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Q&A: Twisted Pixel's Wilford On Being Swallowed By  The Maw
Q&A: Twisted Pixel's Wilford On Being Swallowed By The Maw
July 9, 2008 | By Mathew Kumar

July 9, 2008 | By Mathew Kumar
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Independent developer Twisted Pixel was founded in 2006 by game industry veterans, Michael Wilford, Frank Wilson and Josh Bear, and according to its creators, was one of the new breed of indies created "explicitly to pursue digital distribution."

Since working on 'work for hire' projects for companies including Midway (working on NBA Ballers: Chosen One and the upcoming Blitz: The League 2) the company recently announced that it has several original IP projects under development for console digital distribution.

These include the recent announcement of action-adventure Xbox Live Arcade game The Maw, which features an alien called Frank that teams up with The Maw, a "cute little blob with an insatiable hunger", wand will have a soundtrack from composer Winifred Phillips (God of War, Speed Racer).

In this interview, Gamasutra talks to CEO Michael Wilford about the company's philosophy for "broad appeal" games that don't alienate the core gamer; working both work-for-hire and on original IP; and thoughts on the future of digital distribution.

How big are you now?

Michael Wilford: We have eleven full-time employees and four part-time. We're growing fast, but our ideal size is 20-25 people.

What's the company philosophy?

MW: Two things. First, we want to make the absolute best games for digital distribution. I think there are a lot of assumptions about what a downloadable game has to be, and how much content it can have. We want to shatter those expectations.

What would you say these assumptions are?

MW: That downloadable games have to be small. To a lot of people that means downloadable games have lightweight content, minimal story, low quality music, reduced texture quality, limited animations, etc. Those things are not necessary for a great downloadable game, but they are not impossible either.

For example, another announcement we're making is that Winifred Phillips, an award-winning composer behind God of War, is scoring our game. Not only do we have a high quality, professionally composed soundtrack, but the music is actually interactive because we worked with Winifred to score moments in the game, not just a simple track that loops forever on each level. We're finding ways to do things like this while staying within the file size limitations and within our development budget.

Also, we want everyone to play our games. Some companies think 'broad appeal' means giving up on the core gamer in order to hit the growing 'casual' audience. There's no reason why a game can't be good enough, thought out enough, and polished enough to be appealing to all types of players. My sister and I used to fight over the Genesis controller for a turn at Aladdin.

So how do you go for broad appeal without alienating the core gamer?

MW: Uno on XBLA is a great illustration of my point. It's a simple implementation of one of the simplest card games ever conceived, but there's enough polish and quality craftsmanship there to make it attractive to even hardcore Halo fans.

Basically, I'd rather play a simple game with lots of polish and compelling presentation over a poorly implemented game in my genre-of-choice any day. If you think carefully from the start about making your game accessible, and plan ahead enough for polish and presentation, then you can make games that appeal to everyone.

Twisted Pixel worked on NBA Ballers: Chosen One with Midway. What part did you play?

MW: We did work-for-hire engineering. Chosen One is the first Ballers on the new generation of consoles, so it had a lot of new features and upgrades. Midway asked us to take ownership of certain features so that they could focus on other areas of the game.

Story Mode is a major part of the new Ballers and we did all the programming work on it, plus implemented achievements for the Xbox 360 version, and handling all sign-in and sign-out logic for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. We also added support for FMV's, 16:9 aspect ratio, and some other features.

What are you working on now?

MW: We're currently involved in two projects. The first is Blitz: The League 2, where we're providing additional engineering support in the same way as Ballers.

The other is our first original IP title that we are bringing to Xbox Live Arcade. It's called The Maw, and it will be a "full scope" single-player title with lots of personality.

Why original IP?

MW: I'm actually surprised at how much interest there is from publishers in original IP these days. There has been a lot of complaining that publishers are only looking for the next sequel or licensed cash in, but you won't hear that from us. We're getting a lot of interest.

Is there a difficulty in creating a team or studio that works on contract work as well as original IP?

MW: This isn't as much of an issue as you might think. Everyone at the company gets the opportunity to flex their creativity on a regular basis. Plus, we have a very experienced team, and any veteran game developer will tell you that the most important thing is working with great people.

You've also chosen to create your original IP for digital distributionů

MW: We believe it is the future of entertainment distribution. The first thing it does is cut out the middle man, allowing us to increase value to consumers. Second, it opens the door to things like downloadable content, episodic content, community feedback and interaction. It's just not practical to consider those things in the retail space, at least not to the extent that we're considering them.

Yeah -- I notice you mentioned a hope to "deliver weekly episodes of a broad appeal choose-your-own-adventure-style game" in an earlier press release. That kind of episodic content hasn't yet completely taken off yet. What's your take?

MW: I think consumers are still discovering digital distribution and testing the waters to make sure it's not just a way to nickel and dime them to death. We need to prove to people that digital distribution enables companies like Twisted Pixel to exist, and that it provides added value.

Just like everything else, it won't happen overnight. It'll be a process driven by key titles that manage to get things right. Plus, on the developer side of things, episodic content is really hard to do, especially if you're talking about weekly turnaround. And a lot of publishers aren't ready for the investment and risk it takes for a high quality episodic game.

I am excited about how well the first Penny Arcade episodic game turned out. I can't judge it as a series yet since there's only one game out, but so far I'm impressed with the production value and quality that was delivered with OTRSPoD. If only there were a way to deliver episodes with this level of quality more regularly.


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