J. Kyle Pittman on design, influence, and what's next for Minor Key Games
On 1 October, Minor Key Games released PC platformer Super Win the Game to little fanfare. Despite flying under the critical radar and underperforming commercially at launch, the game hints at better things to come from the young independent studio. Super Win the Game is charming and mechanically tight, characterized by its faithful CRT emulation and an authentic retro look and feel that go beyond mere pixel art. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with co-founder J. Kyle Pittman about his influences and design process, a surprising graphics controversy, and his next project, Gunmetal Arcadia.
Pittman co-founded Minor Key Games with his twin brother David in 2013. Prior to that, he worked on high-profile games at Gearbox Software, where he made contacts and acquired many of the skills essential to running his own studio. According to Pittman, it was a positive experience:
It was a great place to work—great team—and I think mostly what I picked up from working there was, on the production side of things, how to work in team dynamics, good practices as far as how to backup your code, and source control usage, and all that stuff. I saw a little bit of the marketing side of things just by virtue of knowing some of the guys on the marketing team, and that’s been interesting in my indie career, now that I have to be the guy making the game but also selling the game…
Kale Menges, a Gearbox co-worker, provided art for David’s Eldritch (released under Minor Key Games in October 2013) as well as Super Win the Game.
The structured work and corporate culture weren’t the only ways in which his AAA experience contributed to his professional development. Gearbox was supportive of Pittman’s desire to branch out into independent development, which allowed him to dabble in different facets of the industry while keeping relatively stable work.
I had been working on side-projects even while I was at Gearbox. Their policy was, if people wanted to work on stuff on the side, they could do that. I released all of my indie games for free while I was working there, but I could have sold them if I wanted to.
One of these side-projects was You Have to Win the Game, a minimalistic CGA-style predecessor to Super Win the Game that he developed in his spare time in 2012. This experience gave him “a sense of the scope of making a game and what it would take to finish”. He released it for free on his website and submitted it to Valve’s Greenlight service, where it was finally approved as a free-to-play release on Steam on 6 May 2014.
Shifting Gears, Going Indie
After seven years of working with Gearbox, first as an intern, later as a full-time developer, Pittman initiated an amicable split. He had nothing negative to say about his time in the AAA industry; rather, he attributes his motivation to join the independent development scene to a sort of pioneering spirit and to its potential for change and growth in the future.
To me it sort of feels like the video games industry is at the point where maybe the film industry was back when people like Lucas and Spielberg were just getting their start, so it’s sort of interesting to think where it’s going to be 20 or 30 years down the road. [It] wasn’t really until Xbox Live Arcade came around that there was a mainstream concept of what an indie game was and what that meant. […] I think at some point I just found that stuff more interesting. It seems like a lot of what feels important about video games to me is happening in the indie games space, and I felt like if that were something that I could pursue as a full-time career, I wanted to.
Pittman wanted to make You Have to Win the Game according to those same low-fi PC indie principles. The defining technical features of the game are 1980s staples. And he comes by them honestly, despite his youth:
I kind of came in just at the very end of the era, but I started playing games on my family’s PC when I was 3, 4 years old, and that was exactly the technology that we had. We had a CGA monitor, and the music was all out of a monotone PC speaker, and that was the same computer that I first started learning to program on, because it had DOS and DOS always came with a BASIC compiler. So my brother and I started teaching ourselves BASIC on there, and when I made You Have to Win the Game it was sort of going back to those roots and trying to make the game that I would have wanted to make when I was a kid.
The game is more than just a modern pixel art homage. The work that went into the presentation and design to achieve the precisely-recalled look and feel is apparent.
You Have to Feel the Game
The most impressive retro games are often the ones that go beyond just looking the part. The influences behind games like Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV (2010), Team Meat’s Super Meat Boy (2010), and the more recent Shovel Knight (2014) from Yacht Club Games may be obvious, but under that veil of nostalgia is a pursuit of perfect control. Pittman believes the connection between nostalgia and precision gameplay is no accident.
I think part of that is when you’re dealing with pixel art sprites, like on a 2D playing field, it’s so much more tightly connected to the inputs—and specifically I’m talking about gamepads here. If you’re playing a game with either an analogue stick or a d-pad and you’re controlling a character on the screen who is essentially just a rectangular box moving and jumping through space, it’s so much more tightly connected. If you have a 3D character who’s walking through a world—let’s take something like Grand Theft Auto for instance—you have this character who has all these nice polished animations to start walking and running and interacting with things, and you feel like you’re just a few more steps disconnected with that character.
