When you're at a gaming event, often times you can sit down with someone to chat, put on the recorder, and see what happens. That's very much how I approached lunch with demaking champion Eric Ruth, and his friend and colleague, Ben Walsh, CEO of Pure Bang. It was an interesting dynamic, Ben a calm, sensible man who carefully chooses his words, experienced in the world of gaming from his years working at Bethesda. Eric... not so much. Eric sounds like a professional wrestler smack-talking about his next match. Incredibly fast-paced, and impressively driven, he's a force of passion with a remarkable past. Clearly Ben's goal is to mediate what Eric says. Ben does not succeed at this. We chatted shortly after the release of his most recent game, Corril Slayer, with no real agenda in mind, which is how we get to talking about Eric's history of homelessness, the difficulty of pricing games, and masturbating to antiques programmes. We also chat a lot about the making of Corril Slayer, and the place of the $3 indie game.
Eric Ruth: So I'm going to open this up by saying PENIS PENIS PENIS PENIS PENIS.
RPS: Opening quote.
Ben Walsh: Um... Yes. So after My Pet Rock we just took a step back and decided what kind of games did we want to make. We really like comedy, and we also traditional hardcore games, RPGs, RTSs, strategy. We have a couple of concepts in development now, they’re a little too early to show but we brought Eric Ruth onto the team late October. He’s developed Corril Slayer which we just released and that is the direction we want to go, more serious but again there’s some humour there, the main character is the victim of a botched lobotomy, it’s a little bit of a silly premise.
RPS: I didn’t have the chance to play it yet, I was travelling here by the time it came out.
Eric Ruth: Well so far for us what we’re happy about is that the reviews have been phenomenal, I mean ten out of tens across the board, I mean literal critical acclaim at this point. Several websites have given it perfect reviews, even YouTube comments are urging other YouTubers to go buy it, the feedback when it’s only been out for a week has been really good, which personally makes me feel ‘Yay, I can make good games!’ So yeah, it’s been an enjoyable trip this first week seeing all the good stuff pour in.
RPS: Why did you go in that direction from demaking?
Eric Ruth: Well of course demaking involves using franchises that I don’t own, so I can’t sell them for obvious reasons because they’re not my IP, and I wouldn’t want to infringe on anyone’s life or rule or anything. I’d actually like to do some official demakes, I’d love to talk to some companies and get a real thing going on with them because there’s a lot of stuff out there with a lot of potential. I mean Pixel Force: Left 4 Dead, I don’t know if you remember that, the Nintendo version of Left 4 Dead I did, it came out a couple of years ago… that has over 600,000 downloads, that’s better than triple A titles in that year, that’s ridiculous… so I mean, clearly there’s a market for it, and Team Fortress Arcade, which I think you picked up too, that has over 300,000 downloads, another sizeable…
RPS: And Valve haven’t been in touch?
Eric Ruth: Not at all.
RPS: That is weird.
Eric Ruth: I heard that it is likely because Valve does think I’m cool and what I do is fun, but they can’t officially acknowledge it or else Legal has to get involved, and of course Legal for any game company, as Ben will tell you, as soon as they think someone else is using your IP, even if it’s for no financial gain and for fans, and for fun, they’ll shut that shit down immediately.
RPS: Bear in mind that Valve’s cabal system means that - as far as I can tell, no-one has any idea what anyone else is doing - they can pretty much get away with avoiding that stuff.
Eric Ruth: Maybe not, I don’t know the internal workings of Valve, but I haven’t heard anything from them.
RPS: I’m really surprised by that. They probably all think someone else contacted you. That seems to be how Valve works.
Eric Ruth: I played in a celebrity mix-up TF2 tournament in the past year and I was on Robin Walker’s team because I was deemed to be a celebrity for Team Fortress Arcade, and we played against Notch, whom I dominated by the way, in the third round.
Eric Ruth: A lot of great guys, it was a fun event. But all the same we’ve got a lot of stuff on the horizon that we’re very excited about.
RPS: Are you going to stick with the theme, keeping with the pixels?
Eric Ruth: Well here’s the thing, I would like to do a whole different world of stuff, including that, I want to do like everything, I’ve got this big expanse of ideas for all sorts of stuff. I want to do some hand-drawn stuff, I recently got a tablet for my PC and I’m actually traditionally a hand-drawn artist, I didn’t get noticed for my pixel art until I started making and releasing games, but before that I always did animation and art with hand-drawn stuff. I want to do some more of that but I have such a good rapport with fans for my retro style that you don’t want to risk alienating people.
