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The Twisted world of Pixel

As the skewed humour of Splosion Man and Comic Jumper have proved, Twisted Pixel is no ordinary developer. Ahead of the announcement of its latest project, it discusses funny and videogames.

Twisted Pixel has a secret. Two actually. But won't be sharing at least one of them for another six days. Come Thursday December 2, the Comic Jumper and Splosion Man creator will reveal its newest project on Spike TV's Game Trailers show, and the developer's official website straight after.

The high profile build-up to the announcement and the anticipation surrounding it is all the more impressive when you take into account the developer only released its first digital title The Maw, last year. It received mixed reviews, but the Texas-based studio has quickly gone from strength to strength, producing both the critically-acclaimed Splosion Man and the recent Comic Jumper: The Adventures of Captain Smiley.

It's a quick turnaround for a developer. In this exclusive interview with founder Mike Wilford, he discusses the company's history, the core values the studio brings to its titles, and the purity of 2D.

What' s been the reaction to Comic Jumper since release? Has there been any responses that have surprised you?

The reaction has been great, we're very happy. A lot of people are playing the game and talking about it. But it's also our most polarizing game so far, which we knew it would be going into it. If you get the game and what we were trying to do with it, and appreciate the sources that we draw our humor from, you're going to absolutely love it. If not, though, there's a good chance you might hate it and want to send us death threats (laughs). But actually, that was all a part of our plan. We'd much rather make a game that stirs up genuine emotion, one way or the other, whether it's love or hate, than make something that you're just going to forget immediately.

Caught any cosplayers dressing as Captain Smiley or Splosion Man at conventions yet?

Since CJ just launched recently we haven't had a chance to see Smiley yet, but we have seen a couple of Splosion Men running around at shows. It's completely humbling and awesome. If anyone out there is thinking of surprising us in costume, I highly recommend it, it's good for your spleen, and ours.

It included a lot of self-referencial humour. From the jokes about your previous titles, to the video interviews and segments behind Captain Smiley' s launch pad. It' s great stuff - how do you strike the balance between humour with broad audience appeal and in-joke?

We get asked a lot about where our humour comes from and how we plan the game around all the jokes. Truth is, we don't do any explicit planning like that. We just set out to make a cool game, and naturally end up riffing off each other with random ideas of stuff that would be funny, and if it makes us all laugh, we put it in. Next thing we know, we've got a game chock full of crazy gags that we hope other people think are as funny as we do.

Is the humour aspect of your titles due company philosophy or necessary addition to make them stand out from the crowded market that little bit more?

It's not really planned, it's more of a side effect of our love of working together and having fun. I think humour is one of the hardest things to pull off in games because most of the time it comes off like the developers are trying too hard and the jokes fall flat from appearing to be overly planned. Our secret is that we don't try that hard, it all comes naturally from our jacked up personalities and development process, so it has a more genuine feel to it. Hopefully. (laughs).

Can you explain the origin of the stats screen song, and who was lending their beautiful tones to it?

That fine tune was crafted by Matt "Chainsaw" Chaney, the mastermind behind the donut song in Splosion Man. I believe he made that song in one day, and much of the lyrics were recorded in one take, as Chainsaw was making stuff up, so you can hear him laughing at his own ridiculousness in there.

Including both the Maw and Splosion Man in the game' s central Hub was a good way of attracting newcomers to those titles. With smaller marketing budgets, do smaller teams need to diversify to advertise? Or do you have a heavy hands-on presence with community and at conventions?

Great question. It is really, really hard for a small company like ours to do a good job at marketing, but it's not impossible. I think Team Meat and The Behemoth set examples that we can all learn a thing or two from. Basically, we try to do as much as we can with as little money as possible. Technically, we have no marketing budget at all, so talking to people like you and directly with our fans is our number 1 way of getting the word out.

Flashing back now to the company' s origins. Can you talk about the creation of Twisted Pixel - what was the original thinking behind the company and how and where did you set up your offices?

