[This is a guest post by Offal.]
From the early arcade to the Dreamcast era, Sega had a stable of first and second-party developers regularly producing vibrant genre-defining games, inventing and reinventing convention. Today that experimental spirit has largely died off, or been dialed down into tame sequels and re-releases of classic titles.
Amateur developers like the Arcane Kids have stepped in to fill the gap, and now Simon Stalenhag and Tommy Salomonsson (collectively Pixeltruss) have released Ripple Dot Zero, their own game in the free-spirited high flying blue skies style.
Ripple Dot Zero is free to play in browser.
We spoke with Pixeltruss to discuss the history, release, and future of the project. It’s a long one! Interview past the break.
Hello Simon and Tommy! Excited to talk to you guys about Ripple Dot Zero.
Simon Stalenhag: Same here!
Tommy Salomonsson: We’re excited as well about this interview =)
Great, thanks. Alright so as far as I can tell Tommy’s kind of the left brain and Simon handled art, creative stuff, and music on Ripple. Is that right?
SS: That is absolutely correct!
TS: Yes, I’m the developer-half of Pixeltruss =)
SS: Well it’s wrong in a sense that Tommy is also very creative. Two artists, different tools I would say…
TS: My main role has been to code the tools (level editor and so on), the game engine, the physics and game-specific scripts and all of that.
As a kid I really loved playing 2D platformers (still do), and I have played them an awful lot, so I do have some sense of what will be good or bad in a game if you’re speaking game-design/level-design.
Simon has been doing the level design in Ripple Dot Zero, but I’ve always overlooked quite closely. But doing good level design is incredibly hard (which I noticed when I tried to make a few levels myself) so I have a deep respect for Simons level design skills.
You’re both professionals by day correct?
SS: More or less. We both worked at the same company for a while, me as a concept artist and Tommy as a developer, but we’ve had many different jobs during production, since it’s been going for so long. We’ve funded it with our day jobs.
So your careers supplement Pixeltruss?
SS: Well, we like being professionals in our respective fields, and Pixeltruss has been kind of a hobby project. We’ve enjoyed having the freedom to do whatever games we want on our spare time. Being backed financially by someone also comes with a certain price, in form of less independence. No one is going to give you a pile of money to just do whatever you want.
TS: We released Flash game Metro Siberia right before we started with Ripple (2007). We didn’t call ourselves anything back then, so in the splash it says”salomonsson.se” (which is just me). That game spun off pretty well back then (we have > 10 million game plays today), so we had to come up with a name that included both of us. Pixeltruss was born.
SS: So it wasn’t really a proper start up company or anything, more like a garage band.
It’s a simple SFCave sort of game but it definitely has Simon’s style as seen in Ripple, or at least a developing stage of it.
SS: I did it without a Wacom pen back then…
When starting the development for Ripple we didn’t fully realize how complex it would become.
Was the popularity for that game organic, shared between people? Did it make the press etc.? Did you see any success from licenses or advertising?
SS: I think it was mostly shared (this was before social media like Twitter and Facebook were what they are today… or at least we didn’t use them). It was definitely a hobby game. I was totally new to producing game assets, I had mostly done book covers before… painted in traditional media like gouache.
TS: Well, I have always regarded the night-time game-dev as a hobby. Metro Siberia has not generated a huge amount of money, but it has generated enough for us to be able to pay for hosting, servers and the rest of our expenses (which have been pretty low).
Our initial idea with Ripple was a much smaller game. But with the editor and Simons art it started to grow…
Ripple’s world seems like a natural extension of the imagery in Simon’s sketches and paintings: stark pastel landscapes, robotic machinery, techno-industrial architecture, and dinosaurs.
SS: Heh, yep. And of course it was almost a decade long obsession with 16-bit era aesthetics.
I actually studied classical composition but couldn’t stop listening to Mega Drive (Genesis) soundtracks. I just came out of the closet one day and said I love video game music.
That inspiration comes across quite heavily in the soundtrack of course, but there’s not any adherence to arbitrary constraints. The music is FM synth, but not necessarily to Genesis specs.