RPS: That’s the big difficulty when you’ve carved such a niche there.
Eric Ruth: And it’s a good niche, I get fan mail all the time from great people, they’re always so sweet. I get recognised when I’m playing TF2 and stuff like that, so it’s a great world, I don’t want to let anybody down. that’s the big internal...
Ben Walsh: What’s your TF2 name?
Eric Ruth: It’s Eric Ruth. EricRuthGames. My company and logo’s my picture. In fact, one time I was playing with a group of people and three of them recognised me all at the same time and were like ‘Oh, are you the guy that did Pixel Force: Halo, DJ Hero, Left 4 Dead… oh man, they’re so good, you’re such a great…’ and then someone else comes on the chat, in the team chat, and is like: ‘Dude, that’s not Eric Ruth. You guys are so gullible, just ‘cos he has the name doesn’t mean he’s actually Eric.’ I was like ‘You’re right, it’s not me’ [laughs] I just totally went with it.
RPS: So what’s your background? Where did you start?
Eric Ruth: I had kind of a rough life. My parents divorced when I was in high school, I was never particularly close with any of my family, so the beginning of my 20s I actually ended up homeless and I lived in a shelter for a little bit of a time, I lived in my car for a little bit of a time. I once survived two weeks on chocolate chips.
RPS: I want to try that…
Eric Ruth: [laughs] It’s not good! I promise you that. It’s mildly enjoyable for the first three hours and it goes downhill real quick then [laughs].
RPS: How did you have so many chocolate chips?
Eric Ruth: I left a place I was living because I had a big falling out with someone but I had a bunch of stuff in the trunk of my car including some groceries that I had bought that I pulled out of the place when I left, and one night a long time before that I’d bought a bunch of stuff to bake, and never did it, so I had these bags of chocolate chips just sitting in the back of my car, so… that was the only thing that was immediately edible, I also had shortening and cooking sprays and stuff like that but I wasn’t going to shove flour into my mouth, rarggh rarghh!, so chocolate chips it was. I was working on my laptop while living out of a shelter, I was still working and programming, it’s basically been my life’s dream. I’ve seen too many adults in my life when I grew up have jobs that they weren’t pleased with and they were really always miserable about it so I decided from a very early age, from middle school, that I was going to do everything I could to make video games, because I loved them so much, and nothing else was going to do. I wasn’t going to just give up and decide to be a doctor or lawyer or anything. That was it, it’s video games or bust. And I couldn’t afford college because I couldn’t afford a roof over my head so I had to teach myself everything online. I taught myself how to use Photoshop, taught myself how to write music in Reason and cut sound effects in GoldWave, and mix and master in Sony ACID, how to program… I used a Texas Instruments calculator, that was my first foray into programming [laughs]. I just had to teach myself everything: video editing for trailers, I watched tutorials, read up on websites and forums, and I just taught myself everything from scratch. Not easy, by the way.
RPS: How did you get back off the streets, how did that happen?
Eric Ruth: I was in the shelter, until it was part of a program where I could stay in this really cheap housing. So at that point I was working at Wawa, which is a convenience store/gas station out here in America on the east coast, not even on the west coast, but I worked there, regular job, and I programmed in my off time. And while I was at Wawa, that’s when I did Pixel Force: Left 4 Dead, that’s when I did Mean Kathleen, and I entered that in the IGF that year, which I’ll never do again, save that story for a different interview [laughs]. Every minute I could I’d code and work towards it ‘cos I wasn’t going to give up. I know it’s a cheesy story, ‘Don’t give up!’, but it’s absolutely true. So long as you don’t give up you’ll eventually stumble into something.
Ben Walsh: So I saw Eric in maybe 2009.
Eric Ruth: We met around that time I was working at Wawa and all that.
Ben Walsh: The local IGDA had a showcase of indie games, and he was showing off some of his works.
Eric Ruth: Mega Man Rocks, that’s what I had done before that.
Ben Walsh: So he was showing off a couple of his indie titles there and I was really impressed so I kept his contact information. When I left Bethesda I started an organisation called Innovate Baltimore to connect tech entrepreneurs with creative people, so I invited Eric to come and he came, and that’s about the time he had just finished Left 4 Dead, and he brought his laptop and he was showing that off at the event, and it was really impressive, so we started talking about working together, and it took some time because he was working on demakes, and that wasn’t something we could do anything with, and once he came up with the idea for Corril Slayer we thought that was the time to partner up.