I think part of what I like about older games, and especially 2D games, is that there’s less of that disconnect between the player’s input and what’s actually happening on the screen and actually happening under the hood (where the character really is just a rectangular bounding box colliding against other boxes in the world). That’s part of the appeal to me, because I think it’s important to have a good sense of game feel, the tangible sense of how you are actually moving a character through the world, and removing some of those barriers definitely helps.
Game feel—the immediate and tactile connection between the player and the game—is an essential part of Pittman’s design process, and it’s something he focuses on establishing right away when working on a new concept.
I generally do try to start with some of those low-level, “what is the moment-to-moment experience of this game going to be” sort of things. When I was developing You Have to Win the Game, I started from sort of the same place of “how is the physics of jumping going to feel?” And then with Super Win I had some of that same technology so I was able to build off that, and instead I started playing around with ideas of “what’s it going to feel like when you reach the end of the screen and it scrolls over?” Because now I’m going from it just being single-screen rooms where it just immediately cuts to the next one to more of the NES-era, you reach the edge and it scrolls, or you have rooms that are larger than one screen and the camera sort of pans around in there, and I started with approaching those problems. I try to focus on the moment-to-moment interaction between the player and the game, because I think that, whether consciously or subconsciously, is going to be something the players really take away whether that’s good or bad.
Tight controls and intuitive character movement are common examples of game feel, but screen movement, menu behaviour, and other visual examples of user experience that contribute to natural, predictable interaction are just as essential. This is a key intersection between visual design and gameplay, look and feel.
See the Resemblance?
While most players seem to enjoy Super Win the Game’s nostalgia-inflected aesthetic, some user reviews have called attention to the familiarity of some of the game’s graphics. In the wake of controversy surrounding the meteoric success of Flappy Bird (2013) and its alleged use of Nintendo assets, Pittman rejects the idea that his influence goes beyond the borrowing that was common in the industry at the time Super Win the Game is meant to recall.
With Super Win the Game, I was trying to make something that felt like it could have really existed back on the original NES. I went on YouTube and found the World of Longplays series, where they just play through every single NES game, and I just sat down and would watch all those, marathon them out, as I was working. So what I started to notice was that a lot of NES games would steal concepts from other games. So even though there are some obvious nods to Zelda II and Metroid and Kid Icarus and a few other games, my intent with that was that it was something that players today will recognize and go, “oh that’s Zelda II” but it’s not completely uncharacteristic that a game released in 1990 might have looked the same way.
A good example is Battle of Olympus. I love that game, but it is a complete rip-off of Zelda II. The character looks a little bit like Link, he moves like Link, his sprite sheet could almost be just Link from Zelda II but drawn over a little bit, but I love that game and I think that’s part of why it worked.
None of the sprites or tiles in Super Win were actually stolen from old games, but some of them were definitely like “OK, I’m looking at a screenshot of Metroid and now I’m trying to draw something that looks kind of like that.” So there was definitely not direct theft or plagiarism, but definitely trying to adapt some of the art styles that you would see on those games into something new that can also be cohesive and coherent in its own right.
The bricks and pillars and curtains in the first dungeon of the game, all of that was by design supposed to be evocative of Zelda II, but probably for some players it did go a little too far.
It is clear that the instances of visual appropriation are part of a deliberate and playful aesthetic strategy rather than the result of carelessness or laziness. Nostalgia is not solely an expression of memory, but also of sentimentality. It is always effected by time, often fondness, and sometimes melancholy. Pittman’s homage goes beyond the shallow and immediate familiarity triggered by the mere replication of a generally retro appearance. He deftly deploys nostalgia in multilayered levels of recognition—not only does this look like other games we know, but it actively reflects other games in the same way.
Pittman anticipates similar complaints about his next game, Gunmetal Arcadia, which is currently in development using the same engine he built for You Have to Win the Game and Super Win the Game:
[Gunmetal Arcadia] will have melee combat, and I’m looking at Zelda II, Battle of Olympus, Faxanadu, pretty much any NES game where you have melee combat. So I wouldn’t be surprised if people have some of the same complaints, like “oh well this just feels like something I played when I was a kid.” Well, yeah, that’s kind of the point.
