Interview with Cactusquid

Posted on April 20th, 2011 by David Elliot

Jonatan Söderström, an award-winning game designer better known as Cactus of, is known for his frenetic working style – he tends to work very intensely on one project for a relatively short time before moving on to the next. His method usually results in short and very unpredictable games, combining throwback 8-bit style and simplicity with wild experimentation in narrative and game expectations.
Here Cactus tells us about his background, his goals, and his thoughts on the current state of independent game design.

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Was game design your first creative outlet?

No, I think the first creative outlet for me was drawing stuff as a kid, from random pictures to short comics. Nothing memorable, though. Then I moved on to music, and I tried doing a short film in high school. Music was a lot of fun, but it was hard to get any attention since music attracts a lot of different people, and in a lot of ways music isn’t even about being creative but rather about getting attention. By that I mean that a lot of musicians are more interested in bragging about their technical skills (kind of like a sport), to get laid or for other social reasons, and not really because they want to create.

I’m the same when it comes to games, to a big extent. I make games because I want people to give me their attention, but at the same time I do have creative visions and urges that are satisfied by what I do.

You’ve said in the past that you seek out entertainment that is alien to you, that makes you feel weird or puts you in someone else’s head. What kind of effects do you hope to create for players of your own games?

Pretty much the same effects you mentioned. But I haven’t been doing a very good job of it. I do make games that are kind of strange, but largely in a very superficial way. They have a weird element, but that element is often not explored to any bigger extent, and not as much in focus as I would’ve actually preferred.

You’re a very prolific creator and some of your shorter games get overlooked. How do you feel that games like Space Fuck, Stench Mechanics, Stallions in America, and This is Infinity, which all do something very unique, fit into your whole body of work? Or are these games just individual experiments?

Out of those games, I think This is Infinity is the strongest title. But again, I failed in all of these to create a truly compelling experience. I should’ve spent more time with Stench Mechanics to give it a good story, but I decided to release the competition version, which was made in just two days and left both “puzzles” and the story to be mediocre at best. Stallions in America I made in six hours, and I think the context in which the game took place could’ve been made a lot more interesting if I had developed some kind of actual significance to it. Space Fuck is pretty naive and probably didn’t have much more potential beyond what I did with it. I could’ve spent some time to actually make it feel right, as that is the only place where it fails.

You mentioned in another interview a while ago that you wished there were more games with sophisticated stories targeted towards adults. Are you seeing that anywhere today?

To be completely honest, no. The only games I’ve played that have had intellectually stimulating stories for me were La La Land 2 & 3. They weren’t exactly intelligent games, but they shocked me and changed my view on games forever. In both games you are forced through a sequence of events that you have no actual possibility of affecting at all, but they would be extremely ineffective if you weren’t the one prodding the character on the screen to move and make the choices that he in no way can escape anyhow.

There are other games where the creator puts rather standard gameplay concepts into interesting contexts or infuses clever plots, though. I think the short text blurbs in Flywrench in between planets really give the game something special, and Space Funeral has this amazing atmosphere that comes from the character traits, environment, music and nature of the dialogue.

I think a lot of independent game designers right now are underestimating the power of context. Many people who make games think that gameplay is the only thing important when it comes to games. But that is simply not true.

There are many examples that show this, for instance Harpooned by monoRAIL, a pretty normal shoot ‘em up that made it onto the national news because it was put into the context of whaling. Personally, I don’t find this very interesting, but it’s nonetheless an accomplishment. I think you can employ similar tactics to make the player find more personal interest in the game, which is seen in a lot of mainstream games. However, these themes and contexts are usually very broad, so that they can catch the attention of millions of people.

What I want to see is smaller games catering to niche audiences, so that instead of creating a game that a lot of people can find something to like in, you create a game that a fewer amount of people will find truly compelling in a life altering way.

Basically, what is more interesting: pushing a button if you are told that it will score you a point in the game you’re playing, or that it will cause someone to die? Both actions are the same, and both results are illusions, so why do they feel so different?

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Play the games at

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Interview with Scott Stoddard

Posted on April 19th, 2011 by David Elliot

Scott Stoddard is a game designer with several Flash titles to his name, but he was propelled to popularity with his Robot Unicorn Attack, which boasts an incredible number of plays and a devoted fan community. Before his lecture and workshop at UCLA on February 17 and 18, Scott tells us about Robot Unicorn‘s development and how he measures a game’s success.

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How did you become a game designer?

I was into traditional art growing up, then got into computer animation as I was finishing high school. I planned on going into movies, but in college I learned Flash at a part time job and started making games. I fell in love with the experience of interacting with my creations. From there I got a day job making console games while I continued developing indie flash games on the side.

What other games have you made aside from Robot Unicorn Attack?

Besides Robot Unicorn, the most popular have been Mad Shark, Capoeira Fighter 3, and Guardians of Altarris.

Mad sharks, cyborg livestock, Capoeira fighters, robot unicorns? Where do you draw inspiration for your games?

My games are inspired by things I’m passionate about. I’ve loved sharks since I was a little kid, and I’d always wondered what it would be like to be a shark. Mad Shark lets you do that. I learned Capoeira in college while I was studying animation, and combined it with my love for the Street Fighter games to do my own take on the fighting genre.

And of course I’ve loved video games since I was a kid. Many of my games are riffs off games I played on my Nintendo and Super Nintendo.

Do you collaborate with others when you design and build games?

