The Solitary Creativity of Pixel

By Christian Nutt

[An extensive interview with Cave Story developer Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya, in which he expounds on his inspirations, creative philosophy, and the thoughts and feelings which lead him to develop the 2004 indie game and, later, to work to have it ported to multiple platforms.]

Daisuke Amaya, also known as "Pixel," was a frontrunner of the indie game movement when he released his underground exploration game Cave Story as freeware in 2004. Since that time, it has been ported to the Nintendo DSi and Wii as downloadable titles, and is on its way to the 3DS in a new version.

The game is being published by NIS America. The development is overseen by Nicalis, headed up by Tyrone Rodriguez -- the same man who helped Amaya bring the game to other Nintendo platforms, and in fact convinced him of the viability of publishing the game at all. Rodriguez is also working with indie team Nigoro on a WiiWare version of its platformer La Mulana.

This extensive interview with Pixel is a look back at the creative process that led to Cave Story -- an exploration of the sensibilities of a developer who, when he started, wanted nothing more than to show his love for a certain kind of game, and how that mentality has evolved over time.

What was the decision that led you to want to bring Cave Story to the 3DS?

Daisuke Amaya: The main reason is to get back to my roots, to what the original was about, and what I wanted to express, and I thought it was possible on the 3DS. Also, by completely updating the graphics, I wanted to make something completely new, as well.

Regarding the music, I wanted to make it very close -- actually the same -- as the original PC version, but at the same time I wanted to make something completely new that would fit the new 3D world.

So is this essentially the same game with the new additions? How different is it from the PC version and what we've seen before on WiiWare?

DA: It is a port, in essence, but there are a lot of new features to it. For example, the graphics are completely new and were created from the ground up. The additional stuff found in the WiiWare version is all included.

You've had a long journey with this game. Originally, it was created as a freeware PC download, and now it's come all the way to the point where it's being produced as a physical cartridge. It's been quite an evolution of this game since you originally came up with it. What are your thoughts?

DA: It's just a lot of things. I couldn't even have imagined it before. The type of games I like are the retro types of games. But through releasing it on consoles such as the WiiWare and seeing so many people enjoy it as well, I'm just very, very surprised. There are just so many things I didn't know would happen.

When you originally made the game for the first time, on PC, why did you make the game originally?

DA: Because I like those types of games.

Were you interested in finding an audience for it, or was the act of creation just the purpose of making it?

DA: In the beginning, I made it just to make it; but then I have a friend who's very strict when it comes to games. When I showed it to him, he criticized me -- "This part is not fun" or "This part is like that."

So the total years spent in creating Cave Story was five years, out of which two years was me just creating it -- but I scrapped what I had created. The rest was spent trying to get the audience to like what I had created. That's why the games that I make are something that I want people to enjoy rather than my creating just to create.

When you made this game, not even taking into account that you didn't have a purpose for other people to play it, there wasn't really a way to distribute it to other people. Now that it seems like the kind of game you made is much more popular, there's many more ways to get it to people. Did it surprise you that this kind of thing became more prevalent over the years?

DA: I'm surprised that there are various ways to distribute it, but I'm not very into sales, or how things are sold. That kind of question's more for Tyrone [Rodriguez, founder of Nicalis, the game's publisher on WiiWare and DSiWare.]

Are you happy, though, that you can make this kind of connection more easily? Are you happy that more games like this are kind of cropping up because of that?

DA: I'm very happy for that. In terms of distribution methods, file size was something that I really cared about -- whether it be resolution size, the size of the files, I wanted to make sure that as many people play it as possible. That's why the system requirements were very low; it was something I cared about deeply. I want many people to play my game.

So now more people can play it on 3DS. Does that make you happy as well?

DA: I'm so happy that it's beyond my capacity to explain it.

When you started out, there weren't very many people making games like this, but now there's an indie game movement. Do you consider yourself a part of that? Do you monitor that? Do you speak to any other developers either in Japan, or outside of Japan?

DA: In Japan, I'm talking to this company called Nigoro -- that's mainly for my distribution. Yes, I do believe I am part of the indie game movement. In the past there was a lot of programming knowledge required to actually make games, but now that computers are a lot better and a lot faster, it becomes a lot easier to create these types of retro games, so I would very much like to see more of them come out. But in terms of Cave Story 3D, I don't really think that it fits the bill as one of those retro games or old-style games.

You're hooking up with a publisher and putting it on a cartridge; that's a big change, right?

