Next year, The Odd Gentlemen will release its debut game, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, on Xbox Live Arcade. To be published by 2K Games, it's an indie title that has its roots in the same University of Southern California interactive media program that birthed thatgamecompany, developers of flOw and Flower.
The pie-collecting puzzler's mechanics hinge significantly on a twist: players may record moves and then set a clone to consistently repeat that action, a new take on time-bending gameplay in a climate very favorable to it.
Here, co-founders Paul Bellezza (producer) and Matt Korba (creative director and lead designer) talk about inspiration, the increasing artistic and commercial success of indie games, and just who their audience might really be -- among other topics.
Why do you think there's been so much interest and use of time mechanics recently?
PB: I think there's just a time zeitgeist going on in the indie community. When we started this game, there was really nothing out. There was Prince of Persia and there's Blinx. And over the last few years, we've seen this other stuff come out and try different things in their own different way.
I think there are just cycles that everyone goes through. People realize, "Oh, we have the technology now to record these things and play them off in different way, and it's not too complex," so everyone plays with that. And I think with a lot of people working in Flash and stuff like that, it's pretty easy to sort of grab a concept, prototype it out, and put it on the web.
I think there's going to be whatever the next big thing is, and once people realize that's popular, everyone's going to want to try to jump in there and shape it their own way, too. It's been an interesting road watching all these time games come out and looking at our game and being like, "Okay, well I still think this is very different and moving in a different way." So, overall, it's been a good thing. But yeah, it's kind of crazy.
With this kind of time mechanic, how well can you actually control the experience and what people are going to do?
MK: It's extremely hard. If you imagine trying to design a level where not only can the user clone themselves as many times as they want and go wherever they want, it's very hard to think about things seven steps in advance. Most players only think of things one step ahead.
We thought about it like chess. Most players, they can think one step ahead, so we designed the game to be like that, but you can do eight steps ahead and all that stuff.
We got really good about thinking like, "Well, if someone does this, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens..."
It's extremely challenging to make it feel challenging and rewarding when the player has all these options and can do all these things, then still try to rein that in and make it a playground experience -- but still a challenging sort of puzzle. Our biggest breakthrough was when we came up with the ideas of the puzzles that didn't have a really set solution. That was the coolest part for us, seeing all these people do it in a different way.
Did you find yourself trying to or trying not to create puzzles that required eight steps?
MK: No. There are no puzzles in the game that should require more than one step. If you can think more than one step ahead, that only helps you out, but if you can't, we very much designed it to give the player a feeling that they are doing things eight steps ahead or whatever -- when really you would only have to take a step ahead.
Flash has been evolving into 3D and in other ways. Do you see that in any way necessary or particularly interesting? It's been a really good prototyping tool in 2D, but I don't know if 3D has quite the same capability.
MK: It really depends on how accessible the 3D is. I think a lot of the reason you see these cool innovative games in a 2D form is not necessarily -- although in some cases it might be -- because people wanted to make a platformer. It's just if you don't have an engineering team, the easiest thing to do is take a really cool idea and mechanic and put it on a platformer.
We started out with Winterbottom like that, but then we ended up staying like that because there were just a lot of things that just wouldn't work in 3D. There were a lot of concepts about actually watching things loop and remember what they do, and in 3D space, it's a lot harder to even recognize your motion anymore.
More indie games are coming out in the commercial sphere and making an impression. Why do you think that is -- both from the creation side and also from the consumer acceptance side?
MK: I think people are sick of space marines. I think that we've had a long time of this whole like -- and it's still happening -- "Let's get to photoreal. Let's push the photoreal thing." Starting with the PlayStation 1, we've had this huge move away from the cooler Genesis, small-man teams, "Let's do all this crazy stuff", to "Let's make real. People are paying for technology."
I think people are just ready for a change. From the consumer point, I think that they've played a lot of shooters recently, a lot of action games. They're really just ready for something new. I think the IGF two years ago... you started seeing these crazy things coming out, and getting a lot of press, and getting all this attention. I think it's just the right time for a lot of this stuff to happen.
From a developer's side, I think people just have ideas, and we can pull them off now. Because of Xbox Live, because of these channels, they're not a huge risk. We can create these things and make a living and play around with the stuff that we, as artists, want to play around with. I think also from the publisher's standpoint, now with these channels, it's commercially viable.
You can test out an IP there, right? You can grow it into that big tech monster $30 million game, but if it doesn't work on the small scale, it won't work on a big scale. Maybe that's how they're looking at it -- I don't know. I think that the beauty of online distribution is you don't have to pay all the costs of goods anymore. You don’t have to pay to print all these CDs. It really just helps us all out. The stars are sort of aligned, I think.
MK: I think really because of digital distribution and just because of better tools that are available... Like, a lot of people make a lot of games in Game Maker now. Before, there weren't any engines... Especially [developers] like the TIGSource community. Kids couldn't just make a game. Now, there are a lot of tools that let people do that, so people can get really creative. I think over the past couple of years, you see these developers in the online space, just teaching themselves how to code and putting as much shit out there.
