In defense of old values: talking with Pid’s Kian Bashiri
The E3, as we know it, is an anachronism. It’s a place where the press is first informed of companies’ strategies for the coming years… but now so is the public, via YouTube. So why bother buying a plane ticket to LA? It’s a place where the press is able to form their first impressions of games based on demos… but now does the public, by downloading said demos themselves. So why bother going through huge lines? It’s a place where the information companies try to pass is pasteurized by PR representatives, filtered by game journalists, and then discarded by gamers who can simply label these journalists as either “bought” or “elitists”. So, what’s the point?
There is, still however, a great value to be found at the E3: it’s a chance to meet developers, and that’s always exciting.
This was how Nightmare Mode met Kian Bashiri (or rather: how I met Kian, since the rest of the NM crew abandoned me at LA). Kian was working with Might & Delight at a game called Pid, back then. The game was released just last week, but we have been interviewing Kian (who’s awesome), through email, since June. What can we say? A NM interview is a long term affair!
We talk about Pid (Duh! Obviously!), the process of making Pid and Bashiri himself:
NM: First off, Kian, let me thank you for agreeing to do this interview! Let’s start with the basics and introduce you to those readers to whom the name Kian Bashiri draws a blank stare. Who are you, Kian? What are your aims, the things you are most proud of, your artistic influences, favorite games/movies/books, adopted philosophy, etc.?
I’m the lead programmer at game studio Might & Delight based in Stockholm, Sweden. Before that I was an indie game developer who made a bunch of small experimental games on my own under different names, most of them very silly and humorous
A few years ago I wanted to dig deeper and learn more about my trade, most importantly I was keen to take my programming skills to the next level. I was also very curious about how big studios in the gaming industry go about making games. What’s their process? How do they develop concepts? How do you divide the enormous task of making an AAA game between 50 or more colleagues? So, I applied for an internship at DICE and I was able to join the AI team to research and develop smarter looking path navigation for one of their projects. It was a great experience and I learned a lot. Turns out it wasn’t so different from what I was used to on my own; of course a lot bigger in scale. After that my mentor at DICE recommended me to Wendy Young and Might & Delight. I went to meet with the then tiny team and fell in love with them, their philosophy and Pid.
My most famous game is probably You Have To Burn The Rope (YHTBTR), a very conceptual game/joke that, in a silly way, asked at what point does a game stop being a game as its interactivity is limited or made meaningless. It caught a lot of attention, got very nice response from gaming blogs and even received an Independent Games Festival nomination. The musician Henrik Nåmark and myself had never ever anticipated any acclaim or attention, especially not for something that we felt mocked and brought to light such a well known problem without offering any kind of solution. It really gave me an incredible amount of confidence to continue doing the kind of games that interest me and to do it fully without compromise. I saw the same kind of attitude in the Might & Delight team the very first time I met them and that’s why I just had to join them.
“old games had a lot of really good values that aren’t very common any more”
NM: Later in this interview we might still find out if Pid is going to offer some kind of hope to our rope-burning-slash-still-telling-players-to-press-A-to-jump problem but, before we get there, we must find out about Might & Delight! You mentioned their philosophy and I wanted to know more about it – especially after reading their website and discovering that their “single and most important value is to always be thorough and theoretical in their approach to game-making”. Such a cryptic and unusual value proposition! What does it mean?
Haha, it just means that we put a lot of thought into what we create and that we take our trade and respective disciplines very seriously.
We have a very creative atmosphere at the office; everyone on the team has contributed to various aspects of the game, for sure. But this sort of openness can be very chaotic too. When the founders first developed the concept for Pid, they wrote long lists of things they like and things they don’t like. It was a sort of process of elimination that leads to an adventure platformer with stealth, puzzle and action elements. Without these guidelines, without knowing exactly what we like as a group and what we are trying to achieve, there’s no way to know if we’re heading in the right direction and if this funny idea that we came up with in the heat of the moment actually makes sense for Pid.
One thing that our creative director, Jakob Tuchten, is always talking about is how transient taste is and how it can’t be used for judging concepts. We think that to be ageless is a good quality, or at least to not rely on trends (and we know the game industry is heavily bound by trends). To get our own taste out of the equation, we try to rely instead on basic principles of good design. Like what makes good visual design, what makes good gameplay, good level design, good typography, etc. So we’re not doing a retro “flavored” game to be retro, but because we think those old games had a lot of really good values that aren’t very common any more.
