Good afternoon, world, and welcome to another stellar edition of the Sunday Sidebar. This week I spoke to Tim Keenan, of Misfits Attic. Tim has a particularly interesting background, having worked for DreamWorks before his foray into the world of independent games development. Read on to learn more about his team’s action-puzzler, A Virus Named TOM!
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Tim Keenan. I suppose I work for free?! I’m an indie developer – I make my own independent video games with my wife, Holly, and a motley crew of contractors, and so I guess I’m sort of living my dream, making games that I want to make, without any rules applied to me. Of course, the other end of that sword is that no-one gives me any money to do it and if at the end of the day nobody buys it, I don’t get any money for having done it! Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case for A Virus Named TOM, which is our debut title. Although certainly there are no guarantees.
At the start of the project, I was wearing the developer hat and doing a bit of animation. I worked at DreamWorks for eight years before I became an indie dev, so I did some temporary work on the games artwork. Holly was working on art too, alongside Travis Koller, so I was art directing them, too. At the same, I was doing business development, talking to publishers, as well as doing producer and CEO-type stuff. Looking ahead at the future of the company, and so forth. Basically, because I have a mortgage and a family and all that kind of stuff, I try to forecast as much as possible. Now that the game has launched, I’m in charge of community management, PR, as well as technical support, among other things.
“Digital Gremlins let loose in a Jetsons future”
Describe A Virus Named TOM in your own words.
A Virus named TOM is an action-puzzler. The action comes from re-arranged circuits, like a pipe game, but we escalate it with encryption, and a range of other new mechanics. Then there’s a dexterity aspect to it, where you’re dodging anti-virus drones, who become more powerful as the game advances. It’s set in a world where a brilliant scientist creates this future utopia, but gets fired because he was a little bit wacky — he creates a giant robot that kills anybody not using the moving sidewalk. When he gets fired, he decides to create a virus that will destroy the entire future utopia by infecting each of his inventions, and causing mayhem. It’s like a digital Gremlins let loose in a Jetsons future. So you play the role of TOM, infecting robot dogs, moving sidewalks, teleporters, all sorts of things.
How was the Indie Megabooth for you?
It was great! It was absolutely exhausting, and expensive, but outside of those two things Holly and I had so much fun, and met so many people. It was just so invigorating to me there. The main purpose for us was to meet people and to show them our game that had launched something like two or three weeks before PAX Prime. This was our first exhibitor experience, and it was something else. A great thing was that our game worked so well in a convention atmosphere. It’s the type of game that you can pick up quickly, it’s co-op, and so you can have four people playing in an arcade setting very easily. We had two screens set up: one as the attract screen for passers-by, and one for playing, but we ended up switching the attract screen over into a gameplay screen to have eight people at a time playing the game. It was insane, and I did not expect to have that many constantly playing. People were jumping on and then saying it was the best thing they’d played at PAX. That felt so good to see, and it meant so much to us. We got so caught up in the excitement that we forgot to speak to media until the last day. I was too involved with the players, being excited at them having fun and helping to explain anything.
The last aspect for us for getting to meet other indies. We only started reaching out the indie community about a year ago, so we’re still relatively new. At the Megabooth, all of a sudden we’re among thirty other developers and their amazing games. It was awesome to meet them, particularly for moral support. It means a lot to have a bunch of people to share your life experience with. We would love to do it again. The whole experience was so fun, and so rewarding.
How did you get into videogames development?
I think I was one of the lucky ones – when I was young, I knew what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to go into computer graphics which, in hindsight, is pretty strange at that stage. I wanted to work in computer games and movies, and I managed to do both. I went to Georgia Tech, and I focused on Computer Science and Computer Graphics, and I came at it from the tech perspective, but tried to slant all of my work towards an artistic goal. When I first left school, I got offered a job working for now-defunct Rainbow Studios, working on UI and some game code. I was really excited, and I loved the work, but the position wound up being more programming-focused than my usual tastes. Alongside that, the place was in endless crunch-mode. I was working until 2am almost every night. While I was there I worked on Splashdownand ATV Off-Road Fury 2 for the PlayStation 2. Eventually it became too much to bear for a number of reasons, and I heard of an opportunity working for DreamWorks, so I moved on to that. I had a great time there working for the Visual Effects department. The experience was wonderful, and the people working there are amazing.
I got a bug to give game design my best shot. I wanted more creative input, and games had always been most interesting to me, because they were the culmination of every interesting problem — interaction, cinematic, visual, gameplay — that needs to be solved. As much as I love storytelling, I also love designing rulesets, and figuring out what’s fun.
“Every decision drives another decision.”
How has your past life as a visual effects artist at DreamWorks informed your creative attitude towards game development?
