[In this interview, Gamasutra talks with IGF-nominated indie studio Twisted Pixel's CEO Michael Wilford about his studio's approach to downloadable content with The Maw, and why the developer isn't "trying to rip [gamers] off" with its deleted scenes concept.]
Game company Twisted Pixel captured the attention of Xbox 360 owners when their action adventure title The Maw was chosen for the 2008 Audience Choice Award at the Penny Arcade Expo. The Xbox Live Arcade game was also a finalist of this year's Independent Games Festival.
Gamasutra talked with Twisted Pixel CEO Michael Wilford, focusing on their approach to recently released and upcoming downloadable content, which will debut on both XBLA and PC, the latter thanks to Valve's Steam service. In addition, we hear about The Maw's core audio design concepts, including the minimalistic yet effective use of voice acting and the score by composer Winifred Phillips.
The discussion centers on how the game company has gone about building on the framework of The Maw's core experience by introducing the movie metaphor of "deleted scenes" for DLC.
To start off, it's been a couple months since the CTO of Twisted Pixel mentioned in a GamerBytes interview that the company moved its headquarters to Austin at the end of the year. Has the change of location in any way influenced the downloadable content for The Maw?
Michael Wilford: It's true, we relocated our entire operation from Madison, Indiana to Austin, Texas. We needed to make the move in order to tap into a broader talent pool for a new project we were starting up. Plus we like sweating.
Aside from taking a week off to drive to Texas and get all set up, the DLC development hasn't been affected. We planned the move pretty well, so we minimized the downtime a great deal. We'll see if we can come up with a way to incorporate BBQ and spurs into the new levels.
Can you tell us how with co-founder Josh Bear the three of you have managed to reinforce each others' strengths and build a successful game company?
MW: Every now and then, you meet someone that is so good at what they do that you can build an entire company around them. Twisted Pixel is lucky to have two such people. Frank Wilson is our CTO, and there is no technical problem he can't solve. And he usually does it in a day.
Josh Bear is our chief creative officer, and I have yet to meet anyone that knows as much about games and movies as he does. But most importantly, just like any good script writer, Josh is really good at designing around the resources he has available at the time. He knows where to spend a lot of time for the big moments and where to conserve. If you met Josh, you'd know how he's an avalanche of energy, personality, and ideas.
As for me, I stepped into the business role to keep money coming in so everyone can do what they do best. As a generalist, I get to throw in my design or art ideas into the mix and occasionally toss in a few lines of code into the engine. Together, I think we have the three major bases covered: technical, creative, and business. It works really well for us.
At what point did Twisted Pixel commit to creating downloadable content for the game?
MW: When you pitch a concept to Microsoft you have to tell them your plans for downloadable content up front. Being that this was our first game, we didn't plan on going too crazy with our DLC plans, like turning the whole game into a zombie game or something.
Doing new levels seemed like a pretty good way to go, so that's what we told Microsoft. Since we could add three new achievements, we figured we would start with three DLC levels, and if people wanted more, we could always add more later.
To answer your question, we knew we were going to do downloadable levels before we even started the main game, but we didn't work on them in any way until after the main game was wrapped. The main game's development wasn't affected at all by our plans for DLC.
Once the game was out of our hands, we went back to the drawing board to design everything from scratch, but we obviously had a lot of half-finished pieces on the cutting room floor that we could leverage.
What is meant by dubbing the new levels "deleted scenes?"
MW: This seems to have caused some confusion amongst fans. Since Maw starts out as a basketball-sized blob and grows to be planet-sized by the end of the game, we had to be creative about how the new levels fit into the continuity. If you finished the game, then you know that we couldn't just tack on three more levels to the end. So, we decided to interject them into the main game's storyline.
Once we did that, it seemed natural to call them "deleted scenes" like you'd find on a special edition DVD or something. We thought it would be cool, but I think some people took it to mean that we intentionally stripped out levels that were 100 percent complete only to sell them as DLC, which is not the case.
What do you feel are some of the potential risks that attend taking a fully-developed story, one that people already associate with the game experience, and then adding additional content through downloads?
MW: The biggest risk that caught us off guard is the public perception that you're trying to rip them off. DLC is an experiment for us since we never tried it before. It's always a financial risk to do something when you don't know how well it's going to do or how well it's going to be perceived, but we decided that we would give it a try so that we could learn about it.
At this point, I think the argument could be made that DLC just has so much negative stigma attached to it that it's not even worth attempting. There are obviously examples of successful DLC, but they seem to be far and few between.
Now that the first new scene, "Brute Force", is online, what direction can we expect for the as-of-yet unrevealed stages?
MW: Like "Brute Force", the other new levels will be larger than the levels in the main game. The next level, "River Redirect", will offer what a lot of people seem to be looking for, which is a challenging level that requires using more than one of Maw's powers in order to solve the puzzles.
The final level, "Speeder Lane", will offer a completely new gameplay mechanic where Frank must ride a speeder bike alongside Maw and face off against a boss soldier base.
The soundtrack to The Maw was written by Winifred Phillips, who a lot of people know from her music for the God of War series and more recently SimAnimals. In what context had you worked with her prior to The Maw, and how did she go about creating a soundtrack that was unique to the game?
MW: A few of us worked with Winifred on a retail title at a previous company. The game sucked, but the music was really awesome. So, when The Maw concept was formed, we had Winifred in mind right away. Her style and approach to composition was perfect for The Maw.
The music in The Maw is interactive, so when you start the game, all you hear is a bass line, but as you progress and solve puzzles. you'll hear additional layers of music come in. Each level has several "stems" that kick in based on player actions.
Winifred actually scored each part of the game as if she were scoring a movie, and she sent us a Quicktime movie of what she wanted. We then had our programmers go in and introduce the themes the way she designed them. It was a lot of fun, and she was great to work with.
While still on the subject of the audio, Frank has a very distinctive high-pitched voice. How did you find the right actors to voice for the game?
MW: We worked with an Austin-based company called Gl33k for all our sound design. They hooked us up with Chris Sabat (Maw) and Brina Palencia (Frank), who were perfect. They have extensive experience voicing animated characters such as those in Dragon Ball Z. Chris is the voice of Piccolo.
There isn't a lot in the way dialogue, though much is communicated through looks and gestures. Was this a strategic decision for making the title easy to localize for other regions?
MW: Yes, definitely. As our first indie title, we knew that localization costs could balloon out of control if we weren't careful. So, we intentionally designed the game from the start to keep translation costs to a minimum.
This left us with the interesting challenge of communicating a lot of personality and humor through animation. In the middle of development, WALL-E came out and reassured us that it was possible to tell a good story and convey a lot of emotion without dialogue or text. Our art director, Dave Leung, is the man responsible for making it work.
There's one gameplay element in particular I wanted to bring up. It seems like these days, we are seeing a lot of bullet-time events in high intensity action games. It makes it fun to see the convention implemented in a humorous context, namely when Frank pulls off a slow-motion somersault to dodge a projectile. How did this come about?
MW: This was an idea Josh had early on in the project. I don't think the rest of the team was convinced that it would work, precisely because it can be super cheesy when every other game is doing it, but once we got it working, we all saw how over the top and funny it was. We all laughed immediately. That's how we knew it had to stay in the game.