The three terrifying minutes that created The Gunstringer

Justin McElroy
J. McElroy|09.26.11

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The three terrifying minutes that created The Gunstringer
"I'm going to go to the restroom," said Microsoft's Cherie Lutz, "but when I get back I really want to hear this new idea."

"Oh yeah, it's awesome, can't wait."

Twisted Pixel chief creative officer Josh Bear had responded with abounding confidence, if only to mask the truth. Because the fact of the matter, the fact that he and CEO Mike Wilford were all too aware of, as they sat in Redmond, WA Tex-Mex restaurant The Matador, was this: The idea wasn't "awesome." It was nonexistent.

The developer had scored a major meeting with Microsoft to pitch a new game developed exclusively with Kinect (then "Project Natal") in mind. It needed to be big, it needed to be smart and -- most pressingly to Wilford and Bear at that exact moment -- it needed to exist.

It wasn't that Wilford and Bear weren't prepared. It's just that the original idea they wanted to pitch (one that was actually first conceived for the Wii) wasn't a good fit for the device, which they only became aware of once they saw it for themselves.

"It was really cool, but it didn't have the fidelity to do what we wanted, it couldn't really track finger movements," Bear said. "I was like 'Oh shit, we're going to pitch this whole thing and they're gonna know that it's not possible with the hardware.'"

"I was lying my ass off, and Mike was just sitting there backing me up."- Twisted Pixel CCO Josh Bear

It was just a few moments after this realization that Microsoft took the Twisted Pixel execs to dinner to hear the pitch. They were suddenly empty handed, but the meeting was still a great opportunity for a small studio, and it was one that Bear and co. were loathe to leave on the table.

Wilford and Bear struggled in The Matador's lobby to come up with something -- anything they could pitch. It was then that Wilford recalled an old Wii concept of Bear's that the team had shelved involving controlling a marionette with Wiimotes.

"I had no idea what the game would be, but then I read somewhere that Miyamoto was going to do something with Mario and it was going to be like, marionette Mario," Bear said. "We didn't want it to look like we were ripping Miyamoto off for the 50 millionth time."

The two agreed that it was probably their best shot at salvation, but it was barely even a mechanic, let alone a whole concept. In fact, the first opportunity they had to flesh the idea out at all was when Lutz excused herself to the restroom.

"Mike's kind of chatting with other Microsoft people, and I'm like, frantically looking around the restaurant just trying to think of ideas," Bear said. "To my left, there was this painting of a skeleton cowboy and I looked at it and just -- literally -- I was like 'OK: Skeleton cowboy that needs to get revenge on posse ... marionette. Fuck it.'"

The skeletal work of art that inspired The Gunstringer.

Lutz returned to the table and Bear proceeded to pitch her on the painting hanging directly behind her head.

"Yeah, Cherie, so, we've had this idea for a long time, umm, a marionette, and you use your hands like this, and you're a skeleton cowboy," Bear said. "I was lying my ass off, and Mike was just sitting there backing me up."

Microsoft loved it, and work on what would come to be known as The Gunstringer began almost immediately.

A year or so later, Bear would sheepishly admit to Lutz how she unwittingly greenlit a concept that was mere minutes old. Though initially a little ... irritated, Lutz was quickly able to laugh it off.

"So it's kind of a running tradition now, when we meet with Cherie and the Microsoft crew, we say 'OK, look around the room, what's the next game gonna be?'" Bear said. "The last restaurant we went was this weird French-Asian place and there was a geisha statue. I said 'OK, Cherie, it's Kinect Robo-Geishas, is that cool?'"
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