I interview Micheal “Kayin” O’Reily, who created I Wanna Be The Guy. His next game is called Brave Earth: Prologue.
Okay, so you were at ROFLCON recently? I have no idea what that is, so could you explain it to me?
It was basically a convention for…internet nobodies. It was so painful when an old person would look at me and started asking, “Is there anybody here? Are there any famous people around?” Then I’d have to try to explain that we were all a bunch of almost famous people rolled together to make one famous person.
Sounds like fun.
It actually was a lot of fun. There were people from Reddit, from Google, a few game design guys. I would say that the game designers were the most atypical ones there, since [the convention] was mostly celebrating internet culture. There were about a thousand people in attendance, and one out of eight was a guest. Everyone didn’t have a panel, but one in eight did something crazy on the internet. I even got to talk with Bennett Foddy, the guy who made QWOP and GIRP.
I’ve never been able to do well at that QWOP.
Yeah, and me and a few other guys just had a high brow conversation about difficulty in games.
Did you guys talk about modern games, classics, the general difficulty of games?
Actually we didn’t talk about too many particular games, just the psychology of difficulty in general. Also, the weird things that keeps people playing difficult games. Bennet said that “QWOP isn’t very hard”. The point that he’s making is that after people playing for a while will make it to a far distance. But if you make someone play something like Space Invaders, how many people can last playing that? He was basically saying that the execution of playing QWOP involves something normally so simple (running) that people overthink it.
So it becomes so easy that it turns difficult?
Did you do anything else interesting there?
I talked to Jason Scott, the guy that runs Textfiles.com. We were talking about game preservation. All of these old games up to even the PS2 era are insanely well-preserved. You can emulate them, you can play clones, or do just about anything. Then we get to modern games and XBLA titles…and what is going to happen to these games?
So not only will these games be accessible, will anyone even want to play them?
Emulating these machines gets harder and harder. The PS1 is like a toaster that plays 3D games. But these newer systems make the difficulty of emulation go up exponentially. So we’ll see some of the more popular games get preserved. But one of the joys for me is having the entire NES library at my fingertips. You can play a lot of awful games, and it’s just fun to do. We already have MMOs that you’ll never be able to play again.
So what about something like the PS3? You have a strange architecture as well as the largeness of the games. I remember reading that MSG4 uses nearly an entire Blu-Ray disc.
Something like Metal Gear will probably be continually released indefinitely, but all those more obscure titles? Where do you even begin to emulate the Cell Processor? Even the original Xbox is still challenging.
So, how does the difficulty of Brave Earth differ from IWBTG?
It’s very different. It’s Castlevania hard, and that’s about it. It actually might be a little easier. I don’t want the reputation as that guy who only makes insanely hard games.
Is it more similar to Castlevania 1 or 2?
It’s actually more similar to 3. I do believe in tough difficulty, and I’m still making a few side levels for IWBTG as a break. It started with those guys in the Fighting Game Community playing the game on stream. I had Mr. Wizard ask if I could make some levels for Flo to play at EVO. Maybe in 2 months there will be some IWBTG material released, tentatively named I Wanna Be the Guy: Gaiden.
Is there a small modding scene for your game?
When it comes to modding, not so much. But fangames, definitely.
Have you played any of them?
Most of them are bad. But most of them, that is the first thing they’ve ever done. And for first games, a lot of them don’t do badly. They’re better than the crap I did when I was learning. I think a central part of IWBTG is that it is funny. The difficulty serves the comedy. A lot of the fangames just want to be difficult for the sake of being difficult, and they have no sense of comedic timing. I do like I wanna be the Boshi though. The guy who made it has a very different sense of humor than me, and it’s just really funny.
Are you any good at IWBTG?
I have a Let’s Play on Youtube, and I think I’m pretty good. I get caught up in a few spots since I’m not perfect. Everyone has their bosses that they suck at, and for me it’s the Clown Cars. It’s not even that it’s hard, it just takes a long time to get to the hard part and it’s annoying. I’ve never met anyone that says that Dracula is easy either. Any speedrun is going to do Dracula first, because he can fuck it up.
So, how do you test the difficulty for your games? How do you get the “appropriate” level of difficulty in?
My rule of thumb is that if I can beat it after making it and a few times of testing, then it is probably hard enough for everyone else. It should be a little hard for me to do, so then its hard enough for everyone else. For the new IWBTG stuff that I’m working on, I just made one trap, and sent it to a few friends. I said “I just want you to play this little bit”. I wanted them to tell me every reason for why they died, and that goes into the process of tricking people. I’ve gotten good at predicting what people will do now, but earlier I had to figure out ways to make it fair.
What are some of the most difficult games that you’ve ever played, and what draws you to them?
The original Ninja Gaiden for NES. I’ve been able to do a single continue run for most NES games. But Ninja Gaiden I don’t even bother with. A friend say it has a “greasy” quality to it, which basically means that the entire game is filled with nonsensical bullshit and hard to avoid damage.
So will you be able to control your jump in midair for Brave Earth: Prologue?
No! Though I’m thinking about making the difficulty really tweakable, like a kind of nuts and bolts dip-switch style thing. I don’t think it would kill the game if you could change direction, but there won’t be real air control for the normal difficulties; you’ll have to commit to your jumps.
