By Nathan Grayson on March 14th, 2013 at 10:00 am.
Incredipede was one of last year’s most delightful surprises, and you should feel ashamed for not playing it. The grotesquely adorable creature constructor was not, however, without its flaws, and creator Colin Northway has no trouble admitting it. Now, though, Qwozzle’s got her tiny yet mighty sights set on Steam, and she’ll be completing her dogged climb into Newell’s house of wonders (and hopefully apples) on March 18th. But this isn’t the same game the most beautiful and handsome among you played late last year. Among other things, version 1.5 includes an entire new set of less-punishing Normal mode levels, a much more versatile control scheme, and eagles (!!!). After the break, you’ll find a trailer of the new features and levels in action, plus a rather massive chat with Northway and artist Thomas Shahan. So go forth! Peruse!
RPS: You’re adding an entire set of new levels that will comprise a Normal mode for Incredipede, while the old levels will become Hard mode. One of my big issues with the first version was that the level design didn’t match the sheer imagination of the central mechanic. There was this sense of constant wonderment present in dreaming up new shapes for Qwozzle, but the levels seemed comparatively pedestrian. So I hear “Normal,” and I worry that these will be even simpler.
Colin Northway: These levels are more focused on what you can do. You’re going to play creatures that I’ve built. You’re not going to play your own. So you’re still building in Hard mode, but Normal difficulty will be all pre-made creatures. So one of the advantages of that is that I can make really interesting stuff. I mean, I play the game a lot. I’m obviously a master of my own game [laughs], so I can make things other players wouldn’t think of until they’re, like, 40 hours in. So I’ve got some pretty wacky stuff in there.
Normal difficulty will be all pre-made creatures.
Like, there’s a level where you’re kind of an eagle, flying through the air. Then you pounce down, pick up a ruby with your legs, and fly off. It’s pretty awesome.
RPS: But the actual mechanics of movement in Incredipede are extremely simple. How are you going to keep that interesting when building’s not there to back it up?
Colin Northway: Well, a major difference in the new kind of levels is another set of keys for the controls. So in the existing levels, you control one set of one set of muscles with one set of keys. So you can have many muscles, but they’re all controlled by the same set of keys. So if you have arms and legs, flexing arms means you’ll also flex your legs. But in the new game, you’ve got another set, so you can flex your arms separately from your legs.
So there’s a lot of things that can use this – things like running to the left and grabbing an apple, and then running to the right. Or like the eagle level I mentioned before: one set of keys controls your wings and how high you are, and the other controls the grappling legs.
RPS: But then Hard will be focused on building and then moving, on levels that are designed for only one set of keys. Are you worried that you might be teaching players skills that aren’t applicable to later levels?
Colin Northway: The most important thing players will get from the first mode is what it feels like to play a successful creature. A lot of the problems in learning by just playing Hard mode is that there are two fundamental phases of playing every level. You have to build a creature and then control it. A lot of players have trouble here, because they start building a thing, and nothing you build is ever going to be perfect. But then they try to control it, and the first time you do that is never going to be perfect either. So they immediately get stuck. They think, “Well, I know that didn’t work, but did I mess up the controlling or the building?” So that’s an immediate roadblock, and it’s hard to iterate on it.
The new levels will give players a chance to try all these creatures that work well if you can control them. So you’ll just have to iterate on controls, and by the time you’re done – which takes maybe two or three hours – you’ll know what it feels like to play a successful creature. And when you start playing the old levels, you won’t have that confusion.
Thomas Shahan: That’s kind of exactly how I learned to play the game. I watched Colin and just kind of created some of the body designs he made. So it’s perfect, because you have these two different playstyles, and when you’re on your own, you can just kind of adapt and build upon your previous knowledge.
RPS: Certainly. That’s what I did in version 1.0, only I watched other people’s playthroughs that they’d posted in-game. Problem was, it felt like I was admitting defeat – not being educated by some kindly invisible hand.
Colin Northway: Yeah, and the intention with what’s now Hard mode was to show players purely through design what they could use and be successful with. But it’s sort of hard, when you’re a game author, to know exactly how players are going to react to things and where your difficulty ramp should be. You can playtest with friends and strangers, but there’s always weird, confounding things. So I underestimated how quickly people would come to grips with some of the basic ideas.
