Developer Interview: Cute Things Dying Violently

The Summer Indie Uprising is coming up and developers are anxious to show off their projects before the developer voting deadline on July 18.  It’s in that spirit that I sat down with Alex Jordan, developer of Cute Things Dying Violently.  After viewing the trailer, I figured I would be chatting with a barely literate teenaged sociopath.  Imagine my shock when Mr. Jordan turned out to be a federal employee working for the Department of Labor in Washington DC.  Well actually that might not disqualify him from being a sociopath, but at least he seemed nice.

Kairi Vice: What is it you have against cute things?

Cute Things Dying Violently designer Alex Jordan

Alex Jordan: (laughs) Funny you should ask, I actually SPARED a lot of cute things when designing the game.  The initial design document called for squirrels and bunnies and stuff that would be a lot more, ah, sympathetic.

Kairi Vice: Cute Things Dying Violently is a physics based puzzler, of which there are roughly a zillion of on XBLIG.  What sets your’s apart?

Alex Jordan: I sincerely hope the answer lies with its execution and sense of humor. You’re right, it’s a pretty over-represented genre, but I’m hoping that the good execution of the core gameplay elements and the half-sarcastic, half-belligerently enthusiastic tone will make players want to keep plugging away at it.

Kairi Vice: Another over-represented aspect of the XBLIG marketplace is what I call “punishment-platformers.”  Stuff like The Impossible Game, Aban Hawkins & the 1000 Spikes, etc.  With a name like “Cute Things Dying Violently” do you fear that maybe people will confuse your game with that increasingly lambasted genre?

Alex Jordan: No, not really. The combination of the four words that make up the title are meant to pique the interest of potential players, not suggest some form of difficult gameplay. That, and the fact that I’ve worked carefully to make the game’s initial difficulty arc relatively easy on the player. There are a lot of straightforward puzzles to solve and many situations where the player might accidentally kill a Critter or two, but can quickly learn from their mistakes. Only later on in the game does it get truly challenging to reward persistent players.

Kairi Vice: How many people are working with you on this project?

Alex Jordan: I represent 99% of the work that’s gone into the project, although I’ve received some graphical help from my brother, who’s got a better 2D sense than me. (He’s the one who designed the layout for the box art.) I also had Ryan at VVGTV alpha test an early build of the game and give me some pointers.  Besides them and the close friends of mine I’ve recruited/shanghaied into testing, I do all the programming, art, and voices, and sourced all the other sounds and music from royalty-free third parties.

Kairi Vice: You’re one of the 25 finalists in the Indie Games Uprising.  You’re listed alongside some games that are being produced on large budgets with development teams of ten or more.  Do you find this intimidating?

Alex Jordan: Incredibly! Everyone I’ve talked to thus far has just oozed talent, and their games look amazing. I’m sincerely hoping that Cute Things Dying Violently will stand out for being a game apart from the other platformers and twin-stick shooters and what have you in the Top 25, but if I don’t make it in, I’ll know that I was beaten out by some damn fine designers.

Kairi Vice: On that subject, what other games are you most impressed with that made the top 25 list?

Alex Jordan: All The Bad Parts has me intrigued, since its based on merely growing up instead of the gaming world’s usual plots. Cell: Emergence looks phenomenal. City Tuesday looks really interesting, as does T.E.C. 3001. And Speedrunner HD looks like a complete adrenaline rush.  I’m also very disappointed that Windhaven withdrew from the original batch of contestants and that Blossom Tales withdrew from the Top 26 (which is now the Top 25).

Kairi Vice: Did any games directly influence CTDV?

Alex Jordan: I think the funnier story is what games DIDN’T influence CTDV, since there’s a lot of crazy similarities.

Kairi Vice: Such as?

Alex Jordan: For instance, Super Meat Boy has the same wanton violence and sardonic tone, but I hadn’t actually heard of it until right before its release, when I was many months into development. Also, the maneuvering of the Critters has been compared to the original Lemmings, which I still haven’t played. And the voices that I recorded for the Critters… well, tonally, the original recordings had a little more bass to them, but they were hard to hear over the music and sound effects, so I upped the pitch… and wound up with voices that sounded uncomfortably like those found in the Worms games.

Kairi Vice: I actually thought of Lemmings first as well.  That mixed with Gerbil Physics.

Alex Jordan: I also haven’t played Gerbil Physics. I saw some videos of it a few months into development, and I was a little uncomfortable with some similar gameplay elements (like bombs, if I remember correctly), but other than that, I couldn’t tell you any similarities.

Kairi Vice: As noted, there’s a lot of physics based stuff on XBLIG, most of which ironically have terrible physics engines.  How much of the production time went towards fine-tuning the physics of CTDV?

Alex Jordan: A hell of a lot of time, but not for what you think. The general in-game physics that you see – Critters, objects, etc. – rely on simple rectangular bounding box collisions which I based largely on some XNA tutorials and some platforming physics I wrote for an original game idea that I had to euthanize late in 2009. So, the basic physics came together in the first month or two. The really tricky stuff was with the particle system physics, which are entirely cosmetic. They work on the same theory as the regular item physics, but it took me at least three months to get the game to efficiently handle upwards of 1,200 physical particles on-screen at a time.

