Interview with Riverman Media

Wow, Riverman Media must be coming up on seven years of indie game development. What platforms were you developing for before iOS gaming really caught on, and what projects did you work on at WayForward before you set up your own studio? Was Paul already working in the videogame industry too, or did you drag him in – not that a proposal to start a game studio would require much arm twisting?

Jacob: Wow, you’re right! Seven years, and it feels like we’re just getting started. I began making games for fun in high school, and then interned at WayForward during college. While there, I worked on a number of great titles, including Sigma Star Saga, Contra 4, and several SpongeBob SquarePants and Batman games. I was mostly a background artist, which continues to be my specialty.

After college I took a job at IBM in Tucson (thinking I should get a “real” job), and my younger brother Paul also moved to Tucson that same year to attend the University of Arizona. During his freshman year, we made the original PC version of Cash Cow with our friend Tim Winsky. After that we made another PC casual game called Primate Panic, and then MadStone for WiiWare.

After those games, Paul graduated and we decided to really get serious. I left IBM (though I still consult for them) and we made a whole slew of iOS games, which brought us to where we are today! No arm twisting was ever required. We approach game development with the same sense of inevitability that we do eating and sleeping!

It is incredibly cool to see a studio devoted specifically to 2D nowadays. Do you see any clear benefit to going 2D in terms of your development pipeline – that it might be easier to manage a 2D project than a 3D project of the same scale, for example? And on the flipside, do you ever see this as a risk, i.e., that a lot of gamers might overlook your projects just because they’re 2D, all else being equal?

Jacob: There are so many reasons that we are devoted to 2D, it’s hard to list them all here! The first is simply love of classic 2D games. Can you really get better than Super Mario Bros. 3, or Zelda II? I personally don’t think so. Second, I am a much better 2D artist than a 3D artist. I draw waaay more than I sculpt. I think it would be silly not to leverage the tens of thousands of hours I’ve put into drawing and painting. Third, I believe that it is impossible for a small studio to compete with a large studio in terms of creating 3D games. I had this realization when I was playing Resident Evil 4: I knew that a two-person team couldn’t create it! However, I think a small team is very well-suited to creating 2D games that stack up against the big studios.

As for players overlooking our projects because they’re not 3D: I’m sure that will happen, and I’m fine with that. Our games aren’t for everyone! As long as we stay small, only a fraction of people have to like our games. It’s our goal to make that fraction of people as happy as possible!

The Riverman blog has a great set of presentation notes on recommended game development practices. The concept I found most interesting was “The Loop”: that the dev team should essentially produce a series of prototypes and have each of those playtested, rather than try to ram the project home in one straight shot. From what you’ve seen on the App Store and other indie-friendly platforms, is it your sense that this is a pretty widely adopted practice already, or is it maybe not getting the attention it deserves? And is it something that even AAA studios could learn from, or do the big industry names already do this as a rule?

Jacob: First, I should say that “The Loop” is best explained by Jesse Schell in his book, The Art of Game Design. The basic idea is that you incrementally design, create, and test your game, over and over, continually evolving it until it’s great. This is in contrast to “waterfall” development, where you do all the design up front, then develop the game, then test it, without ever going backwards.

I think the industry has pretty well accepted that “The Loop” is the best development strategy, but in reality it’s difficult to put into practice when schedules and deadlines come into play. I get the sense that companies like Nintendo, when they delay a game for a year or two, are using “The Loop” and realizing that a game needs another iteration. Other companies, not so much!

Your next game, Pizza Vs. Skeletons, definitely ranks up there with the zaniest concepts we’ve seen on iOS. There’s gotta be an interesting story about how you came up with that idea. At what point did you know for sure it was a workable game concept?

Jacob: I think Paul and I were eating lunch one day and one of us just blurted out the title, as a joke. A little while later, I made a very rough doodle of a giant pizza rolling over skeletons, also as a joke. The concept went dormant for at least a year before we started messing around with some prototypes. Things still weren’t promising, even then, because of the enormous challenges we faced with the size of the character, the imprecision of accelerometer and touchscreen controls, and issues with the camera. Slowly but surely we made breakthroughs in all of these areas. Now I’m really proud of the game. The zany concept has turned into the best thing we’ve ever produced.

So what’s the player’s goal in Pizza Vs. Skeletons exactly, and what will the interface be like? I mean, how does one control a giant pizza?

Jacob: The controls are very simple. You tilt the device to roll the pizza, tap once to jump, tap in the air to slam the ground, or tap when you land on an enemy to double jump. These controls apply throughout all the gameplay variations.

As for the structure of the game, there are 100 levels, which are each unlocked with a certain number of stars. You can earn up to three stars when you beat each level. You get one just for beating the level, and the other two are for mission-specific achievements, like beating it in a certain amount of time. So ultimately, the goal of the game is to proceed through the levels until you beat the final boss.