Next in our never-ending series talking to (almost) all the finalists at this year’s Independent Games Festival, it’s Derek Yu of the splendid randomly-generated cave exploring game Spelunky, which is up for the Technical Excellence, Excellence in Design and Seamus McNally Grand Prize gongs. Here, Derek chats about his origins, TIGSource, Aquaria, how he abandoned and then rejoined game development, the odds on whether we’ll see a PC version of the XBLA Spelunky remake, and his answer to the most important question of all.
RPS: Firstly, a brief introduction for those who may not know you. Who are you? What’s your background? Why get into games? Why get into indie games?
My name’s Derek Yu, and aside from game-making I enjoy drawing and making comics. In my spare time I run the indie game community TIGSource. I took the site over from Jordan Magnuson in 2005.
I pretty much wanted to make games as soon as I was able, designing them on paper before I learned how to program. When Klik & Play came out, I used it to make my first complete game, Trigger Happy, which I distributed on AOL. Once I started getting emails from people who liked the game I was totally hooked, and kept putting out freeware all the way through high school and university.
Around graduation, though, I started feeling kind of bad about making video games. For someone who had gotten used to making his own games from scratch and sharing them with a tight-knit community, the prospect of joining a big company as a much smaller part of the development was rather discouraging. And as far as I knew, that was my only option if I wanted to have a career in the video game industry, so with my computer science degree in hand, I decided to look for work in either comic books or illustration instead.
To cut a long story short, I couldn’t stay away from game-making for very long, and two things happened to me that made me think I could actually make a career out of it the way I was used to. The first was getting involved with TIGSource and the second was meeting Alec Holowka (my partner on my last game and first commercial title, Aquaria). Since Aquaria came out I haven’t had any doubts that this is what I want to do. I feel really fortunate that things worked out this way!
RPS: Tell us about your game. What were its origins? What are you trying to do with it? What are you most pleased about it? What would you change if you could?
Spelunky started out as a “fun little project”. Aquaria had burnt me and Alec out and I was looking forward to doing a game on a scale that was manageable by myself. I came up with the idea of a “roguelike-inspired platformer” after making a few roguelike and platformer prototypes separately. Imagine two cartoon chefs running into each other carrying different flavors of pie and then finding out the flavors taste great together. Except I’m both chefs and… okay, bad analogy. I just wanted to make a platform game that has the kind of tension and variability a roguelike does.
Spelunky started as a Game Maker game, which I released for free. The version that’s in the IGF is actually the second iteration, so I’ve gotten the chance to make most of the changes I wanted, from production upgrades to usability improvements to multiplayer modes. This current version is for sure going to be released on XBLA this year, and we’d really like to do a PC port at some point further out.
RPS: What are your feelings on the IGF this year? Pleased to be nominated? Impressed by the other finalists? Anything you worry has been overlooked?
It’s such an awesome year to be in the IGF. Andy Hull, Eirik Surhke, and I have worked so hard on Spelunky, and I feel like it’s really come together. We were talking about submitting last year but I’m glad we waited, because now it’s so much more polished.
I’ll be honest, I was a little hesitant about entering IGF because Aquaria had won the grand prize in 2007… I had a lot of mixed emotions about it. Would people expect Spelunky to get nominated and would it then seem really bad if it didn’t? If it did, would it be “unfair” somehow, since Aquaria had won? In the end, I decided that I shouldn’t let Aquaria’s win affect whether we submitted Spelunky, since it’s a new game from a new team. The IGF has changed so much, too – it’s a much larger event than in 2007.
With nearly 600 entries this year, it’s inevitable that good games have been overlooked. In particular, I’m surprised Dust: An Elysian Tale didn’t get a nod for visuals, considering how nice it looked in 2010! Of the games I’ve played that weren’t recognized, I like The Iconoclasts, Infested Planet, and Puzzlejuice, to name a few. Check ’em out, people!
RPS: Which game (other than your own) would you like to see take the Grand Prize this year?
I haven’t gotten to play much of the other grand prize finalists (one of the many reasons I’m excited to be at the IGF pavilion this year!), but I’d like to see either Dear Esther or Frozen Synapse win. Both games seem like they push their respective genres forward quite a bit, and you don’t see many art games and strategy games in the main competition to begin with.
It’s a tough call, though. I am VERY happy with the group we’re in!
RPS: How do you feel about the indie scene of late? What would you like to see from it in the near-future?
I’ve always been optimistic about the indie scene, but dang, even I didn’t predict that it would get so big so fast! Not only are we seeing more good games in the genres that indies are primarily associated with (platformers, roguelikes, puzzlers, simulations, tower defense, art games), but we’re also seeing them make significant strides in other genres, like strategy (e.g. Frozen Synapse, AirMech, Unity of Command), FPS’s (e.g. Hawken, Hard Reset), and even fighting games (e.g. Skullgirls). The overall quality of indie games has gone up incredibly the past few years.
In the future, I’d like to see indie developers keep pushing themselves to do their best work and not be satisfied with simply putting an idea out there. If you start something at a game jam that seems promising, please take it to its logical conclusion and complete it – don’t let someone else finish your idea for you. Easier said than done, I know, but I feel strongly about the idea that “indie” should not be an excuse for subpar work. There are so many great titles by small developers that show what you can do with a lot of effort.
Also, do play a lot of games… not just any ol’ game, but the right ones. It’s great to get inspiration from outside sources, but having a deep knowledge and insight into your own field is extremely important. I bring this up because I’ve heard some developers talk about spending less time playing games like it’s a badge of honor or something. It makes me wonder if there are any authors who are proud of reading less, or any musicians who are proud of listening to less music. Don’t play games at the exclusion of everything else, but the more the better, for sure. They’re so fun, anyhow!
Other than that… just keep doing what you’re doing, because it’s working. And as the scene gets even bigger, don’t forget that it was honesty, creativity, and flexibility that made it successful in the first place.
RPS: And how does the future look for you, both in terms of this game and other projects?
Spelunky’s success was really unexpected, and has changed the way I see my own career path. I definitely want to keep making freeware in between bigger commercial projects. I get a lot of satisfaction from doing things this way, and since I don’t see any reason why I have to stop… well, you can’t ask much more of your future than that!
RPS: If you could talk to the monsters in Doom, what would you ask them?
“Tell the guys who created you that I would pay big monies for an ‘Art of id’ coffee table book. Also, give them a kiss for me.”
The original version of Spelunky is out for now for PC and Mac, and free. If you haven’t played it, shame on you. Shame! The shiny new XBLA version will be out later this year, with a PC version hopefully to follow.