Kairi Vice: So the game is very violent.  In fact it could very well be the most sickening violent game I’ve seen on the XBLIG marketplace.  Obviously the game will get attention for that.  Was there anything that had to get cut because it was too over-the-top even for you?

Alex Jordan: Well, I briefly considered adding bones and a little more viscera to the particle system, but it seemed a bit much, in addition to being anatomically incorrect. Obviously, I’m very concerned with the anatomy of my fictional Critters. It’s not my job to go around considering people’s’ opinions as invalid, so it’s entirely possible some people will find the violence sickening and be turned off by it. That said, the combination of the cute Critters with the ridiculous blood and mayhem is a juxtaposition I consciously sought, as I wanted the game to be funny and over the top. That’s also why the Critters chat with the player at the start of each level and say incredibly idealistic things like “It’s a beautiful day” and “I have a great many ambitions.” And when you kill of a lot of them, they start saying morbid, pessimistic things in the exact same cheery tone. I’m hoping a lot of people will get a good laugh out of the mashup of violence and misplaced enthusiasm.

Kairi Vice: In my blog I’ve repeatedly stated that I think puzzle games belong on portable platforms, as they tend to lend themselves better to shorter playing sessions.  Why is it you feel that CTDV is more suited for the Xbox 360?

Alex Jordan: CTDV is more suited for the Xbox 360 because of the controller’s dual thumbstick setup. The player can accurately control the position of the Target with one thumb and the angle and power of flicks with the other. Aside from grabbing Critters with the Left Trigger and the occasional use of the face buttons, the game can be played entirely with your thumbs. Also, the Xbox has a ton of power under its hood, which allows me to have hundreds of particles on-screen at a time and allows me to pull off silly custom effects like the magnification of things caught in bubbles and the heat rippling that fire causes.

I wouldn’t mind ditching some of the superfluous stuff for mobile devices with touch screens, but there’s a major problem with that: In CTDV, you need to be able to see the Critter or item you’re flicking. On a mobile phone, you’d be obscuring the Critter or item when you put your finger on the touch screen to manipulate them. You’d lose sight of a non-trivial portion of the viewable screen. There are certain ways around this (such as a stylus), but exploring those options will come at a later time. And in addition to all that, the Xbox is the only console that has an environment as open and easy to use as XNA.

Kairi Vice: You’ve been developing Cute Things Dying Violently for over a year, whereas many XBLIG feel like they were rushed out the door as soon as the developer finished drawing out the plans on a cocktail napkin.  Now that you’re part of the Summer Uprising, is the pressure on to finish the game, maybe before it’s done being play-tested throughly?

Alex Jordan: Oh absolutely. CTDV’s development time frame has gone on and on, so much so that I initially flirted with trying to join the Winter Uprising, only to realize that the game wasn’t anywhere near presentable enough. I was incredibly lucky that the game was close to being done when the Summer Uprising was announced. As it is, I’ve been working like a madman on it since June. One of the most important things to do – the art – was largely done in the past two weeks. People watching the game’s progress and the materials that were submitted at various stages to the Summer Uprising must have noticed that I was creating new content at a frantic pace AND trying to improve my art skills at the same time. That said, I’m not concerned about the lack of playtesting…

CTDV is on its second playtest in as many weeks, and I’ve been having friends (and Ryan at VVGTV) alpha test the game for the past six months. The major aspects of the game – especially the gameplay – are more or less where I want them. My only concern is that all major and minor bugs are found and squashed before the game goes into peer review.  I certainly haven’t been shy about playtesting. In fact, I’ve been systematically luring my friends into my apartment with promises of beer and pizza, only to make them sit on my couch and play the game while I take notes like some demented psychologist.

Kairi Vice: Is beer and pizza a wise choice for playtesting a puzzler?

Alex Jordan: Tragically, I was born without tact or patience. My friends just wait me out (on puzzles) until I screamed the answer at them in disgust.

Kairi Vice: Do you feel there needs to be some form of quality control to prevent developers who phone in every game (Silver Dollar Games for example) from saturating the market and bringing everyone else down with it?

Alex Jordan: I think XBLIG has quality control issues, but I don’t think the solution lies with barriers to entry. There’s nothing like XBLIG when it comes to learning the ropes of game development, and I don’t begrudge other developers the right to release crappy games on the system as a learning experience. I don’t even begrudge developers the right to release their 1000th zombie, massage, avatar, farting, or sexy game on the system. If developers like Silver Dollar Games have a good business model going, hey, more power to them. But…

What I would like to see is better recognition of the really quality games that pop up on the platform, preferably from Microsoft. MS has already buried the Indie section way away in the dashboard, so it’d be nice if they rectified that with some promotions and some ads for hand-picked quality titles from time to time. In lieu of that (and I’m not holding my breath), we need better coverage in the gaming news community. Joystiq and Kotaku do a bit (and Kotaku’s Picks is awesome), but they need to be more aggressive in their coverage instead of just responding to press release emails as an afterthought.

