The co-founders of Breakfall, an indie development team, put on their winter coats and galoshes to tell the tale about their adorably cute platformer, Marvin’s Mittens. Learn how Marvin was created, take a peek into indie development and much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Marvin’s Mittens.
This is Jason and Mike working in tandem to answer these questions. We’re the co-founders of Breakfall and shared the director’s chair for Marvin’s Mittens. Jason was the lead programmer, while Mike came up with the concept and did all the audio.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
With Marvin’s Mittens! Mike had been working at an Ottawa company (Artech Studios) for a few years, doing all their sound and music. Jason was a web developer who had always been very passionate about games, and decided he was going to program one. We talked about some ideas we might want to work on, and from there came up with Marvin’s Mittens, and recruited some other very talented people to help with the art, animation, level design and programming.
Where did the idea for Marvin’s Mittens come from?
We wanted to make something with a smaller feature set, an exercise in subtractive design, to do more with less. We also had both played the excellent Knytt, another little indie game that totally inspired us. Mike was considering this, and also the idea of making something that lacked violence to drive player engagement, and the basic story of Marvin’s Mittens came from that.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Marvin’s Mittens?
An exhaustive list of either would be too long to list (for either) but we can give you a taste! <laughs>. I don’t think we had any major missteps in creating the game, however we definitely had a hell of a time on the technical side of things. Because we decided to create most of our technology in Marvin from the ground up with very little experience, it was a very lengthy and laborious experience. However, we learned, as a team, how to make art from restraint and restriction. So the subtractive design ideal is a success. Also, just finishing the game in the way we did it – working part time over a number of years to create something that has a significant amount of content, doing our indie game justice. Sometimes these things are just rushed out the door, but we persevered and we think it paid off.
In its current form, how close is Marvin’s Mittens to your initial vision?
Very close, in fact. There were moments in design where we deviated from the initial vision, but for the most part we hit our mark. The game stays true to our goals of being relaxing and a glimpse of care-free childhood. We started with the name and premise and built everything around those ideas, and though it got a little bigger and definitely better looking than we originally expected, it’s really what we set out to make for the most part!
Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Marvin’s Mittens and if you faced a similar challenge.
While you might think Marvin is a game without enemies and other conventional design mechanics, we still took great care in crafting the player’s experience. For us it was about teaching the player basic skills near the beginning of the game. From there the player is mostly free to explore and reach higher and higher as they see fit. If you’ll notice, it’s mostly the first moments of the game that are some of the most challenging as you need to find ways to navigate the world without any extra powers. And if we’ve done our job right, even those few moments of challenge should still be relaxing and fun.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Marvin’s Mittens would run on the various PC system configurations?
PC development is a really tricky thing! To try and get things running quickly and relatively easy we used XNA framework for our game. We tackled some interesting problems near the end that were a headache and we hope that our future projects can avoid this so we can focus on the fun parts – creating the content!
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Marvin’s Mittens.
We really worked hard to blend all the elements such as art, world design, and music so that they all played off each other to create something where the sum is greater than the individual parts. On art, we played with various styles and especially colors. We really wanted sunrise to be bright and sunset/night to be beautiful and memorable.
The world and music works on these levels, too – for instance, you’ll notice we used elements in the backgrounds such as the glowing city, to evoke certain feelings in the player. Every element in the game has a thread of mystery or wonder to it. So though you never go to the city or see the history of other elements you find, it always leaves your imagination to fill in the gaps. Which is something we love about older titles that used the power of implicit imagery.
To get the levels built we tried the old Nintendo method of sketching everything out on paper first. We tried to consider the flow of the game on the macro scale, using different shapes and pacing and increasing heights. Within each level we tried to have tiers of platforms, so that you could access certain height levels when you had collected a specific numbers of snowflakes. Planning the toboggan route through the shortcuts you open up was something that went on throughout development, as were the “gates” you could hit – places where if you weren’t collecting enough snowflakes, you wouldn’t be able to progress. In practice people tend to really try to collect every snowflake they see, so this doesn’t even come up very much. That’s great, because even though we planned on using level design to encourage exploration and replay as your jump height changes, people seem to just do it very organically. But there was quite a bit of effort in making the levels and making the entire world all work together well.
Both the art style and music started out with more or less the same feel we have, but had many iterations. We would put stuff in the game, see how it felt, and just keep working on it. Having the small team and no fixed schedule also let us explore ways to leverage the technology to make things feel better. So the transition from day to night is something that required some code, some extra effort from artists to break things into specific layers, but it’s such a neat effect. Similarly, the music has a whole hierarchy of dynamic elements, so the intensity really changes when you get on your toboggan or hear that time is running out.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
By far the toughest aspect is working under our own financial and organizational steam. It is also, however, our greatest strength! There is nothing more agile and artistically pure in the world than working on your own. So just keeping ourselves motivated as we worked on a volunteer basis until money comes in was definitely tough. Finishing a game at the pace we were going wasn’t easy.
