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Road to the IGF: Untame's Mushroom 11

January 30, 2014 | By Kris Graft

January 30, 2014 | By Kris Graft
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More: Indie, Video, IGF

Mushroom 11 is a game about a blob. It's also the kind of game that developer Itay Keren has always wanted to make.

Mushroom 11 is up for the Excellence in Design award for this year's Independent Games Festival. In the game, players guide an amorphous blob in exploring a bleak, post-apocalyptic setting. Keren, of studio Untame, describes it as a puzzle-platformer, but the mechanics are so unique, that the description doesn't do the game much justice.

As part of our ongoing Road to the IGF series, we asked Keren about the making of Mushroom 11, and some of thoughts on the independent games scene.

What is your background in making games?

I've been making games from a very early age. When I got my first computer, playing and making games seemed like the only reasonable thing to do. I was a pretty lousy grade-school student and had to teach myself English so I could read "Teach Yourself C," back in pre-internet days. I used to skip school to go to the video arcades (sorry mom) in order to play and learn how to make better games.

I later got into Unix development and joined instant messaging pioneer ICQ as their server dev lead. That was a great experience, but after a few years running backend development, I realized that my heart was in making games! I joined a local game company and ran a small casual games studio. This actually made me pretty miserable, because while I was in my dream industry, my routine was making casual titles with very little creativity and self expression.

Eventually I moved on and opened my studio Untame, so I could finally make the games I wanted. I launched my first game Rope Rescue two years ago. It was a rope-based puzzler for mobile, which ended up being pretty successful on the App Store and Google Play. But I think my new title Mushroom 11 is the kind of game I always wanted to make, with a vast and entirely open play space, ready for exploring.

What development tools did you use?

Unity/C# and Photoshop. There are always discussions on using 3rd party game engines, instead of building your own, which is something I've spent a lot of time doing before. I do miss working on the core technology, and there are some serious limitations placed on my work by the engine. Though in some sense I even enjoy these limitations as a sort of personal challenge. It's mostly a matter of efficiency, weather I want to make technology, or games. As someone smart once said "Give a man a game engine and he delivers a game. Teach a man to make a game engine and he never delivers anything."

How long have you or your team been working on the game?

Two years exactly. I started it with my wife Julia at Global Game Jam 2012, and as I've been saying all along, I have nine months left.

How did you come up with the concept?

GGJ 2012 had the theme of Ouroboros, the self consuming snake symbol. As a platform game enthusiast, I thought it would be interesting to explore using negative space as a means of control. Just like the snake that's caught in this cycle of destruction and growth, so is this organism.

Your blob design seems to have so many challenges in a puzzle game. At what point in prototyping did you think, "This just might work!"

I think that at the first time it really ran, after a few hours of prototyping, I had this warm feeling of being on to something. Funny enough, looking back at the GGJ build, I see a naive, crude design that didn't really grasp the potential. Even now I feel like I'm scratching the surface of this game space.

What's behind your interest in such physics-heavy game design?

While I enjoy physics, it is not necessarily the point of the game. For me, Physics is just a platform with which I present the world and interact with the player. I went with an organic feel for the game, and this pseudo-realistic world worked best, and fit its visual design and narrative.

This is an issue of some debate. Some recent games have been pigeonholed and dismissed as being physics-games. Physics hasn't been the focus of games for a while, but rather a tool that services the design. Indeed, just a few years back physics was a novelty that could only be achieved by incorporating top technology, but at this point games that use rigid body dynamics are as unique as ones that use gravity.

That said, I went through much effort to make sure the game feels organic and fluid, which required a lot of technical workarounds to get the right look and feel. However the bottom line is that the technology must serve the design, and not the other way around.

To finally answer your question! I love designs that introduce interesting challenges of non-discrete nature that are presented in a confined environment. All the evidences are in front of the player, who may choose different approaches to get through. Physics, in the context of Mushroom 11, really allows me to express myself in the challenge design. There's an entire exploration space within every challenge, and I really enjoy that.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

I've played a few, and definitely not enough. Papers, Please is brilliant and subtle. TowerFall is a precise, seemingly-simple yet deep experience. The Stanley Parable is a clever, emotional journey. Extrasolar is a beautiful, phenomenal accomplishment. I have too many games on my todo list.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

The indie scene is definitely getting crowded, with a lot of studios and individuals joining in. This may cause some concern, but on the other hand there's more opportunity than ever, with more platforms embracing indie developers and showcasing indie titles. There's definitely more love and respect given to us than ever before. Maybe as a result, some join the scene for what I believe is the wrong reason. I still believe that if you're in it just for the money, you probably won't make much of it. I don't really know what the future holds for us, but I'm optimistic and anyway I can't see myself leaving this industry.

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