With ‘Splosion Man and The Maw proving to be big hits on Xbox Live Arcade, Twisted Pixel Games have quickly established themselves in the hearts and minds of Xbox Live Arcade users. We got the opportunity to quiz Michael Wilford, CEO of Twisted Pixel, about their work on the platform, how they come up with their unique characters and what the future has in store.
Twisted Pixel has been established for a little while now – tell us how it got started.
In early 2006, a couple of friends and I decided to quit our day jobs and start our own game company. My two friends are Josh Bear and Frank Wilson, each of which are talented enough to warrant having a company built around them. I believe Josh is the most knowledgeable and instinctively genius designer in the world, and Frank is the fastest and most thorough game programmer in the world. We became close friends while working on the set of Josh’s independent feature length film, The Dorm Room. We ultimately created Twisted Pixel Games together with the goal of making the best downloadable console games.
You’d developed a few titles before moving on to the downloadable platforms. What prompted the shift in focus?
The retail games we were making before Twisted Pixel weren’t any larger in scope than what we’re doing now, so it’s really not that different. The main thing was that we wanted to make our own IP and make the kinds of games we always dreamed about making back when we realized making games could be a career.
How have you found the overall experience of working in the downloadable sphere so far? Are there any real positives or negatives that stick in your mind?
So far it’s been awesome. It cuts out a lot of the middle men, we earn more off each sale then we could in retail, we have the creative freedom to make the games we want to make, and it’s a faster time to market. The only negative is that there are a lot of people still discovering downloadable games. Only a relatively small percentage of Xbox 360 owners are even aware of that feature. I can’t wait until more people know about what we’re doing.
Everyone at Console Arcade loved `Splosion Man and was impressed with the quantity of content on offer. The Maw also offered a lot of entertainment for its price. Is this is conscious effort to offer the customer as much value for money as possible?
Definitely. With The Maw, we set out to make the most ambitious $10 game possible. With Splosion Man, we set out to outdo ourselves. And every time we make a game, we call up Microsoft and ask what else we can give away for free. With The Maw, we gave away free gamerpics and one of the first premium dashboard themes. With Splosion Man, we added in the world’s first avatar accessory awards for free. We’ve already figured out what we will give away in Comic Jumper, and it’s going to be pretty cool.
The characters in `Splosion Man, The Maw and Comic Jumper, which you announced at PAX this year, are all very different to the usual characters we get in games. Is this a deliberate attempt to totally avoid anything with a brown colour palette and bald Space Marines?
Haha, absolutely. We remember the good old days when game characters were like mascots of our generation: Mario, Sonic, Earthworm Jim, Mega Man, etc. Those days seem to be lost, but we’re trying to bring them back.
What can we expect from Comic Jumper?
We’re not revealing too much about the game just yet, but you can expect that we’ll one-up ourselves again. We have a lot more time to work on Comic Jumper than we did on Splosion Man, which was only 6 months. So we’re doing everything we can to cram in more quality content, like lots of characters and voice work, which is something we haven’t really done before.
The main characters in your games, despite being zany, have all being crafted in a solid fashion and well thought out. Are they a collective effort of craziness amongst the team, or are they the product of one particularly manic individual?
It varies. The Maw was born from Josh Bear and our Art Director Dave Leung. Splosion Man was born out of a wacky brainstorming lunch meeting we had at the company where everyone threw crazy ideas into a big pot and out came Splosion Man. Captain Smiley is a character that Josh has been drawing since grade school that we finally get to turn into a real game.
What actually comes first in the creation process; the characters or the gameplay idea?
That varies too. Honestly, we don’t really have a process or a recipe for our games. We have a folder full of dozens of ideas, but most of them only have one or two little nuggets that seem interesting, like a main character, or a story, or a gameplay mechanic, or something funny. Often times we take these nuggets from several concepts and put them together into one game. With The Maw, we started with the idea of making a buddy comedy type game where you have to work together with another character, similar to Ico. With Splosion Man, we started with a crazy character that does the most absurd things like sploding through levels and blowing up scientists into hunks of meats.
Have you come up with anything that’s been so off the wall you’ve had to bin it because it was too crazy and just wouldn’t work?
Yes. And I probably shouldn’t talk about it either.
Comic Jumper seems to go back to The Maw’s premise of having two protagonists to play off one another. Is it easier to create humour that way rather than with a solo character like ‘Splosion Man?