DA: I'm very excited about it.

In America, a lot of indie developers talk behind the scenes for creative inspiration, show each other their games, or are just friends. Do you have that kind of relationship with them or with anyone, or do you just sort of work on your own?

DA: In terms of talking about how games are to be made, I have a very close friend called Nao Ueda, and we always talk about how games are to be made, and how they should be. We exchange a lot of ideas.

Tyrone just mentioned to me that's he's the same guy who showed you what was wrong with Cave Story, originally?

DA: Yes. (Laughs)

And he's making games now, too?

DA: He is a total programmer, not actually a game developer. I'm a game developer, and I just know the bare basics to create games. Nao Ueda, on the other hand, is actually experimenting with Kinect, and he actually uploaded a lot of videos with regard to technical aspects. I, on the other hand, like creating games as games.

What games were your influences, or what drove you to want to create this game originally, besides just wanting to see this game? Do you have any influences that you can mention?

DA: There's actually so many that I can't even name, but throughout interviews I would usually just say: Metroid.

(Laughs) That makes sense. Now that games like this are becoming more popular and more prevalent, do you actually play any of the other retro-style download games that have been released?

DA: I don't really buy many games because I don't have that much time to play them, but I do play Silent Hill and Earth Defense Force.

Are you personally working directly on this project?

Tyrone Rodriguez: We're working probably on the same level. I don't do any programming; I don't necessarily do any design or any actual art, but he oversees literally everything. Even the detail on the WiiWare version, he was going over everything. It's even moreso for this.

We'll start with concept artwork, and the concept artwork will go directly to him. He'll write down -- we have some stuff that's pretty cool because we have stuff that's scribbled in Japanese: "Change this, change this, change this." It goes back to our concept artist and then back and forth a few times before we even go into 3D.

I think, since he's used to working on his own, this is probably a different concept to him because, working on your own, you're doing everything. Now, he has a whole team that's working on stuff. I guess, if I have to answer the question for him, he's probably doing more work than I am. (laughs)

Have you given thought to what you want to work on next, or are you content to work on Cave Story and bring it to new platforms?

DA: I have a lot of ideas, but then there's nothing really definite at the moment.

I think of Cave Story as sort of the first -- I'm sure it wasn't, literally -- the first indie game. It was the first time I just downloaded a random game off the internet and just tried it, ever.

TR: How did you find out about it?

I don't even remember. That was years ago.

TR: It's been a long time. It's been over ten years since he started working on it! It's kind of scary.

DA: Thank you so much.

So is this what you do as a full-time job right now?

DA: I actually work for a printing systems company as a programmer, and I have to find my own time to come and work with Tyrone for this project. I talked it over with the president of the company I work at, and I explained to him my circumstance. I work at home a lot of the time. So I'm a half-on-the-job salaryman.

Do you aspire to be a full-time game developer?

DA: I do.

Do you have a plan to make it happen?

DA: I'm still thinking about it.

(Laughs) Didn't the Nigoro guys go full-time?

DA: I haven't thought about actually going to a company to work. If I have to do it, I would rather just do it on my own.

You see that a lot in the West; you see people doing that more and more -- starting up development of games, doing it on their own, and selling it to Xbox Live or PlayStation Network or WiiWare or whatever.

DA: Yeah, probably something like that, I think.

TR: He didn't think he could before. He didn't think there was enough interest in his games.

When you released the game for WiiWare, what were you expecting in terms of recognition, sales, and that kind of stuff? What did you get? Was it more, or was it less?

DA: In regards to expectations, I was very unsure about a lot of things; but by selling it on DS or WiiWare or all the other distribution methods, people with or without computers will now be able to play it. I am just very happy that I will now receive feedback from those people.

What about reviews? Did the game get reviewed a lot, and were you able to see what people had to say about it?

DA: In regards to the American and European sites that talk about WiiWare or DSiWare, I can't really read English, so I don't really see them. But seeing sites that have rankings on them and seeing my game that high up -- I'm very happy to see that.

It seems like it's your time now. You were ahead of your time, and now could be your time to actually catch and ride the wave of what's happening.

DA: I also think so, but it's not like I'm creating the wave or anything. It's the game itself that has that wave, and I'm riding on top of it.

Do you think that it'll take you five years next time to make a game?

DA: It did take me five years to create the original Cave Story, but then I wasn't working on it full-time. In actual work time, it was more like two years. I was also doing it alone.

