I know it’s been awhile since I followed up with my previous article but have I got a doozy for you folks: a full on interview with indie developer Twofold Secret. They may not be the biggest names but if you want to get into the business of actually making games it’s good to start small. After all, unless you’ve worked most of your life on game design, you aren’t exactly a hot item for any industry giants. Because of technical difficulties I was unable to get the audio of the interview cleared up to an acceptable level so here is the full transcript (there will be pictures).
Hey guys, it’s great to have you here. Why don’t we start off by going into what led you two to game design in the first place.
Chris: So I had always been interested in games as a kid obviously well playing them, that kind of thing, and I loved doodling game ideas. I mean, you know, this was when I was like nine, or something like that, so they weren’t particularily sophisticated or anything like that, but it was like “hey what if I could make my own nintendo game,” that kind of stuff. I never really seriously tryed it, you know I was always into progamming computers and things like that, and sometimes I would design quote unquote kind of games myself as way to program, but it never was really very serious, until, well I don’t know that it was particularly serious when we first met Joel and I, but things seemed to be moving in a real direction. We both were at, what, Washington college, this small college over on the eastern shore of Maryland, and we happened to be next door to each other in our dormitory. We started hanging out and I guess one thing led to another and I think… wow can we cut that last bit out?
No no that’s definitely going in.
Chris: I think the formative experience, as it were, for us, which leads into the game we ended up sort of designing at first was that we both were playing Silent Hill at the same time. Yeah, so we would walk to class together and just be like “what the hell is going on in this game?” and we, you know, pulled out theories and all that kind of thing, and it was interesting, because it eventually boiled down to like a race to see who would finish it first, because it was like “don’t tell me about it, I don’t want to know, like, what happens.” So from there, I guess, it was just we were essentially doing the grown up, college version of doodling game ideas, which was completely ridiculous, which was the 3D survival horror time travel concept that we spent a lot of time thinking about and like drawing maps and things like that, the kind of thing that you can do if you’re feeling creative, but you don’t have the actual programming skills to actually back it up.
(giggling fills the Skype call)
Right exactly. So that never went any where for realz, but it had alwasy been a sort of idea in the back of our heads. And then I guess it was 2 or 3 years ago I was taking a grad class in programming in Java script, and for the final project one of the options was to make a game, so I did, and it was very very rudimentary, it was like a maze game basically, and I realized it was, it worked terribly, it was rattelying at like 3 frames a second because it was like Java script, so that’s, it was just not happening basically. So any way I tried out this thing I’d heard about called Flixel it was like this upgrade for Flash, and it worked like really well. At the time I said “so hey Joel I have this working game, more or less, do you wanna draw” I stole graphics from the first Zelda game, and I was like “Hey Joel do you wanna make like actual graphics for this?” and that’s sort of where the beginnings of our first game really happened. I mean changed a lot in the space that we did it, but it only took like a month and a half from there, from that point to actually produce and put it out.
Oh yeah, that, oh go on Joel
Joel: Just on my side of things I also started playing games very young. My dad got us an Intelivision, when I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7 years old, so that was something that we actually had in the home, just these crazy worlds I had never seen before. If you’ve ever seen Intelivision graphics there just Atari style, they were a little more detailed, but you know. Once the Nintendo came out, and same thing, just doodling in notebooks, I used to draw all the time, Mario levels, Mario Bros. levels, you know, just creating my entire levels and being like “I’m going to make these some day.” As I got older I fiddled around with things like Quick Basic, and what ever game making programs I could get my hands on, basically. things like the Adventure Construction Kit, and you know other things along those lines, but it never… I was never a very good programmer, you know, I didn’t have a mind for it, so again, technical skills being the limiting factor, so it never really went any where, but as Chris said once we met suddenly with two people each having skills that complimented each other was a whole different world, and to skip forward again to our first game where once we put it together, and as Chris said we did it in about a month and a half, it’s like “hey, we can actually do this.” You know as you said, Make the damn game. It was like “Oh, you know what, once we put our minds to it, focused on something we could accomplish, not a 3D survival horror game, you know, it wasn’t so daunting a task anymore.” and you know from there we’ve just grown.
Yeah, and the experience you’re talking about is something that I feel like almost anyone who has had gamer friends or been a gamer for a while knows of the person who has this really great idea for a game but just absolutely no knowledge of how to impliment it. Alright, so, I’ve played… I only see four games on your website, and I assume that’s your entire gameography, or catalog, and none of these are on the Steam sale, I’m shocked, but there seems to be some underlying threads that connect them all, a kind of use of dream logic, a narrative that slowly drips in to the game. What would you say is like an underlying ethos for Twofold Secret. What’s your kind of mission statement?
