Kyle Pulver, Peter Jones and David Carrigg of Retro Affect recently took some time out to talk with me. Retro Affect is currently working on Snapshot, which was nominated for Excellence in Design at the Independent Games Festival in 2009.
Entar: Please introduce yourselves, in whatever fashion you deem necessary, and describe the projects you’ve been working on.
Peter Jones: My name is Peter Jones, I graduated from Clarkson University with a BS in Digital Arts & Sciences. I went onto Academy of Art for a Masters in Animation, during which I helped make MEMIX, a puzzle game for the iPhone. Snapshot, then a prototype Kyle and I made during our senior year at Clarkson, was recognized in the IGF. Since then, I’ve been working full time on Snapshot.
David Carrigg: I’m David. Over the past year or so I’ve been developing the engine for Retro Affect, which is what allows us to make the full version of Snapshot. Before transitioning to work full time at Retro Affect, I spent my professional career as a gameplay programmer on large scale MMOs. Previous to that I graduated from Clarkson University with a degree in Computer Science.
Kyle Pulver: I would do this through a musical number but since we’re limited to text, I’ll just say that I’m Kyle Pulver and I am known to make games, mostly platformers. I made a game called Bonesaw, which is a huge and frustrating beat ’em up platformer. I entered some TIGSource competitions with Everyone Loves Active 2, and Verge. In between those games somewhere I was able to make the Snapshot prototype with Pete that brought us to where we are now. I also did a Global Game Jam game called Depict1, and an ARTxGAME with a cool illustrator named J. Otto, appropriately named Jottobots. All my games can be currently found on http://kpulv.com. Aside from that I do a big chunk of web design and development work, doing contract work for folks like Flashbang Studios (Offroad Velociraptor Safari) as well as Team Meat (Super Meat Boy). Everything aside from games can be found on kylepulver.com right now,but I haven’t updated that site in a pretty long while now. Whoops.
Kyle Pulver: YEAH I got the longest one.
Entar: What sources of inspiration affected the original Snapshot prototype?
Peter Jones: Heh, well the original concept was from a random dream, and then between Kyle and I, a lot of it was brainstorming what we thought would be really fun or interesting uses of this mechanic. We knew the camera was really interesting and unique, and we wanted to show it wasn’t JUST a creative inventory system. So we boiled it down to a few types of ‘photogenic’ objects and included the door which we thought was a really cool idea. The door is one of the three ‘photogenic’ objects from the prototype. Basically, a door where it stands may lead to one place, but if you snap a photo of it and move it somewhere else, the door could lead to something entirely different.
Entar: Can you talk a little about some of the dandy features we can expect to see in Snapshot?
Kyle Pulver: Dandy features include multiple dandelions in each level to take photos of.
Peter Jones: Haha, well we’ve added a decent amount of features since the prototype. I think the one we’re most excited about is the ability to capture the physics of an object. So, when you snap a photo of a falling rock, that rock’s velocity is preserved in the picture. When you paste the picture, the rock will continue on its way. That, combined with the ability to rotate photos creates some really fun puzzles and hilarious moments. Physics is fun.
Kyle Pulver: When it doesn’t break and freak out. Physics are indeed fun.
Entar: Ah yes, physics bugs. I can relate.
David Carrigg: Yeah, debugging physics… not quite as fun as watching physics happen.
Kyle Pulver: It’s a cruel mistress, to make physics into something that actually feels correct in both a real world model and a game world model… Dave should write a novel on this after we’re done.
David Carrigg: Is a blog post a novel? …because I could do that.
Entar: Well, it’s worth a shot at any rate. Maybe just go for it and let the masses decide.
Entar: Will the player’s camera be his main tool in the game, or will he have other cool gadgets?
Kyle Pulver: The main draw of the game is the camera and its different uses, I’d say. Any of the cool gadgets that the player finds would be directly helping or changing the camera. Probably.
Entar: How open ended will the puzzles be in Snapshot? For example, will I be able to take a picture of the sun in the background, and paste it back in as a rolling molten ball of destruction? Are the solutions fairly predetermined, or can the player find a wide variety of his own?
Kyle Pulver: Weeelllll lets see, that sun thing sounds pretty fun. But I wouldn’t want every puzzle to be “Step 1: take photo of sun, Step 2: destroy the world.” As far as the puzzles go, what’s actually really awesome about Snapshot is the fact that when making the levels we can’t possibly see every solution. So when we see a player solving a puzzle in a way we didn’t foresee, personally I think it’s awesome, and I try to give the player as much room possible for them to come up with their own solutions.
Peter Jones: For example, players in the prototype tried capture timed buttons to move them close to the doors they opened. We did not foresee that at all…but have included something to satisfy that now.
Kyle Pulver: It’s a hard balance to get right though… too much open endedness can become boring once the player finds the most efficient solution to each puzzle, and too many restrictions can make it seem imprisoning. So hopefully snapshot falls into a sweet spot right in the middle of those two extremes. But as far as taking a photo of the sun and releasing a molten ball of destruction, … I don’t want to spoil anything.
Entar: That’s fair.