Oh absolutely, without a doubt. I took a lot away from working at DreamWorks Animation. One thing was a real sense of art direction. If I had just jumped into games, my notion of art direction might have simply been ‘We’re trying to make something pretty, so let’s think of things that look good.’ Whereas art direction involves everything working together. For A Virus Named TOM, we had this retro fifties/sixties vibe, and I feel that it didn’t just come out of nowhere, but was generated by the story, which was motivated by the gameplay and the context of the game. Every decision drives another decision. It’s not just ‘oh, The Jetsons is cool, right? Let’s do that!’, but trying to work inside of an archetype that people can relate to, so you want to use that curvy, smooth-lined, art deco stuff, but then make it your own.
All that stuff I would neither have been able to do, nor communicate it effectively, if I hadn’t spent that time at DreamWorks. I honestly feel that my opinion wouldn’t have counted for much otherwise. This was my first time art directing, but I had been art directed so much, that I could legitimately step into the role.
You don’t often encounter multiplayer modes in a puzzle game. Why did you choose to bring these to AVNT?
Looking back, it was sheer madness. [Laughs] So many indie developers make a single-player game, and that makes so much sense. Add to that the fact that networking is super-expensive and complicated, and the fact that most puzzle games don’t involve multiplayer. When we started, I wanted to make a co-op game, because I was mad that I couldn’t play a lot of games on XBLA with my brother and his fiancée, and myself and my wife. One of the things I wanted was couch-to-couch play. I didn’t want to split the screen, but for them to play co-operatively. That was a core design principle from the start. Originally I just added three more players and thought I’d be done with it. As time went on, I realized that I had to design unique levels for this, and that I could come up with so much cool stuff if I knew that multiple players would be working together.
We knew that it was the mode of the game that would be most fun. It was maddening to hear people say, ‘People don’t want to play a puzzle game co-operatively. It’s obnoxious and you’ll get in each other’s way. You’ll tell each other how to solve the puzzle, etc’ and I thought ‘Exactly! That’s fun!’. The game allows for multiple keyboard/gamepad combinations — you can even have three people on a single keyboard! Unfortunately, due to changing platforms for the game mid-way through development, we didn’t get to finish the online co-op functionality. Ultimately, the single-player stands on its own, and even though only somewhere around 7% of players have delved into the co-op campaign, I feel the co-op is such a unique experience that I can’t yet put it to bed. And that’s why I want to kickstart funds to add this extra functionality.
Yeah, so what’s the story with this Kickstarter project?
I feel like I’ve almost taken too long on it. We’ve agonized over how to do it, because the problem is that networking is expensive to implement, and so we’ll need to ask for a significant injection of money. I want people to play the co-op mode online, and I feel that’s what everybody is asking for. That, and a level editor, which isn’t such a huge thing to add, actually. So I have this even crazier idea: to make a multiplayer, co-operative level editor, too. Everybody says ‘No no no! If you’re building a level, you’ll draw it out, think it over, etc. You don’t want somebody in there while you’re designing it.’ And I say ‘That’s exactly what I want! Why not?’ So I’d love to add a level editor, so people can share levels that they build together. The biggest problem is that the level editor will cost significantly less to implement, but we want to make sure we have this multiplayer component for both the game and editor to benefit from. So we’re agonizing over how to shift the funds: whether to either focus on the lower-cost level editor, or to go big-ticket on the networking implementation. Either way, we’re hoping to announce it in the next couple of weeks. The big advantage we have is that our game has already shipped. That classic worry of ‘is this project going to finish?’ isn’t there for backers. We’ve already proven ourselves in that regard.
What is the most difficult part about being an independent developer? And the most rewarding?
I would say it’s the roller-coaster aspect. I feel like I’ve never been so bi-polar in my life. There are these huge upswings, like when Penny Arcade mentions you, or when you get your first 10/10 review, or when you get fan art. Crazy cool stuff. On the other side, there are these huge lulls, where you’re not making any money, or worrying that you’re wasting your time on a pipe-dream. Then you launch the game, and you make money, but it’s not enough money to survive for long, certainly not enough to survive for the next few months without worry. You want to be this baby and say ‘Look, I’ve worked really hard, nights and weekends for six months at the end there, I’ve put myself and my family through so much’, and all that you want is for it to make enough that it’s going to be okay. You’re always a few paychecks from death, and it’s exhausting that it never stops. I don’t want to ‘rest’ but at least know that I can keep doing this. [Laughs] The short answer is: no. You never know. It’s a roller-coaster, it really is.
Finally, what’s your most prized gaming possession?
That’s an easy one: my Nintendo and games. especially Bionic Commando! I actually leave it at my parents house so that when my brother and I go back for christmas we can play with/against each other.
Lovely! Thanks for you time, Tim!