: Yeah, right at my computer. It's all synthesized instruments. Music is very important to me. A long time ago, I joked it's so hard to get music in games or movies. Like the only way I'm ever going to be able to write music is if I start a company, make a game, and be like, "Oh, I know a composer. It's me!" [laughs] So, that kind of happened.
Do you have any musical background?
KG: Yeah. I've written music since high school. It's just on my computer. I don't have any emotions in real life, so they have to come out in music and video games.
Dealing With Nintendo
How's it been working with Nintendo, as a developer?
RC: For us, it's been fantastic. We've got nothing but great things to say about them. For some people, that's not the typical story.
In the past, not all devs have felt that way, yeah.
RC: They've helped us out with doing a lot of PR. Obviously, being at the [Nintendo] Media Summit is great. One guy there has been fantastic. He's helped us get through the process of getting approved as a Nintendo developer and helping us rush things at the last second for the release. It's been amazing.
Is there any kind of back and forth with Nintendo? Do they have a producer on the project, or did they just trust you to make the game?
RC: They were totally hands off. They saw the demo, the first chapter demo, and they were like, "Yeah. We love it." And basically, they didn't contact us unless we asked them for something.
KG: I think one of our happiest moments was when Iwata and Miyamoto played chapter one, liked it, and said, "Hey, let's make this get on Nintendo." Childhood heroes playing your game -- it was a head-spinning moment for both of us.
I don't traditionally imagine Nintendo and Miyamoto playing, say, Western-developed indie games. It's interesting seeing them doing more of that these days.
RC: I think the only reason they did that was because the little goo balls look like those creatures from "Spirited Away," the Miyazaki film. [laughter]
They were suckered into it.
RC: And they confused us for something truly great.
KG: It looks like a Japanese game. It's colorful. It's playful.
The Goo Trend
There's also the other goo-based game, just called Goo!, that was in the same IGF.
RC: Yes. It's made by Tommy Refenes. He's fantastic. We just hung out with him this past weekend.
KG: He's really hilarious, too.
I've dealt with him online. He's written a number of crazy articles on multi-threading for us.
RC: Yeah, that'd be Tommy.
RC: Goo! is a really impressive game. It's technically marvelous.
The Electronic Arts Days
What were you doing at EA, pre-2D Boy?
KG: I was doing rapid prototyping. Basically, quickly making demo versions in like a week or two to test some new gameplay mechanics so we could find out if a game would be fun, so we don't make a game in two years and find out at the end that the game is not fun.
RC: Kyle basically had the job that every game design student dreams of. To be at a big company, get paid a salary, and come up with cool stuff.
But clearly it was not what you wanted to be doing long-term.
KG: We both just wanted to make our own game. So there's no way to do that, unless you're Kyle Gray, who made [Nintendo DS game Henry] Hatsworth [in the Puzzling Adventure] over there. So we left, and made our own.
Are you familiar with what the former Retro guys at Armature are doing with EA? They're going to be doing a lot of game prototypes and designs, then contracting development out.
RC: Yeah, I read about Armature. When I read about it, I was like, "Oh, they're taking the Experimental Gameplay Project ethos and trying to make a company out of it." I think it's a great idea.
The difficulty that I think they're going to be facing is they're going to need to have a really tight connection between their core group in house and the places they outsource the work to. They need to make sure their creative vision gets transferred properly to the people who actually produce the game.
The thing that made it great for us is it's two people. Every email is just back and forth and so we know that we have engineering and art and vision, everything. It's easy to keep everybody abreast of what's going on. I think it will be a challenge for them. I hope it works for them.
Was it strange to go from being at a company like EA to a point where every department was you guys, or was it totally natural?
KG: It was a relief! I mean, oh my God, if I want something done, I just do it. I think it helps having a small team too, because everything is really cohesive. There is a single vision as opposed to design meetings where we try to decide the color of the UI panel that pops up when you press the X button.
RC: When I worked at Pogo, I worked on small teams as well. There was a designer, artist, and programmer. So going from three to two isn't that big a deal.
The Money Issue
Did it require a lot of financial investment, or did you just start out and say, "Time to make a game, let's make a game"?
RC: The two Kyles, Kyle Gabler and Kyle Gray, gave a presentation about this.
KG: Here's my financial situation. I have $60,000 of student loans. When I left EA, I had $30,000 in the bank, so a net worth of negative $30,000. So, I guess if we can start a company with negative $30,000, then I think everyone should know that it's possible to start a company. You don't have to have money. All you have to do is be stupidly optimistic.
Do you expect to end up in the black?
RC: Our total expenditures for this game, other than like a few thousand dollars here and there in the last month of development and localization and QA and stuff like that, has been our living expenses. So, we've kind of been, sometimes metaphorically and sometimes literally, eating Top Ramen. And cheap rent and we don't have cars, so the development costs --
KG: I rarely buy new litter for my kitty litter box. [laughter]
RC: So, what it costs to make this game is the couple thousand a month that we each need to live for two years and that's about it.
Did you get any kind of advances, or is everything royalty-based?
RC: We tried to get as much in the back end as possible -- WiiWare's all back end. At some point earlier this year, we signed an agreement for a European publishing deal, and we started getting payments for an advance on that. But at that point, it was already clear that we were going to be OK in terms of going on WiiWare, so everything's going to be fine.
And that's retail in Europe?
RC: Yeah. That's the current plan, that retail is going to take it through. Had you heard about it in a negative way or a positive way?
I just heard someone mention at one point it'll be in a box when it comes out in Europe.
RC: We've caught some flak for that. Gamers were kind of annoyed. Apparently, we had no idea about this, but European gamers often feel like they're getting screwed, because games arrive late and cost more.
When you guys were approaching Nintendo or when they approached you, were you looking at Live Arcade or PlayStation Network or anything? Or did this just kind of happen?
KG: This kind of game would never work on PSN or PlayStation at all. Not at all. We need the pointers. That's why it's on PC.
It's nice that you got the PC release simultaneous.
RC: Yes, same day. A little terrifying. [laughter]
Any idea what is coming next now that you're basically done with this?
RC: My answer is that I want to get bored, because I haven't been bored in a year. I've just been working too much, so I want to just do nothing until I'm bored.
KG: We hope people like it. My biggest fear right now is that we have no marketing budget. I just want people to know and play it. That would make me so happy.
RC: Tell your friends about it. It's the only thing we can bank on. [laughter]