Entar: For all the designers out there, have you had a foundational creative process or philosophy when designing Snapshot?
Kyle Pulver: I think it’s a little bit of what I mentioned before, finding the balance between restriction and freedom, or perceived freedom. Making puzzles with a solution that we have in mind, but also allowing for the player to figure out different ways to solve them. But at the same time, not giving the player so much freedom that they can destroy the level and screw themselves over. One of the major decisions we made up front about the game is not letting the player take a photo of the environment collision masks. Like the basic ground and walls and ceilings in the level. Trying to make fun puzzles without that restriction is a little crazy…
As far as a creative process goes, it’s really as simple as just sketching up things on paper, building it in the game, and having people play it, and making iterations on it to make the player experience as frictionless as possible. Valve talked a lot about this around the time Portal came out and had a huge success with it. They iterated on the game a crazy amount of times all based on brand new players going through the game.
It seems to be all about prototyping in the indie scene, and pretty much everywhere now. Snapshot started as a prototype, and within the game we prototype our ideas, and whatever feels good we keep and whatever doesn’t feel so good we toss out or do another iteration on. Make a crap load of ideas, keep the top/best 10% of them, and you should have a pretty decent result.
Entar: What platforms do you plan to target with Snapshot?
Kyle Pulver: That’s a good question.
Peter Jones: We’re most definitely making Snapshot for the PC, and aiming to have it released on at least one console.
Kyle Pulver: That’s a good answer.
Entar: Will there be cheats of any kind?
David Carrigg: Haven’t even played the game yet and already want cheats for it? 🙂
Entar: David: Hey, I mean, you know, some people would want to know. I wouldn’t use them, of course.
Peter Jones: Haha
David Carrigg: Of course. I think we all know a few people who enjoy playing games more when they can run around with infinite lives, every weapon, and big head mode turned on.
Kyle Pulver: IDKFA
Kyle Pulver: Cheats? Probably…. not in the traditional sense, but there’s gonna be stuff to unlock that should be pretty awesome. If we release on SNES we will include any awesome gameshark codes in the instruction manual (and game genie codes). Maybe you can edit the config files or something when we release make it so you can jump 300 feet in the air.
Entar: Are there any projections for Snapshot’s release date yet?
David Carrigg: When its done, we will release it.
Kyle Pulver: We can only release it during a complete solar eclipse.
Peter Jones: We’re hoping to have it done by Q4 of 2010, though that date is still not solid yet.
Entar: What were your initial reactions when Snapshot was nominated for Excellence in Design at IGF in 2009?
Peter Jones: “Whaaaaaaaaaaaat”
Kyle Pulver: haha HOLY CRAP
Peter Jones: I couldn’t believe it.
Kyle Pulver: Probably the most intense morning of my life thus far.
Peter Jones: Haha I’d agree. I remember telling my parents that because of that nomination, everything was going to change. I remember getting a call from Kyle at 7 or 8 AM and thinking, “since when does Kyle call me this early?” and through the rambling I heard IGF.
Kyle Pulver: lol
David Carrigg: I wasn’t involved with the first prototype, so I didn’t react.
Entar: How was your experience at GDC this year?
Kyle Pulver: Pretty awesome as usual for GDC.
Peter Jones: Yeah, this GDC was particularly spectacular. It’s nice now, having gone for a few years, to catch up with friends that you haven’t seen since last GDC.
Kyle Pulver: We got to promote Snapshot with nifty little 4 x 6 postcards that fit exactly into the badge holders, so it was awesome to walk around and see people with snapshot cards behind their badges. There was a Will Wright talk that was pretty awesome. I don’t know if it was about anything at all, it was more like “Hi I’m Will Wright, I’ve been thinking lately, so now I will present my brain dump in the form of a power point presentation.” But yeah, its amazingly inspiring to go to GDC and meet up with hundreds of like minded people, catching up with them, finding out what they’ve been up to, what everyone’s been working on, all that jazz.
Entar: What were the motivations that inspired you to move to the scorched desert known as Arizona, and start Retro Affect? What do you want to accomplish through the company today?
Peter Jones: After we were nominated, we asked Dave who’s a great engineer to help us out with the full version. I was in San Francisco, Kyle was in NY and Dave was in Phoenix. After a lot of discussion, Kyle and I moved to AZ since we weren’t leaving as much from our respective places, plus the cost of living is super cheap, ideal for an indie studio. And, the icing on the cake was a surprising amount of indies down here.
Kyle Pulver: The scorched desert will test our spirits and resolve to their very limits. We wander through the desert for weeks at a time just for the inspiration of coming out barely alive. When the moon is full we climb atop the great sand dunes of the Arizona desert and meditate. We draw great inspiration from Bear Grylls…. wait, no, use Pete’s answer.
Peter Jones: Haha either of those will do, or some combination of the two.
Entar: How has the independent life treated you since starting Retro Affect?
Peter Jones: It’s pretty rough! We’ve been burning through our savings and living on the cheap for awhile now…but I think it’s safe to say I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Kyle Pulver: I live on the edge of poverty but it’s awesome and exactly what I want to do. lol.
