For game developer Twisted Pixel, 2009 was a breakout year. January 2009 saw the release of their first downloadable game on Xbox Live (and later PC) titled "The Maw," an adventure game featuring an alien and his blob-like companion - a creature that can eat anything and will evolve to take on the properties of whatever it consumes. The simple gameplay, unique characters and charming humor made "The Maw" a hit with both fans and critics.
Six months later, Twisted Pixel followed up with "Splosion Man," a platformer starring a radioactive hero that can explode at will, propelling him around levels and destroying anything and anyone in his path. While the gameplay quite different from "The Maw," "Splosion Man" featured the same kind of humor and unique characters that "The Maw" was recognized for. It became clear that Twisted Pixel had a knack for applying those qualities to whatever kind of game they created.
The developer is hoping to build on the momentum of last year's success with their newest project "Comic Jumper." Earlier this week, CBR caught up with Lead Engineer Mike Henry to talk about the game, an early build of which will be on display at the Pax East game festival in Boston this weekend.
CBR News: Mike, you guys have said that "Comic Jumper" is the game you've always wanted to make. Can you expand on that statement a bit and illustrate how your previous games got you to this project?
Mike Henry: That's true for several reasons. "Comic Jumper" is an idea that has been gestating in our creative director Josh Bear's head like an alien face-hugger podling since he was in middle school. When he told the rest of us about it, we instantly fell in love with the characters and wanted to make sure that other people got to experience them. In addition to that, though, it's a bigger project than our previous ones, so it's an opportunity for us to try our hand at some things we haven't been able to do yet, both gameplay-wise and stylistically (like using voice in our cinemas). We're definitely trying to outdo ourselves with each game we release, packing more and more content and personality into each one.
You play as Captain Smiley, who is a well-meaning but not-too-bright comic book superhero with his own line of comics. They're not very good, though, and the series quickly gets canceled. In order to make some money and try to improve his reputation, he decides to take odd jobs guest-starring in other comic books, each of which completely changes the art style of the game. The gameplay mixes it up a bit as well, with some sections using Smiley's akimbo pistols in a style inspired by "Gunstar Heroes" and "Contra," and others focusing on up-close-and-personal melee combat. We might have a couple other surprises held up our sleeves, too.
Will the game use the same engine you created for "Splosion Man?"
Yeah, although we're constantly adding features and refining it. Our big additions for "Comic Jumper" were lighting and animation improvements, support for slanted floors and walls, high-resolution lightmaps and ambient occlusion, streaming support for bigger / awesomer levels, and a bunch of under-the-hood stuff that makes life easier for our designers and artists. "Comic Jumper" also marks the first time our level art was modeled entirely by artists instead of generated from pieces by our level editor, so we're really excited about the jump in visual quality that brings.
What are some of the comic genres Captain Smiley will be visiting in the game?
So far, we've only revealed 'The Adventures of Captain Smiley,' which is the comic that gets canceled at the beginning of the game. It's in a modern style, partly inspired by the Marvel and Image comics of the 90s. We'll definitely be showing off some of the other genres as we go, so keep your eyes peeled.
Were there particular heroes or villains from comics you read growing up that helped inspire the characters in "Comic Jumper"?
Unfortunately, I can't really delve too far into that yet. There are definitely homages to the comic styles we're imitating, but they have that touch of Twisted Pixel dementia to them, as well. As for Captain Smiley himself, he sort of reminds me a little of The Tick. Only completely narcissistic. And with a foul-mouthed, grumpy emblem on his chest.
Like "The Maw" and "Splosion Man" before it, "Comic Jumper" seems to revolve around a very unique main character. Do you create these characters and then build the games around them, or do you start with gameplay and let the characters emerge from there?
"Comic Jumper" is kind of a special case for us in that respect, because of the fact that Captain Smiley had in a sense already existed for almost 10 years. Our normal process is definitely to start with a gameplay idea, and then let our artists run wild figuring out what sorts of characters would inhabit the world where that gameplay takes place.
Gameplay-wise, our games have ended up being very different from each other. I don't think that's necessarily intentional, although we definitely don't want to pigeonhole ourselves as "the leash guys" or "the super-hard platformer guys" or whatever, either. But if there's something that makes a "Twisted Pixel" game, it's a focus on personality. Like you touched on in the previous question, we want to make games that people remember as much for the unique characters and general style as for the gameplay.
You've worked on larger retail releases like "Blitz II" and "NBA Ballers" in addition to creating your own original downloadable games. What makes the downloadable route a better fit for the games you're creating right now?
Mostly, it's the creative control that being downloadable brings. When you have a traditional developer/publisher relationship with a retail game, there ends up being a lot of other cooks that want to be in the kitchen, even though they might have completely different recipe books than you. Most of the time, they get ownership of the IP as well, which we want to avoid if at all possible.
It's obvious that you guys are comic fans, so what are some of the books that are currently being read around the Twisted Pixel office?
In preparation for "Comic Jumper," we dove into a whole lot of older stuff for research (which I won't get specific about for obvious reasons), but since then, we haven't had a whole lot of time to keep up with anything current. I have a bunch of trades sitting around waiting to be read, though: "Walking Dead," "Invincible Iron Man," "Batman; Year One," the "Dark Tower" graphic novel and probably a few others.
If the characters prove popular, could you envision creating an actual comic based on "Comic Jumper?"
Absolutely! We would love that. Do you have any connections we could abuse?
Finally, we know it's still early, but can you give us an idea of when we can expect "Comic Jumper" to be released?
We don't have a firm timeframe yet, but look for it to happen by the end of the year. We'll keep you posted!