Capturing Creativity Within a Twisted Pixel
The business of video games is the business of providing players with new experiences. In order to do that companies need to consistently develop new ideas and new intellectual property on a regular basis in order to avoid franchise fatigue. Since it’s start in 2006, Twisted Pixel has churned out fantastic new worlds and characters for their games with every release and at an alarming rate. Most big studios would be lucky to get a few genuinely new ideas out in a decade, but Twisted Pixel makes it an annual process.
My first taste of the Twisted Pixel culture came when Mike Wilford appeared on a panel I hosted during PAX East 2011 called Press B to Laugh: Gaming, Jokes and How to Make Players ROFL, during which he detailed some of the creative process behind making funny XBLA games. Back then I took his word as gospel, thinking him some genius conductor of comedy. It wasn’t until the legendary story of Wilford and associate Josh Bear’s pitch to Microsoft for the game that would ultimately become The Gunstringer started circulating, that I learned the studio has a propensity for just trying shit and seeing what happens.
In the early days of Kinect’s development, Wilford was approached by Microsoft to pitch a game concept for the device. The meeting, set in a hip Mexican restaurant, would decide whether or not his little studio would be able to get their next project by Microsoft. Unfortunately for the pair, the project they’d planned on pitching wouldn’t work with the device the way they thought it would, and so they were stuck with three minutes to figure out a replacement from thin air.
With panic setting in, Wilford and Bear began scanning the room frantically until Bear saw a stained glass mural of a skeleton cowboy right behind where their Microsoft gatekeeper was sitting. Deciding it was better to run with that than nothing, the pair played the perfect bluff, mixing the character with a shelved design idea originally intended for the Wii where they’d use the remotes like marionette puppets. Microsoft bought the idea and The Gunstringer was born, going on to be one of the highest rated Kinect titles ever.
The story is proof that a good game idea can come from anywhere and after meeting with Dan Teasdale and Matt “Chainsaw” Chaney for lunch I learned that their understanding of this principal has been the key to a lot of their success. According to the pair, the studio is a lot more freeform than others with little distinction between who’s working on what level or who gets to pitch ideas for a game. In many ways it sounds a lot like a class project where nobody wants to take a leadership role, but they have so much fun in the process it turns out great.
According to Dan, a big factor in this is keeping the team lean and highly skilled, “There’s no dead weight and we’re able to trust everyone on the team.” It makes sense though, you can’t have a great potluck if your friends are lousy cooks, and Twisted Pixel has earned enough prestige over the past six years to attract some stellar talent. Folks like Chaney who signed on with the company to do a little work on one project (The Maw) but wanted to do more with the company so badly that they’d go off and create things without being asked.
Chaney’s infamous song from ‘Splosion Man came about in just such a fashion. He started by recording a ukulele version of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man that would turn into a proper heavy metal rendition when the player ‘sploded to apt praise and was brought on to do more for the title. While working on the project there was a 2-second scene where the player passed by a scientist eating donuts and with his new ukulele skills in tow, went on to make Donuts, Go Nuts! as a gag in case they wanted to drop a little radio or something into the scene. What Chaney didn’t know was that it would later become the anthem of the song as that donut-loving scientist became a pivotal gameplay mechanic and he’d written the perfect score for it.
Another big part in keeping everyone on the same page is the fact that unlike most studios, Twisted Pixel doesn’t bother with lengthy design documents that detail all the mechanics of a game in the early phase. Instead, the team will produce a video – one of which can be viewed in the special features of Comic Jumper - that covers the characters, setting, and tone of the project so that everyone can understand exactly what they’re working with in a simple to understand format. Coupled with a rough gameplay prototype, the videos are used as reference material for everyone to make sure they’re working within the intent of the project and let the ideas flow freely.
This sort of dogpile design has been a hallmark of the studio for a while now and for Chaney and Teasdale it’s hard to imagine the studio working any other way. When I asked how they structure their workflow in such loose conditions, Chaney explained that the studio’s just open and people know what needs to get done, “I’ve never had a list of stuff to work off of ever.” Of course, it took a little adjusting for industry veteran Teasdale who admitted, “It broke my brain when I started.” but both profess a deep love for the process.
It seems like an unlikely company for a giant like Microsoft to want to acquire without some serious restructuring, but they were both quick to assure me that nothing’s changed since the buyout. Unlike what they’d done with Lionhead or Rare, Microsoft has stayed relatively hands-off with Twisted Pixel and has been very happy to let them exist as an IP factory far from the mothership in Redmond.
Too often a takeover will happen and the soul of a studio will be squashed by boardroom driven design, unrealistic deadlines to appease shareholders, and invasive producers that muddy the core of the designers’ vision. Chaney and Teasdale think Microsoft may have learned the error of their ways in the past and have realized that it’s best not to mess with a good thing because neither of them have ever experienced a situation where they’ve felt controlled by the publisher, despite being owned by them.
As chaotic and sloppy as they may seem, there’s no denying the studio knows what it’s doing. With four hit titles under their belt and Lococycle priming for release later this year, it’s clear they’ve hit a sweet spot between madness and order that produces great games and Microsoft isn’t interested in unbalancing that.