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Twisted Pixel’s Jay Stuckwisch

The indie video game scene in Austin is growing almost as fast as the city’s indie music scene. One of the developers proud to call Austin home is Twisted Pixel, the developers behind such Xbox hits as The Maw, ’Splosion Man, and Comic Jumper. Their games are known throughout the indie dev community—not only for their polished gameplay, but their off-the-wall sense of humor as well. With Twisted Pixel set to release its first sequel, Ms. Splosion Man, The A.V. Club met with 2D artist and community manager Jay Stuckwisch to have a brief discussion about the company’s upcoming titles, why Ms. Splosion Man has a thing for The Macarena, and what it’s like to be completely ripped off by Capcom. 

The A.V. Club: It seems like Twisted Pixel exploded overnight, but how did it originally come together to start making games?

Jay Stuckwisch: The company was started by three guys: Josh Bear, Frank Wilson, and Mike Henry. They worked in Chicago at another video game company and decided they were going to do their own thing, and took off and got started on it and recruited a few people that they knew to help them out. That’s when they had the idea for The Maw. They shopped that and a couple other ideas around to different publishers—like Nintendo and Sony and Microsoft—and Microsoft took a chance on us. They liked what they saw, and when they created the game, they started with a really small team. I think it was maybe seven or eight people working on that game.

AVC: Since The Maw, Twisted Pixel has taken this unique spin on games—for ’Splosion Man, he’s not just jumping, he’s “’sploding” across platforms. How do you come up with these off-the-wall ideas?

JS: Some of the ideas will come from—like Comic Jumper for instance, was an idea that Josh had when he was in the seventh grade, and he knew that once [he started] this company that was something he wanted to make into a game. ’Splosion Man actually started as a joke that was a random roundtable discussion where people were brainstorming game ideas, and somebody threw out there that, “It would be funny if we had a character and all he did was explode, like just running around exploding—nothing else.” Well, the ball starts rolling and people throw out funny ideas until they realize, like, “Hey, I think we actually got a game idea here.”

AVC: In Comic Jumper, developers’ disembodied heads and arms come in and destroy all the enemies onscreen.

JS: Yeah, so that’s funny. It’s known as “breaking the fourth wall,” and it’s kind of taboo. We just thought it would be fun if, you know, we showed us as the developers interacting with the game and we thought, “What could we do to interact with our characters and combine their world with ours?” We embrace these worlds, and we want to show that we’re happy with them, we’re proud of them. We think of them as our own children.

AVC: It seems like your ultimate goal for any game is to have fun, no matter what. 

JS: The primary goal behind Twisted Pixel is making games that we would want to play and that we think are fun. People seem to be responding well.

AVC: Do you feel that independent game companies have more liberty to do what they want in that regard—specifically aiming for fun and not worrying so much about profit? 

JS: Yeah, being independent is just that. You’re able to do what you want, and that’s what’s nice about it. I think big companies see that it’s getting a lot of great response from fans—for many different video game companies, indie companies—so they can see that it doesn’t have to be the bigwigs pushing out people to make these games.

AVC: You guys are about to release Ms. Splosion Man. The catchphrase for sequels is “bigger and better.” So for Twisted Pixel, bigger and better means teaching the main character to do The Macarena? 

JS: [Laughs.] Well, yeah. Now that we’re going with a female lead character in this game, you know, I think the Macarena kind of goes hand-in-hand. With Ms. Splosion Man, the driver behind that was that we wanted to get out everything we intended ’Splosion Man to be. The fact that we only had six months to develop that game means we left a lot of things on the cutting room floor. So, with our next game coming out, and with a longer [development] cycle on that, we thought, “Let’s really polish this up.”

AVC: What are some things that are tougher about being an indie company?

JS: A challenge for me personally is dealing with press. You’ll notice a lot of game companies—a lot of indie and big game companies—are more out toward the West Coast, so you’ve got a lot easier access to press because they’re all out there. In order to go and deal with them, you have to do press tours from here, and arranging that stuff and getting timing with all that is difficult. We’re happy to have our local people that want us to come out and talk, which is great, that works out really well—but really that’s the only challenge. 

AVC: What specifically about Austin helps you perform well and put out this grade of content?

JS: One thing that’s great about Austin is that there’s really great tax incentives for indie developers to come here. It helps out a lot. And the city itself really gets behind their local devs. They want to bring in more of that stuff to beef up that presence here. The Chamber of Commerce has been really good about helping us out—so yeah, there are a lot of incentives that way.

The community has been great. We’ve actually done some live-action shoots to put full-motion video stuff within our games, breaking that fourth wall again. We did a shoot down at Paramount and had lots of people turn up for that. We’ve done some different shoots around Austin—stunt things and stuff for ’Splosion Man and Gunstringer—and it’s been great. We’ve had great turnouts. The organizations that we’ve worked with have been very helpful with all that.

AVC: What about Capcom? Is that still a dirty word around the office?

JS: [Laughs.] It’s not. I mean, enough time has passed with that. Even when it first happened we just kind of like laughed it off.

AVC: I watched some gameplay comparisons, and Capcom’s MaXplosion is just boring and uninspired.

JS: It’s sad that it came from a developer that most of us got in the business for—like we looked up to. On one end of the spectrum, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery—but then on the other side of it, it’s like, “Well, yeah, you guys are huge and awesome and totally ripped us off.” And you know, people understand, people knew, and we had our people that supported us.

AVC: Yeah, everybody on Twitter and Facebook was really behind you.

JS: I think they know. If you look at certain iPhone games, there’s Angry Birds and then there’s “Angry Birds to the nth degree” knockoffs, and people all know the original Angry Birds and they’re behind it.

AVC: Speaking of the gaming community as a whole, more people seem to be getting back into the retro, 2D-style of games. It’s reminiscent of the film industry: When color technology came along, everyone jumped on the bandwagon and shot everything in color,  but then a lot of directors realized, “Wait a minute, black and white still has its place.” What are your thoughts on the 2D games versus 3D games? 

JS: We find that a lot of our games tend to be art-driven. We use a lot of bright colors and strong characters, and they tend to work well in 2D—even though everything we build is built in 3D. But as far as 3D technology, I feel like that’s kind of gimmicky. As a studio, if we felt that the idea behind our game would benefit from 3D technology, we would go with it. It’s kind of the same thing with Kinect [and Gunstringer]. We didn’t want to just make a game to force-fit with Kinect. We had an idea for this puppet game that we wanted to do, and we weren’t sure how to do it—and then Kinect came out, and we figured that that’s the best route to go with this idea we already had. It doesn’t mean that we’ll never develop anything in 3D, but it has to fit, it has to work with our story and what we want to do to make the game fun.

AVC: Do you have any sage advice or wisdom that you can give to indie developers who are just starting up?

JS: Don’t get discouraged, even though it can be probably be one of the most discouraging times in your life. Keep plugging away at it. If you believe in your idea and what you’re working on, and you get it to the right people and you show the passion that you have in it, they’re going to get passionate and interested in it, too—and they’ll be there to help you out. I can’t say that I was there when Pixel first got started and they were into the nitty gritty of it, but I know that there were a lot of tough times and they stuck with it, and now they’re pretty happy with where it got them.