Chris: We have an official mission statement believe it or not. Well I don’t know if it’s really a mission statement it’s more of a motto. It is just simply, “we make games that we love,” and I mean that was just sort of generic enough, or general enough, that it covers a lot of stuff. I think, Joel, didn’t some one at like a exhibition come up and ask you what the themes of our games were and it was like loneliness and isolation.
Joel: Yeah, loneliness and isolation.
Well you know those are very real themes for a lot of people that play video games.
Chris: We both come from a writing background, we’re both writers, English students, creative writing majors, and for us narrative is vital, and it has to be hand in hand with the gameplay, and often where our games start is with the story idea, and it’s just you know that seed of a story, and growing it into the final product, figuring out how to merge the narrative with the game play, but you know, as you said it’s that slow drip, because, I’ll stay off my soap box here, you know a lot of times a game is just, you know, here’s the story, accept it, play.
Yeah, did you get a chance to play the Stanley Parable
Joel: No actually
It was done as a Source Mod, and the player has a degree of control, but besides choosing one of a couple branching paths, every single action in the game is kind of flat out explained to the player through a very talented narrator. There’s great presentation, but it’s kind of the opposite of the, you know, like I was saying, with the slow drip, it’s sort of, an entirely extrinsic narrative and there’s nothing inherently in the gameplay that sort of resonates with the story.
Joel: Well I think like a lot of my favorite games to play have been ones where the storyline is tricky to figure out, but everything is not as it seems. It can get kind of cliched, but to me the sort of, the biggest example I can think of off the top of my head was the original Metroid. Where there was very little explanation at all at the beginning. It was like “uhhhh, you can read the instruction manual you can find out sort of that there’s a world here” but if you watch the title scene it’s very simple, it’s like you’re at this planet, go kill some Metroids I think. I think that’s all it says, and you know, there’s not, obviously, the deepest of story lines to that game, but it does feel like an intentionally, or the design of it is intentional, like it’s not just where you came across some random levels that were designed to test your skills, basically, it’s like you’re walking into a world, and you get a sense of location, you get a sense of, perhaps, a slight past to it. That’s what I really like about it. I have a theory, or at least I try to design our stuff so that if you don’t care at all about storyline, you could still play the games and get something out of it. So like, you know, with the first one, Where We Remain, was if you want to read those tablets, you can get some story line and back story, but if you don’t want to, by all means ignore it. Whether that’s like the best game play experience, or what ever, I don’t know, at least, it’s possible, and like I feel like the side effect to that is that the story line sort of comes and drips and drops basically. It doesn’t come and arrive, because there’s nothing I hate, and I like story in games, and there’s nothing I hate worse than like, alright press the start button and like settle in because I’m about to explain the plot line. Like in Metal Gear for instance: those games I love, but after a certain point it’s just like “Oh God just let me play the game please.”
Yeah yeah, I mean, again like what you were talking about with merging gameplay with story. It’s an interesting kind of hyper advanced pacman style game play, and then you watch movies. The two things are so completely partitioned.
Joel: And I think a lot of that comes, again games I love, Final Fantasy, love Final Fantasy 4, Final Fantasy 6, you know, incredible stories, but you know, that was that route of “ok here’s the story, now go play the game, now here’s the story again.” That heritage has grown, and if you play any JRPG these days it’s still the same way. And there’s a place for that, there’s definitely a place for it, but that’s definitely not what we want to do.
I think that’s kind of the next big sort of hurdle that gaming is kind of trying to get over in terms of gaming really starting to grow into an art form, because I mean, you look at some of the big budget games right now and a lot of them are just you know, oh it’s great music on top of pretty interesting game play, and then it’s kind of a great movei that you watch in segments in between the game play. Which, you know, the whole of it can be really good, but it’s still, it’s not as complete as it could be.
Chris: Is that difference between feeling like you’re a part of a world, and having a world presented to you and you’re along for the ride.
Joel: Also in a weird way, in theory it should feel great if an entire game world was designed for your benefit, but in a lot ofgames where it feels like shallow, basically, where it’s like “this building over here, it’s only purpose is to have a mission where you go in and you rescue some body,” it doesn’t have an existence outside of that. and that just feels less exciting to have a world like that, where it’s just sort of egocentric. I would rather have things be less egocentric.
I’m going to jump into some of the questions that people have been asking. Just in a sense of game mechanics that outside of what you can do with code, ever since starting Twofold Secret, what have you kind of learned about your approach to game mechanics or how do actually make kind of the nuts and bolts of the game come together, like objective and movement and such.
