Cute things are in abundance across the Internet. You can hardly perform a Google search without seeing something adorable, like a kitten playing a keyboard. The Internet is a cavalcade of cuteness and the realm of games is no different, with the cuteness quotient being filled by a number of Flash games.
Sometimes the cuteness can be too much and can only be cured by wholesome cartoon violence. While no actual bunnies or kittens were harmed in the making of ApathyWorks’ Cute Things Dying Violently, creator Alex Jordan looks to bring smiles to players’ faces by wiping the smiles off of some cute Critters.Critters are round happy faces with legs that look cute as a button. That is, until they meet a buzzsaw or two. Contrary to the game’s title, the idea is actually to get the Critters to safety and avoid as much bloodshed as possible, similar to Lemmings and the Mario vs. Donkey Kong series.
With a month to go before Indie Games Summer Uprising begins, I was able to talk to Alex Jordan about Cute Things Dying Violently. He also shared his thoughts on the game’s antagonist (the Hate Robot), the Indie Games Summer Uprising promotion, and the challenge of flying solo into game development.
IGC: Tell us a little bit about yourself and ApathyWorks.
Alex Jordan: Well, I’m a 27 year old living in Washington, DC. I’ve been a federal employee for three years and I currently work in the Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship. Game design has always been a hobby of mine, back when I was writing my own games in QBasic and creating levels for Doom. Eventually I moved on to modding for Half-Life 1 and Half-Life 2, but although that was a fun experience, it didn’t offer any real opportunities until the indie scene exploded a few years ago.
When I heard about XNA and what was then known as Xbox Live Community Games, I bought myself a bunch of XNA books and decided to start making indie games. I also really like writing, so I started the ApathyWorks blog to share my inner monologue and some of the experience of creating video games.
By the way, “ApathyWorks” as a name is kind of multi-faceted and a little ironic. I’ve got a pretty laid back personality, so “apathy works” could be considered a motto if it were taken to the extreme. And there’s “Works”, like, software, e.g. Microsoft Works. And finally, despite the fact that I started out only intending for game design to be a side hobby, it hasn’t stayed that way, and I sure as hell can’t call my attitude about it “apathetic.”
IGC: Cute Things Dying Violently delivers exactly what it promises. Where did you get the idea for this game?
AJ: I got the idea while thinking long and hard about what kind of game that I wanted to make after I released my first game, Around The World. AtW was a simple geography game that I created as a way of teaching myself more about C# and XNA, and it was never destined for success. However, its sales were so poor that I opened my eyes to the fact that Xbox Live Indie Games is a really unforgiving market. I shelved an engine I was building for a horror game, stopped, and thought, “Well, what kind of game does the XBLIG market actually reward?”
The name “Cute Things Dying Violently” came first, and I’m not sure exactly how. But the name passed the Laugh Test, so I decided to flesh it out. At first, the design doc was just about a skeeball type game where you hurl cute things into the distance and try and land them in fires, spiked pits, buzzsaws, storm clouds, worm holes, Hell itself, and all sorts of other random methods of annihilation. But I figured that would get old quickly, so I retooled the concept into a 2D game where you use various items to either kill or save the cute things. I kicked off development last year on June 27th, exactly one week after AtW came out, and left the design document wide open so that I could keep adding new items and concepts to the game as I saw fit to make sure it stayed interesting.
IGC: You’ve been working on this game for more than a year and I’d imagine you’ve become attached to the game. The game has 60 levels already, but is there a chance you’ll revisit this game later and add more content?
AJ: Oh God yes. I really admire developers like Valve and Notch that continue to expand upon their games and offer their customers free content, and I can do that to some extent by patching CTDV over Xbox LIVE after it comes out. I want to add more items and things to play with, like a fluid system and a freezing system. I want to add a bunch more levels too, including more special challenge levels. And (assuming the game is popular enough), I’d like to add a custom level sharing and rating system, assuming I can figure out how to properly pull it off.