Kairi Vice: What are your favorite XBLIG titles?  Your least favorite?  Which game is least deserving of its sucsess? What is the most overlooked game?

Alex Jordan: Oh man, I dearly love Zeboyd’s retro parody RPGs, Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World. They’re really talented developers, and I think the idea of using Cthulhu – a non-copyrighted intellectual property – as the titular character of their second game was a stroke of genius. A Game With Zombies constantly gets played at my apartment when friends are over. I also loved My Owl Software’s Apple Jack, which was just so lovely and charming. It got a bit of attention, but was more overlooked than it had any right to be. My least favorite games are the pretentious platformers that aspire to be Braid that come out every now and then.

Kairi Vice: What is the most difficult aspect of working with the XBLIG platform?

Alex Jordan: The most difficult aspect is knowing that I could put my heart and soul into Cute Things Dying Violently and it still might not do well on XBLIG because of the nature of the market. If the game fails and it’s because few people liked it, that’s fine… that’s my responsibility, and I can accept that. But if it gets strangled because of lack of market interest… well, porting it to PC would then become my number one priority.

There are more smart phones on the market than there are Xboxes. And only a fraction of Xboxes wind up with internet connectivity. And only a fraction of that fraction buys games. And only a fraction of that fraction bothers to look through the Indie section. The limiting factors pile up very quickly in a way that casual PC game purchasers and mobile game purchasers don’t even consider.

Kairi Vice: I was going to say, even though you admit it would be difficult to port the control scheme to touch-screens, Cute Things Dying Violently seems like a no-brainer for the Android market.  I can practically see the USA Today blurb “It’s Angry Birds meets Mortal Kombat!”

Alex Jordan: Well, I’m keen on supporting the Xbox version with new levels and new items if its popular enough. That’s where I’d prefer to put my effort. But lots of people are begging me (they’re biased, probably) for a mobile phone or PC port, so I’ll look into that. I’ll also look into regaining some sanity from the constant pressures of development, but that’s overrated.

Kairi Vice: If you could change one thing about XNA or the XBLIG platform, what would it be?

Alex Jordan: If I was stuck with just one thing to change, I’d say: allowing XNA games to have achievements. Or at least a higher tier of them (240msp or above) being allowed to have achievements.

Kairi Vice: I think if Microsoft doesn’t want them to count towards the main gamer score, how about a separate category just for indie games?  An entirely different gamer score.

Alex Jordan: Well, you’ll have to have a whole new level of scrutiny that MS hasn’t been willing to invest in thus far. After all, they farmed things out with the peer review system. That’s why I think the best alternative is to only have achievements in games that are 240msp and higher, so that the potential buyer automatically scrutinizes it because it’s more expensive. And maybe a caveat in the Evil Checklist that says that if Achievements are used, they must have a documented difficulty curve to them.

Kairi Vice: And of course, not force every game to have them.  I mean the massage ones would be awkward.  *ACHIVEMENT UNLOCKED* Get girlfriend to orgasm by inserting vibrating controller into her twat.  Ten Points!!  Anyway, so Cute Things Dying Violently is set to cost 80 Microsoft Points, correct?

Alex Jordan: Feel free to quote yourself on the girlfriend -> orgasm -> twat progression, above.  And yep, 80msp. I briefly considered charging more than that, but I knew sales would drop off a cliff and the revenue wouldn’t match up. Besides, so many other developers are making brilliant 80msp games. I can’t call my own game “brilliant” without sounding like an egotistical prick (which may or may not be the case), but if 80msp is good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.  I was frightened by the poor performance of Zeboyd’s Cthulhu game at 240msp, to be honest.  It was so well executed and had a waiting fan base. So what went wrong? Overall poor market penetration, I imagine.  You gotta have a game that reaches Malcolm Gladwell levels of self-perpetuating excitement and interest, like FortressCraft, to really get some sales going.

Kairi Vice: I think parody games don’t do well in general.  You’re targeting a fraction of a market of a fraction of a market on, as you said, multiple fragmented markets.

Alex Jordan: Well, it was an RPG first and a parody second, but you’re undoubtedly right.

Kairi Vice: JRPGs do need the piss taken out of them, but Xbox is completely the wrong platform for that market to begin with.

Alex Jordan: I’m hoping that CTDV will take off, but with only one other game (Around The World, an unqualified flop) under my belt, I’m not prepared to risk it at a higher price point.

Kairi Vice: Speaking of your previous game, what did you learn from that experience?

Alex Jordan: I learned a ton from Around The World. Most of the relevant lessons pertained to the ebb and flow of designing an XNA game and getting it approved for sale. I picked up a ton of invaluable technical tricks too, like learning High Level Shader Language. But the most important lesson I learned was this: XBLIG will not support many game genres, especially edutainment. I had actually begun working on an engine for a horror game after Around The World went to market, but after I saw how badly AtW performed, I quickly scrapped that idea, took a careful look at what kind of games the market supported and rewarded, and came up with a new concept that I wanted to execute in that vein.

Kairi Vice: Excellent, very capitalist of you.

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About Indie Gamer Chick
The most read Xbox Live Indie Game critic in the world.

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