Joel: Initially I was very much of the school of like “ok I’m going to design a game, I’m going to write up this huge design document because I want to have everything planned out,”
Chris: Which is what you hear about people doing in the industry
Joel: Right, so you need to have your design document you need to figure everything out, map it all out, and it’s honestly as I’ve learned not for what we’re doing any way, I can’t speak on a professional industry level or anything, but for our team it’s just not the right thing to do because it’s such an organic process. You end up throwing out 90% of that design document, and now we’ve shifted more to a more organic model of “ok what’s our idea and how do you want to dvelope” we’ve recently taken up with paper prototyping. which is a great way to give you a tangible feel for what you’re creating with out even writing a linhe of code. It’s like “ok we’re working on a title now nd we’ve sat down last week and we’re just we cut up a bunch of index cards and we cup up a bunch of little pieces, and dice out, and you know put it all out on the table in front of us” and it actually not only changed the mechanics, but it also put us in a new direction because we’re like, “ok we’re looking at this and while it’s not, you know on the computer screen it’s this is how the game will be presented,” and we decided “we need to look at it in a different way, wouldn’t it be more interesting if we had x instead”
Chris: I mean I think the design document makes a lot of sense if you have a game that costs several million dollars to make, you have to get all your ducks in a row before you actually start drawing stuff and doing the sound doing level design and all that kind of thing, because if you go down a really bad path and you haven’t figured it out you’re in a lot of trouble. For us, because we’re working on a much smaller scale, it makes sense for us to be able to tweek stuff as we go, and the other part is that we’re so new at it. We’ve made 4 games, which is awesome, but I still think we’re at the beginning of the curve on this stuff, and so paper is super cheap to change, like if something sucks just change it just draw something different, like it’s so much faster and so much easier for you to essentially to play computer, basically. The thing that really won me over, Joel I hop that you can remember the title of the book that you shared with me, that sort of introduced the concept to me, because I had heard of paper prototyping when you’re like designing a computer interface, like a desktop application, or something like that, and I thought, “Well paper prototyping makes a lot of sense for like certain kind of games where like it’s a turn based thing, sort of like board games,” but the example in the book, which Joel will hopefully chime in with.
Joel: I’m trying remember the name of it now, I think the name was The Game Design Workshop (he was right), but don’t quote me on that.
Chris: Yeah we’re trying to figure that out.
Some one in the comments can figure it out or you can post it in the comments.
Chris: Right, exactly. Any way they were talking about how essentially they paper prototyped a First Person Shooter, which I was like “wwaaaaahhhhhh?” But they actually did it, so that, it was really clever, they had like, little figures, and you could say like, they would simulate several seconds of game play by like rolling a die or something like that, and saying “ok you can move 4 squares.” and “oh no here comes some bad out from behind this corner” and you could sort of play out what each level was going to be like, and I was like “that’s a really clever way to do it,” because we have even as small as we are we have a bunch of, well not a bunch, but a couple of prototypes that just never really took off exactly because we just got to invested , I think we tried to build something out to far before we thought about like the basics of the game design, to figure out “is this game actually going to be fun to play?”
Wow that was actually incredibly insightful, but you mentioned dice rolling. Is there any chance you’re going to be working on an RPG because one of the guys in the comments was actually kind of curious about kind of where do you see RPGs going because every game and it’s cousin seems to have some kind of shoe horned in RPG mechanic or unlock mechanic for multiplayer.
Chris: The next thing we’re working on isn’t really going to be an RPG, but I certainly would enjoy the prospect. The thing, for like designing them, the thing that I have a stumbling point over is like designing a battle system or any kind of like, the actual game play part of it that’s going to be interesting and new, more importantly new, because there’s already been so much stuff out there. I can say that the one game that was giving me a lot of ideas or inspiration any way, giving me new ways of thinking about it would be the Devil Survivor series, and probably Final Fantasy Tactics would be another along those lines where it is actually not just choose fight, choose magic, and choose your spell, you know like the old systems of like Final Fantasy, and Dragon Warrior, like those are my big reference points. Joel’s, I think, played a bunch more, so he has more to draw on as far as experience and stuff like that.