RPS: So I assume the new control scheme will apply to the older levels as well?
Colin Northway: That’s right. You can build creatures with two sets of muscles. So you can now replicate QWOP in Incredipede [laughs].
RPS: I’m going to play every level as the guy from QWOP. This will be my next game diary. An internal monologue of his struggles through this mad, gnarled world – different from his own, yet no less inhospitable to his particular, er, skill set.
Colin Northway: [laughs] That would be an awesome playthrough.
RPS: Because of that, though, are you worried that the old levels could become significantly easier now that players have an extra degree of control? Actually, are you hoping that’s what’ll happen?
Colin Northway: Actually, they get easier in a way that I really like. So actually, for a lot of development of the original version of the game, it had two muscle sets. But then, as I played more and more, I discovered that you could actually do all those levels with only one set of muscles. So, for simplicity, I took the other set out, because as a game designer, you’re always trying to make complicated systems simpler.
Weirdly, I think that made it harder for new players to do complicated tasks. It’s a lot easier to think of a creature in terms of phases. Like, “Oh, I’ll make this part of the creature to handle this first part of the level, and then there’s this extra challenge, so I’ll make a whole different trunk of the creature to deal with that.” If you’re a master player, you can make one creature that deals with both phases, which is interesting and fun. But if you’re new, [two sets] makes it a little more grokable to deal with the Hard mode levels.
RPS: Makes sense, but for me, the central appeal of the game was the element of exploration that emerged from building and tweaking my own creature. I really got to own my experience. Are you afraid players might never understand that if they just stick to Normal mode? Like, they’ll miss out on what makes Incredipede so, er, incredible?
Colin Northway: Yeah, this is totally a worry of mine. Something I’ve been grappling with from the very beginning of development is how much to make it kind of a very pure, hands-off “Here are some systems” player-driven thing – which is my favorite style of gameplay – versus a more hand-holdy railroaded experience. Where to find that happy medium.
I’d love to do a sequel. There’s tons of stuff I’d love to add.
So my approach to the new one is that you can select Normal mode or Hard mode right away, and instead of just pressing a button that says either, I have some text that says, “OK, this is Normal. You’re not going to get building stuff, but it’s going to be a fun pick-up-and-play experience. It’s not going to break your brain too much.” And then for Hard mode, I’ve got some text that says, “This is more demanding. You’re going to be building your own creatures here. But if you really want to jump straight into the deep end, that’s great.”
RPS: Are you adding any new sorts of obstacles with the new levels? I mean, the original Incredipede was pretty limited in that respect. It had lava, wind, water, and then platforms and basic terrain. Are you adding anything else along those lines?
Colin Northway: I’m introducing stuff a little bit earlier, but the levels are still made up of the same tools.
RPS: Do you have any plans to add more tools in the future?
Colin Northway: There’s actually a bunch of stuff I’d like to do for a sequel. I actually have prototype stuff where you can grab. Like, sticky balls that you can reach out and grab onto and kind of stick to roofs and ceilings. So you can have balloons you can grab that’ll float you around. But they didn’t make it into Incredipede 1.
I’d love to do a sequel. There’s tons of stuff I’d love to add.
RPS: Have you made enough money off this one to consider a sequel viable?
Colin Northway: At this point? Not so much. I’ve got a lot of hope in the Steam release. I think the reality in PC releases now is, Steam is just that thing that more and more we need to make our careers viable.
RPS: You’re finally making the awkward, multi-tendriled clamber onto Valve’s platform, though. Hurrah! What did you have to do in order to finally make the cut?
Colin Northway: Incredipede was one of the first games on Greenlight. I contacted them about getting Incredipede onto Steam about, I think, a month before Greenlight went live. So they were like, “Oh yeah, we’ll get you into the Greenlight program.” So Greenlight launched, and Incredipede was in there. It got a lot of attention from the initial Greenlight press – a lot of votes. It started out pretty near the top. So it was around, like, 40, I think? And after that first month, every time Valve Greenlit ten games, Incredipede would move up ten slots. It was just kind of like this rote conveyer belt. Now it’s 40, now it’s 30, now it’s 20.