Of course, in doing that, the only way you're going to get better at something is doing it over and over again. People have been able to actually take ideas and actually execute them and make something. Because of that and digital distribution, you're going to see a lot more crazy shit. People want it. We all want it. We're all bored as shit with all the major games for the most part. So, it's a great time right now.
I recently spoke to Spelunky creator Derek Yu about game vignettes that are being made now that are just going for a certain emotional tone. If you've got one thing to say, you can actually say it in a five to ten minute game.
MK: That's the other thing that I'm sort of just remembering now. People are tired of 80-hour games. The people like us, like Paul, myself, and everybody else, we grew up playing games but we don't have time to play 80-hour games anymore. So, I think the other thing about these indie experiences and these vignettes is you get something that's really good and really satisfying in a short amount of time. That's really all we have time for.
If we play like the 80-hour epic game, maybe we get a few levels into it or a few hours into it, and then we're done. But these shorter games or these little experiences, that's great. I can sit down, play one in a night, and then be done with it and still be thinking about it the next day or whatever.
PB: It's like they get really impactful in 10 seconds, whereas you might play a Final Fantasy game, and you don't give a shit until the eighth hour mark. That's when it really connects to you. Who needs that? Exactly like you said, you can make a poignant, small experience that gets to the core of what you want to feel and experience it. It's wonderful.
Before, it's like you were willing to give that investment because there weren't other places to go where you could get that kind of stuff. Every game was like that. "Oh, it takes about three or four hours to get into it. You get through the tutorial, and you're fine." Fuck that. You can get the games that hit you in the head with it the minute you turn it on. That's awesome.
It's been interesting watching people actually play your game because it's attracting such a diverse audience. With these kinds of distribution platforms, you can actually introduce new people to your ideas.
MK: That's the thing, too. I think a lot of these people would really love these games and like these games. They just need to be exposed to them. We have all these stereotypes like, "Oh, fraternity brothers. Madden. Guitar Hero. That's all they care about." But really, is that all they care about or is that all they've been exposed to?
I know when I was teaching a game design course to high school kids from around the country at USC, and this was maybe two or three years ago, those kids hadn't even heard about Kotaku yet. And we do a lot of assuming that all these people get their news like we do, that they go online and read this thing, but I think there are a lot of kids that still just go to Wal-Mart and pick out their games. So, it's like, "Are they really like the stereotype or do they just need to be exposed to something different?"
How was the transition from student game to getting to where you can sell it as a commercial product?
MK: We got pretty lucky. We had the game at IGF and did very well. We went on to do all the festivals, Indiecade, Wired's NextFest, Tokyo Game Show. Basically, if there was a festival that year, we submitted and got in. We ended up with a lot of eyeballs on us.
We got a lot of pitches from a lot of different publishers. We went around and pretty much met with everybody. Everybody loved the game and had their own plans for what they wanted to do with it, but we ended up going with 2K because they really seemed like they got it. It was like, "Yeah, we need to just set these guys up and leave them alone." They knew that the best work would come out of "seeing if they were just able to do the stuff that they care about the most".
For someone to understand that on the publisher side was a big deal. So, we worked out something with them. We got our company started. Basically, right after graduating, we had a little bit of time, and then we went from graduating and working on the game in the basement to having our own company and working with employees. That was...
PB: [laughs] A good interesting learning experience together. We had to set that all up. It was pretty fucking stressful.
MK: There was a lot of stuff that transfers from "Hey, we made this game" as students, to "Hey, we want to keep that closer." There a lot of stuff that's just totally different. It's not cool anymore to work on the game at three in the morning and sleep until the next day and wake up whenever you want.
When you have people that you have to work with on a schedule, you all need to communicate and have set hours. It was a huge adjustment period, taking the stuff that worked really well in a student environment and realizing, "Hey, that's not really valid anymore. This is another beast altogether."
What did you do about a business guy?
MK: Paul and I had to learn.
PB: Yeah, basically a lot of Wikipedia. A lot of talking to people who started their own business. A lot of advice and a lot of winging it.
MK: Meetings with [thatgamecompany's] Kellee [Santiago].
PB: Yeah, we met with Kellee a lot. Actually, she was really a good sounding board for us.
MK: Pretty much anybody that we could talk to, we would talk to. The thing is it's kind of a weird thing because there's not that many people in the same situation going from school... There are a handful of people. We definitely talked to those people that were in the same boat.
We tried to just get advice from as many people as we could. We did a lot of reading. We made a lot of mistakes. The best way to learn is just to do it. So, we were just doing it, and we were constantly making mistakes and trying to fix them. And frantically trying to get everything together for our opening day of the company was really just... Just simple things like trying to open a company bank account. You just don't think about what the means exactly. And insurance, and all that kind of stuff.
Does it take time away from doing the things that are more creative?
PB: Always. You have no free time because when you're not doing your critical path and working on the game, it's juggling all the other stuff. I'll come in and 7:30, and I'll spend an hour and a half doing just basic business shit, like making sure payroll [is sorted out] and make sure the budget is actually balanced, to make sure we survive.
If I don't spend that time doing it, it gets lost behind and it gets super, super stressful. I had to get really disciplined, just making it happen. If it gets neglected, it's really hurtful, so it just has to be done.