Entar: What advice or comments would you give to other independent game developers?
David Carrigg: Having a good network of other developers you can talk to is important, as well as making sure you have enough finances to last you through whatever project you want to undertake.
Kyle Pulver: HMMM. I would say just make the things that you want to make… create the games that you want to play. Don’t fall into these arguments of what indie means and what independent games should or shouldn’t be, games, not games, art games, whatever, just make the game that you want to make. Also: Learn as much as you can about everything there is to know about the entire process. Always keep learning, always keep building up your skills in every dimension you can until you become some sort of max level super indie dev that can destroy worlds.
Peter Jones: All that, and I think having a passion for your work and the game you’re working on is important to. Otherwise it just becomes ‘work’…
Kyle Pulver: Also another pro tip: don’t destroy yourself. I know a lot of indies out there that are absolutely killing themselves through their projects and sometimes you need to take a damn break, or re-evaluate what you’re doing, and what your motivations are. Unfortunately all of our brains are attached to these damned human bodies that need nourishment at the cost of time working on our games, so don’t forget that.
Entar: What are some of your favorite games out there today, independent or otherwise?
Kyle Pulver: Street Fighter IV is currently my game of choice, hah
Peter Jones: I’m really interested in Heavy Rain…I only got to play the demo, but it seems to have really hit something cool-ish feeling. I’m super stoked for Super Meat Boy.
Kyle Pulver: I love games that are completely skill based, player vs player, skill level vs. skill level, with barely any luck factor involved.
David Carrigg: I’ve been playing a lot of Modern Warfare (not 2) recently… but I’ve been hunting for a new game for my 360.
Kyle Pulver: Yeah, on the indie scene I’d say Meat Boy is going to be pretty awesome.
Entar: Who would you say has exemplified good game development practice, including marketing, content, etc. etc.?
Peter Jones: Hmm in the independent area…I’d say World of Goo probably has to take the cake. They did a great job of all those categories. It’s no wonder why they saw such great sales…and continue to. I’m really anxious to see how Super Meat Boy does….they’re marketing has been great as far as I’m concerned.
Kyle Pulver: Yeah, the successful indie games out there…. World of Goo is definitely one of the top ones. As far as in development stuff goes, Super Meat Boy has a lot of great marketing behind it. They put a lot of effort into it, as well as the Wolfire guys who are working on Overgrowth. They constantly have new blog posts on their site, and share everything about the game’s development to the public. Fantastic Contraption is another great title that came out of nowhere and got blasted with a crap load of traffic and was a run-away success with all of it’s social aspects, like easy level sharing and solution sharing.
Peter Jones: Yeah, that is a good one too.
Entar: What questions do you wish interviewers would ask you or other game developers, but never do? How would you answer them?
Kyle Pulver: I feel like sometimes most interviews don’t go into the process enough, especially with big budget games. It’s actually really hard to find interviews that aren’t just press releases in the form of questions and answers. I think questions about inspiration are awesome. I love to see into the minds of any creative people, especially game developers, and especially indie game developers. Learning about what inspires people can be amazingly insightful.
David Carrigg: I want an interviewer to ask me, “If you weren’t part of the dev team… how many copies of Snapshot would you purchase?”… and I’d probably answer with either 8 or 9 hundred.
Peter Jones: I’d agree with the questions about inspiration, what we do for fun outside of video games maybe.
David Carrigg: Peter: What do you do for fun, outside of video game?
Peter Jones: Nothin.
Kyle Pulver: Haha yeah that question falls flat for me. I don’t do anything outside of video games. WHOOPS.
Peter Jones: Haha, I dunno…I like to swim and play dodgeball…I love going to movies.
Kyle Pulver: Which relates to another question that can be asked “How socially broken are you?” That question originally comes from the indie art panel from GDC2010, hah.
Peter Jones: Haha, I just know I enjoy reading how Miyamoto comes up with his game designs, so I like to hear what other designers do for fun outside of video games…I guess it’s closely related to inspiration.
Kyle Pulver: Yeah, I think its more interesting most of the time to know about the process and the person behind the work, and not the work itself, but as far as AAA games go that becomes more diluted when the team size is like 250 people.
Peter Jones: Yeah, definitely.
Entar: What are your plans for the future, after Snapshot?
Kyle Pulver: Planning ahead is something I am not known for.
David Carrigg: That’s step 3. Profit!
Peter Jones: Haha, we’re concentrating on what we believe to be our best flagship title, and see how that does first. I know we have a lot of other ideas we’d love see come to fruition, but only time will tell 😀
Entar: Are you hiring?
Kyle Pulver: We only have one open position, which is to just stand in the center of the office with a giant leaf and fan us when the Arizona heat reaches a temperature of 100+ degrees Fahrenheit.
Entar: What will this employee do for the other 2 months of the year?
Kyle Pulver: They’ll have to tend to the garden to grow the plant that will produce the fanning leaves.
Entar: Makes sense.
Kyle Pulver: It’s better than QA.
Entar: Thank you for your time. Good luck with Snapshot!
Kyle Pulver: Thanks!
Peter Jones: Thank you!