The original kernel is usually mine, but I’ve had great help from friends, especially my painter and gamer friend Adam Ford, musician friend Ethan Halvorsen, and talented artists / writers Trent and Melissa Halvorsen. Having good talented friends with great taste in games is a must for any developer.

Why Robot Unicorn Attack? Where did the idea originate?

I had a two month window to wrap up freelance work before starting with ChAIR Entertainment (creators of Shadow Complex and Infinity Blade). Adult Swim wanted me to fit in one last game, and I wanted to try out some game play ideas inspired by Adam Atomic’s Canabalt and a talk I had just heard on flow theory.

The art was inspired by my fetish for so-bad-it’s-good fantasy art. Robot unicorns are a sorely underutilized icon, and rainbows really do make everything better.

How did you get permission to use the Eraser song?

Working with Adult Swim has its perks. They handled the business side and costs for licensing the song. From what I’ve read Erasure has added lots of new fans because of the game, so I think they’re glad they let us use the song.

Why do you think Robot Unicorn Attack is so popular?

The concept is so out there, I think people sort of felt like it was a badge of honor to be the first to tell their friends about this ridiculous game. Then I think the gameplay was fun enough to keep people coming back.

I think it also walks that fine line, combining edginess of Adult Swim humor that appeals to teens, without being too offensive for younger audiences.

What do you consider a successful game?

One that I like to play. With my own games, when I get past the prototype stage, if I find myself playing the game more than making it, I know I’ve got something good.

What are you working on now and can we expect from Scott Stoddard in the future?

I’m fully committed to my awesome team at ChAIR Entertainment for the foreseeable future. We’re just wrapping up the final updates on Infinity Blade for iPhone, and after that… if it’s with ChAIR, I’m sure it will be something that’s loads of fun to play.

What do you think games will be like 10 years from now?

Commercially and technology-wise, the iPhone phenomenon has a lot of momentum right now. HD wireless streaming is right around the corner, and I wouldn’t be surprised if within a few generations your phone becomes your console for mobile play, and if at home you were streaming games right to your TV.

Artistically, I think games are still very young. I think art matters if it affects how we live and changes the choices we make, like the best movies and books do. I hope that games are able to get to that point where they can add more meaningful substance to the basic entertainment that they tend to be now. I hope I can someday make a game that accomplishes that.

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Get more information on Scott Stoddard’s lecture and workshop at UCLA here.

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Walk Cycles

Posted on April 19th, 2011 by David Elliot

When drawing your first walking animation, it’s easy to be intimidated by the frequent use of Eadweard Muybridge’s photo montages in many animation books.

Getting a believable looking walking animation for a game character is pretty simple though, especially at low resolution. Mario’s walk cycle from the original Super Mario Bros., for example, was only 3 frames.

It’s actually missing a lot of what we think of as key points. The right leg never makes contact with the ground, and the left leg never extends forward. If a walk cycle covers one leg’s complete cycle from extension to contact to trailing to raising we really only have the first half of an animation here, but it works in the context of the game. Everything in SMB is choppy and goofy, and the action is too quick for the player to really notice… and come on, they didn’t have the memory to store a million frames anyway.  You do.

So here’s one way to do a super smooth walk cycle called “Budget Rotoscoping”:
Find an existing sprite out there in the world from your favorite game. I forget what game this is from but it’s a pretty cool gladiator animation.

8 frames looped, a decent length if your game is super small format or low framerate; but if it appears as big as I’ve blown it up here, running in a 60fps game it looks pretty choppy.

THIS IS AN OK LOOK FOR ROBOTS (but not people)

The first thing to do is abstract away all the detail and make it easier for us to work on the motion of the sprite quickly. Make the guy entirely one color, then smash him down to 25-50%.
(I’ve blown all the sprites up to the original size for the purposes on analysis but you should work on them at their smaller scale)

Here it is in motion:

Now to smooth out the animation. First we’ll double the frame count so there’s two of each frame. What was originally frame 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 is now 1,1,2,2,3,3,4,4,5,5,6,6,7,7,8,8; so 16 frames total. To smooth out the animation just edit every duplicate frame so that it transitions between its neighboring frames. It’s pretty simple work and doesn’t have to be super precise yet, as long as every limb changes a little bit per frame it’ll probably look ok.

and in motion–

My gif exporter wont let me change the framerate but the above animation should be running twice as fast.

Now we have to think about how the sprite is going to be used in a game. Since the character will be moving at a constant rate (or at least have the animation speed change based on horizontal speed) we need to make sure the feet wont slide across the ground unrealistically. You can see in the animation below that we still have some problems in this area.

The animation speed vs ground speed is matched pretty well but there are some frames that hold the foot position on the ground too long. This is called “slippage”– when the character looks like he’s rollerskating. I went back into the animation and shifted the entire position of the figure in the frame during these moments of slippage. Some surrounding frames had to be adjusted because of this. It’s looking pretty smooth now.

Now we can work on the look of it. Separate all the limbs by coloring them differently, then smooth out shapes and add details. I gave the guy boots first, then gloves, and finally a hat. I also made him rotate his head and body a little more naturally with his stride. Partially this was a function of working from a silhouette which forced me to imagine the placement of each limb for each frame. I ended up changing a lot of different pieces along the way. If you make a practice of constantly flipping between frames you’ll get a feel for what needs adjusting.

and in (slow) motion:

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Posted on April 13th, 2011 by David Elliot

Did you miss Scott Stoddard’s lecture on February 17 about his use of flow theory in the development of his incredibly popular game, Robot Unicorn Attack? Never fear: you can watch the video of his presentation here.

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