SS: No, I tried to combine whatever music I like that comes from that era, just having that energy in terms of rhythm, tonal material and texture.
And that freedom extends to the art…
SS: Yeah, I am a painter so I don’t really like making tiny pixel art. I approached it like normal paintings with big brushes and so on but with a very limited palette. This approach evolved during development
At any point did either of you limit your own quality of production to reflect an older standard?
SS: Hmm. In a way, it’s much easier to make tiles and modular graphics with a limited resolution and palette. So in that sense producing the level art was easier than trying to do it with thousands of colors per tile and semi transparency and so on
TS: Right from the start of the project I put two constraints on Simon. I would not allow rotation of sprites (in that case he would have to draw them at every angle), and no alpha-blending effects (which are quite common in Flash).
Simon managed to work around the alpha blending by doing tiles with some degree of transparency in them (like windows), but that I could approve =)
SS: Yeah and more importantly I chose color from a 24 bit palette so I could have any colors I wanted as long as I didn’t have too many of them in the same screen…
Kind of the same approach as to the music. Old school in spirit, not in kind.
There are a lot of really talented hardcore pixel artists out there, but I think you have to have a solid understanding of what you are trying to do before constraining yourself.
So it’s coherent screen-to-screen and piece-to-piece but there aren’t any limitations per se?
SS: No, not really. From my experience there have been more constraints when working with 3D. I was art director and 2D artist for a project called Project 83113, for hand-held devices, and that project used a 2D engine but rendered with a 3D engine. There were more limitations on texture sizes and so on, compared to Ripple where I just threw in whatever graphics I wanted basically.
Ah another mascot platformer :)
SS: Ah you’ve heard about it?
No, sorry, not before now! Did that game influence Ripple at all? Vice versa?
SS: Ha, it’s okay it’s off of the App Store since the company that I worked for disappeared in a merger… It really had potential but business, came in the way.
Ripple taught me how to do proper game graphics so that project definitely was inspired graphically by Ripple. I did the music, concept art, 2D art and art direction, but no game design or level design whatsoever.
And your experience, Tommy?
TS: My mom got me into a programming course when I was 9. I guess she couldn’t predict what huge impact that would have on me later on! BASIC, so no fancy stuff… but the basics like variables, loops, conditions and so on.
SS: Tommy, how much of your combined income throughout your life is directly tied to that programming course?
TS: HAHA. All of it!
SS: Maybe you should her pay back 20%…
So, Ripple. This protagonist is a genetically modified anthropomorphic penguin in trainers. A post-Bubsy animal mascot in 2013! Obviously Ripple doesn’t exist to sell figures and a cartoon series or whatever, so what inspired the idea?
SS: Ah the penguin…
I guess at one point I tried to think of the most simple animal to draw. A black and white bird, maximum contrast right there. I like penguins in odd environments.
There’s actually a watercolor painting of a penguin in some kind of quarry (similar to the first levels in Ripple) I did when I was 18.
But I think the sneakers was the most important aspect. That’s very much an icon of that era.
TS: Some things that inspired me a little bit extra regarding the game and the world around it (do I even need to mention Sonic the Hedgehog?).
There’s the sword as weapon. I love the fact that you have to expose yourself by getting close to the enemies to be able to kill them. One game that does this very well is Wonder Boy in Monster World, A long time favourite.
Is that world as it exists in your head sort of a parallel to the photorealistic future stuff in your paintings?
SS: Well both me and Tommy like to put in some ‘Swedishness’ into our work.
The crater lake levels in RDZ are pretty much grander version of a quarry we used to swim in as kids when we lived in the countryside outside of Stockholm, in the early 90s.
A lot of your paintings and a lot of the palettes for Ripple levels are very stark and the few photos I’ve seen of your home, the lake at the cabin etc, I recognize a lot of those landscapes in Ripple.
SS: Ah that’s great! Well I got that cabin very close to where we grew up.
Tommy’s brother is a life long best friend of mine, so Tommy was always somebody I knew of, but in 2007 he asked me to help him with Metro Siberia and we really became friends for real then. I remember playing with Dino Riders with Tommy and his brother when I was like seven years old.