In January this year, it was number eight, so we were finally going to get Greenlit. But then, a couple days before Valve released that month’s batch of games, the IGF Awards were announced, and Incredipede was nominated for excellence in visual arts. Which is super exciting.
Steam said that any game that got nominated for IGF was automatically on Steam. So we made it to number eight on Greenlight, but we also managed to get a nomination. I ended up contacting Steam and saying, “Oh shit, I just got an IGF nomination. That means I’m on Steam. But I’m also number eight on Greenlight, so if you do a round now, I’m going to take a slot from someone else.” I made sure I got it off Greenlight in time. One of the things I don’t like about Greenlight is that me winning makes somebody else lose.
RPS: You should’ve demanded two pages on Steam’s marketplace. That’s how winners are supposed to act. But outside of Steam, how much exposure were you able to drum up? For that matter, you share a house with a bunch of other independent developers sometimes. Are they pretty much all in the same boat?
Colin Northway: Yeah. Pretty much everyone is desperate to get on Steam. Nobody doesn’t care about Steam.
RPS: What about other marketplaces? I mean, you launched on GOG as well.
Colin Northway: Yeah, and I actually really like the GOG guys. They’re really good to work with. I think their game submission process is really good, and it’s what Valve should do. They get a copy of the game from you, they play it, and they decide if they want it on their service. So yeah, GOG has been nice, and I’m really happy to work with them.
But they just don’t push numbers like Steam does, you know? The math is the math.
RPS: There’s been recent talk from Gabe Newell of abolishing Greenlight and turning Steam into a fully open system where people just make their own individual storefronts. Do you think that’s the right direction to go?
Colin Northway: I really like that idea. I’ve always loved the idea of [opening things up]. I like the idea, but it could work or not work. Like, Apple has a system where anybody can put anything up. But then their officially managed lists end up being just as dictatorial as Valve is. I mean, I guess Apple isn’t consciously deciding what ends up on those lists most of the time, but the content discovery system on Apple is bad.
You have to get exposure through things like blog posts and articles and Twitter. Kind of the traditional way things get out on the Internet. It’s really good at finding interesting games. Things like Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Reddit, and Twitter. If we can combine the power of that content discovery stuff with the really solid platform that everybody rightfully loves of Steam, that would be a huge win for everybody. I think that’s the best thing Valve could do for everyone, personally.
RPS: I want to touch on Incredipede’s art for a moment, because it’s quietly brilliant and, well, Thomas has been very, er, quiet. I love Qwozzle, especially. She’s super simple, yet incredibly malleable and expressive. What led you to create something that’s so many things in one tiny, eyeball-shaped package?
Thomas Shahan: When I first got into it, I was a little bit nervous to change anything. Colin just had programmer art in there, but he did have a green one-eyed chameleon with legs. I have a hard time actually creating things, so I kind of liked that he already had this character already in place. So I toyed around with ideas of having the creature be just a mouth or something else, but there’s no way to really sell relatable emotion without the eye. So I stuck with that. We also discussed whether Qwozzle should have feet or hands or graspers, but due to her general motion of flailing around on legs, we thought it’d be more natural to have these exposed bone nubs [laughs].
It’s kinda gross, but I did my best to find a line between marketably cute and disturbingly gruesome. Because games often play it safe, and they make cute characters or terrifying zombies. But I wanted to upset people and have it be a bit visceral and nasty – like life – but also relatable and cute. I wanted people to actually feel bad when they hurt Qwozzle. Which is tough to do, because once people are so desensitized from blowing the heads off zombies constantly, we don’t feel a thing. There’s no connection with the characters. So it’s great when I see people saying, “Oh my god, this is gross! I feel so bad when I hurt Qwozzle.” Or they don’t like the little spurts of blood. I don’t know if that’s success or failure on my part, but I’m glad they have an emotion. Disgust is much better than apathy.
RPS: When I first accidentally tore off one of her leg nubs, I basically cried. It was like, “Oh god, what have I done? I’m so, so, so, so sorry!”
Thomas Shahan: [laughs] That was all Colin’s idea, I think.
Colin Northway: Yeah, there’s actually gameplay use for it. The bones are a little stickier. They stick to the ground a bit more, so if you pull them off, it slides a little more easily. That allows you to make, like, a sled more easily. So when I was considering the option to have bones or no bones, I was like, “Why not just be able to pull the bones off? That would be awwwwwwwesome! Let’s do it!”
