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Tastes So Goo-d: 2D BOY Interview

Do you think games will one day have red carpet launches?

World of Goo launches today. In fact, if you look at the 2D BOY website, it seems to have quietly launched already. Buy! It will also be appearing on Steam, Direct2Drive, Greenhouse, and Beanstalk as the day goes on.

Despite their crazy pre-launch weekend, 2D BOY’s Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel generously spared some time to answer our questions about the process of developing the game, the complicated life of the independent developer, and why it’s so very important to care deeply about your game (rather than your cat).

Are you beautiful enough?

RPS: Can you tell us your backgrounds. What were you doing before you got together to make games as 2D Boy, and why did that mean you decided to strike out on your own?

Ron: We were both at EA, I was making casual web games for pogo.com. It was a good job, good hours, good people, I really didn’t have anything to complain about. Still, every morning when I sat down for my one-hour-each-way-public-transit commute, I died a little. I’ve always wanted to make a game and it didn’t take much to get me rolling in that direction.

Kyle: Back in school, we always thought the halls of EA would be filled with plastic balls and tricycles and stuff, since it’s a game company, which means it’s essentially Santa’s workshop. But that wasn’t the case. The halls were filled with carpet and disillusionment. And time-worn tracks leading to the bathroom and coffee machines. Even so, I was really lucky that my whole job was to make a bunch of colorful disposable rapid prototypes every week or so. All I had to do was make people happy. But it was all for a small audience. By going indie, and making our own game, I’m hoping we can reach more people. We’ll see. Our game launches today, and we’re terrified.

RPS: Obviously World of Goo came from Tower of Goo. But why did you make the decision to make a full game?

Kyle: Originally we were going to make a game about a tree with wavy branches and you could grow flowers and vines and wispy seeds and mouths with sharp teeth to eat people, but it really wasn’t capturing our imagination. Then we noticed an eastern European company making a Tower of Goo knockoff for some sort of mobile device, and it really hurt. There was a sense of being violated, like when your car is broken into, or someone steals your bike. Ever since making Tower of Goo back in the Experimental Gameplay Project days, I had thought and hoped it could evolve into a really fun big game, but never really had sufficient motivation. Luckily, having the game concept almost stolen was just the kick in the pants we needed.

This is awesome out of context. Figure this out.

RPS: There are some names that come up when the game is discussed. Tim Burton, Tim Schafer, Danny Elfman. That’s the sort of crowd you want to be compared to! Were any of these conscious influences? Who else has influenced the style behind the game?

Kyle: That’s an honor! I think the thing in common with all of them is their saucy mixture of joyful overtones with sinister undertones. The art was inspired mostly by Dr. Seuss. The music was inspired mostly by Danny Elfman and Vangelis. And the story is a giant metaphor for the story of 2D BOY – a naive and curious new indie game studio hoping for the best, facing the reality of cold publishing and distribution corporations. Except, it’s naive and curious Goo Balls colliding with World of Goo Corporation and their global network of distribution pipes and delicious processed Goo Product.

RPS: Can you tell us about the music. Has that been a passion for you, something you’ve worked with in the past?

Kyle: I secretly studied music on the side in undergrad. Writing music is the most relaxing thing in the world, and all I ever wanted was to write music for movies and games or anything really. But that’s one of those things where you move to LA and wither away as a tired old waitress in a diner. So that plan basically went up in flames. The good news is, if you make your own movie or game, there’s nobody on staff who’s job it is to reject you!

The music is all synthesized and recorded in my computer, using a bunch of fake instruments and then I try and supplement it by recording real live instruments, or banging on chairs and boxes, or making mouth sounds, or anything to add organic noise as much as possible. It was important to have the same feeling as the rest of the game though – a primary emotion on the surface, and a conflicting emotion underneath to keep things feeling turbulent. Some of the tracks in the game are excerpts from stuff I wrote a few years ago, so we were lucky it fit together ok.