IGC: The game’s big antagonist is the Hate Robot, bringing with him an air of over-the-top cartoonish villainy. What’s the story behind the Hate Robot and what are some of the big influences that led to his creation?
AJ: When I was writing up ideas for the original skeeball-style version of the game, I just made a gigantic list of ways you could kill critters. In my old design document (I just checked it), there’s a bullet that says “Avatars of destruction”, with three entries: a killer robot, an Air Force bombing run, and an angry bull. When I decided that I wanted boss fights, the killer robot made the cut, and I sat down with a pencil and paper to sketch out my ideas for it.
There were two major influences: the weird training “robot” that Guybrush Threepwood learns to swordfight with in The Secret of Monkey Island, and the robot’s scowl is kinda similar to Bender’s from Futurama. Aside from that, I just had some general ideas on silly items that would look really odd on a robot, like a cardboard box, a bucket, and boxing gloves, so I threw those into the mix. Early on, the Hate Robot moved around on the wheels of a desk chair, but those got scrapped when I decided it would offer better gameplay if the thing just floated around. Also, the bottom of the bucket head used to be covered by a pair of soiled tighty-whiteys, but that (a) obscured the mouth, and (b) made the Hate Robot look like a terrorist, which was a little more extreme than what I had in mind.
IGC: CTDV was selected to be a part of Indie Games Summer Uprising. How does it feel to be among those games selected?
AJ: It’s a huge honor, really. Obviously, I’m pretty enamored of my own game, but it was a really pleasant surprise to see that my fellow developers had a high opinion of it too and picked it take part in the Uprising. I’m also happy to be part of a group of some incredibly smart, talented developers that have made a bunch of awesome games for the Uprising. Many of them have been very kind to me and offered me lots of advice, so I personally feel that they’re the right guys to represent the best that XBLIG has to offer.
IGC: Indie developers often have a difficult time creating awareness for their games and making enough of a profit to continue making new games. How important are promotions such as Indie Games Summer Uprising, in terms of helping smaller developers meet those goals?
AJ: The Uprising and other promotions like it are hugely important, especially when it comes to XBLIG. Full-time studios need revenue to stay open, and you can’t get revenue without the downloads and purchases that come with exposure. The XBLIG Marketplace is crowded and difficult to explore, so marketing your game through journalist sites like Joystiq and Kotaku is a must.
But the thing is, these sites might not notice you if you haven’t gotten any prior exposure and if your press release email is just one among thousands. That makes it especially important for communities like the XBLIG developers to help each other out, to vouch for each other, and to apply their own quality control. That way, when they speak with a unified voice and present some really novel, flashy games, big sites take notice, and your game will hopefully get the recognition that it otherwise never would have.
IGC: There’s “small independent studio” and then there’s what you do, which is tackle a project all by yourself. Do you find it easier to work by yourself with no one to answer to than with a team of developers?
AJ: It’s certainly easier than modding. I modded from 2002 to very early 2007, when the indie community was still coming of age, and the kind of people you inevitably attracted to mod teams fell in three categories: useless, “talented but lazy”, or “talented but assholes.” You almost definitely weren’t going to make money off a mod, so you didn’t have any hope of income to keep people in line. After my mod team fell apart in 2007, I vowed to never work with anyone again. Fortunately, along the way, I’d learned at least the very basics of all major game development skills, so I could largely fend for myself. And I have a strong independent streak, so working by myself largely suits me.
That said, although it’s easier to work by myself, it’s only easier because so far I’ve only attempted small projects. There’s more ambitious projects I’d like to do which I’d definitely need a team for. After CTDV, I’m going to break my vow of solitude and work with my brother on a project. He’s an aspiring indie developer too, and we can’t really screw each other over, cuz then we have to sit next to each other at Thanksgiving, right? Awkward.
Also, the more I think about it, I miss the camaraderie of a tight-knit development team. The guys I worked with on Firearms for Half-Life 1 years upon years ago were phenomenal guys who I would hire in a heartbeat if I was ever in such a position to do so. The sad thing was that our projects went on for too long without making much progress, and each guy moved on, one by one. That’s the major problem of working on a long-term project with young, unpaid guys. But now that the indie revolution is in full swing and now you can offer people a salary, even a pathetic one, maybe it’s possible to build a good team and foster that camaraderie. I’d certainly like to find out.
