2009 was a busy time for independent developer Distractionware, aka Terry Cavanagh. He released a string of notable downloadable freeware and Flash releases, including the likes of Don't Look Back, Pathways, Judith and Bullet Time, as well as powering out a bunch of smaller titles in a mere few days when he attended BIGJam 2009 in Berlin.
For the second half of the year, however, Terry has been working hard on a game which was originally meant to be a simple Flash release but escalated into a buzzed-about title. Gravity-flipping platform game VVVVVV, released last week, will be Terry's first commercial game.
In this interview, originally published on Gamasutra sister site IndieGames.com's blog, tells us about leaving a bank job for full-time game-making, the "terrifying" thought of charging for his games, and how he thought VVVVVV would be his last game.
Who are you and what do you do?
Hi, I'm Terry, and I make games!
What was it that made you decide to quit your day job and start making independent games full-time?
I went straight from college to working in a bank - the work was ok, but I wasn't really happy. I was constantly thinking about all these games I wanted to make, but I was never able to take my ideas anywhere because I never had the time. I'd been the same way in college, and way back in school when I was making little Qbasic games, and I just felt like I wasn't ever going to get anywhere if I didn't do something to make it happen. So I started carefully saving up, and making plans to give it a shot.
What eventually happened is that I got drunk at a staff night out and told everyone around me that I wanted to quit and spend all my time making games. Somebody told my boss, and the next day he called me in and asked about it. Even though I hadn't saved up nearly enough, I ended up impulsively giving him my notice.
From there I got to thinking about a gravity flipping mechanic, and how it's usually handled in games, and about how I could do something different with it. I always find it fun, but anywhere I'd seen it in games it was never really the core mechanic; I basically just wanted to try doing something where it was. I never intended for it to be a very big project - I originally thought it would only take a few weeks.
Visually, I was really just responding to something Paul Eres said that annoyed me, where he accused developers on TIGSource of having a "retro fetish". I figured since I'd only planned to do this as a short side game anyway that it might be nice to indulge my own retro fetish, and make something that looked and felt like the C64 games I grew up with.
A lot of people make a Jet Set Willy connection, but I actually never played that growing up, and hadn't even heard of Jet Set Willy until I played Jet Set Willy Online a few years ago. Visually I was far more inspired by Monty on the Run and in particular the Dizzy games, with their big expressive sprites.
VVVVVV will be your first commercial game. Is the thought of charging for your creations quite daunting?
Yes, terrifying! One of the reasons I liked the whole flash model so much is that it lets you make a living without the whole awkward business of charging people to play your games - you can just make a game, deal with a sponsor instead and then everyone gets to play it for free.
There are problems with this too, though. After working on VVVVVV for a couple of months, I just couldn't see myself going down that route. Really, after I'd started working on the second level it was clear that the game was way too big for a flash site.
You recently made a blog post asking for donations to help you submit both games to the IGF, and the response was incredible. Were you genuinely surprised by the response?
I was completely floored. In the first few days I had dozens of donations, with some people donating far more than what I was asking for. I even had two people making $100 donations - by the end of the first week I had over a thousand dollars, which easily covered the IGF fees, and even made it possible for me to pay my rent and make my loan repayments. I expected the "patron's list" to be a handful of names - instead it's several pages long.
It couldn't have come at a better time either, because believe it or not, things were actually far far worse than I was letting on. By the time I asked for donations, I was maybe a week or two away from having to beg friends and family for money to get me through Christmas. When I announced that I was going to sell the game, I didn't expect the reaction I got at all. In fact, for months I'd been thinking of VVVVVV as the last game I was going to get to make - it's one of the reasons why I let it turn into such a big thing in the first place.
Now, I'm a little more optimistic - I mean, there's still a pretty good chance I'll be job hunting in a few weeks, but with the way the game's gone down with people, I'm starting to feel like it all might work out after all. I'm excited about all the games I might get to make this year. Instead of VVVVVV being the end, maybe it'll be the start of something?
The look and feel of your work is very unique compared to a lot of indie titles at the moment and you've clearly got a style of your own. Is there anyone you take inspiration from?
Heh, thanks. I've never really been great at graphics, but I do feel like I'm getting better.
Cactus has been a big inspiration for me in this regard - I really get the impression that he approaches design visually, like he imagines how something's going to look and feel before he knows how it's going to play.
I don't have the technical ability to make my games look good, so I do what I can to at least make them look interesting. I find it easier to do this when I work within narrow limits - in VVVVVV, for example, I limited the background tiles for each room to just five shades of one colour, and then changed colors and patterns as I went along.
Even now gamers comment that your game Pathways really struck a chord with them emotionally. Do you see Pathways as a turning point in your development career?
Hmm, I suppose so - the thing is, it's not like I hadn't been trying to make games like that before Pathways. In college I spent a lot of my time writing RPG plotlines and working on big ambitious story driven projects. All the smaller games I did in 2008, games like Self Destruct and Squish, they were the games that actually felt like a departure from what I'd previously been trying to do.
Back in April 09, you collaborated with Stephen Lavelle (increpare games) on Judith. Is there anyone else you'd like to work with?
I'd really love to collaborate with Pacian at some point - I'm a big fan of his interactive fiction, and I think we could come up with something really cool if we teamed up.
I've worked on a few different projects with Dock, but unfortunately none of them have really worked out yet. I hope at some point we can find something that does, though, I love his style and approach to design.
What can we expect from you after VVVVVV? You've worked with a few different programming languages, so maybe you'd be interested in working with Unity?
Unity looks really interesting, I'm hoping to get a chance to play around with it soon.
What I really hope to do this year (fingers crossed) is attempt a game a month. I've got lots of little ideas that I'd love to see realized, and I think I'd really enjoy working on smaller projects for a while.
How are your feelings towards the IGF results this year?
I'm disappointed that things didn't go better for me with the IGF, but the competition was pretty intense this year; there are always going to be a lot of games that don't make it. I really wish things had worked out differently, though - I would have loved to go to San Francisco this March and meet a few other designers. It always looks like so much fun.
I have to admit though, it was heart-warming to see so many other people as disappointed as I was that VVVVVV didn't get a nomination! I really don't know what to make of that, but it did help cheer me up on Monday!