Jonatan “Cactus” SÃ¶derstrÃ¶m’s lecture for the 2009 Independent Games Summit, The Four-Hour Game Design, opened up his bizarre creative process, revealing some of the design guidelines and key tricks that have allowed him to make more (awesome) games per day than the rest of the industry combined manages to put out in a year.
It may have been the greatest presentation ever.
Starting from his Desktop, Cactus skipped over a few folders called things like “Weird Porn” and “Nude Pictures of Me” to one simply named “GDC.” Within, bearing the icon of a pixelated heart, was his presentation… made in Game Maker.
After registering Windows Media Player live on stage to test the audio, and eventually realizing he had to un-mute his laptop, Cactus started it up. A Brain-Damaged Toon Underworld style animation began with a character only he could have drawn declaring, “I AM INTERNET.”
I ripped some (TIGSOURCE EXCLUSIVE) screens from Cactus’ laptop while he was asleep, but there will eventually be a video of all the “slides,” or perhaps even a download of the presentation/game itself, so I won’t spoil too much of it now. Here’s a brief summary, in the extended:
In the first section of the presentation, “WHY,” Cactus likened game development to “having a baby,” then proceeded to drive that metaphor well past the line of any decency, with upsetting photos to boot.
Highlight: The hardest part is “getting it out”—it’s painful and the end result is often not what you expected. (But at least you learn from it.)
The main points of the second section, “CREATIVITY,” were: Always experiment, be serious about what you’re doing, renew your concepts, don’t think the game needs to be fun (it could be “interesting or weird or just freak you out”), and try to create a cohesive experience.
For times when you’re not feeling creative, Cactus recommended mimicking another game, but challenging its original concept, trying to do things better in some way. (This bit was supplemented by a trippy 3D scene of dialog between two polygonal characters, which I now know had randomized camera angles.)
In the third section, “GRAPHICS,” Cactus outlined a number of simple ways to use your game’s tech to multiply the effectiveness of basic, easy-to-produce art assets (such as sketches, pixel art, geometric shapes, and so on). He then gave many strange examples of using color & saturation, rotation, scaling, basic animation, flicker, movement, atmosphere (“RAIN EFFECT”), and other quick tricks to make the visuals considerably more interesting without too much extra work.
In the fourth section of the presentation, “GAMEPLAY,” Cactus asked the age old question: “Who wants to jump on an enemy that many times?”
He then went on to show a few minor gameplay changes in different situations that have a huge impact on the feel of the game. For example, he played a potential horizontal shmup where you must shoot incoming square “asteroids” a bunch of times to destroy them. A bit later he played an updated version that was faster, with less hits required to destroy each asteroid, and a quick explosion effect that made the game clearly more awesome. Unfortunately, he lost pretty quickly when playing this, so he had to move on.
In the fifth section, “PREPARATIONS,” Cactus gave some health advice, pointing out the critical importance of going to the bathroom, eating (but not too much, unless you want to end up in the bathroom again), having an idea ready before you start, using the right tools, and taking every shortcut possible.
If you work cleverly and take care of yourself, you won’t need to work as aggressively, either, and the game will become less of a headache to pull together.
In the final section of the lecture, Cactus pointed people toward TIGForum member Dr. Petter’s excellent SFXR, which he’s been using for pretty much every project nowadays, and recommended collaboration with online musicians eager to compose. (That, or stealing their music. But if your game wins an award or something, “it might be a good idea to email” them about it.)
A final tip was displayed, “Some Games Have Good Music,” and the slideshow abruptly ended. The audience sat in silence for moment wondering if there was going to be another curve ball, but once it was understood that the thing was actually over, the room erupted into applause.
Now, to a game developer, the direct content of this presentation didn’t give that much new information, but, at least for me and everyone else I talked to, as a whole it was incredibly inspiring and enlightening. I imagine a number of developers well aware of these techniques may not have thought to really use them like this. And if anyone in the room hadn’t heard of Cactus before, this must have been a knockout. It was just as free-form, exciting, and sometimes confounding as a Cactus game, and surely one of the most interactive, unpredictable talks GDC has ever seen.
Even giving a lecture, Jonatan can’t help being Cactus.
P.S. He made, like, forty more games while he was speaking.