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Interview: Twisted Pixel's Mike Wilford talks Comic Jumper

After a grinning Peter Molyneux told Joystiq that Comic Jumper reminded him of a game he would have made twenty years ago (that's a compliment!), we stopped by developer Twisted Pixel's humble South by Southwest booth where CEO Mike Wilford told us about the encounter. "He gave us such a compliment, it was amazing!" Wilford said. After seeing what all the buzz was about, courtesy of a ten-minute demo, we rapped all about Comic Jumper's roots, how Twisted Pixel has changed after the success of 'Splosion Man, the return of 2D mascots (Hello, Sonic! Hello, Rocket Knight!), and where they find inspiration. Read on!

Joystiq: What kind of games are you harkening back to with Comic Jumper? It looks like there's a little bit of everything in there.

Mike Wilford: Definitely Contra, Gunstar Heroes, and a common theme across all of our games is that they're character-driven. We try to put a lot of personality and humor into the characters, so Earthworm Jim is a huge influence for us. Back in the day, there seemed to be a whole lot of mascot-type characters in games, like Mario, Sonic, all those things, and not many devs seem to be doing that anymore. We're trying to bring that back a little bit with our games.

What kind of things are you doing in Comic Jumper that you didn't do in 'Splosion Man or in The Maw?

In a way, both of those games were a warm-up for Comic Jumper. We knew we wanted to make Comic Jumper when we started the comapny. As I mentioned earlier, my buddy, our co-founder Josh Bear, who's our director, he's had the idea for htis game since he was in 7th grade. So he's got these old, shitty crayon drawings of Captain Smiley. We're going to put them in the game as unlockables and stuff. When we were first starting up the comnpany, we talked about the types of stuff we'd like to do and we kept coming back to Comic Jumper. But there's so much we want to do with it we needed to build a couple of games first.

So, in 'Splosion Man, you'll notice that there's a lot of camera work as you're running around, it'll zoom in, turn angles, pull back out again. All that functionality was built with Comic Jumper in mind. Obviously all the cinemas and all that kind of stuff, so this time around we're kind of taking everything we've done with Maw and 'Splosion Man and pushing it, hopefully, a lot farther. And, you know melee combat is something new. And obviously like the different types of gameplay where you kick the Brad Bot down off the building and you're surfing down the building on her; little minigames and you saw the quick time event there, that's all kinda new stuff for us. We're just trying to keep it mixed up and really fresh too.

After the success of 'Splosion Man has the team changed at all? Have you grown? Have you brought more people on?

Yeah, we have a few more people. Back when we were working on The Maw, we had like seven people full time. And we do some outsourcing for some of our content; on Maw we only had one artist. He did all of the art by himself with a little bit of outsourcing. And 'Splosion Man, same. We had that one guy, and then halfway through we got a second guy and it was like, "Holy crap, that's awesome. Now we can do so much more."

And now, on Comic Jumper, we have three artists full-time, and we're still doing some outsourcing. And, I think right now we're fifteen people at the studio, ten of which are dedicated to Comic Jumper. It's a lot bigger than we've had in the past and we're spending a lot more time on it, which is really nice. 'Splosion Man was made in six months, so there was a while there we were cranking out a level per day. And, it was just too intense. So now it's really nice to be able to have a little bit more time to put a lot more in there.

It's been about ... probably been longer than six months since you guys first announced Comic Jumper at PAX.

Yeah, probably about six months ago at PAX in like August or whatever that was. When we put the reveal video out there, we'd actually been working on it a little bit before that. It's a huge game, man. Everyone we have at our company has got a lot of experience and worked at other devs in the industry for a while. I think our minimum, like the guy with the least amount of experience, is seven years. And we've done a lot of retail stuff but this is the biggest game probably any of us have ever made. Just the sheer amount of content that's going in. So, yeah ... hopefully people like it.

As your star kind of rises in the industry, I know a lot of people looked at 'Splosion Man and thought it was probably the most successful, 2D throwback we've seen yet. You've got Sega now, taking Sonic back to 2D. You've got Konami and Climax going back to Rocket Knight. Do you feel the space is expanding? Do you feel competition?

Yeah, I think it's probably expanding. It certainly seems that way. I remember just at the GDC Awards, at the IGF – I forget which exact award it was – but, Kyle Gabler from 2D Boy mentioned how all the nominees for that particular award were all 2D games and how he's kinda proud of that fact. Yeah, so I definitely think it's growing, and that's cool. And as far as competition, we don't really feel that way. I think we've carved a niche out for ourselves. We do very character-driven things, and animation is like really key for us. Honestly, I don't feel like we do anything particularly innovative gameplay-wise. We take tried and true mechanics that have been around since I was a kid playing games. We hopefully, are able to just polish them up really well and, put a lot of personality back into the games.

So in a game like 'Splosion Man it's specifically things like polish and level design that really set it apart from the competition.

Yeah, I'm glad you mentioned that. Whenever we start a project we sit around and we have a big meeting. We talk about what our vision points are for the project. Throughout the whole dev cycle you know, if we ever have a question we go back to those vision points to see if it matches up with what we originally talked about. And, for 'Splosion Man we had one vision point – everything else just fell underneath that – and it was "polish." We just wanted to polish the crap out of a really, really simple mechanic. You know every button just 'splodes and there's not really a whole lot going on. Our level designers were really smart about how they could keep variation in the gameplay and build a lot of things around it, so I think it worked out.

Any idea when Comic Jumper is going to come out? I know a lot of that's dependent upon Microsoft.

We're not really talking about that so far, you know we're still working on it really, really hard. Even if we knew when it was gonna be coming, Microsoft probably wouldn't let us talk about that or price point or anything like that so ...

You guys are going with Microsoft again as publisher?

I think at PAX we're planning on pretty much making it known to everybody, might as well talk about that now. It's gonna be an XBLA exclusive.

You guys ever thought about bringing it to PC? A lot of times Microsoft allows those two platforms.

You know we brought The Maw to PC. It was on Steam, Greenhouse, Direct2Drive. And honestly, part of the reason we're not reaching out to more platforms is because we're so busy. You know we're a small shop and right now most of us are all, crunching away on Comic Jumper so ... someday. We definitely want as many people as possible to play our games.

Thanks, Mike!

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