Interview with Twisted Pixel Games

The post-PAX love continues as I'll be featuring a series of interviews with the developers of games from the show that caught my eye. First up is my chat with Frank Wilson, CTO and Engineer at Twisted Pixel Games, and one of the people behind the upcoming XBLA title, The Maw.

Thanks very much for taking the time for this interview, Frank.

To start, what can you tell us about Twisted Pixel? The background given for the twelve members listed are quite rich and diverse. How did Twisted Pixel come to be?

Around the time when the Xbox 360 was released, Michael Wilford, Josh Bear, and I saw an opportunity that we were looking for....the chance for a small group of developers to make games for consoles via Xbox Live Arcade. So, we started Twisted Pixel with the goal of making really high quality titles for download.

In the back row from the left of the photo are Sean Riley, Sean Conway, and me (Frank Wilson). In the front row from the left of the photo are Allen Danklefson, Michael Wilford, Mike Henry, John Bodek, and Josh Bear

We all come from a retail game development background so we are very familiar with the time and effort it takes to make quality retail games. A majority of the downloadable games that you see on consoles these days are things like puzzle games or retro titles or other small scale development efforts. While there is certainly a place for those types of games, we feel like one of the areas that is greatly lacking is larger scale more polished games that are like retail games. This is something that we aimed to create with The Maw.

So, once we got The Maw approved for development on Xbox Live Arcade, we were able to hire several of our friends who were behind our cause and also had significant retail game development experience.

Your site states that you're about creative gameplay and impressive presentation. What sort of niche are you aiming to fill with regard to what's already out there? What does Twisted Pixel bring to the table?

Well we don't necessarily want to be "the company that does platformers" or "the company that does puzzle games" or "the company that does sports games". We have ideas for games of all genres, so one of the most important things to us is ensuring that our games have a high production value. We want people to be able to have fun watching others play our game as well as playing it themselves.

What we really want to be is "the company that does quality character-driven games". Aside from making a game look pretty and have fun gameplay, we feel that having expressive characters really adds to the fun of playing and watching any game. We have lots of ideas for characters as well as the ability to give them great personality through animation and technology.

For as small as Twisted Pixel is, we have a lot of experience under our belts. Six of the team members on The Maw have over 5 years of experience in the games industry, so we certainly have the knowledge, ability, and experience to make quality products.

You say that you do contract work, and you've listed NBA Ballers: Chosen One and Blitz: The League 2 as projects. What role did Twisted Pixel play in helping to develop those games?

Primarily this has been engineering tasks, though we are open to design and art contract work as well. Obviously we don't have much control over the design of games that we do contract work for, but we put as much effort into the quality of the areas that we implement as we do with our own projects. On Ballers, we implemented the new story mode, some new gameplay features, as well as the save game and certification code modules for both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions. On Blitz, we implemented several features in training mode and campaign mode including their challenge and reward systems.

Since The Maw is your first original game as a studio, what was the process like getting your own IP off the ground?

Coming up with the idea itself wasn't that hard. We have some really creative people here like Josh Bear (CCO), Sean Riley (design lead on The Maw), and Dave Leung (art director) so we have no shortage of great ideas. The challenge comes in selecting which of our ideas we want to pitch. So, when we decided to pitch The Maw, we actually had three different games that we were pitching around. Some contacts of ours at Microsoft showed more interest in The Maw than the other two, so we decided to take about a month to build a quick demo of what the game would be. We then submitted it to the XBLA approval committee and they approved it.

From my time with it at the recent PAX, The Maw sports an unusually high level of graphic polish and clearly stands out as being more than the "typical" small-scale game available for download. Really, it seems almost like a full-scale action-platformer of sorts. How large is the Maw team proper, how long did it take to put it together, and how does it compare in terms of size to other XBLA games?

I'm glad you noticed the level of polish and the scale of the game compared with other downloadable games. While we were at PAX, there were many people who didn't realize it was a downloadable game until we told them. That tells me that we're achieving our goals. Making the game stand out and have a really high level of quality is something that we strive for as a company.

