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Interview with Pixeljam

The CMP Game Group (producer of Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra.com, and the Game Developers Conference) established the Independent Games Festival in 1998 to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers. They saw how the Sundance Film Festival benefited the independent film community, and wanted to create a similar event for independent game developers as well as the student population of game developers.

The creators of Gamma Bros talk about their original, pixelated game that earned them a nomination for Best Web Browser Game.

Who are you and how were you involved in Gamma Bros?

Miles: I'm Miles Tilmann and I did all the programming and some of the visual FX for the game
Rich: I'm Rich Grillotti and I make the characters and animations, environments, etc. The artwork mostly, but we both have a lot to say about the game ideas and concepts
Miles: Yeah, i would say conceptually its 50/50
Rich: Right
Miles: Rich and i used to be roommates, and that's when the game was created. We would talk about it constantly, and work on it in the same room
Rich: yeah, it was a good working environment
Miles: We don't exactly have an office :)

Congrats on being selected for the IGF finals. What made you decide to enter Gamma Bros into the competition? Is this your first entry ever?

Miles: Yeah, this is our first entry, and our first completed game as well. We figured we had a good chance for becoming a finalist for best web browser game, but we weren't really setting our sights on any other category. Actually, we made the web browser version because of the IGF. Originally the game was just a Flash-based self-executable. Which in hindsight was a pretty dumb idea. All of the attention and press we've gotten from the game has been because of the online version, not really the self-executable. So there was a time for a few months after the game was released that we didn't even consider putting it online. But after we submitted the game to newgrounds.com, we started getting a lot of positive responses from it, which has helped encourage us to take our business more seriously. Originally, we were thinking, "can we actually make this work?" Now we are thinking "Yeah, we can make this work." By that I mean, start up a self-sustaining business making Flash based games.
Rich: Yeah, Newgrounds got us a lot of attention. It's a great site for that. Plus, Tom Fulp added Gamma Bros to his favorite games list. :) Which was helpful too
Miles: Oh yeah that helped a lot. He has a lot of clout in the Flash gaming world.

Where did the inspiration for Gamma Bros come from?

Rich: Well, Miles and I started working on our first game, which was a room-to-room action/adventure game, sort of like Robotron mixed with Atari 2600 Adventure and a little Legend of Zelda. Anyway, we got about 1/2 way through it and had created a whole bunch of characters for that game, including the Gamma Bros, which at that point were enemy bosses who operated computers and a wind tunnel environment... They weren't necessarily bad guys, but they were following orders from the madman in control of everything. Anyway, once we realized we had set ourselves up to make a huge game that we weren't going to complete any time soon, we switched to a new game, something we could more realistically produce. The Gamma Bros were the first ones in both of our minds to make the stars of a new game. So, we gave it to them. They signed a contract for 3 games. :) ...
Miles: A non-negotiable contract.
Rich: As for how they actually formed on my computer screen, well, I made Zap just as I was looking for a new character type, and suddenly I wanted him to have a brother who was white with crazy red hair! It just happened really quickly. It was like Zap became self aware and telepathically let me know that he had a Bro and then I created him. So, they basically made themselves
Miles: Yeah, it seemed that way. One minute they didn't exist, and the next minute they did. Rich plotted a few pixels and they took it from there. We don't really have to make decisions about what they will do next. For some reason their personalities became crystal clear right from the get go.
Rich: Right, yes, even their personalities were clear from the start.

What made you guys decide to use pixel art for your games?

Rich: Well, we both are big fans of retro games, and at some point I was doing some new pixel art for this multimedia fashion show in Chicago. I made these super minimal pixel models (which you can see somewhere on our blog) for the show and we both had the thought of maybe seeing them animated. I did an animation of a male one (the lead character in our first unfinished game) and suddenly got excited to see this character in a game full of other pixel characters. It was a natural progression. Also, I've always wanted to make retro games, kind of continuing on where the Atari 2600 and the NES left off, as if visual technological advancements didn't exist.
Miles: From a programming perspective, it made sense to use pixel art as it runs much smoother in Flash. Most of the characters take up very little memory... and it seemed to make sense considering that Flash is vector based. So we kept the vectors super simple, and the games can play much smoother & faster because of it.
Rich: And Miles was in a place where he was curious whether or not he could make simple games in Flash. the timing was good.
Miles: I also think it's a good idea in any medium to give yourself limitations from time to time, to see what you can do within a very strict set of rules. I think our games would fail if they weren't fun to play, since the graphics aren't exactly state of the art. I think the pixel style forced us to make a really fun game.
Miles: Right... regarding what Rich said. He was just getting into making pixel characters right about the time I was curious about making Flash games. And when we asked our friend Mark DeNardo to contribute music and sound FX, it all came together very nicely

What about Gamma Bros do you think makes it fun for people to play?