So you’re used to accustomed to beautiful environmental landscapes I guess… and exploring that kind of art in the detailed parallax pieces behind a lot of the game’s levels must have been fun.
SS: Yeah! In that sense Tommy’s engine and tools was really flexible compared to others I’ve worked with,
TS: And it has been awesome for me as well. I added a few features to the engine/editor, checked it in, mailed Simon about it, and a few days later I could see the beautiful result.
SS: Yeah that kind of collaboration have been great, to really put Tommy’s ideas to the test.
TS: I think that is something that has made it possible to see the project through to the end. Simon showing me an idea he had which would get me super excited. I would implement it in the engine and tell Simon, and a few days later I could play a level where Simon had implemented the feature. Which would give me another idea for the engine… and so on.
What do you find the benefits of building your own tools are?
TS: I investigated existing tools a lot before we started, but none filled the requirements we needed. Fine control over the parallax scrolling for example. Also, since we started with Ripple, several open source game engines has become available in Flash such as Flixel and Flashpunk, but the project started long before those engines were available..
The technical part of the game was very much ahead of its time when we started. People couldn’t believe that it was done in Flash. Then it took five more years, and now there are a lot of impressive games available that are made with Flash.
TS: I’ve been working with Flash for about ten years now.
In the beginning it was a mix between animation (timeline stuff) and ActionScript, but the last six years has been ActionScript only. Ripple has been a Actionscript-only project from the start.
Ripple is a pure platformer. It’s not about puzzles, it’s not stripped of the things that made Mario and Sonic the games they were.
SS: Yes I would say that. We wanted to do a lot of fancy things with mechanics, but we just had to focus on the basicswith our limited resources. We tried a bunch of different things with weapons and how the levels worked, but it just wasn’t fun so we scrapped it
I don’t think I’m a good enough game designer to tinker with established genres, at least not before we’ve managed to do something basic; that just takes so much time in terms of prototyping and iteration. Sometimes I do think people underestimate the power of simpler mechanics, and exploration.
I read some stuff about collecting enemy spirits? A toll station?
TS: Yeah, we tried to add some new game mechanics with the spirit-collection. I remember playing a couple of levels with it and almost starting to cry. It turned out to be a terrible game mechanic, and we scrapped it pretty quickly. You had to gather the spirits (souls) of killed enemies, which you could use as ammunition to kill more enemies. It turned out that you could end up in a position where you didn’t have any ammo, so we added the possibility to jump on enemies like in Mario… and the game just wasn’t built for that from the start. Adding completely new game mechanics like this late in the game can change the entire feeling of the game. In this case it was for the worse, so we had to step back a bit, and we re-enabled the sword instead.
SS: We had to scrap it, or we wouldn’t have a game today I think..
Any notable inspirations?
SS: Yes, of course Sonic is the number-one inspiration.
TS: Oh, I forgot another huge source of inspiration. Cool Spot! The bouncer things, and more definite: the bonus levels. I loved the bonus levels in Cool Spot and could keep playing the levels over and over just to get into them =D
SS: Strider is awesome and a huge inspiration. It’s a bit twitchy to play though but DAT ART.
A lot of people have mentioned Amiga platformers that I’m less familiar with as well, Zool etc. Did you guys get into the Amiga at all?
SS: No we didn’t actually. I guess since the Amiga uses similar hardware to the Mega Drive it may look that way.
TS: No. Never owned an Amiga. I had a C64 as my first home computer, then went on to Master System and Sega Genesis. But I’m familiar with the graphical style of the classical Amiga games so I take it as a huge compliment =D
SS: Yes actually Roger Dean‘s art was a big inspiration, and he did the Psygnosis logo that was very much an Amiga thing.
Past prototypes and failed experiments, you ended up with Pills, Jetpack, and Boomerang as the core hooks.
SS: Pills… hmm. We needed something to guide the player, and that’s pretty much what they’re there for. We later tied it into the bonus meter which unlocks the bonus leve to give it some kind of meaning.