IGC: What advice can you offer to other aspiring developers that might also be looking to become a one-man development crew?
AJ: Keep working at it, because knowledge comes slowly. Expose yourself to all major aspects of game development: programming, 2D art design, 3D modeling, rigging, animation, level design, sound engineering, writing… everything! To be a one-man team, you need to be a jack-of-all-trades. Maximize your strengths, and if you identify weaknesses that might be holding you back, only then look for third party support. (There’s a lot of good places you can buy 3D models, sound effects, or music, but the cost quickly adds up, so you better know what you’re doing.)
Identify what markets you’d like to put a game in, and figure out what kinds of games sell in those markets. Play to the market’s strengths, and go multi-platform if possible to increase your sales and downloads. Draw up a list of gaming journalist sites that might be able to spread the word about your game. Look at the list, then make it double in length. Contact all of them, then find more to contact.
Also, join a community. Make friends with fellow developers, because their support and advice is invaluable. Be active on Twitter, and have a blog or website.
If you quit your day job, game design is now your new job. Hurl yourself at it, and make sure your days are spent productively. If you don’t quit your day job (like I did), cut back on design effort if you’re feeling stressed or real life is intruding, but never stop completely. Recognize that you have a constructive hobby (that can make you money!) and learn to enjoy it. Just keep plugging away, and make sure your skills keep improving, too.
IGC: You’ve been programming since your childhood. Has it gotten any easier as you’ve grown up or are there new challenges that you encounter with every new project?
AJ: No, actually, it’s gotten harder as I’ve grown up. When I was in grade school, I had a ton of time to create custom maps and learn Basic. When I was in college, I still had a ton of time to work on mods and learn the ins and outs of level editors, Photoshop, modeling programs, and what have you. Now that I’m older and I have a life and a job, there’s a lot more competition for my time. The difficulty curve of learning new things never changes, and it’s hard to find the time to teach yourself new tricks.
Also, I’m an International Relations Major, not a Computer Science Major. I have no formal training in computers or design, and everything is self-taught. That meant that I had to learn C# more or less from scratch (my C++ was rusty) back in 2009 when I first started with XNA. It also means that, when I attempt something new, I’m constantly running into problems that have obvious solutions that I’ve never been taught. Oh well, live and learn.
IGC: Where do you go from here? Do you have any new projects in mind?
AJ: Well, I still have to finish up the last remaining items on Cute Things Dying Violently and get it ready for release during the Uprising. After that, I’ll continue to support the game with the additional content that I mentioned above, and maybe consider a sequel down the road if the original is popular. A lot of people are hemming and hawing for PC and mobile phone ports of the game, but I’ll jump off that bridge when I come to it.
The truth is, my head is overrun with game ideas that I’ve been kicking around for years. They include a superhero game, a horror game, a war simulator, a fantasy game… I have an active imagination and long memory. Some of these ideas are ambitious, and some aren’t. I’d love to revisit them and see which ones are feasible to attempt. And like I said, I’ve been meaning to work with my brother for awhile, so after CTDV is out the door the two of us will start work on a 3D platformer together, probably for PC and XBLIG. The project is contained in its scope, so we can bang it out, see how our productivity and workflow is, and hopefully use that knowledge as a launchpad to make future games under the ApathyWorks logo.
IGC: Thank you, Alex Jordan, for talking to us about Cute Things Dying Violently!
Look for Cute Things Dying Violently to hit Xbox LIVE Indie Games as a part of Indie Games Summer Uprising. Indie Games Channel will continue to follow Alex Jordan’s gaming endeavors, as well as Indie Games Summer Uprising.
- « Discord Games’ James Petruzzi on Take Arms & Indie Games Summer Uprising
- » Humble Indie Bundle 3 launches
blog comments powered by Disqus