Interview: Derek Yu

Who is Derek Yu? Why, he's the creator of the game you're most likely to be addicted to this year on XBLA. We caught up with him ahead of putting the finishing touches to his limitless cave-diving adventure Spelunky.

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Okay, for those not in the know: what the hell is Spelunky?

Spelunky is a platformer where every level is randomly-generated. So each time you play you get a new layout and a new adventure. The game was inspired by roguelike games, which are meant to be played many times. As such, there's a lot to discover and many ways to interact with your environment. You start with a supply of bombs, so you can even blow up the terrain.

The goal is to find the ultimate treasure at the bottom of the caves and end the game with as much money as possible so you can brag to your friends or make new ones, even!

And the game' s been available for free online for a while, hasn't it...

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Yeah! I released the freeware version in 2008, just for fun. From there it took off!


What was the decision behind bringing it to XBLA now?

Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid, became a fan of the game and suggested that I put it on XBLA. He even put me in touch with Microsoft so I could pitch the idea to them. That guy's been really generous with his time... you can tell he's very invested in supporting indie games and generally making the world a better place, which is super-cool.

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I'll do my best to pay it forward.

And what sort of tweaks and changes are you making to it?

The upgrade to the graphics and music are the most obvious change, but we're also putting a lot of effort into smoothing out the controls and interface. I want to make the game really polished so that people can get to exploring the game as quickly as possible. And speaking of exploring... we'll definitely be adding new EVERYTHING to the caves, including monsters, traps, and level types. There will be plenty of stuff in there that veterans of the original Spelunky have never seen.

Is there anything new you can tell us/show us of the game's XBLA version?

Sure, here's a new screenshot from the game, showcasing the jetpack and shotgun you'll use.


How many of you are on the creative team?

Right now it's three of us. Me, my friend Andy Hull, who's doing design and coding, and Eirik "Phlogiston" Surhke, who's working on music. Andy is a former toy designer who I've known for over 10 years, when we met in the Klik n' Play community. Eirik has composed music for a lot of indie games, and runs Pause Music, a label for indie music and chiptunes.

How did this all start originally? What was the original thinking behind Spelunky?

I had just finished Aquaria with my buddy Alec Holowka and I wanted to make a little freeware game to relax. I made a few prototypes for platformers and roguelikes before I realized it might be a good idea to combine ideas from both genres and make a platform game that could be played hundreds or thousands of times without getting bored. What really tied the idea together, though, was the bombs and ropes - with these tools the player wouldn't be constrained to a single path. It made level generation a lot easier because I wouldn't have to worry about players getting stuck as much, and could add areas that were completely closed off.


And what' s your background in the game development field?

I started out in the Klik community, making games with Clickteam's Klik n' Play and Multimedia Fusion programs. The way I make games now is not so different from when I was a kid, actually. The only differences are that the tools have gotten better, the communities have gotten bigger, and there are more channels to get your games out to people. It's amazing to me that you can release a freeware game today and there's a chance it will become an XBLA title!

It's received a lot of praise from all quarters - Team Meat seem to love the game. How's that feel?

It feels great! Especially because it was so unexpected. You always hope that people will enjoy the same things you do, but it's hard to know. As a developer you always brace yourself for disappointment, so when people you really respect tell you you did something good, it gives you a lot of validation.

Even criticism is great - it shows you that people care enough about your work to write something. I try to remember that when I'm online and give people good feedback whenever I can.


How do you design a game where the dungeons/cave combinations are unlimited?

You just have to add enough elements to the game that can be changed each time you play! In Spelunky, not only are the cave layouts randomized, but the placement of monsters, traps, treasure, and items are randomized. But just having a large number of combinations is not enough - you want the levels to feel "purposeful". The more it feels like a hand-created level, the better.

Thoughts on a PSN/Wii/3DS version?

I probably won't be releasing the game for PSN or Wii any time soon. A handheld version of the game would be cool, but I'm more interested in releasing a PC version first. Even though I'm really excited to be working on my first console game, I love PC gaming and am very grateful to the fans of the original game. In a just world they'd get to play the new game on PC at some point (no promises about when that will be).

What' s next for you?

Finish the game! But beyond Spelunky, I'd like to return to making new freeware, which is the most fun for me. It's also the best place to test out my new ideas. And I need to get back into traditional art, like drawing and painting. I'm getting too comfortable with Photoshop!


What, to you, are the foundations that make the ultimate 2D game?

Cool game world and characters, well-balanced challenge, and lots of variety. Oh, and great art and music!

What titles are you most hyped for this year?

I'm pretty hyped for Fez, which is coming out for XBLA. And I'll be very interested to see where Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft will be in a year. Both those games are already available to play, but are also in constant development.

As far as mainstream games go, all my hyped games are sequels: Duke Nukem Forever, Mortal Kombat, Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and Diablo 3. I actually don't mind playing sequels at all. Part of it is the nostalgia-factor, of course, but it's also fun to see how a series evolves over the years. Video game development is a highly iterative process.


Any recommendations for free online titles (aside from your own) that we should play?

I already mentioned Dwarf Fortress. It's the most complex simulation I've ever played, and it's incredibly interesting just to read about. The stories that come out of playing the game rival most pre-scripted fantasy narratives, in my opinion.

If you like classic horizontal shoot 'em ups, try out Hydorah - it's a real labor of love. If you want to play a great puzzle game, play Desktop Dungeons - it's got randomly-generated levels like Spelunky and it's great fun.

Finally, if you're looking for something a bit different and you're a fan of the surreal, try the RPG Space Funeral. There are a lot of great freeware games out there!

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