The jet pack was pretty early on I think, and same with the boomerang. It actually was a proper curved boomerang for a while. The oldest level is Crater Lake 1, which has had the same basic layout for several years. Jetpack is a pretty obvious toy for exploring the levels, which always was what we wanted players to do
TS: Initially I wanted to have a time limit on the levels, and by collecting pills you would extend that time limit. But Simons levels got so big and beautiful that we pretty quickly decided to scrap the time limit to give the player time to fully explore the levels without any stress.
Instead the time limit made itself into the bonus levels.
SS: Our first initial idea was to make a short flash game based on the cool spot bonus level mechanic, with a time limit that is. Something with sneakers bouncing in a vertical level and collecting pickups.
TS: That was with the toll-gates as well. Passages where you had to pay with your collected pills to be granted access.
SS: And that just became too heavy on the backtracking
So ultimately the game is fairly straightforward, fairly easy. Did you tone anything down after your playtests and feedback?
SS: Not really. We’ve been casually playtesting it on friends for a long time, and at the big playtesting session we had earlier this year we got very good feedback. The stuff that players wanted to have was”more of all the good stuff”, which basically became a question of adding more content or not.
Some players wanted more story, which we agreed would be nice, but costly to add
TS: Oh, can I add a bit about the story in the game?
When I was young I always wanted the games like Mario, Zelda and Sonic to have more story. Loved intros and cut-scenes. But if you look at those games today, the only thing you wish for is LESS GODDAMN STORY!!! WHY CAN’T I SKIP IT!!! AAAA.
So in Ripple we went back to those retro games again and skipped the story. Except for the initial text boxes, the only story is the one that the player makes for himself.
SS: Well”skipped” is maybe the wrong word… we also spared ourselves a lot of trouble…
TS: Yeah, we’ve received feedback from several players saying that they miss a plot in the game.
SS: But yeah we never wanted to have that much of storytelling,more than in the levels and mood of the game anyway.
TS: But I really like it this way. Better no plot than a bad one. And how many good games has been ruined by a bad story? Way too many.
SS: Ripple Dot Zero – Now With A Long And Poorly Written Plot
I think people expect plotting and chatter to some degree, to sort of take the harder mechanical edge off of games. But characterization basically begins and ends with brief sequences, and the Ripple character designs themselves.
SS: Yeah the biggest inspiration for story telling by level art is the levels in Sonic 3 + Knuckles, especially the part from Lava Reef and onwards, where you see what’s going on in the background.
We wanted much more of that of course, but never got around to do it.
Modern revisions of the Sonic formula often opt for roller-coaster-style linear level design emphasizing non-stop momentum: running, jumping and building blind speed. You’ve stuck a bit closer to Sonic 2; lots of stuff to see if you’re looking.
TS: I love more open and non-linear levels. And I’m a huge fan of putting lots of secrets for those who faithfully search for them. I’ve been nagging Simon a lot with”we need more secrets” (and I also added a few ones myself without his knowledge ;)
There are a lot of them! Secrets are sort of their own reward too, am I mistaken? Besides more pills? There’s no secondary collectible like Gems or Stars or whatever, secrets are just item caches like in Doom.
SS: They do give you some extra score. The trapped Ripples are our emeralds. I love Doom, by the way. I actually did my first level designs in DoomEd, twelve years old… haha.
TS: The secrets sometimes gives you power-ups, sometimes a shortcut to the end, or to a hidden level. In a few places we put some unused assets =)
I’ve read about these but haven’t seem them myself. Are they just like empty monuments to leftover design?
SS: Yes. More or less. Some animated enemies as well.
TS: There were a few things that didn’t make it into the game that I felt was such a shame to not show off at all…. So giving it as a reward for players who are scanning through the levels in hunt for secret areas =)
SS: Same with all of the unused music, that I released on Soundcloud. I had like 60 pieces of music or something.
How did you settle the balance of strategically sequenced bounce pads and token-scattered reward vectors with sections that require more exploration and more manual maneuvering?
SS: Trying not to bore myself while spending time in the editor I guess. I never had a plan, I built the levels like a kid making a tree house.
Swedish idiom -“jag gick pa kansla” -“I ran on feel”. I improvised.