There are three founders: Josh Bear, Frank Wilson, and myself. We all quit our day jobs working for another studio in order to pursue XBLA games, which were new at the time. We wanted to make something that made people stop and realize that they don't have to go to retail to find a game with great production values. We founded the company in Indiana, in a small town where Josh grew up, where we worked out of a "dungeon" office space with no heat, in the middle of winter, making demos in fingerless gloves.

Those were some dark days, but the hard work paid off when The Maw was eventually greenlit by David Edery at Microsoft, who now runs his own independent game studio called Spry Fox. We then staffed up to about 8 full time people to make The Maw, after which we realized we needed some more help but couldn't convince anyone to come to Indiana, so we decided to move to Austin where we made Splosion Man and Comic Jumper. Now we're up to 25 people and working on two new projects that we'll be announcing soon (check out our website!).

And who decided on the company name and why?

It was a collaboration between Josh, Frank and I. I remember we wanted something that sounded professional and simple, but not too stiff. Eventually my screen saver turned on, which has thousands of swirling particles on it, and we came up with Twisted Pixel.

Over the intervening period how has the TP developed and what have been the biggest changes to it?

We've grown the company very slowly and carefully. It's something we're actually very reluctant to do, to be honest. We like small teams, and don't want to get so big that we need help with management and production and stuff. So we turn down a lot of work so that we can stay lean and agile. Everyone at the company contributes to the games in a meaningful way, there's no extraneous overhead, and that's the way we like it. But the biggest change has definitely been going from 8 dudes in a basement to a team of 25, all of whom are amazingly talented and personal friends of mine. I'm not sure there's another team anywhere that, pound for pound, can repeatedly accomplish what these guys can in such short amounts of time.

Looking back at The Maw now, how do you feel about it and would there be anything you'd do different approaching it with the development knowledge you have now?

Of course there's a part of me that looks at The Maw and cringes a little bit because it's so primitive in comparison to what we're making now. But mostly I'm incredibly proud of what we accomplished, especially when we see fans continuing to be eager to play it at conventions and loving the characters. You have to understand, when we started The Maw we had no engine or tools of any kind. We literally opened up Visual Studio and started writing the first line of code at the same time the designers were writing up the game design. That's pretty insane, but the team ended up getting a robust engine and kick ass tool thanks to Frank, who is literally the best programmer I've ever met.

What was the development process for Splosion Man and Comic Jumper like? Did both games and character designs come out nearly fully-formed to begin with, or are there some interesting off-shoots that occurred in the process of development?

Splosion Man's character design came pretty quickly, but the team did a bunch of alternate designs just to see if we could find something we liked better, but ultimately we went with the initial character. Comic Jumper was even easier because Captain Smiley and Star are actually characters that Josh has been drawing and wanting to make into a game since he was in 7th grade. He's got a bunch of old comics he made himself with crayons and stuff, it's pretty cool. And those character designs really didn't change much at all over the past 20 years. However, CJ has over 40 speaking characters, and they all needed to be designed, so there was still a lot of work in coming up with the look for all those characters, which our lead illustrator Brandon Ford did an awesome job with.

Splosion Man premise and control is fairly simple, using your explosive powers to leap over platforms, but it' s the level design that proves devious. Comic Jumper in comparison has your hands and fingers glued to the controller to pull off all his moves. Did the emphasis on quick reactions in the former dictate a simpler control scheme, and in this day and age where making games (initially anyway) accessible to everyone seems the done deal, was there a worry that Comic Jumper might turn off casuals?

We try very hard to make all of our games playable by everyone. We work so hard on our games and tend to have such wacky endings that we want everyone to see the whole thing. But we think that you can achieve that in a variety of ways. In The Maw, we had an exploration and puzzle platformer where it was impossible to die. In Splosion Man, we had a game that was easy to pick up but difficult to master, and to compensate we have the "Way of the Coward" to make sure that everyone could make it to the end if they wanted to, as long as they don't mind a small hit to their pride. In Comic Jumper, we made a game that was in some ways like, say, Symphony of the Night, where if you are finding a level to be difficult, you can always grind in the challenge levels and past missions to make yourself strong enough to move on.