We have a larger team than most XBLA development teams, but I'm sure you'll agree that it is pretty small based on what we have accomplished with The Maw. The Maw team members include Dave Leung (lead artist), Sean Riley (lead designer/gameplay programming), Mike Henry (gameplay programming), John Bodek (IT/programming), Sean Conway (level designer), Josh Bear (creative director/designer), Michael Wilford (production/programming), and me (engine programming). So, that's 8 people total, many of which bounced between roles and some who were also doing work on other projects too during development of The Maw not to mention that Josh Bear, Michael Wilford, and I were also trying to manage the company and get more work at the same time.

The team worked for roughly 8 to 9 months on the project rolling people on and off as appropriate.

The Maw has as many features and the polish level of a full-scale action-puzzle-platformer. It takes roughly 5 hours to complete the game on your first time through or even longer if you are a completionist. There are over 800 animations in the game, 25 music tracks, over 1000 sound effects, over 150 character and object models, as well as countless other stats that I could throw at you. These numbers rival many retail games on the market today and certainly surpass most if not all of the current games available for download on game consoles.

The download size of The Maw is about 128MB which is super small considering the amount of content in the game. From the very beginning, we put an emphasis on getting as much content as possible into as little space as possible.

The Maw's aesthetic is bright and colorful, almost Disney-esque in some ways. What were the influences or inspirations behind it, and how did the game itself come about?

Although we all contributed to the design of The Maw, the game itself is mostly a brainchild of Josh Bear, Dave Leung, and Sean Riley. The Maw has many inspirations such as all of Pixar's movies, A Boy and His Blob, Mario, Katamari Damacy, Wild 9, and countless others.

Virtually every game we've ever played contributes to what we decided to put or not put in the game. The bright and vibrant world lends itself to the feel of the game. It works together with the animations and personality of all of the characters to make the world seem like a happy place even in not so happy circumstances. Not making the world bright and colorful would have given the game a whole different feel which wouldn't be right for The Maw.

The original idea for the game came about when Josh and Dave were thinking about how cool it would be to have to lead another character around on a leash, but without having direct control over the character being led. The eating naturally followed from that as a purpose for leading the character around. Growing naturally follows from eating, and the rate at which Maw grows just makes the game more fun and adds some style and variability to the puzzles.

Acquiring powers to help solve puzzles is a staple in platformers and happened to fit in well with the design of the game. Though some of The Maw's powers are familiar, we came up with several new powers which aren't typical. We strived to add variety to every level of the game so you get new experiences throughout the game instead of feeling like you're always doing the same thing. Because we wanted the game to be fun and not cause a lot of frustration, we also decided that there would be no death. If you make a mistake in the game, you at most have a small temporary set back and you never have to replay areas over and over to try to get through them.

Do you plan on keeping your IPs with the download format for the time being, or do you have plans to go standard retail?

We feel like the future of games is in digital distribution. The idea of getting the games we want to make to consumers with as few middlemen as possible is very appealing to us. It's like buying produce from a small produce stand instead of buying it from a giant grocery store that has shipped it halfway across the country. It's just cheaper and usually better quality because it hasn't had to go through as much to get to you.

We would like for all of our future titles to be available for download, however we understand that this just doesn't work for some people so we'd be willing to put our games out in a standard retail format too if the opportunity arises so that as many people as possible can enjoy our games.

Is the maw currently slated only for XBLA, or are there any plans for any of the other downoad services?

During PAX we got a lot of requests for other versions from fans, and the PAX 10 competition has generated some interest amongst publishers. So we are certainly interested, but Xbox LIVE Arcade is currently the only announced platform.

The silhouettes shown on the Twisted Pixel site for your new IP appear to be an angel and a devil, rendered in a cartoonish style. Any chance you can tell us something about it?

This is one of the original ideas that we made a demo for prior to developing The Maw. It's a much smaller scale game than The Maw, but it's something that has a lot of personality and production value. We're currently reworking it a bit for a different platform than we originally made the demo while we're working on getting some other new ideas up and running, so it will be some time before anything is revealed about this game.

Finally, this question is something of a tradition at GameCritics.com, as well as at my own blog: Games as art? Are they now? Will they ever be?

Of course games are art. Anything that takes as much time, effort, and creativity as making a game has to be considered art. I don't even know how to defend that because it's so obvious to me.

Now that's the kind of answer that makes sense to me.

Infinite thanks to Frank Wilson of Twisted Pixel Games for the interview, congratulations to the whole team on a game that looks absolutely fantastic, and keep your eyes peeled for The Maw, coming to Xbox Live Arcade soon.

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