I wanted to design open and spacious, and use narrow passages only when absolutely necessary. I really tried to use the bouncers as much as possible since we didn’t have the speed of Sonic. The only way to accelerate our character was by using bouncers, and we needed speed. The music is speedy. The sneakers are speedy.
Had we gone for a more classic Mario-style gameplay, all the art and music would have been different. It’s surprising how you quickly get an idea of the space just moving around
SS: I guess what I really had to learn was stop trying to design a level that looked good zoomed out on paper. I approached it more screen by screen. When I designed on paper I lost the sense of where the camera was and what the player would see. Some early levels looked great in the editor but plays like shit. So we scrapped them.
A lot of people are impressed that you’ve released a game of Ripple’s fidelity for free. Not long ago there were a lot more high quality games that made it by on Flash sponsorship, but a lot of games have gone the way of downloadable services like Steam, and now console, as the barriers to entry have slowly come down. There are a lot of people clamouring for a console release of Ripple, despite it being tailored as a browser game, in regards to length, commitment, etc. There’s a comment on your blog,”This game is super high quality and clearly took many hours to finish, yet you charge nothing for it. Are you guys rich or something?” I don’t think is something you would’ve heard in 2008 ;)
SS: I mean we’re not rich; only stupid. Not very business minded at least.
TS: But I agree. In 2008 this was kind of normal. The game has changed a lot during the development of Ripple. A lot has happened in just 5 years.
SS: But then again- maybe making plans keeps you from making games.
I mean we’ve just been focused on creating a game. Pushing it out and getting people aware of it is a whole other thing. That’s a talent in itself. I think that PR skill is something you need 2013.
SS: It never was the plan. With the album I kind of see it as a donation thing. Same with the merch. It’s not like I have bought a Ferrari and am just chillaxed waiting for the cash to roll in.
TS: The merchandise is kind of a”fan service”. I love the devs that offer t-shirts and stickers from my favourite games such as Super Meat Boy, Gamma Bros, Portal, whatever. I love buying shirts from games that I like, and wanted to offer a similar experience with our game. So I would say that would be the first hand reason for our shop.
About money, I’m happy if the game generates enough money so that I don’t have to spend my personal savings to pay for hosting, version control and tools.
You mentioned being independently motivated early on, and ‘independent’ has become much less of a useful distinction in music, films, games, etc. If there is still an essence to that, I’d say releasing a pet-project built in your spare time for free is it!
TS: Indeed. In those five years we’ve been working on the game not a lot of people were aware of its existence. We’re better at making games than to talk about them. Getting people aware of it prior to, and after the release has been pretty difficult…
SS: Yeah I actually remember building levels while working night shifts.
I think both me and Tommy want to have that freedom. In our day jobs you always have to accommodate the people who are paying the bills, which is fine. But with Ripple we didn’t want to do that.
TS: Yeah, it has been really nice to work on something that is our own.
Did you have many limitations to fight on the side of Flash development?
TS: Performance has been the biggest limitation throughout the project, and I have spent a lot of time tweaking and optimizing the engine to make it run as smoothly as possible.
TS: Actually, since the production has been going on for so long, a few times I had to re-optimize the code as new flash players came out. Since the tricks I was using seemed to change slightly between player versions.
I can play RDZ on my travel computer, an Asus netbook.
Performance can depend a bit on different OSes, platforms and player versions. I’ve never experienced any problems.
TS: Flash as a platform: I’ve worked with for a long time, and love it a lot. I enjoyed the time when more indie games were made with Flash, since you didn’t have to install anything. Just go to the website and play it. Don’t like it, then go to the next. Like it? Stay for a few more minutes.
But I guess that is a bit nostalgia as well. The Flash Player has been suffering a lot lately. For a long time it was very unstable on Macs (don’t know how it is now), and Adobe seems to discontinue its support for it a piece at a time (discontinuing support from Andriod, then Linux…)
I haven’t looked into the new gamepad API that was announced about a month ago yet, but I definitely will. Gamepad support has been one of the most frequent requests we’ve got from players after the release.