Good point. That wasn’t a conscious decision, but I suppose you’re right. Having Captain Smiley and Star bickering back and forth is definitely a good source for comedy. Splosion Man was just nuts, so he was allowed to talk to himself without the need of anyone else.
The focus seems to be on original characters and self contained stories. Do you ever see a time when there’ll be sequels to The Maw or Splosion Man? Or will you just expand those stories via future DLC?
Yeah, we definitely have ideas for sequels, but they have to be just right. We kind of take the Pixar approach to sequels where we’ll do one but only if there is an exceptionally compelling reason, like the story is amazing, or the gameplay, or something along those lines. However, we do feel that all of our games take place in the same universe, so you do occasionally run across familiar faces, like in Splosion Man when you earn the special achievement for releasing Maw out into the universe.
`Splosion Man can be tricky, especially in the later levels. Was that a conscientious effort on your part to put some challenge back in to gaming? How difficult did you find it to strike a balance to avoid putting people off?
Yes, it was definitely a conscience effort, but like you said, we wanted to strike a balance and keep the game accessible to play by everyone. With The Maw, we made it extremely easy to play and crammed as much production value in as we could to make it compelling for everyone. With Splosion Man, we made it very challenging but kept the controls simple and added “Way of the Coward” so players never got permanently stuck and could see the crazy weird ending that we created for them. It’s kind of two different approaches to the same problem. In general, we feel that games need to work on being more accessible but without sacrificing production quality or attractiveness for core gamers, and there are many ways to achieve that. But striking that balance can be very tricky.
Another Summer of Arcade release, Trials HD didn’t pull any punches when it came to difficulty. Do you think this is the start of a resurgence in challenging games?
Could be, I’m not sure. Trials is definitely challenging, but it also strikes that balance where anyone can pick up the controller and failure is not a major setback, so it’s accessible at the same time. I think we’re using the same playbook as our friends at RedLynx.
Did ‘Splosion Man’s inclusion in the Summer of Arcade promo have any positive, or even negative, effects on its release?
Summer of Arcade was a huge win for us. It’s always hard to get the word out about original IP, but it’s ten times harder as an independent studio with no marketing or PR team. Summer of Arcade put a spotlight on Splosion Man that we never could have gotten otherwise.
We’re gradually seeing greater production values creeping into downloadable titles – The Maw was one of the first to set a high benchmark. Have your titles been received as well as you’d expected to justify the extra effort that’s gone into designing them?
Definitely. We took a gamble that fans would appreciate the hard work we put into polishing our games and blurring the lines between downloadable and retail quality, plus all the free goodies we pack into each release. It certainly wasn’t an easy gamble. Making Splosion Man in 6 months with the level of polish we demanded of ourselves is one of the hardest things we’ve ever done. But it seems to be paying off, so we couldn’t be happier about that and plan on raising the bar even higher.
You gave away some plushies of The Maw at this year’s PAX and they looked great – have you considered selling these and other collectable from your website?
As a matter of fact, our online store just went live moments ago! We sell plushies, statues, shirts and soon other merchandise as well. Check it out at www.twistedpixelgames.com/store.
With the expansion in scope and popularity of the download services, where do you see downloadable gaming going in the future?
For one thing, downloadable games are definitely growing in scope and quality. The bar is being raised constantly by RedLynx, Chair, The Behemoth, and others. I think that will continue, and the bigger publishers will continue to get more and more interested in downloadable. Retail will never go away completely, but downloadable games are taking root very rapidly, and we’re just happy to be a part of it.
What do you think of Project Natal? Do you think there’s scope for you to use it at some point in the future?
Without a doubt. Project Natal, and what it promises, is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen as a fan of games. And I totally think it could help us make games that are more accessible than ever before, but again, without sacrificing quality or attractiveness to core gamers.
Do you have any plans to work on PSN and WiiWare titles?
As an independent studio, we want our games to be played by as many people as possible, so PSN and WiiWare are definitely interesting to us. But we don’t have anything to announce at this time.
A big thank you to Michael Wilford and all at Twisted Pixel Games for taking the time out to speak to us. Remember, you can already find the rather excellent ‘Splosion Man and The Maw available for download right now on XBLA. Comic Jumper is expected to arrive some time in 2010.