I don’t tell anyone about that. It’s an undocumented feature, because I really want that moment where people find it for themselves.
Thomas Shahan: Now I’m terrified every time I play a new game that I’m going to accidentally tear a leg off. I’m like, “Oh shit. Don’t break it don’t break it don’t break it.”
RPS: Oh man, when it starts wobbling a little bit because I’ve stretched it too far, I’m like, “Nononononononono!” Because that facial expression Qwozzle makes, it’s just heartbreaking.
Disgust is much better than apathy.
Thomas Shahan: Yeah, I play it with my girlfriend now, and she just hates it. So now I get nervous about it too. It adds this tension and turmoil to the game that’s not usually there.
RPS: On an entirely separate, decidedly more legged note, Colin, you’re fairly well-known for traveling, um, all the time. Where have your travels taken you as of late?
Colin Northway: Yeah, so a couple years ago, my wife Sarah – who makes the game Rebuild on iOS, which is doing really well – and I decided to stop paying rent. And now we just kind of travel the world. We spend two or four months everywhere we go. And if you do it that way, it actually doesn’t cost as much as you might think to travel the world. Basically, instead of paying rent in San Francisco, we just pay rent in Thailand or Costa Rica or Japan. Now we’re in Mexico. Actually, rent’s usually cheaper, because rent in San Francisco is the most expensive in the world.
Actually, I did some math the other day, and the amount of money we’ve spent on flights in a year is still less than our friends who commute in the Bay Area by [rapid transit train] Bart. For the cost of living in San Francisco, you could live everywhere.
RPS: Huh. Being based in San Francisco, that certainly puts things in perspective. It’s settled, then. I’m moving to the Moon. Changing locations so often, though, how directly does that influence your game design?
Colin Northway: Well, Incredipede came pretty directly from Honduras. We were on this little island, and we lived on, like, a little floating boathouse near a terrible dirt road. We used to take kayaks to get groceries. There weren’t really any other people around us, but there was just a ton of life. Lizards in all the trees, fish swimming underneath our house. There were mangrove trees that had boa constrictors. There were humming birds flying in and out of the house, not to mention ants raiding our kitchen. There’s just so much life everywhere, and it’s so engrossing. Every time you see a trail of leaf-cutter ants, for me it’s impossible to not be like, “Oh my god, it’s this little troop of ants. Where’d they get the leaves? What kind of tree? Where are they taking them?”
Life is so fundamentally fascinating. There’s so much variety in it. I just really wanted to make a game about that. So Incredipede is about exploring and that diversity of life. That came directly from Honduras.
I think the most valuable thing traveling does is, you constantly have novel input to work with. If you want to be creative, you’ve got to keep your brain working. You’ve got to keep that storm going all the time. New ingredients coming in and mixing things up. When you’re traveling that’s always happening. You’re always finding something you’ve never seen before. So that goes into your brain and bumps into all that other stuff. Weird, novel things come in.
Thomas Shahan: Colin’s excitement about all of that is how he found out about my stuff. I have kind of a loose, amateur background in entomology, so it worked out pretty well. His enthusiasm about life of this type, and my familiarity with arthropods.
Colin Northway: Yeah, Thomas is totally interested in spiders, and when we were in Greece, we’d go walking in the mountains. It was like Spider Mountain. You couldn’t take a step without one scampering under you. Thomas, you would’ve loved that island in Greece so much.
Thomas Shahan: I know, I know.
RPS: Have recent travels given you any other ideas you want to make a game about?
Colin Northway: Yeah. So we’re in Mexico right now, and we’re living with a bunch of indies. We’ve got this nice place on the beach with all these palm trees growing everywhere and all this sand. There are also these weird scrub bushes. I really wonder what that life is like. What are the challenges of growing up as a plant surrounded by all these other plants?
Because it’s a war. A forest is a warzone of all these different factions fighting it out over each other. I’d love to make a game that explores that idea. I think it could be really interesting.
RPS: No kidding. Kinda the opposite of thatgamecompany’s Flower.
Colin Northway: [laughs] Right, yeah. Kinda like, “Hey, all these plants are trying to kill each other all the time.”
RPS: Delightful! Thank you for your time.