Having started work on Gunmetal Arcadia relatively recently, Pittman is eager to discuss some of the central gameplay elements. He describes it as a 2D retro-themed roguelike, complete with permanent death and procedurally-generated levels. While this style of game will hardly be unfamiliar to a fan of indie games, Pittman manages to mine inspiration from some surprising sources.
The game’s setting is characterized by a clash of magic and technology, which lends itself well to the promise of branching character development paths:
[Gunmetal Arcadia] exists in this world where you have technology but you also have magic, and those exist at the same time. So if you imagine a dieselpunk world where you have space marines in big heavy armour, but on the flip side of that you also have wizards and warlocks casting spells, and those factions aren’t necessarily at war with each other, but there is a tension there, sort of a mutual existence. You play as an elf who can go down either of those roads. You can make yourself more technologically empowered (you can get biological implants, you can get armour upgrades), or you can go down the magic side and learn spells, learn to cast fireballs and stuff like that, or you can try to find some middle ground. Depending on how you approach those things, it will not only change the way your character plays, but it will also start to change the way the world reacts to your character.
To expand on the latter point, Pittman references a woefully underutilized mechanic from From Software’s seminal masterpiece, Demon’s Souls (2009):
The touchstone that I’m thinking about there is the world tendency system from Demon’s Souls where, as you play, things can sway lighter or darker. In this case, it’ll be things go more to the technology side or things go more to the magic side. But right now it’s still a lot of very high level concepts. I haven’t nailed down exactly what it means for the world to be more tuned to magic versus technology, but I’m finding that stuff out as I go.
Pittman was also made acutely aware of the importance of striking a balance in the metagame between hardcore roguelike traditions and the player’s sense of accomplishment and progress by Rogue Legacy (2013), an action-platformer “rogue-lite” from Cellar Door Games:
There are some roguelike games where there is no metagame and basically you start from a vanilla playthrough every single time, and Rogue Legacy is kind of the polar opposite of that. You do kind of have to grind up a little bit and build up your character. So I’m trying to figure out if there’s a good way to strike a balance between those. Is there a good way that you can feel like if you play for a while and die horribly, it wasn’t all for nothing, you still get something out of that, but at the same time you don’t feel like, “oh well, I just have to keep throwing myself against the wall over and over until I grind up enough that I can be competent at this game”?
While acknowledging that this balance will differ from player to player, Pittman riffs on another idea with which he has been experimenting. The secret to making the game feel conquerable may come from an unlikely place: From Software’s notoriously difficult Dark Souls (2011).
Some people are going to want the old-school NetHack experience of if you die you lose everything and start completely from scratch. Other people do like having that sense of growth and the RPG elements of leveling up your character.
One thing that I’ve been thinking about that I really like in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls is if you die, you lose all of your souls but you get one chance to get them back. So I’ve been thinking, does it make sense for a roguelike to have that sort of thing, where you die and you lose everything, but maybe what you did on your last session will somehow influence your next session? So it won’t feel like it’s all for nothing, but at the same time it won’t be a complete metagame that you have to grind. It’s just this one time, because of things that you did in the past, now something good is going to happen in the future.
Perhaps the most dramatic departure for Gunmetal Arcadia, even considering the addition of melee combat, is the shift to randomly-created stages. His previous games have been characterized by carefully-plotted, interconnected level designs. But the challenges of procedural generation are not new to Pittman.
Procedural generation is something that I’ve loved for a long time. In fact, when I graduated from the Guildhall at SMU I wrote my Master’s thesis on procedurally-generated terrain, but then I haven’t really used it in a game since then, and it’s something that I’ve always wanted to come back to. I’m excited about it, and I think there’s definitely a lot of good resources now, where developers have been sharing their approaches to how you procedurally generate spaces, whether it’s for a 2D platformer or for a top-down dungeon-crawler. There are so many different ways you can approach those problems. It’s really exciting to me as a developer.
Despite the major ways in which the design and gameplay will differ from You Have to Win the Game and Super Win the Game, one familiar element will definitely be making a return for Gunmetal Arcadia: Pittman’s acclaimed CRT emulation.
Oh yes, obviously I will be bringing that back, and who knows, maybe I’ll make some updates to that. I feel like with all the customization I added for Super Win, it’s already probably taken as far as I can take it, but who knows, I might find something else I can add.