Have you considered expanding onto other platforms at all?
SS: Right now we’re really exhausted from the development so we haven’t really any plans at all.
TS: We might look into it, but nothing is decided at this point. As Simon said, right now we’re resting up a bit after the release.
Have you talked at all about the future for Pixeltruss now that your baby is out in the world? Any dreams for the future?
TS: During all this time we (or at least I) have been afraid to think too much about our”next project”. If you get an idea thats too good theres a huge risk that you end up abandoning your current project. But with that being said we do have lots of loose ideas that we want to follow up on. Most definitely we will continue making games =)
For me, our coming projects will not be limited to Flash. I look forward to expanding to all the other platforms. A cross platform game engine.
SS: And I want a level editor with an Undo function.
TS: I will investigate the amount of work needed to get Ripple onto other platforms as well, but before we know I rather not make any promises.
In 2008 retro throwbacks weren’t quite the thing they are today. Now there’s Fez, Far Cry Blood Dragon; people are biting on the late 80’s style that Ripple oozes pretty hard.
SS: At one point I thought that we were too late with the 16-bit style and that somebody would beat us to it.Fez is more 8-bit, and no other game at least that I know of have a Sci-Fi RNB music, which is what the music is.
Given all the willful throwbacks in contemporary media, cashing in on nostalgia seems to be a big thing. Ripple Dot Zero Dot Com sort of creates the atmosphere the game might be imagined existing in, old tube TV, plush pillows and posters.
SS: Yeah. Actually everything on www.simonstalenhag.se could exist outside that room.
Nostalgia concerning early 90’s/late 80’s is something that have been following me since the late 80’s/early 90’s.
TS: I think that specific nostalgia-design is very”Simon”-y… at least thats what I think =)
SS: My first memory of being nostalgic about the early 90’s is from late 1992. I was 8 years old and saw a commercial on TV rewinding the”ROCK YEAR OF ’92” and they played a bunch of clips from that year. I felt… nostalgic.
So how has the reception been for Ripple so far postrelease?
SS: Very good I would say! A lot of people are contacting us to just let us know they felt like kids again, which is like the greatest compliment EVER.
TS: Number one request would probably be gamepad support, but request number two would probably be that people want us to port the game over to PC and console which makes me really happy. There’s been a lot in the press about mobile making the need of consoles obsolete. Reading from the feedback we’ve got this does not seem to be the case (and I do love console).
The feedback has also been overly positive, and we receive lots of emails from people sending us their love.
TS: Looking at the numbers, the game has been played about 600.000 times since the release, and quite unexpectedly nearly half of these sessions comes from China =)
Something seems to have happened there, because suddenly there was a huge boom from China. And I have no idea what it was or where it came from!
Any negative feedback?
SS: Well, everything is feedback. Some is useful and some isn’t. We have got surprisingly little of that hate stuff actually. Lucky considering the interwebs can be a very nasty place these days.
TS: We know that this game is not for everyone. One of the things we’ve got as feedback is that it doesn’t try to do anything new with the genre, and that is true. If you are looking for new and innovative games then this probably isn’t your cup of tea =)
You initially announced earlier launch dates, 2010, Summer 2011. How much of the delay was work, reworking, and how much of it was outside responsibility like your families and job?
SS: I would say 80% real life responsibility.
TS: That is a very difficult question to answer. If we would have done this full time – how long would it have taken? How many hours have we spent?
I actually don’t know, and I’m not sure I want to know….
SS: If we had been doing this full time we might have been done earlier, but we might also have started to add more and more stuff in it. But most likely we would have been forced to release something substandard when running out of cash…
I’ve actually taken time off to do other stuff as well. The art on my website for instance.
TS: At least for me, I’ve been working on the game more or less constantly, although the pace has gone a bit up and down. Maybe a few pauses where real life required too much of my attention.
I bought that netbook that I mentioned earlier as a travel computer so I could work on Ripple when I went on holidays. Small enough to almost work in the seat on a plane.
SS: I guess Tommy has had the greatest workload. He’s the one who had the make it all work!
Thanks for your time guys. Best of luck with your future work.