Is Brave Earth: Prologue a more serious game?
Yes, Brave Earth will be more serious in tone. A lot of the dialogue is a little tropey and light, since its constrained by NES text limits. The tone of the game is kind of dark and gory. A little darker than Castlevania.
Do you have a specific length for designing the games?
I started off with smaller plans, and then I decided for bigger plans. For IWBTG, I decided that there were 8 bosses, and a path involved for getting to each of them. It’s a lot trickier with Brave Earth, since I’m using multiple characters on multiple paths at the same time. I actually had to make a timeline diagram of what goes on so I can keep things consistent. I love when you see cohesion in the game. You can see or feel things that happen along other characters paths while playing a different character. For IWBTG:G, I want the player to come back to a familiar areas so I can fuck with them.
I love when you see cohesion in the game. You can see or feel things that happen along other characters paths on a different character. For IWBTG, I want the player to come back to a familiar area and then I’m going to fuck with them. I also have a 3D map, and there is no inconsistency with the paths. All the levels in the game link up with each other.
Are you doing all the artwork for Brave Earth on your own?
Yeah, I’m not stealing anything! I do have a friend who is helping me with pixel art, and she’s doing it in the limitations and palette that I want. For the most part, I make all the art. I’m not doing the music. But I didn’t want to have any legal battles or anything.
What do you think about the new style in indie games to feature more retro graphics?
That’s kind of a two-part answer. Firstly, it’s easier. You still have to apply the same ideas if you’re doing 2D or 3D, but the process is less time-consuming. The important thing when working on indie games is to iterate rapidly. If you work for 10 hours on some tiles that you’ll never use, then it’s a big deal. It gets even worse if you have a job. Most people trying to make Indie games also have other jobs.
Secondly, the aesthetic that has developed around pixel art isn’t even retro anymore, and I don’t know what to make of it. People like it. It looks nice and minimalistic. But a lot of people get annoyed because they see modern pixel art ad disingenuous. “I’m pixel art but I don’t care about any of the limitations!”. I try to stick close to the limits of the NES. A lot of games like Fez are pixel art but 3D, but VVVVVV stays really true to the Commodore 64. In the end, it’s a matter of preference.
Does the narrative serve as a vehicle for the gameplay?
It’s just a fun little thing. It’s technically not even necessary; I already let people just turn it off in the options menu. I just want people to have fun playing the game. I’ll do things like scatter fluff around, though for the people who want to see it. At first I intended this as a side project, a set up for the Metroidvania I want to make. Now it can stand on it’s own. Prologue will still set up some of the characters and plot for Tower In The Sky.
Will we be seeing OSX and iOs/Android ports?
Not for Brave Earth: Prologue or IWBTG:G. After that? Maybe OSX, but I can’t even begin to think about porting it to mobile. The controls are too restrictive, and the type of gameplay that I like requires tight controls. It isn’t impossible, but I can’t work on a platform that I wouldn’t want to play myself. Most of the games that I like on iOS are roguelikes, and I don’t want to force gameplay that isn’t suited for the platform. Maybe one day they’ll come up with a standardized controller. It could just be a part of the protective case, like a shell.
I think what Apple would need to do is make an API for controllers, so it is just consistent no matter what add-on you use. It’s funny that Apple is now so entrenched in the gaming market, because it’s obvious that they don’t even care about it.
So do you see Nintendo taking back market share from Apple?
Maybe, since the 3DS is their most successful handheld in units sold in a long time. It isn’t doing badly. It’s just that percentage wise it has become insignificant. Real games aren’t losing out; the pie is just getting bigger.
Then what do you think about the big publishers increasingly bringing their games to a larger audience?
As games get more expensive, it’s hard to justify alienating a large amount of players to be profitable. If 90% of games are doing that, then the 10% of games that are actually trying to be hardcore stand out more. Some of them succeed even though they’re niche games. I think a big difference is between the ‘triple A’ game and the ‘A’ game.
What is the difference? Amount of production value? Like Uncharted 3 vs. Dark Souls?
Yeah, but if you look at the two, there is only 10% more polish between the two. The main difference is usually just effects. They have to focus on unique things, like dynamic sand. Which is just…alright? You don’t need a big studio to make a big game.
Indie games have gotten a lot more popular since IWBTG. What do you think of your competition?
I’ve always been a bad member of the indie community. I don’t like most indie games. I’m very gameplay oriented. If you’re going to make an artistic game don’t half ass it. I’m going to compare it to artistic movements and such. It can’t be “just good for a game”. I’m not the target audience. A lot of the indie community just tries to sustain itself over the art, but I need the gameplay.
I’d like to see something like Shadow of the Colossus where the story and gameplay are integrated. And it’s also fun too. We can all be better by taking this seriously and proving everyone with criticism, so we all improve. It’s better that they do try than just staying stagnant. We need to find out the strengths of games as a medium. We’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Could you share one unusual secret about yourself or games?
When I released IWBTG, I still hadn’t beaten The Guy. I was just too tired, I gave it to my beta testers, they got it, and I released the game. I didn’t have the patience anymore. There goes my hypocrisy as a game designer.
Thanks for talking to us, we appreciate the interview.
No problem, I love doing this stuff. Follow me on twitter!