How did you go about funding Marvin’s Mittens and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Marvin was an interesting title for us in that we created on our own spare time for the most part. While some of us were full time as we got closer to the end, we could say we got no financial investment while creating the title. Emotional support was there in abundance. So many of our family and friends were there to support us. When you’re creating something like Marvin I think it’s easy to get support, as there is a piece of Marvin and his travels in all of us. It’s easy for people to identify with the vision and why it would be great to experience!
Tell us about the process of submitting Marvin’s Mittens to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Well, we got into Steam Greenlight early, but still haven’t had a lot of luck there. We’ve had quite a few votes, but it seems like it’s a moving target, and we don’t know if we’ll ever get through. Desura has been amazing though. They’re easy to use and have been really good with supporting us, helping us get keys for giveaways and moved the game through their process very quickly. Desura might not be as big as other portals, but it’s a great way to start. We also like that you can still patch your game through Desura. We’d like to approach other distribution platforms, but we’re more comfortable with the Desura system exclusively for now, because let’s face it, as indies you don’t have the ability to necessarily do huge amounts of QA. We did encounter a few weird bugs, and managed to fix them quickly. So Desura has been awesome in a number of ways.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
We looked at other downloadable titles and went up and down with the price. Obviously setting the price too high is bad, we would like to have lots of people play the game. But we also worried that setting the price too low would change the perception of the quality of the game. “Oh, it’s just some $2 kids thing.” We went with what we felt was about average for this sort of game online. Maybe a little lower, but it’s an odd game, just 3-6 hours of content or so, and we weren’t sure how people would react to paying much more than $5 for that.
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for Marvin’s Mittens?
We had two reasons for doing that. One was in the hopes that people who don’t have great computers might try it out and not buy our game if it doesn’t run well. It’s not an insanely demanding engine, but some scenes have a lots of objects being drawn and it won’t run well on older PCs. The other reason, we really struggled with. We’re not sure how well you can get a sense of what the game is about, or how we develop all the mechanics, in just a short demo. But we wanted to let people have a chance to play to get a taste, and also see that there’s some quality here, that it’s not just a simple kids game. It’s kid-friendly, and not super difficult, but it’s still a “real platformer” in our eyes, if that makes any sense.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Marvin’s Mittens from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
We did a rather large giveaway on NeoGAF, as that was a community Jason was part of that was very supportive throughout development. I can tell you that several team members read each and every of the many pages of comments. As the game hits other communities, we’ll definitely check in to see what people think. We want to hear that players enjoyed the game, and also if they had issues with it we want to know that too. In terms of other social networking sites, we’ve been using Facebook and our blog at Breakfall.ca to post news and information, but we don’t have a huge number of subscribers. Twitter has been used to touch base with media mostly.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Marvin’s Mittens professionally?
It would be hard to answer that in absolute terms. We read all the reviews we can find, and we look for things (positive and negative) that we agree or disagree with. If we find complaints we feel are valid, that’s valuable. Obviously the positive comments are great, that’s part of what we make games for. But different critics serve different audiences, so you have to ask who they are and who they’re writing for. That said, even some outlets that generally seem to favour pretty hardcore games have been very kind to us. We weren’t sure that would be the case. Just about everyone so far seems to “get it”, understand and appreciate what we were trying to make, which is really, really awesome!
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
Superficially, the idea of being in something like the indie bundle might sound discouraging. “So I get a few pennies every copy that is sold?” But they sell so well that when you scale that up to a massive audience, it could be a great way to get exposure and actually make some money. So we’d definitely be interested to participate in something like that. As much as we’d like to make money, we want lots of people to play our game, and those promotions can be great for that.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Pirates are going to pirate. There’s no evidence everyone who torrents your game (or movie, album or book) would have been a paying customer. We hope people will want to support us, but going DRM crazy usually just punishes your paying customers. As gamers it annoys us, and as creators we’re not sure we see the point.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Marvin’s Mittens?
We think it’s great that people want to share our game! Because it’s a short game and the payoff often is just getting to see the next area, we sometimes worry about spoilers. But as developers, it’s interesting and useful to watch people playing your game, so we enjoy a lot of the videos being posted.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
This is a tricky one. DLC canbe a great way to extend the life of a game. But it’s such a blurry line between content and features that should have just been included, versus paid extras that really feel like meaningful extensions of your experience. The trend in online multiplayer towards purchasable competitive advantages is just awful, though. Like, that’s one way to monetize, but it’s really hurting the game experience for your players. That’s one we could live without. Ultimately, DLC is about the relationship between creators and their audience and a balance has to be found between what both sides think is fair. But we can say right now that Marvin’s Mittens is a fairly self-contained experience and we’re not seriously looking at ways to extend it with anything like DLC.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Marvin’s Mittens?
It’s something I don’t think we ever really considered, with respect to Marvin’s Mittens! Modding in general is a great way for people express themselves creatively and get experience with game development (without making an entire game from scratch). There are some great mods out there, and if developers have a big game they want to last for a long time, giving better tools to the community to extend the life of your game can do that.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Make your game. Make it something you care about. Find people you love working with. Keep your scope reasonable, and expect the final 10% of development to take as long as the first 90%. It’s really hard work to finish a game, but it’s incredibly rewarding to have something you made in the hands of players!