The Next Notes in the Scale
Given the technological leap represented by the graphical, auditory, gameplay, and design differences between You Have to Win the Game and Super Win the Game, Pittman finds himself fielding questions about his next leap forward, whether for Gunmetal Arcadia or a future project. He is understandably reticent to commit himself to a completely different style just for the sake of keeping pace with a historical progression of influences.
When I was first showing Super Win the Game to a few people, their reaction was, “oh wow, for the next one you could take on the Super NES era or the PlayStation 1 era, you could do the low-poly Crash Bandicoot sort of thing.” And I think that would be fun, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the right thing to do right now. I developed a lot of cool tech for Super Win. I built my own level editor and stuff that I can reuse, and I think right now it just makes the most sense to try to make something else that’s kind of in the same vein aesthetically, but that is mechanically and functionally different.
So right now I’m thinking it will be the same sort of NES aesthetic, I’ll use the NES colour palette, the audio will be the same sort of 4-channel synthesizer sounds, but the moment-to-moment gameplay is going to be what sets it apart from Super Win. Whereas Super Win is all about exploration and precise platforming, there’s no melee combat—there’s no way to kill enemies at all—this game is going to be all about melee combat. Enemies are out to kill you, you have to kill them back. So that’s going to be what sets these two games apart.
With Gunmetal Arcadia firmly entrenched as Pittman’s next full-scale project, and in a climate most recently characterized by Sony aggressively courting indie developers, I asked whether he would be amenable to porting Minor Key’s games to other platforms.
Sony has contacted both David and I about putting Eldritch and Super Win on the Vita at various times. At the time it wasn’t something that I felt like I could commit to, so I haven’t really made any moves there, but that’s something where I think all of the platform owners—Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo—are starting to really take indie games seriously, so they’ve been approaching indie developers and I think they’ve been more open to indie developers approaching them.
I know a lot of people personally who have put their own games on Vita or PS4 or also on the 3DS or the Wii U, so it definitely feels like the barrier to entry is getting lower than it was, but I guess I haven’t really taken the time to sit down and figure out if that’s something that would be worth doing for Minor Key Games yet. It would definitely be something we’d be interested in. Right now, since our company is just the two of us, I don’t know if it’s really a realistic goal…
He identified a handful of roadblocks, including console certification processes, but is primarily concerned about resources (both time and money). The challenges faced by a team of two are significantly different than the frustrations and vexes he encountered as a member of a large company with a bankroll to match.
[If] I do the port myself, that will take some amount of time. How much money am I losing over that time versus if I hire someone else to do the port? I know people who do porting of PC games to Vita or PS4 as their whole job, so maybe I could tap into some of those connections.
I do develop my own engine technology and I wrote my own level editor. When I ported You Have to Win the Game to Mac and Linux, I did all those ports natively myself. I don’t necessarily think that it’s the most efficient way to make games. If anyone else wants to get into games, I would tell them, start with GameMaker, start with Unity, don’t try to write everything from scratch. But for me there is sort of the sense of personal pride in knowing that I have built all this stuff from the ground up…
In a postmortem published on Gamasutra just over a month after the release of Super Win the Game, Pittman reveals that the game has (so far) been a financial disappointment. He sold 846 copies on Steam in October, most at a 10% launch discount off the regular price of $12.99. The Humble Store only accounted for 2 sales. Pittman hopes the game will find a long tail as it descends through successive discount and sale cycles and more gamers who have it on their wishlists see it sink to prices they deem acceptable.
Most of the opportunities for improvement identified in the article are related to marketing, promotion, and the management of awareness and interest. It is clear from the work he has produced that Pittman has the facility with programming and design necessary to create enjoyable games. Perhaps more important to Pittman than the promise of his game being featured as a deep discount in seasonal sales on various platforms for the next couple of years are the lessons he learned and the challenges and shortcomings that he is still in the personal process of converting into lessons.
This Old Neon would like to thank J. Kyle Pittman once again for agreeing to speak to us about his work. You can follow the ongoing progress on Gunmetal Arcadia at his development blog.
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Pittman, J. Kyle. Personal interview. 24 Oct. 2014.
—. “When ‘Doing Everything Right’ Goes Wrong.” Gamasutra. 12 Nov. 2014. Web.