Joel: Yeah, I mean the trick with an RPG, I mean again I used to play around with RPG Maker all the time because that’s great, grew up with Final Fantasy “going to make my own”, but again there’s a scope issue, and a scale. It’s easy to say “we’re going to make the most amazing RPG ever,” but it’s a lot of work to make an RPG, because first you have to have a story that’s goign to be engrossing, enough to keep people interested, but then, it’s very easy to be like, “ok let’s make something that could be easily blossom into 30 hours of game play”, and you know that’s a lot to fill in. As Chris says, you have to keep it interesting, and I mean there is a certain benifit to being able to just sit down with a very familiar system, reuse the active time battle, and just people know it, they’re comfortable with it, they don’t have to think about it, but that’s not a direction that we want to go. We want to bring something new to it. So it’s an interesting prospect, but not something we’re tackling yet. In terms of where RPGs are heading in general, you know I’ve actually been playing Xenoblade on the Wii right now, and it’s a great game, it’s very strange because the influence of MMOs and Monster Hunter is just so tangible in everything that comes out recently. It’s that idea that, I mean Xenoblade is great it’s a humongous world, and the story is interesting, but there’s so much peripheral stuff to think about. You know you walk in any town and there’s a million exclamation points over every NPCs head because they all have a quest that they want you to do. It has nothing to do with the story, they just want you to go out and find me 5 shiny rocks up on the mountain side, and you can ignore it, but the game even tells you, which I thought was hilarious “these are side quests you don’t have to do them, but if you don’t the game is going to be harder”.
Chris: Right and that to me is one of the questions that I try to ask all the time, how does this game mechanice, like how can you justify this in a story sense. I mean, I’ve never played Xenoblade so I don’t know the specifics, but even the thing that I can think of as far as fetch quests that’s sort of tied in to the story, like in Chronocross, for example, you’re girlfriend at the beginning of the game tells you to pull some, I think they’re like dragon scales or something like that, and it’s like “alright, there’s sort of a reason for that, that’s not just completely like “go waste some time over there and we’re going to build in some game play that’s probably going to be fun, but we don’t really have anything, it’s not driving the storyline forward, it’s not really telling you anything about a character. That’s what I think is a hard challenge for a large style RPG in general is that to me I always feel like there’s a point where like, well not always but often a point where the scope or the focus of the storyline kind of drifts a little bit. For me I like have yet to finish Final Fantasy 7 because I always hit that part with the Gold Saucer, I think that was on disk 2, and I’m just like “why are we stopping to gamble or what ever?” and it’s just the sprawl just hit me at that point and I lost interest.
Yeah, I had a similar issue with Oblivion, where I just paused it, and I thought “well the world is about to end, why am I trying to become the head of a thieves guild, why am I doing this whole elaborate plan of like seeing when some one leaves their house and breaking in and stealing everything that’s made of silver and fencing it.
Joel: and that get’s back to the solipsism that Chris was talking about, you know, you are the world, no matter how long you screw around in Oblivion, the world won’t end. You know, the deamons they’re going to hold off, you can go work on you’re alchemy.
Chris: I love the idea of, I think it was Dragon Warrior 4 for the Nintendo where you play like 4 different characters and one of the characters you played is just the merchant in the shop, and it was like “well you’re going to go up to the shop and you’re wife s going to hand you a sandwich when you leave the door and you’re job is to make money like a real person,” and like, I love the idea of playing somebody, but the world didn’t revolve around you, you were just one tiny part of it.
Joel: A game that I always reference, which is one of my favorites growing up, is Wizardry 7, which is a very old fashioned, western style CRPG. You create your character’s from scratch, you walk through the world, but it had a very interesting feature for the time, in that there were other parties, there were a bunch of different races in the world that were all basically trying to accomplish the same thing, everyone wanted to get the “great floozle of power.”
Chris: Was that the actual thing?
Joel: It was not, but-
The great plot device of power.
Chris: -the interesting thing was that you collected these maps from different dungeons, which were clues on how to get to the end point, but the computer player, or the computer, if you took to much time, could actually beat you to these maps. These NPCs were out and about in the world, and you could run into them. They would always be in different places, they could fight and kill each other, so you might meet and NPC, he might go off and get a map while you’re screwing around in some other town, and then you find out later that a different NPC went and killed him and took the map, and this is all happening outside of your control. Looking back on it now there’s some triggeres that they were using to make it seem more alive than it actually was, but it just gave that impression of “this is a world beyond what I’m doing” and it just made it feel so much more alive, and I feel like most games just haven’t followed up on that. You know, Skyrim and Oblivion, yes the people do stuff, but they do just wait around for you in terms of the main story of the game, and nothing happens until you make it happen.
One other person had a question. This is actually getting kind of personal, how do you guys keep yourselves kind of motivated? Is there any kind of Dark Night of the Soul while you were making Sought or something?