RPS: How long did Corril Slayer take you to make?
Eric Ruth: Well that was a little bit of a weird project because I started it before I started Team Fortress Arcade, and then I paused to work on Team Fortress Arcade, and didn’t work on it at all, and then I went back and started working on it again, and originally when I decided I was going to make and release that game, Ben and I hadn’t come to an agreement, we were friends at that point but we weren’t working together yet. And so I had this idea in mind and slated everything, it was going to be released by Halloween, this past year, and then Ben was like, ‘Fuck it, let’s get you in here now, and we’ll release Corril Slayer with you,’ and I was like ‘Ok’, but then because we were making a bigger release out of it, then it was time to go back and re-work it, re-tool it a little more, do a little more with it, add some more stuff, more animation, you get the idea. So of course that extended the development process which led us to February when we finally released. So altogether, including the first start before TFA, I’d say it’s probably a good four months or so.
Ben Walsh: Four months all on him. He did all the art, programming, design.
Eric Ruth: Music by Midnight Syndicate though. Great guys by the way. It’s weird because when you’re in my position, whenever you want to work with someone, or you hear music for example, like in this, I was like ‘their music, their mood, is perfect. I would love to have their stuff for my game’. But I’m not just going to steal it, clearly, so I sent an email over saying ‘Hey, I’m an indie developer, I’ve got no money, I got nothing! But this is this game I’m working on, you guys’ work is phenomenal, please at least take a look at this video and tell me what you think, please consider me’. And Ed, was the guy from the duo, who got back to me said ‘Yeah man, let’s write!’ and I was like ‘Yes!’. So they’ve been super-great, super-helpful, and every time we need to get hold of them they’re right there, super-easy to work with, real nice guys, so it’s been a real joy and we’re looking forward to doing some future stuff with them too because we’ve definitely opened a good relationship there.
Ben Walsh: They’ve invented the Halloween music genre, they’re so talented.
Eric Ruth: They did the soundtrack to the Dungeons and Dragons movie, that was them.
RPS: Really? I really liked that movie!
[All laugh at the idiot]
Eric Ruth: Yeah, that was them. They’re really good with these period pieces and with styles and atmosphere in their music. Really talented guys, can’t argue it. So it’s been real great to have the music on board and every review we’ve seen, the biggest compliments we get are for the art and the music. They think it’s actually creepy, ‘well the atmosphere’s phenomenal’. We’ve heard it a dozen times now.
Ben Walsh: Before, I didn’t think an 8 bit game could scare me [laughs].
RPS: How much are you selling Corril Slayer for?
Eric Ruth: Three bucks.
RPS: That’s a really good price, and then you can drop that to $1.50 and have a massive sales spike I imagine.
Ben Walsh: We felt like it was really fair, based on the amount of time we put into it, we look at other people and they’re selling theirs for $10, $20…
Eric Ruth: All my fans expect my stuff to be free, for years I’ve released all these free games, so we were talking about price, I said I wanted to keep it really low because that wouldn’t be fair on the people who’ve come to expect stuff from me if we suddenly released a $20 game.
RPS: It’s really tough. I guess it’s really unfair that the price expectations on you are quite weird, like when Dear Esther came out, I didn’t like Dear Esther and I wrote a review and then Alec was so disgusted with me for not liking it he wrote a positive review which is the great thing about RPS, but I just thought $10 for an hour-long game felt wrong. People got really angry with me for saying that because you pay ten bucks to go to the cinema to see a movie, and it’s really tough trying to figure out what’s the right price for something.
Ben Walsh: It’s really hard to figure out, we’ve tried to think about that all the time as well, we demoed the game at this festival. We had a lot of people look at the game, and we asked people how much would you pay for it? And everyone was like ‘$10, easy’. We were like ‘Really? You guys are insane, but we love you’ [laughs].
RPS: I think £6, $10, is a good price, it’s not quite disposable, at that price point you’re asking people to commit, whereas when something is three bucks you’re saying to someone ‘buy this or buy a beer’, obviously $3 you’re not going to miss out your wallet are you. It’s a really easy thing to buy at that price.
