Here’s some good news for all the up and coming game designers out there: in case being part of an indie studio isn’t enough creative freedom for you, there’s always the option of being an indie within an indie.
That unique set-up was what Jason Cirillo explained to me as people played his upcoming game Woah Dave! on two stations at the Gaijin Games booth at PAX East. Though he modestly deflects talk of being a solo act, Cirillo is for all intents and purposes the lone member of Robotube Games, a company he started in 2006 that now operates as a sub-label of Gaijin.
“I develop games myself inside of Gaijin as sort of a skunk works or experimental lab,” Cirillo said. “Gaijin is working on bigger projects now which are unannounced, so these are smaller games to kind of fill in the gaps.”
Woah Dave! looks every bit the kind of game that reflects the individual tastes of its creator. It’s a platformer with simple but frantic action that has players chasing high scores by trying to stay alive as long as possible, avoiding aliens and attempting to “pick stuff up and throw it.”
Considering that Cirillo has an Adventure Vision in a glass case in his office, the pre-eight bit graphical style should come as no surprise. There are obvious nods to the original Mario Bros. and Joust, as well as some similarities to Super Crate Box in the way enemies that reach the lava pits respawn in more dangerous forms.
Cirillo readily admits the influences on Woah Dave!, but also named an even older platformer as an inspiration – one that dates all the way back to the time when ColecoVisions walked the Earth.
“There’s also a game called Space Panic,” Cirillo said, confirming that he did, in fact, play it on a ColecoVision. “It’s actually, I think, the first platform game. It was the same idea; you had these aliens that would chase you around, and you really had to kill them and finish the job or they would evolve and get harder and harder.”
The first platformer? 1980’s Space Panic beat Donkey Kong by a year.
The aliens of Woah Dave! do that too. Some get increased speed, while others return with movement abilities that mimic the player’s, able to jump up onto higher platforms.
In other words, there’s more going on that it may appear at first glance. That extends to the character of Dave himself, who has a back story that Cirillo devised with the help of an artist friend who produced the surprisingly detailed poster hanging in the Gaijin booth.
Our pixilated hero doesn’t really need a history, but Cirillo agrees that having one adds something of value for at least some of the people who will play the game.
“I think it’s important for some people,” he said. “I think there are different kinds of gamers. Some people say, ‘I just want to play this video game, I don’t care about the story or anything,’ and just look for pure entertainment. Some people like to think a little more about it, and for those people, the story adds a lot of personality.”
That kind of attention to detail, along with the hours of work that went into perfecting very specific aspects of the gameplay like how high and fast Dave jumps, also help protect the game from the current scourge of this segment of the games industry: cloners.
“What’s really important is the fine-tuning of the game,” Cirillo said. “I think that’s what cloners have trouble with. They’re manufacturing products. You look at this game and like, well this is simple. We have tuned this game over and over and over and over again. That’s something that people just don’t realize.”
It’s his way of saying that craftsmanship matters, even if not all of the end users appreciate it. Cirillo uses the analogy of a chef that takes the time to get all the best ingredients for his recipes while being fully aware that some customers will be just as happy filling up on a burger at McDonald’s, blissfully ignorant of the effort behind the scenes.
All of these ideas tie back into Woah Dave! in its current state of development, meaning that it’s not quite ready for release yet. Robotube retains its independence, but the larger Gaijin family is instrumental in evaluating each new iteration.
While Cirillo initially balked at putting the game on smartphones because he didn’t like the way most action games handle the controls (he’s a kindred spirit with this writer for disliking virtual thumbsticks), he was persuaded that it would be good to have it on mobile. Eventually, he came up with a system he liked, dividing the screen into four vertical quadrants where any tap in that zone will perform the desired action. Problem solved.
In the truest hardcore indie spirit, someone is sitting on the floor of the booth with a laptop working on a 3DS version of Woah Dave! while we chat, the noise and chaos of PAX East swirling all around him. That’s life for an indie sub-label, and it suits Cirillo just fine.
“To say that I developed the games on my own would be totally inaccurate, because we all sit around, play the games, have a good time, and there’s just constant feedback,” he said. “I consider myself lucky to have a resource like that. It’s my favorite way so far to create games.”