“…almost every object that interacts with the beams have a unique piece of code that determines exactly how they will respond”
NM: So let’s talk some examples about Pid! Though I often take guesses about what good principles of game design are, I (and our readership as well, I suppose) don’t have any formal/theoretical knowledge, so this would be a nice moment to tell us what Pid will do right in those regards! Or, to put in another way, the things Pid makes you most proud of from a game designer perspective.
I’m very proud of the way it feels to play the game. That’s something we worked on for ages, perfecting the controls to make them responsive and intuitive and just tight (science lingo). We’re not fans of using physics engines for this sort of gameplay. Some do it really well, but in many games you can feel how your character is subject to unfair, temperamental physics.
We want Pid to be challenging for the right reasons. To get that absolute precision we have actually coded all of our physics ourselves.
I guess many programmers will flinch when they hear that almost every object that interacts with the beams have a unique piece of code that determines exactly how they will respond. Everything is hand-tweaked until it feels perfect with subtle differences in behavior. To me that is great gameplay code and it is a lot more important than writing what is generally accepted as good software.
We think a lot in terms of dramatic curves/beat charts/whatever you might call it, and we try to apply them at different scales. Before I joined Might & Delight one such high-level curve was already decided that spanned the entirety of the game and dictated the pacing/rhythm of the experience. Like this is a very calm part, and then here it builds up to a climax, and at this point it drops down again for the final crescendo etc, etc.
Fellow indie Mattias Ljungström of Spaces of Play did a great talk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TF5yLNw-64E) at indie meet up, No More Sweden, where he explained how moving through a game space can be seen to have intrinsic dramatic effects. The example he provided was an avatar in a platformer jumping on to a platform. The run up to the jump creates tension; the jump itself is the stressful climax and then the landing and continued movement creates relief and resolution. In Pid most enemies have extremely simple and predictable behavior. One way to look at them is as single ingredients that create a certain dramatic effect. This way we can combine and arrange them to create the kind of experience we’re after. I think this is the greatest thing about Pid. We really do have an amazing variety in gameplay and pacing that absolutely makes the adventure.
But don’t take my word for it! Soon we’ll know if you, the players, think so too..!
NM: Now a bonus question about typography! Because we all love it! Might & Delight indeed has an unusual fixation about it (I mean, why else would a game company write their own name with a font resembling something taken from a law firm?), and my hypothesis is that you guys named the game “Pid” only so that it can be read upside down when using its typography. How far off am I? (and please don’t tell me it means “Paul is Dead!”)
It can be read upside down, but it’s not the main reason. We’re not _that_ obsessed with typography!
Another bonus is that it’s so fun to say! Pid Pid Kid Pid!
We do like typography a lot! It is a sublime trade and one that has unfortunately been neglected in games.
(at this point in time, the answers stopped coming… until one day, my inbox got haunted with the following message: “HeelloOOoOoo FernandooOoo, it’s me, the ghost of that guy you tried to interview ages and ages agoOOo!” It’s so happens, that part of the certification process is to immure the game’s lead programmer into the studio’s walls in order to provide the game with luck!
So, that’s how we resumed the interview with Kian Bashiri’s… ghost!)
NM: Wow, coding every object independently… impressive (or…crazy?)! It reminds me of an interview with Retro Studios where it was said no wall in Metroid Prime shared the same cracks. I guess this is why, in retrospect, Pid had this unique “stop motion animation” feel few other games have when I played it at the E3. It also serves as a contrast to Portal 2 a game whose “excursion funnel” seems to be a great influence on Pid. What were Pid’s influences by the way? Myself, I’ve tasted some Portal in the mechanics, a little Limbo on the progression and a dash of Another World on the narrative…
To even be mentioned in the same breath as Portal 2 is amazing and humbling. I do think that the two games have something in common but it’s not the tractor beam like mechanic. Our gravity beams are at the absolute core of Pid and they were of course firmly established at the beginning of the project, almost a year before Portal 2 was released. The gravity beam allows you to travel perpendicularly away from the surface it is attached to, therefore it forces you to relate to every surface in a new way. A wall is not just an obstacle but a possibility to reach new areas. In this way it reminds me of Portal and its Portal Gun.
