Twisted Pixel's CEO, Michael Wilford, Talks The Gunstringer, Kinect & The Notorious Capcom Incident
Written Friday, March 18, 2011 By Dan WebbView author's profile
Twisted Pixel are often referred to as the king of the Xbox Live Arcade by many... and by many, I mean me. Kicking things off with The Maw, then upping the ante with 'Splosion Man and Comic Jumper, they're looking to keep building their quality stable of games by bringing The Gunstringer and Ms. Splosion man to the service later on this year.
We caught up with Twisted Pixel CEO, Michael Wilford, at this year's Microsoft Showcase to talk about their time developing with Kinect, the current state of the Xbox Live Arcade, the future of downloadable games and we even talk a bit about the dodgy tactics from Capcom with MaXsplosion.
Where did the idea for The Gunstringer come from?
We always wanted to do a marionette-based game, so for a while we'd been talking about doing it. Originally, it was going to be a Nintendo DS game using the stylus, but it just didn't work out. Then once we saw Kinect, we thought it might actually work and Microsoft gave us early hardware, we started talking and it made a lot of sense. Finally, there's hardware out there that can let us do the marionette thing, so after that we came up with the Gunstringer puppet and it all just clicked after that. Honestly, it just required Kinect, and we knew we could make it with that.
The Gunstringer uses a paint and release mechanic rather than an aim, point and shoot mechanic. Was that due to the way Kinect works?
I think the choice to do the paint and shoot thing was partially Kinect, but also there are a lot of awesome shooter games that are controller-based that do that like Rez and Panzer Dragoon, and they're big inspirations. The feeling of just swiping and tagging a whole bunch of targets and then blowing them all away is a really cool feeling. We wanted this game to be a shooter that requires skill, that hardcore gamers can appreciate but is still accessible and anyone can get into. The thing that's most interesting is the most subtle mechanics like jumping or just hitting the fire button with the controller, and all you do is hit A or pull the trigger and everybody's used to that. With Kinect, we've had to reinvent the wheel a little bit, because those mechanics we use have to feel really good, but there's not really a clear way to do it, so we had to try a bunch of different things and find what feels best.
You can move left and right, but the rest is pretty much on rails. Did you ever consider giving the player control over forward and backward movement too?
We talked about doing that too, but by removing locomotion from out of the equation it allowed us to dedicate all of Kinect to the aiming, shooting and moving from side-to-side, which just felt a lot better. You can control your forward motion indirectly by how well you do, so if you do better you'll move faster, if you start getting hit you'll slow down. If you pick up the tacos you also start running a lot faster, so you can keep up a momentum, so it's all kind of indirect, but it just seems to work a lot better.
How many control prototypes did you have to work through before landing on one that you were happy with?
That's a good question. It depends upon the mechanic, right? Shooting probably took about ten prototypes, jumping took about six. We find different things until we find the one that works, and we're like, “okay, let's go with that” or “let's try this”. It was probably a good solid several months where we were just in prototype mode, trying out one thing and then another thing and maybe we thought we had a good idea for something, so we had a prototype for this, but then we'd decide that it needs to change now, so it just takes a while.
It's interesting because Kinect is so new and people are trying stuff for the first time, so it's going to be a while before people figure out what the patterns are that make sense for certain styles of game. It's kinda cool being a smaller developer where we're at the cusp of trying to figure all of that stuff out.
Do you think that as you become more successful and continue to grow as a developer that you risk being accused of selling out if say you were to create a game for retail release?
Yeah maybe. I don't think we worry about that too much, honestly. I think if we start to worry about what people think of us, then we're not making games for the right reasons. We make games because we're just a bunch of dudes who love games and we make stuff that makes us laugh and to have a good time. It's stuff that we want to play and I think in general, there are a lot of problems with games today. There's huge, big budget, multi-million dollar games and there's certain things they just don't get right. There are guys in the office who aren't necessarily the biggest multiplayer gamers and they'd rather just play a really awesome single-player game, so we try to do things like 'Splosion Man for example, where we try to make multiplayer something a little different so that people like us actually want to pick up and play multiplayer, and try some new stuff. As long as we're doing that, I think we're doing the right thing.
Has creating The Gunstringer for Kinect thrown up any other ideas using similar mechanics that you think might be cool?
Certainly in the prototyping stage, we found stuff that we thought was cool, but didn't quite work with what we were doing, so that was something to throw into the backlogs to remember for later.
Do any examples come to mind?
I could give you a sneak preview for the next few years! No. No, we haven't thought that far ahead. We don't know exactly what we're going to do. But Kinect has been awesome so far, Microsoft has been really supportive in helping us and giving us the tech early and they encouraged us to give them feedback as to how they could make it better. There's certainly a lot of stuff you could do with Kinect that people haven't tried yet.
We have to ask the Capcom question. What was the mood like when you saw Capcom's mobile game that essentially ripped off 'Splosion Man and they refused to remove it?