Miles: Hmmmm, well, I guess the obvious answer would be the wave of nostalgia that large pixels might induce, but deeper than that i think it's the simplicity of the game mixed with the action you see towards the last few levels. Shoot, dodge, shoot. It's a winning formula I think. :) In retrospect I don't think we made the game exciting enough at the very beginning. Some people play it, find it boring and quit, but for those that stick with it to level 2 and 3, it becomes a real exercise in good old fashion zen-like gaming reflexes. Hopefully the same type of rush that Robotron and the later levels of Ms Pacman can induce. I know that some games today have the same rush, but for some reason all the complex controls turn me off. I like doing things with a limited palette. And I think there are a lot of people out there who don't necessarily need glitz to have a good time.
Rich: I think it's fun to zip around the screen and take out waves of enemies in a ship that handles well, plus the ability to shoot 4 ways while moving in other directions helps give the player more control. The graphics are colorful and kind of cute, there's that nostalgic value for some, and maybe just something different for younger players. The music and SFX by Mark DeNardo also add a whole lot to the experience. The intensity keeps mounting but is manageable with weapon upgrades and new ships. I personally enjoy the risk/reward factor of being able to shoot faster the closer you get to an enemy. I also agree with Miles that by keeping things simple we could focus on the playability more. (Not to say that designing animating these characters with such limited pixels is easy!)

How long was the game in development? What was the hardest part about getting it finished?

Miles: I would say about 6-8 months, part time and sometimes full time for 2 people. The hardest part about finishing it (and any other game we've worked on) is trying to keep the game under control and not add so many features that it never gets done. Rich and I are usually bursting with ideas for any game we work on, and its a real struggle to figure out what’s realistic and what’s not. The game could still be in development if we didn't put a cap on it sometime...
Rich: Right. I kept coming to Miles with all these ideas from beta testing and he kept having to tell me "No"!
Miles: And I made sure to yell that word as well....
Rich: But the idea of a sequel was able to keep me satisfied that the ideas would eventually be used.
Miles: Yeah, sequels... The story of Buzz and Zap could go on forever... After all they're immortal, and i think they are vaguely aware of it as well.

What's next for Pixeljam?

Miles: We're currently working on a few things at once now. Some smaller games should come out over the next few months, and we are also working on our next big game. It's a completely different direction than Gamma Bros, and involves the insect world. We're also working on making our website a more interesting place to visit, and setting up some merchandise to sell, etc. Basically we are still in the start-up mode. Gamma Bros tested the waters for us, and now we like the water and are getting ready to dive in!
Rich: Right, we've got a lot going on and a lot that we want to do. It's now a matter of figuring out how to survive and make a living from these efforts so we can focus on them. For the most part we have to take periods of time off to make a living. We'd like to do this full time for sure, and grow – adding people that can help us make more, better games faster! We're also about to start making some "micro" games, which will be things we can finish in a couple weeks, and can get on some portal sites out there. Since people haven't been donating very much at all :p or buying our nice Gamma Bros t-shirts very consistently, we're going to see what kind of income we can generate through ad revenues here and there. We were avoiding it for a while, but now it's coming down to being able to make games at all, so.. we're trying to figure it all out. We are excited to go to the IGF and the GDC classes and lectures. We think we'll learn a lot and meet some good people!

Is there anything else about Gamma Bros that you would like to reveal to other developers?

Miles: Well, as far as the programming goes, there’s nothing to reveal that any game developer doesn’t already know. The logic for the game is about as basic as it gets. Move things in 8 directions, shoot in 4 directions, if thing 1 one hits thing 2, things explode. That’s pretty much it. I think the secret of the game, if there are any secrets, is that the game was really fun to play when all the characters were still just basic rectangles, and there was no music or sound either. If you can make a fun game with just solid placeholder shapes and no sound, by the time you add all the final graphics and audio, I think you will have something special.
Rich: Well, there’s a lot I’d like to reveal about the Gammas and the sequels we’ve got in mind for them (…or they have in mind for us.. ?) but I guess that’s more for players than developers in particular. One thing I’ll say is that if we can make them in the ways we’re thinking, they are going to be great!! I’m excited to play them myself. The only thing I can think to mention that might be of interest to developers is that while the pixellated style is “simple”, animating the Bros & other characters & objects is a huge challenge sometimes. Making them get out of their ships at the end of Gamma Bros, for example, and making them hug and kiss their wives in a fluid human-like motion while keeping pixel purity is tough!! It’s a lot of trial and error, and at time seems like it’ll never work out, but when it finally does it’s kind of amazing.

Best of luck to the Pixeljam team at GDC!

Interview conducted by Drew Sikora

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