An Ambitious Pivot: Whitaker Trebella's shift from composer to game maker

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Andrew Hayward
December 20, 2013 12:30 PM
In this article: pivvot, Whitaker-Trebella
An Ambitious Pivot: Whitaker Trebella's shift from composer to game maker
Whitaker Trebella spent most of his life studying music – first as a child taking piano lessons for more than a decade, and later pursuing a music education degree in college – and progressively building his talents, so when he found success composing tunes for popular indie games, it might not have seemed so surprising. But much as his work for mobile titles like Super Stickman Golf and Tilt to Live bought him some recognition within the industry, he'd long held a much grander idea: to make his own game.

However, the Chicago-based Trebella hadn't spent his time studying programming; when he ran his fingers across keys growing up, the result was pleasant music, not promising code. Inspired by the success of the indie creators that made the early games carrying his tunes, his loose plan gained new life. "I'd always wanted to make a game in the back of my mind, but whenever the thought came up, I always brushed it off thinking, 'Well, only programmers can make games,'" he explains. "But back in October 2010, I finally thought, 'Why can't I be a programmer?' So I became one."

Shrugging off the significant challenge, he taught himself how to code from scratch – and openly chronicled the journey, sharing his rough demos on a blog and seeking guidance far and wide as he learned the ropes. Needless to say, it panned out. His second game, Pivvot, launched in August and has drawn wide praise, amassing more than 2.65 million downloads on iOS and Android. Additionally, Pivvot was just named one of Apple's Best of 2013 picks in the "Fast Reaction Games" category; it'll also receive a new game mode early next year. Last year's Polymer also gained considerable attention for its unique puzzle mechanics and minimalist design; it's sure to gain more fans when it is featured as a "Starbucks Free App of the Week" sometime in January 2014, Trebella tells Joystiq.

Trebella hasn't shrugged off his composing opportunities, either, as notable 2013 releases like Nimble Quest and Super Stickman Golf 2 bear his contributions, and he admits that writing tunes for others' games has its perks and place in his life. But music has taken a backseat to math; his passion for the programming itself drives his output and satisfies him in a way that composing cannot. And to think, that didn't even seem remotely possible to him a few years back.

His path towards creating music for games began in high school – when Trebella was the instructor. The 27-year-old now makes his primary living teaching music to kindergartners, which better suits his lively, sometimes oddball persona ("If you tell a silly joke, they'll usually laugh at you," he explains), but he previously taught teenagers. A fateful class trip to a music conference exposed him to a talk by Michael Salvatori, co-composer for multiple Halo games and Bungie's upcoming Destiny.

"I was really inspired by that, just thinking, 'God, how did he get to write music for Halo?'" Trebella left contemplating, "I want to be that guy. I want to write music for games." Strong as he was in music theory and composition, however, he hadn't regularly been writing and recording his own songs at that point – and he certainly didn't have much of a resume to start shopping his services around to developers.

Like folks trying to enter most creative fields these days, he offered his work free of charge initially to get his foot in the door, posting on indie development message boards fishing for a bite. "A lot of people say that you should never work for free, and I pretty much agree with that," he claims. "But I feel like I just never would have been taken seriously if I had never done one thing."

His first freebie gig wasn't even related to music; he was asked to do sound effects for an iOS edutainment game, and happily accepted the opportunity. But the next project proved more in line with his aims, as he provided tracks for a title that emerged from a weeklong game jam. Looking for bigger and better opportunities thereafter, he reached out to the makers of several top mobile games at the time, but yielded little progress from the attempts.

Undeterred, he sent a sample track inspired by iOS favorite Tilt to Live to its creators, One Man Left, and they were intrigued; Trebella ended up creating a trio of songs for later updates to the game. That work led to being noticed by Noodlecake Studios, for which he composed tunes for the original Super Stickman Golf. The opportunities continued to stack up, with Trebella amassing an impressive array of soundtrack work since, including for games like Velocispider, Lunar Racer, and Cardinal Quest.

He credits his "amorphous" style and willingness to dabble in new genres for some of that success. "If a game developer asks me to do an orchestral thing mixed with robotic elements and Western flair, then cool, I'll try to do that," asserts Trebella. A retro-flavored chiptune style also suits his tendencies well; it lets him focus more on the theory, chord progression, and melodies, rather than worrying about the minutiae of the performance, mastering, mixing, and compression. "That's not what I enjoy the most out of music," he admits.