RPS: You’ve said before that people’s pre-orders gave you the opportunity to keep developing. Is this an effective model for other indie teams, or was it terrifying?

Ron: It’s worked for us because of people like you. To date, we got a few thousand pre-orders, which is enough to keep a small team like ours going. In our experience, positive attention from the games press translated into pre-orders and nothing else did. Out of curiosity, I recently put our sales data from PayPal into a spreadsheet and graphed out how many pre-orders were made on each day from the first day the were available until now. Every single spike on that graph is a result of some good publicity that came out that day. This is a good example of the stuff we learned while working on this game and we really want to share this information with other developers. Kyle and I are planning to give a financial postmortem talk at GDC this march in which we’ll try to answer every question we had when we started two years ago and didn’t know who to ask.

Shhh, no one say.

RPS: World of Goo has already received a few remarkably positive reviews. We have a strong suspicion that there are a lot more of them to come. After many months making the game, once you had a playable working code but hadn’t shared it with anyone, did you have an idea what you’d achieved?

Ron: No. Nothing prepared us for the reviews we’d seen so far. It’s hard to describe my relationship to the game and the ways in which it changed over the last two years. Most of the time I scrutinized it, and tried to make it do things it doesn’t want to do, and got frustrated by it when it didn’t do what I wanted. It’s only when the game was pretty close to done and watching people play it no longer felt like being in a straight jacket and gagged that I was able to see the joy that people experienced while playing. I can’t tell you how good it feels to watch someone play the game and laugh out loud.

Kyle: It’s easy to get so involved that your emotional high points and low points are directly mapped to really stupid things, like whether fonts render the correct size or not – and every little pixel that’s slightly out of place is another step towards mental disaster. But once people start playing it, and actually enjoying it, it’s like there’s an invisible seal that gets wrapped around it, and it’s stamped, “ok”, with a little bow, and all the problems vanish. It looks and feels completely different. Now that it’s released, it’s not even our game any more. Who the hell made World of Goo?

RPS: I think what was most overpowering for me about the game – even more than the puzzle design, and the technical achievement – was the sense of joyful glee. I had a non-game playing friend look at it the other night, and she was cheering, grinning at the way the goo balls behaved, and laughing at the sounds they made. Everyone I’ve spoke to who’s played it has said the same thing: it just makes them happy. This has to have been something you were striving for.

Kyle: Thanks! I have no idea, except that it must be a trait of indie games. Petri’s games, Cactus’s games, Edmund’s games, and a bunch of indies that come to mind, all seem to be generators of mysterious intangible joy. Indie developers just really really care. Above all else. We love our games. We love our games so much that it’s ok if we can’t afford food. Or rent. Or to take Madonna the Cat to the vet in two years. The game has to be built, and the only building materials we have are raw love and c++ and maybe a questionable copy of Photoshop.

Blimey, this is a tough level.

RPS: What have you learned from the process? What advice would you give to other small teams of indie devs looking to be the next attention-grabbing game?

Kyle: Some of the best advice I got from Randy Pausch was, “Learn to shoot your baby in the crib.” I think I ended up killing around 2 out of every 3 levels I made, keeping only the ones we thought people would really like.

RPS: So everyone wants to know, do you intend to release a demo? And clearly we have to ask, will we be seeing an add-on pack, or will 2D Boy be moving on to their next idea?

Ron: Yeah, we’ll release a demo early next year when the European version launches. Beyond the moon chapter in the European version, there will be no extra content. I think we’ve reached the point with this game where more is not better. Personally, I’m looking forward to finally relaxing a little and waiting until I’m bored again before starting to think about what’s next.

Kyle: For the next few days, we’ll be constantly horrified, mulling over every comment on the internet about our game. I just hope people like it, and that it doesn’t brick anyone’s Wii. That would be not ideal. Also, I’ve pretty much ruined all of my personal relationships because of this game. It might be time to work on that. Maybe take the cat to the vet.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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