TR: And if he wants to now, he has help. (Laughs)

I know you don't really watch the games industry right now, it sounds like, but it does seem like you're hitting it at the right time to now make this happen.

DA: I also think that it is a very nice time that the 3DS would come out, at this period in time.

Are you interested in the 3DS particularly?

DA: In old 3D games, or anything like that, there is the perception of depth, but then the actual distance can't be gauged. You try to move this amount, but it's actually always trial and error. With the 3DS, at least in theory, you should be able to get a very accurate depth perception, and I'm really looking forward to seeing that happen, and seeing how that's going to be implemented. There have been a lot of concepts and ideas for 3D games in the past, but not with this hardware. They can actually start all over again, and use the ideas in the past, which can be made again.

I feel the same way as you do, or maybe similarly, in the sense that I always felt that with new games pushing forward, we never quite got everything we could out of the ideas from the old games before moving on.

DA: There have been a lot of games in the past where the ideas were all there, but then they weren't able to do it technically. Now, a lot of the big companies are putting a lot of their efforts into the actual creation of games, but a lot of their focus primarily goes into the visual parts of it. Their styles haven't changed at all; it's just that they're creating what they always wanted to do in the past.

It's interesting also that you chose to do a 2D game on the 3DS. It's a little ironic, isn't it?

DA: Yes. (Laughs)

If you look at the kind of indie games that are coming out now, you see people who are, I think, looking back and saying, "We like this stuff. We didn't want to let go of it." I don't know if you've seen Super Meat Boy, for example -- and when the Nigoro guys obviously started out they wanted to make a new MSX game, essentially.

DA: I just think that those types of games are very easy to understand. It's not complex, so it's more for everyone.

It can be quite challenging, though. I think that it requires a certain literacy of knowing what came before. These games, I think, mostly will be played by people who miss old games, not by average people.

DA: I do think so, partially, but at the same time there are a lot of people that purchased Cave Story via WiiWare, which also means that young people are buying it and liking it. So there is hope that you don't really need prior knowledge of those old games to actually enjoy what we have now.

Cave Story is about exploring a cave system alone. Is there any connection there between the theme of the game and the way you made it, by yourself?

DA: It doesn't really have anything to do with that. But I want players to project themselves onto the main character; that's why I made it a single character. If there were multiple characters, you wouldn't know which one to relate to. That's also partially why the main character has amnesia, and doesn't know anything, or remember anything. He has no idea of the world setting, either. That's how I want the player to synchronize with the actual character in the game that you control.

For the original PC version, did you every single element yourself, including all the programming, all the art, and music?

DA: Yes. Everything, I wrote myself.

So how did you decide all of those aesthetic elements? Usually it's multiple people. Even in an indie project, you probably wouldn't have someone do every single thing. How did you decide them? Was it based on your capabilities, or was it based on your personal taste?

DA: Everything that I did was step-by-step. I started with Point A, then moved on to the next point, thought to myself whether it was good or not, and then moved onto the next one, little by little.

When you were making decisions, was it more about whether it was good, or whether it fit your idea of what you wanted? Was it more about getting something that worked in the context of the game you were making?

DA: It's everything that I like; whether it fits the world or not is secondary, and comes after I decide. That's why there are so many different elements to those caves. I really like how the fans see all of those different elements and reconstruct a world for themselves.

It's funny because there's sort of multiple schools of thought about what games should be -- how much the developer gives the player a ride, versus how much the player can bring to the game and sort of bring themselves into it.

DA: I think it's extremely important that players guide themselves because, ultimately, it is something the player should do. Personally, I prefer, instead of going to a park to play, I would rather go to ruins to play. Because you can think, feel, and search, for yourself, your own way to play.

I interviewed Yuji Hori, the creator of Dragon Quest, and I asked him a similar question. He said that Dragon Quest is like climbing a mountain, and when you get to the top of the mountain you can see the beautiful view. It's interesting for you to say that your philosophy is like exploring ruins.

DA: I actually think that the mountain climbing idea very accurate, also.

For example, in commercials, they always show the best parts, and I think that's really bad. I like it when you play through the game and learn things piece-by-piece, and that's very important. There's things like the gameplay system that you just learn it as you go along. I think that games that require tutorials that tell you: "Okay, you do this, and you do that" -- those are actually really bad.

But in terms of Cave Story, similar types of games had already appeared by the time that it was out, so everyone already knew how to play it, because there are so many similar games around; you don't really need a tutorial to actually know how to play it.

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