The way we discovered it was when one of the guys in the office stumbled across it and sent an email out. We were all like, “what the fuck? Really?” Our official stance was, “yeah it sucks, but we're too small to really do anything about it.” I just hope that Capcom – because they're bigger and we're obviously a lot smaller – I hope they're not counting on indie developers not being able to fight back, that they can take whatever and no one's ever going to be able to do anything to fight back, because that sucks.
I suppose it sets a dangerous precedent by not following up on the allegations of plagiarism that you have against Capcom.
Yeah, so the other sucky thing about that is, they made a whole bunch of money off that press and all that stuff that happened. Their sales sky-rocketed and so we asked, why don't you guys donate some of that to charity? We never heard a thing...
We had a lot of lawyers saying that we should totally go after them and I'm sure that maybe we would win something, but in the time it takes to pursue that to try and maybe make some money out of suing them or whatever, we could make like two more games. Making games is more fun than suing someone, so fuck that.
That's kind of what Zynga does, to take ideas from the smaller guys and turn it into their own behemoth.
That's a good point. I feel that if you're going to rip something off, you should have an idea for how you're going to make it better and not just rip it off to make a quick buck. Maxplosion kind of felt like that, but the other part of it is that it's Capcom. They made Mega Man, Street Fighter II... I owe my entire childhood to those guys, so it's kinda like, meh, I owe you one anyway.
What are your thoughts on releasing a game on both Xbox Live Arcade and PSN?
It seems like PlayStation Network is gaining a lot of ground. Sales-wise there are anecdotal reports that they're starting to do better numbers. XBLA is still the leader, but I don't know... We'd love to release our games on as many platforms as possible like PSN, Steam... but we're so focused on making one game that it's a lot easier to make it for one platform and make it as fun as we possibly can on that one platform. By the time we're done, we've had enough after spending a lot of time and energy, it's time to make something else now and it's hard to spread your time.
Are there any other downloadable games out there that inspire you or that you particularly admire?
Well, Double Fine are showing the Sesame Street Kinect game (Once Upon a Monster), which looks awesome and certainly for its target audience that game is going to be great [Editor’s note: Once Upon a Monster is actually a retail title]. And in general they seem to be going all-in with that strategy of doing a whole bunch of smaller downloadable games and they're killing it. Their games are great. Then some of the really indie guys like Ska Studios, they have the new Dishwasher: Vampire Smile and when you think one dude made that whole game, it kinda makes us feel like a piece of shit actually. That's awesome. Super Meat Boy was really fun, and obviously we're big fans of platformers having made 'Splosion Man.
Would you ever follow a similar route to Chair Entertainment when they made Shadow Complex alongside Epic Games, in terms of acquisition, or would you rather remain independent?
Everybody at our studio has pretty much done the bigger studio thing at one point or another and had to grind out crappy games for years, and if you do that for a long time you get burnt out. The reason we got into this in the first place was because we wanted to go make good stuff with our buddies, and that's what we get to do right now. If there were a way for an acquisition to make that better somehow, then OK, but probably not. We're doing just fine right now.
Do you look at those kind of budgets and wish that you had similar resources at your disposal thought?
Having more money and time; we talk about that all the time. It would be awesome, but we do the best we can. It's our own unique challenge to try and make the most of the time and money we have, and it seems to be working. People seem to dig our stuff and we're able to up it every time. From The Maw to 'Splosion Man and Comic Jumper to The Gunstringer, and we're working on Ms. 'Splosion Man, so we're definitely raising the bar every time.
Do you think that eventually it's inevitable that you'll end up crossing the line and moving into bigger retail released products then as you get bigger?
I don't know. I kind of look at it the other way around. That line that you're talking about is moving down, not up and a lot of the bigger publishers are getting into the downloadable market now as they're realising that it's harder making money at retail and they're finding a way to make it digital. A lot of publishers have that big game mentality and they're trying to apply that to a downloadable game and they fail. It doesn't work that way.
We're in a unique position where we're right on the cusp of that growth in downloadable games and we're growing with it and I think that's the future. We could make a big downloadable game and we certainly have ideas all over the map, from puzzle game ideas, big shooter ideas. Games that at this point would require release at retail. It's interesting. I feel that in the next year or two, you're going to see some pretty impressive stuff from downloadable games.
Most XBLA game started out at 400 Microsoft Points a pop and now they normally sell at 800 or even 1200 Microsoft Points. As downloadable projects become increasingly ambitious, do you think that number will rise to 1600 or 2400?
1600 Microsoft Points is a real big barrier. There have been a couple of games that I think tried selling at 1600 points, but it bit them in the ass. I think 1200 or less is a good safe, healthy price range for downloadable games. It would take something really exceptional to push the price beyond 1200 points. Even Shadow Complex was an Epic game partnered with Microsoft and it was huge, but even that was only 15 bucks (1200 MSP).