If you’ve browsed around the site, and I hope you have, you’ve probably come across You Have to Win the Game and Super Win the Game. We were fortunate enough to get to talk to the creator of these creative, retro-styled games, J. Kyle Pittman. We asked him a few questions that we think you’d like to know, so without further ado;
First off, let me ask the question that I’m sure has been asked about a thousand times; what motivated you to create these games? They clearly feel like a lot of love and time has gone into them, specifically the sequel.
I started teaching myself to program in BASIC when I was about five or six years old because I wanted to make video games. Our family had an old Commodore PC with DOS and BASIC and a CGA monitor, so that was the environment in which my earliest attempts at games were built. With the original You Have to Win the Game, I was trying to go back to those roots and make a full-fledged game that lived up to my childhood ambitions. The game is set in a cave because most of my game design ideas when I was six years old were about exploring caves.
With Super Win the Game, I wanted to tackle another formative aspect of my gaming career, NES games. The NES was my first home console and set a lot of expectations about what games were and what games could be. As primitive as it was by today’s standards, the NES was capable of some really cool stuff, and I feel like it hit a sweet spot for me in terms of being able to authentically recreate those experiences within the limitations of my own skills as a pixel artist and without feeling like I was hamstrung by the self-imposed limitations of what that hardware was able to do.
Following up with the first question, did you ever expect the original to take off the way that it did?
Not at all. I had released a handful of free games on my web site before YHtWtG, but that one took on a life of its own. I think part of that was due to it being picked up by FreeIndieGam.es and Kotaku and others within a few days of its release, and it’s continued to grow with every major change I’ve released. Even two years after the original launch, the Steam version was huge and continues to be downloaded and played in enormous numbers to this day.
It’s safe to say that it is loved by the community and you did a great thing by giving it away for free! What motivated that? Did you have a sequel in mind and want to test the waters with the original first?
I developed the first game while I was working full-time at Gearbox Software. It was something fun to do in my spare time and an outlet for design ambitions that I couldn’t express at my day job, and it just felt right to give it away for free. The idea to make a sequel didn’t come for another year or two, at which point I had already left Gearbox to form my own company, but it turned out to be serendipitous that I had had that previous success on which I could build a sequel.
For those who aren’t aware, you’re half of Minor Key Games, which can be read up on over at http://www.minorkeygames.com. It says in your biography that you’ve come from working on games for others (Borderlands/Borderlands 2) to co-founding Minor Key Games after flying away on a majestic unicorn! Haha. I hate to assume, you know the old saying, but was it mostly because you felt you’d rather do your own thing or did that just sort of fall into place naturally after leaving Gearbox Software?
Gearbox was an awesome place to work, and I’m super proud of the games that we made there. At some point, though, I started to feel like most of what was exciting to me about gaming was happening in the indie space. My brother David was in a similar position with his job at 2K Marin, and it felt like the right time for us to try something new. Our goal with Minor Key Games was to be able to work on solo projects while also benefiting from a shared company identity.
Both games are phenomenal, I’ve spent a ton of time on both at this point. I used the better part of my end-week and weekend on the sequel, Super Win the Game. There’s so many things in the game that make it a level-up to it’s predecessor, though the original is still a great experience. Super offers a lot of familiar things gamer’s who grew up playing Nintendo will appreciate especially. It seems as though your childhood was spent just like many in the around 30 age group. Was that a big part of how you grew up or did you discover classics later on? What was your typical weekend like during school as a kid?
I was a Nintendo fanboy as a kid; I grew up with the NES, SNES, GameBoy, N64, and so on. I think the Dreamcast was the first non-Nintendo console I ever owned. So yes, I did experience many of those classic games in their heyday. I got into the NES near the end of its lifetime, so most of those games had already been released, and there was this amazing, seemingly endless back catalog. There were a handful of classics that I didn’t play until much later in my life (some of the more egregious omissions being Metroid and Kid Icarus), but even those I at least had some awareness of, mostly thanks to Nintendo Power. The one NES game I distinctly remember looking forward to prior to its release was Super Mario Bros. 3, which is still one of my all-time favorites.
More recently, I’ve started collecting NES games again, but I’ve mostly been looking for obscure titles or ones I’ve never even heard of. There’s something strangely fun about discovering new content for an old gaming platform, even if it’s not top-tier content. I’ve even found a few hidden gems that way. It’s not exactly obscure, but The Battle of Olympus is one that I didn’t discover until just a few years ago, and it’s a fantastic Zelda II clone that I would’ve absolutely loved when I was a kid.