How are new titles pitched? Is there brainstorming sessions, and have you a clear intention of what types of games to make, or even some genres you definitely would not want to work in?

We have so many ideas here that it would be impossible to make them all in our lifetime. We're interested in all genres -- we've got concepts that are puzzle games, RPG's, racing games, party games, fighting games, and so on. There's only one thing that we need to have in every game, and that is strong personality and character. Other than that, we've got ideas all over the map. The trick is finding the ones that everyone here really wants to make together. That makes all the difference in the world.

What do you think of the revival of the 2D platformer in recent years, and that its partly due to indie titles resurrecting the genre?

I think a lot of games, especially a few years ago when 3D became practical and surged in usage, fall into the trap of wanting to be graphically impressive at the cost of everything else. I think in some ways, film went through something similar when CGI was becoming practical and we started seeing it get overused. It took a while before filmmakers learned how to use CGI to tell a better story instead of doing things like make an entirely CG movie that takes place in the uncanny valley.

I think developers today are finally learning how to use 3D properly -- it has its place, it comes with challenges, and doesn't need to be used for every game. 2D is still a completely viable, and often times more suitable, approach to gameplay. I hope we see a lot more awesome 2D games on modern hardware, there's so much cool stuff you could do with that.

Have you any intent, or would be interested in, developing for the 3DS? Or even PSP2?

No intent, as of yet, but I could definitely see us being interested in pairing one of our concepts to a cool handheld platform. Obviously the hardware needs to have a compelling user base, which I'm not sure the PSP2 will have, but I'm certain the 3DS will. At the same time, though, we've got a good thing going on XBLA right now.

On a similar vein - what do you think about both iPhone and iPad breaking into the handheld market? Interesting for you?

Talk about compelling user base! But the thing about those platforms is there's no controller. I wish you could use a controller on an iPad.

Could you see yourselves making a break into retail releases, or at least release a compilation of your current back catalogue onto disc?

I'd love to do a Twisted Pixel compilation disc, that'd be awesome. Not sure why we'd want to do a retail game, though. Retailers, manufacturing, shipping, storage, sell backs, and all that stuff just makes the economics of retail ugly, especially considering that nowadays you need a bigger budget game to compete in those channels, which puts you at higher risk. We like downloadable, and find it ironic that many people think developers like us need to "break into" retail, while bigger retail developers and publishers are trying their hand at downloadable games and finding it hard to "break into".

In terms of post-launch DLC, is it worth the time, money and effort for smaller companies to do when compared to the likely returns from sales? Or is it safer to move onto the next big thing?

That's a great question, and I have mixed feelings on this. We tried DLC with The Maw, and while it did okay for us, it was met with some harsh reactions. So ever since then we've favoured the idea of moving on to the next thing more. But there are other developers out there taking the DLC approach to new heights. So I'm not sure, we'll have to see.

The digital scene has thrived and expanded massively in the last few years, at least in its exposure on the console market. Would you have predicted such a success, and where does it go from here?

I don't think anyone saw digital distribution on consoles being as much of a hit as it has been. It caught everyone off guard, and the manufacturers are scrambling to grow and capitalize it, while publishers are trying to figure out how they can too, while not pissing off their retail partners. It's easy to forget that just a few years ago there was no such thing as downloadable console games. And since their emergence, the scope and quality and budgets of these games have practically been doubling every year. It's huge, and only getting huger.

Outside your own work, what titles have been exciting you the most?

I love Super Meat Boy, even though I've recently found myself not returning to it. I just tried Pac Man CE DX the other night, and that game is a masterpiece. I'm also playing through Heavy Rain and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow right now. I'm probably most excited to play Donkey Kong Country Returns right now.

Would you consider sequels for your pre-existing titles?

We take the same approach to sequels that Pixar does. We kind of hate the idea of them, but if someone has a super compelling idea for something we could do with it, like a great story and/or a new gameplay mechanic, then we wouldn't say no to that.

We also asked Twisted Pixel to snap a few photos to give the world an idea of what its daily studio life is like. They say a picture can paint a thousand words. We have no words for the results in the gallery below.

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