Joel: Chris was talking about one of the projects that we abandoned, and it’s tough because it’s something that I had come up with and I was really excited about it, and, as Chris was kind of saying, the more we kind of were slogging through it, the more it didn’t feel right, and I knew it wasn’t going the way I wanted it to, but I didn’t want to admit that, and yeah, you kind of get to that point where you’re like “well, we don’t wanna, we’re not excited about this, we’re not enjoying it, we put a lot of work into and we don’t just want to throw it away, but if we keep doing it, it’s not going to end well, we’re not going to be happy with it, we’re going to feel bad, ” so you just have to let it go, but it is that just kind of moment when you have to go “I am attached to this, this is my baby I don’t want to just throw it away, but some times you just have to.”
Chris: I guess the counter point to that is, I guess I don’t really see it, abandoning things is a little to strong of a term. I don’t see it as us throwing things away to be lost forever. All the work we did for it, I honestly believe we could totally come back to the idea we had and twist it a little bit and try a different take on it. We haven’t lost anything really, apart from our own ego or whatever.
Joel: Exactly, its’ not a failure because we learned something.
Chris: And we still have a ton of assest, a ton of code siting around for it, and it’s like ” we could adapt this into something completely different.” and we learned how to improve our process, and I feel like that’s something that you have to be ruthless with yourself, in the whole process, you have to be willing to throw stuff away. The earlier you do it probably the better off you are. I think the general of motivation, because you never really worry about that to much, because it’s something, it’s so strange to me, because this isn’t our day jobs, game making, so this week has been incredibly stressfull at my day job, so usually when I get home I’m just like “I would like to turn off my brain please.” but inevitably, after about an hour, or two, I’m like “hmm, lets go open up the code and add some new stuff, because I am strangely drawn to it.” and the thing is I just enjoy the experience of intrinsically, just, obviously there are bad parts like with Sought, there’s always going to be a period, or at least for me there has always been a period where I just detested the game. It’s usually at the very end, and I think, I forget where I heard it, it just seems like the kind of thing where once you end up truly just be tired of it, it’s time to release it and move on, but in general you play a game so many times when you’re testing it, or you’re developing it, that eventually it just get’s like, “agh, this again.” My hope is that we some day create a game that is never like that for us, but we’ll see. That would be an awesome game. I think the key thing is, it’s almost like with anything, it’s like any kind of, I almost want to compare it to exercising or something like that, where it’s like “you have to make it part of your daily life”, and not in like a you don’t have to log hours every day, that would be great, but even if it’s just like doodling in a sketch book , or drawing, like Joel drawing a single sprite, or me putting a little thing onto the game. If you keep doing that every day either you’re going to get to a point where you’re like “this sucks” and move on, or you’re like… and every project gets to a critical mass where it’s like “I’ve sunk a lot of effort into this, this is like 60% done, and we owe it to ourselves to finish this.” Once you hit that mass everything gets a little bit easier, where it’s like you can sort of see, there is that magical moment where you can see in your head, it hasn’t arrived yet, but you can see in your head the finished product, and when you hit that life is really good. It’s just getting there that can be a little tricky and tough.
Chris, Joel, I want to thank you for sitting down at your computers, I know that’s, well that’s probably what you do every day, but any other, plugging for yourself you can fill out the last few minutes with that.
Chris: Alright, well for those who are looking to get started in video game making, I have been working on library; a set of functions, basically, that is designed to make life a lot easier for creating 2D games. If you would like to check it out, the URL is tinyurl.com/livelibzoetrope. Zoetrope is kind of, shoot I can’t remember what it was, it was like a before movies existed, there were these things called zoetropes. Any way, so my goal is to design something that’s like beginner friendly, so if you have an idea for a, you know you just want to get something going, you don’t have to worry about all the boring parts of making a game like “Oh God how do I figure out what keys are being pressed?” and I have this animation, how do I make that happen? My goal is to give people something that will take care of all that stuff and make it really obvious, so I’ve been spending a lot of time making all my tutorials and stuff like that for it. So it’s getting, I just put out version 1.0 back in June, so it’s still early days, and I’m super interested in hearing feed back on it, honestly from people who were new to things, and hearing where they’re having trouble, because that’s the stuff I want to focus on. I want to make it beginner friendly as I possibly can.
Joel: I would also just say if you would like to play our games our website is Twofoldsecret.com, our flash games are up there and our latest indie title Sought is on Indievania.com, which is an indie game market place, it’s a pay what you want model, so if you don’t want to pay anything, that’s great, that is totally ok by us, that’s totally ok, and if you want to give us money that is even better
We like that option more.