There are a lot of details in this game that take me back, I love the Zelda style landscape and adventure format and the Mario style platforms. What games did you draw the most motivation from when sitting down and putting together ideas for Super?
Zelda II is definitely the most prominent influence, although I’ve heard others compare the overworld map to Startropics and Final Fantasy as well. In fact, I did use both Startropics and Zelda II as my references for how the player sprite should look and move on the map screen. The tileset for the subterranean waterways was very consciously reminiscent of Metroid, the sky pillars were mostly inspired by Kid Icarus, and the desert tileset was supposed to evoke Kirby’s Adventure, if I recall correctly.
Beyond those specific homages, though, I tried to surround and saturate myself in NES media in the hopes that I would subconsciously design the game in that style. I would keep a YouTube playlist of the World of Longplays NES series running throughout most of the day and read old Nintendo Powers in the evenings and just try to completely immerse myself in that culture and that mindset again. I wanted the game to recreate the excitement I felt as a kid looking at maps of games in magazines or seeing demos on store displays. I felt like the best way to do that would be to recreate those gameplay experiences as authentically as possible, and I’d like to think that’s something that sets this game apart from other indie titles that have more of a modernized retro aesthetic. I wanted to make something that really believably felt like it could have existed in the late ’80s or early ’90s, for better or for worse.
You’ve taken Super Win The Game on the road to conventions, how was it watching something you created be enjoyed right in front of you? Any surprises like finding out that parents love the game just as much as their kids do? With the nods to classic games from yesteryear, I’d imagine the age group who enjoys it is very widespread.
Absolutely, it seemed to appeal to everyone from kids to adults. I think my assumption was that it would mostly appeal to gamers my age or older, players who had grown up with the games I was referencing, but even younger kids seemed to enjoy it. I’m not sure whether that’s because the retro 8-bit aesthetic has become so ingrained in modern culture that it doesn’t seem alien or inaccessible, or perhaps it’s even more accessible on account of its simplicity and immediacy.
Watching people play a game you’ve made is always a nerve-wracking experience, especially when things go wrong, but it was also a great opportunity to see which direction players would go at the start of the game, where they would get stuck or frustrated, whether they would take the time to talk to all the NPCs in town, and so on. I made a huge number of improvements to the game based on those observations. That’s definitely something I want to continue to do on every game I develop in the future.
If I may, how did you meet the other founder of Minor Key Games and what dynamic do you think each of you bring that makes for such great games?
David and I are twins, so we grew up with all the same cultural influences and gaming experiences. David’s interests as a gamer and a developer tend to be more in the direction of rich systems interactions, as evidenced in Eldritch, while I tend to favor game feel and aesthetics. When I’m first coming up with an idea for a game, it tends to be the moment-to-moment questions of, “What does this game look like?” and, “What does this game feel like to play?” that make ideas stick in my mind. In the case of Super Win, it started with a mental image of the character from YHtWtG running through a sunny desert scene straight out of Kirby’s Adventure or Super Mario Bros. 3. That one mental image informed so much of the early design, including the visual aesthetic, the way the camera would pan across a scene, and so on.
If you wouldn’t mind, I’m sure others, myself included, would love to know what the future looks like for Minor Key Games and yourself. Any plans for a third in the ‘Win The Game’ franchise? Other games you’re excited to release and talk about?
I don’t have any plans for a third Win the Game right now, although I think it could be fun to take it into the low-poly 3D era and do something in the vein of early PSX or N64 games. Right now I’m working on a roguelike action-adventure platformer called Gunmetal Arcadia that’s going to reuse some of the technology I developed for Super Win. I’ve been documenting the process in a series of weekly blogs at http://gunmetalarcadia.com/. It’s still a long way off, but I’m excited about where it could go. Procedural content generation is something I’ve been passionate about for a long time — it was the topic of my Master’s Thesis several years ago — but for one reason or another, I haven’t finished a game with randomly generated levels since my college days, and that feels like a fun challenge.
The next title from Minor Key Games is going to be Neon Struct, which is David’s follow-up to Eldritch. It’s a stealth espionage thriller in the vein of Thief or Deus Ex, set in a dystopian cyberpunk environment. David’s also been keeping a devlog for Neon Struct at http://neonstruct.com/blog/. We haven’t announced a release date for that one yet, but it should be sometime in early 2015.
Here are some links to follow J Kyle Pittman and Minor Key Games as well as some of the games that are in the work:
Thanks so much for your time, Mr Pittman, it has been a pleasure both getting the chance to talk with you and playing your games. We look forward to more from you and Minor Key Games!