Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We believe they deserve a wider audience with the Joystiq Indie Pitch: This week, Pixeljam co-founder Miles Tilmann discusses the philosophy behind Potatoman Seeks the Troof, which we learned about through this intense trailer.
What's your game called and what's it about?
The game is called Potatoman Seeks the Troof. It's about an anthropomorphized potato that decides to leave the comfort of his family farm in search of enlightenment. Although, for some reason, almost everything he meets along his journey is trying to kill or mislead him.
What inspired you to make Potatoman?
The Potatoman character himself. Rich (Pixeljam's lead artist) had created him as just an animated gif years ago, and it was hard to look at him and not want to give him his own game.
Also, in October we had just finished a very long series of games for other companies (Adult Swim, etc.), and were itching to release something of our own. We were working on multiple things at once – Glorkian Warrior, Gamma Bros iOS, Dino Run iOS – but none were anywhere close to completion, and at the time it seemed that we would run out of funds before any of the games could reach a state acceptable to us for release. So we tried something we had always talked about: pour our time and hearts into a very short game and get it done in about two weeks. Several months later, the game was done.
Tell me that story about not realizing the right ending until the day before launch.
The development of the game was an unexpected journey of its own, right up to the very end. The game's original ending was conceived and implemented in the first couple weeks of development. It's still in there, but it's part of a much larger ending that we added during the final stretch. The idea that the ending needed to be altered came from some very passionate feedback from a few early players that felt we didn't actually address "the Troof" we had alluded to during the game.
Although, what most people wanted was some sort of explicit spelling out of what the Troof was, which was never the intent of the game. But this request put us on the road to realize specifically what Potatoman's Troof really was, and how to properly communicate it (without spelling it out). And we didn't realize what it was until about three days before we had to launch, which is kind of freaky! Mainly because of the risk involved in making major changes to the game without much testing.
So we implemented the new ending, but there still seemed to be something missing from it. The final sequence of the ending only revealed itself to us literally the night before we were going to launch the game. It was an exciting and also very nerve-wracking series of events, but I'm glad Potatoman got the ending he was meant to have.
What's the coolest aspect of Potatoman?
I would say the overall story, which is only really revealed at the very end, and the level of detail we try to put into all of the characters. It's very easy to dismiss the art style as "they can't do any better so they use Atari graphics," but I would challenge anyone to try to inject real personality into a monochrome character made of less than 30 dots. It's freakin' hard, and I'm continually amazed that Rich can pull it off again and again.
How does Potatoman compare to other games you've developed?
It was definitely a lot more fun to create than some of the other things we've done, which have often just turned into chores or coding nightmares. It's crazy to think that we've finished about 20 games total, but of course most of them were contract jobs. So we were definitely much more invested in this project than we had been for a long time. Dino Run was probably the last thing we got this excited about.
Where do you distribute your games and how is that working out for you?
We sell direct from our site for the most part, and use a few third-party stores as well (like the Humble Store, Mac App Store, etc). It does OK for us. We are not what I would call financially independent just yet, as we still take on contract work as needed. We are still working toward our "big break" or whatever you want to call it, where we can get some major distribution and traffic, and just focus on making games instead of the never-ending grind of self-marketing and distro. We have faith that if we continue to do what we do without compromise, that the proper doors will open up.
Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?
We don't have a choice, probably. There's not a huge market within established companies for the types of games we want to make. The only option for us is to stay small, focused and find our audience organically.
Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?
Totally! I think every person making the things they really want to make, keeping the faith that they will be supported one way or another if they remain authentic, is part of the movement. I truly feel there's something bigger going on here than an indie movement though... something like a paradigm shift. In the context of game development, the old way is faceless mega-corps making formulaic games to keep us entertained and pacified. The new way is real people making games that are personal, meaningful, and designed to touch us in some way that games could not before. There's a long road ahead but it's exciting to be a part of the cultivation.
Potatoman is our initial attempt at making something that's designed to do more than just entertain. My hope is that we can continue to make games that do a better job of what Potatoman is trying to do. And of course, we also have some games in the works that are really just designed to entertain. There is definitely a place for both.
I truly feel there's something bigger going on here than an indie movement though... something like a paradigm shift.
Sell Potatoman in one sentence:
Potatoman seeks the troof! That's pretty much the essence of the entire game. We were lucky enough to find a title that was also the tagline.
So much! We are continuing to update Potatoman, adding things we wanted to initially but ran out of time for. We are also working on Glorkbot's Mini-Adventure with James Kochalka, and BitKu, a pixel art comic/story-creation tool that we have plans to make into a social game of sorts, and an unannounced game project with a new partner. We are also approaching a beta for Dino Run iOS, which is a completely new version of the game. Beyond that we still want to make sequels for Dino Run and Gamma Bros, and finish Glorkian Warrior, but those are a long ways out. One (or three) things at a time for us.
Potatoman Seeks the Troof is available via Pixeljam's website, in a variety of bundle and solo options, and is freshly live on Steam Greenlight. Decide which distribution option speaks to your inner starchiness, and take a chance on enlightenment.