After the first several months of moving from project to project, Trebella began to get a feel for how indie development progressed – and it struck a chord within. He credits Jordan Schidlowsky and Ty Bader of Noodlecake for bringing him in very early on in the process of crafting Super Stickman Golf. Rather than just sending in tracks for a mostly-completed game or being instructed on what to compose, he was creating alongside the developers and felt more a part of the process.

"I was an integral part of the overall audio design, which felt empowering and gave me a sense of what it would be like to be a game designer," he admits. "Plus, seeing Jordan's and Ty's design decisions throughout the process helped me see game design as something that could be practiced and honed, rather than this distant impossible hurdle I could never tackle."

That idea in the back of his head – the one about making his own games – was suddenly emboldened. "I started thinking about how it all worked," says Trebella, conceding some jealousy that developers were bringing these full visions to fruition. "It really struck me that I could just as well be one of those people. I just needed to push myself to learn how to do it," he adds. "And why couldn't I learn? What made me less capable than anyone else?"

Clearly motivated to follow in the footsteps of those he'd collaborated with, Trebella dug in hard using a regimen of free ebooks and online tutorials. He learned the Python programming language and produced simple text games – like "The Man-Rodent" – based on their examples before moving to C++ and ultimately Objective C for iPhone game development. Books provided the basics, but as with any language (spoken or otherwise), he really had to immerse himself in each, make repeated mistakes, and learn from them.

Despite the expectedly rough early results, which often included making derivative versions of popular games like Pong and Doodle Jump just to learn from their design, Trebella wasn't shy about sharing his progress on a public blog, or posting raw demos to Reddit and other online sources. Moreover, Twitter became his go-to support system, as friendly developers from afar would help him through stumbling blocks, or occasionally download his code and troubleshoot errors. Learning how to code didn't feel like such a solitary pursuit after all.

Just over a year after beginning that process, Trebella started in earnest on Polymer, but didn't initially realize that it would be his first fully-fledged game. "I never really knew I was ready," he says. "I didn't think, 'Oh, now I'm ready to start my new game.'" It was just the idea that stuck, and ultimately proved to be an enjoyable create-a-shape puzzler with a Rubik's Cube-esque control mechanic, intriguingly minimal design, and stellar music (of course). And it proved both well received and solidly popular in the process.

From his first self-taught steps to releasing a successful game in about 18 months might seem quick, but Trebella truly adores the process behind the product. "I love, love programming," he says. "I enjoy music, but there's something about programming that's so calming to me because it's so logic-based."

While both coding and composing pertain to game creation, they serve two very different purposes for him; programming in particular "soothes me to no end," says Trebella. "For me, game design is convergent, while music is divergent. When I'm creating a game, I have a very clear idea of how I want it to turn out, and I am constantly pushing towards that goal."

"Unfortunately, this is almost the opposite of how I feel when writing music. There's that anecdote that Mozart could think up symphonies in his head before writing them down. Some people may be able to do that, but I can't, and in a way it stresses me out," Trebella adds.

"It's weird to say, but programming is something that I love; and music I like a lot, but I don't get the same peace of mind and enjoyment out of creating it," says Trebella. "It's never quite as enjoyable as it is to program. It's nice to be able to do both, because if I get sick of one I can go to the other."

Whatever he's creating, having an audience is core to the appeal for Trebella, and the fact that Polymer generated solid attention motivated him to continue forward. "Having that feedback and that validation is really huge. Same thing goes for sharing really early on," he says about not hiding his in-progress work. "It kind of makes you more human to people too."

When we spoke with Trebella earlier this fall, he claimed to be caught in what he described as "purgatory," wherein he was unsure of what to do next. "I never really know what I want to do until I know what I want to do," he concedes; amusingly, that statement could just as well represent his decision to take up coding three years ago, a decision that paved the way for a future of options to pivot between.
Andrew Hayward is a freelance writer and editor based out of Chicago, Illinois. He is a regular contributor to Official Xbox Magazine, @Gamer, TechRadar, and many other publications, and edits the iOS apps and games coverage for Mac|Life. You can follow him on Twitter at @ahaywa.
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