Eric Ruth: It’s also down to expectations. If you see a game for sale for $19.99, you might think higher of it than a game you see for $2.99, regardless of what you see or hear or trailers you watch, you’ll just assume more, and I feel like we might get that stigma since realistically for what it is, Corril Slayer is underpriced, I would say it’s more fairly to a $5 or $6 game. So it’s definitely underpriced so I fear there might be people that are looking at the price alone and saying ‘well, if it’s only $3…’
RPS: All the evidence I’ve seen seems to point towards the lower your price, the higher your profits. Valve have proven it over and over and over again, and the IOS market is just unbelievable, just look at the highest grossing.
Eric Ruth: It kind of goes exponentially, the lower price the product is, Team Fortress 2 is free, and they make so much revenue out of Team Fortress 2 [laughs].
RPS: Valve showed if you reduce by 50%, your sales go up so many percent, and if you reduce by 75% they go up by so much more, and you’re making much more money because of the lower price. It's counter-intuitive, but actually when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. I read this thing ages ago, someone talking about how do you price software, say you’re making your Photoshop equivalent and you know you can charge $1000 for it because that’s how much people will pay for comparative software, but if you charge $1000 you are limiting your customers to those who have got an enormous amount of money to spend on a piece of software.
Eric Ruth: Or pirates [laughs].
RPS: Indeed, so if you sell it for $500 suddenly you open up a whole bunch more people who buy it, and if you sell it for $50, actually you’re probably going make a lot more money than at a $1000, but then if you sell it for $50, no business is going to think it’s worth investing in. What a nightmare, pricing is just insane!
Eric Ruth: Every single facet of games development and sales is such an intricate, numerically thought out...I mean look no further than Zynga, to put together biometrics on sales data.
Ben Walsh: We were just talking to somebody yesterday… for IOS to be a developer you have to pay $100 to get your developer’s licence. They spent $300 for the Enterprise licence, and I was like ‘why?!’ Just because they’re a company and they want to send out the Enterprise licence, it doesn’t add anything to it except they have to go through a few more hoops. It is strange.
Eric Ruth: Heh heh, white people.
RPS: You should sell an Enterprise edition of Corral Slayer, and charge…
Eric Ruth: I’ll call it the ‘Gold Edition’, and I’ll just put a colour layer over everything that makes it a shade of gold. No gameplayis actually changed, no additions…
RPS: Take a level out.
Eric Ruth: Yeah, it’s only three stages now. It’s a condensed version. I’m going to leave in the code, I’m just going to take it out of the action, so it’s not even going to be smaller.
[We somehow get on to talking about my phone.]
RPS: I can control my TV at home with it, which is just brilliant.
Ben Walsh: It’d be awesome if we controlled it from here, and if you had somebody at home who was like, ‘Why does that TV keep turning off?’
RPS: Because it works by wireless I can be upstairs and my wife’s watching TV downstairs, and I can just turn the volume down if it’s annoying me. Which she finds extremely annoying.
Eric Ruth: But also extremely funny?
RPS: Yes, I find it very, very funny.
Eric Ruth: You can change it to something really terrible like Jersey Shore. You guys get Jersey Shore in England?
RPS: I don’t know if it shows, I know about it though.
Eric Ruth: God help you if it does.
RPS: I was in a toy store yesterday, and they have a Jersey Shore trivia game. What... what...?
Eric Ruth: Trivia: how did these people fail at their lives? Ooh, an essay question! A lot of American TV is bad.
RPS: But it's also the best it's ever been, way better than in the UK! We bring out some stuff that people in the States really love, of course. Although what I'm obsessed with now are things like Storage Wars. This weekend I watched so many shows about people finding gold. Why am I compelled by this?
Ben Walsh: On the plane they had a show about a father/son antique team, going around buying antiques, and I'm like, why am I watching this?
Eric Ruth: 'This is bullshit, what am I doing?! I could be masturbating right now!' [Eric ferociously mimes masturbation in his lap.] But then, because it's so compelling, you leave the TV on and watch the show.
RPS: Masturbating to antiques.
Ben Walsh: ...Eric’s really excited to show you what we’re working on, but it’s a little too top secret.
RPS: So you’re being controlled?
Eric Ruth: I am. And actually I don’t like it. I’m so used to working alone for so many years, to be able to like ‘Fuck it, I’ll say and do whatever I want, who cares? Fuck Zynga, I hate Zynga!’ He was like, ‘Don’t say that in public in the video game conference.’ So, I’m saying it. I don't care. Fuck Zynga. Fuck 'em.
Ben Walsh: My theory is be nice to others and they’ll be nice to you.
Eric Ruth: They’re the only one! Everyone else I’m cool with.