Donkey Kong, Megaman, Super Mario, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Ufouria and Little Nemo in Slumberland are games that have influenced different aspects of Pid. Several of us at the studio have an obsession with Little Big Adventure. I keep the retail box of LBA2 on a shelf above my workstation for good dev luck!
Most importantly we have taken a lot of inspiration from domains outside of gaming. Visually the different stages have a doll house aesthetic going for it. The props and enemies resemble toys, they look as if they could have been made in wood or plastic, often cast in one piece. Our sound director, Josef Tuulse, and our musicians, Retro Family, have never worked with games before which we see as a big advantage. It helps us to come up with fresh ideas and avoid the cliches.
“…moving through a game space can have intrinsic dramatic effects…”
NM: To be fair, it’s not the first time a game of yours was compared to a Portal game, eh? Anyways, I now begin to have a clearer idea on what the “Good Values” that can make a game “ageless”, as your creative director put it, are: pacing, gameplay cohesiveness (i.e. the very idea of having an “absolute core”, like Portal but unlike Portal 2) and a strong theme.
Because we have been speaking about Pid’s theme all this time, no? Despite of collecting aesthetic inspiration from domains outside of gaming, the aesthetic are still universally familiar – though the game is set in an alien world. Perhaps, like going to a new school for the first time while afraid of bullies. Or did I just ran over the tangent?
But the job doesn’t stop at the game, does it? Especially when you work on an indie studio! So tell how it’s like! What were the unexpected challenges and how did they turn out?
(That’s true, YHTBTR was likened to Portal a lot. In that case the credits song was definitely inspired by Jonathan Coulton’s Still Alive.)
You need the familiar to contrast with everything that is unfamiliar. Kurt’s design is intentionally mundane, by comparison the planet he ends up on feels very alien and peculiar. Without that reference point the whole experience would have had such a different tone!
I like your interpretation! We’re very curious to know how you and other players will read the story and setting of Pid. The game isn’t nearly as contemplative as Braid for example, it’s not that type of game, but there are of course themes that we hope players will pick up on.
Now, specially now, closer to launch, things gets crazy. We’re polishing and getting rid of bugs up until the last minute! We’re also working on getting the different builds for each of the release platforms ready. Each platform has its own set of issues that needs to be addressed; technical, business and marketing. It keeps us busy for sure, but it’s very fun and rewarding! Right now we’re all sitting on the edges of our seats, waiting for the reviews to appear!
When you work on a project for so long you lose all objectivity. We’ve all played the game so many, many times that we really don’t have a clue anymore how players are going to respond to it! So keeping our direction and knowing when to change direction has probably been our toughest challenge. I’m not only talking about the design of the game, but crucial decisions for our company and its culture too.
There have been many forks in the road since we started, and I _think_ we have made mostly the right decisions.
That’s kind of a vague answer, sorry :p
NM: Now something about the future! Have you started thinking about your next game yet? What’s in store for Kian Bashiri? Also, to close up the interview with a nice touch: how would Kian Bashiri define the perfect game?
We honestly don’t know yet what our next project is going to be, we’re still way too busy with Pid! Sometime after launch we’ll sit down and figure that out. Hopefully we can be more open about this project. I think we want to create something quite different from Pid, but we haven’t had time yet to discuss how it will differ.
The perfect game… that is a hard question to answer I’m actually relieved that it is such a hard problem. Imagine how boring it would be if we knew how to make/write the most optimal game/movie/book! The game medium is incredibly broad and I think there are few wrongs. Most things could work, if done well and in a context. This is going to sound stupidly boastful, but … for the set of constraints and goals we set for ourselves at Might and Delight I think Pid comes close to being Perfect (watch out, my hubris is about to explode!).
NM: Thanks for doing this interview, Kian! Let’s end this with a closing statement, or whatever you like.
Thank you Fernando! It has been great fun to do this interview! It was very interesting for me to have this opportunity to be a bit pretentious/introspective and to have the time to put a lot of thought into every question!