AVC at GDC '09: An Interview with Crayon Physicist Petri Purho
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One of the most compelling talks at GDC was Crayon Physics Deluxe creator Petri Purho's look back at the making of his marquee game, which won the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the 2008 Independent Games Festival. After reflecting on his successes, Purho surprised the audience with a cutting critique of his game, detailing the ways in which he thought it failed. While Crayon Physics Deluxe might have seemed like a fully formed vision to outsiders, Purho had originally envisioned a game that somehow quantified creativity and rewarded right-brain thinking. He was disappointed when practical reality demanded that he scale back that ambitious concept.
One of the leading practitioners of the rapid-prototyping style of game development, Purho used to release a new prototype game each month, spending no more than a week developing each one. Crayon Physics Deluxe started as one of those seven-day projects.
Purho's latest game is 4 Minutes And 33 Seconds Of Uniqueness, created for this year's Nordic Game Jam. When the game launches, it pings the Internet to see if anyone else is playing. Then a progress bar starts to run. If anybody else starts playing the game, your copy automatically quits. In order to "win," you have to be the only person playing the game for four minutes, 33 seconds.
Following his GDC lecture, Purho talked to The A.V. Club about his creative process, art games, and how George W. Bush provided the inspiration for Crayon Physics Deluxe.
The A.V. Club: After that presentation, I have to ask, was Crayon Physics Deluxe a good experience for you? Are you happy you did it?
Petri Purho: It was a good experience for me. I'm really happy that I did it. I've wanted to do a real game for a long time. I didn't care, and I still don't care, if the game fails totally, if it's the poorest game ever, and I'm to be known as the Ed Wood of game developers afterward. It doesn't matter because doing a game by yourself, that you've designed, is one of those things in your life that, if you do it once, it's something you can look back on.
AVC: OK, but Crayon Physics is not a failure, right?
PP: No! Not at all, but I didn't want to talk about it at my talk like, "This is how awesome my game is. These are the best things about my game." I didn't want to do that marketing stuff, like these talks usually do. I wanted to point out, "These are the problems I had with the game, and maybe you guys can figure out solutions."
AVC: It's a pretty supportive community. It seems like everyone is rooting for each other.
PP: Yeah. [World Of Goo developers] Kyle [Gabler] and Ron [Carmel] helped me out a lot with the business side of things. And a lot of other indies—we really keep up with other people and help each other out. Everyone wants to see everyone succeed. We're not really competing at all.
AVC: In your talk, you touched on the fact that if you're playing through Crayon Physics just to get to the next level, you're missing the point. At any stage in the development, did you consider removing the goal-oriented aspect of the game and making it a pure playground?
PP: It crossed my mind. That's how it started out. I made the level editor before I made the levels, and I played around with the game in sandbox mode a lot, and found that to be the most interesting thing about the game. But games have these great structures for motivating people to do something, and inspiring people to do something. Like, the number of hours people put into World Of Warcraft is insane. So I thought I could do that, but do it with something that's more useful for people, so they learn to be more creative.
AVC: So, in 2008, the YouTube trailer becomes popular, and you're still working on the game, trying to get it right. Meanwhile, other programmers are churning out clones based on what they saw in your footage. How did that change your outlook as you went along?
PP: There was this point where, after the first few of the clones came out, it took the fire away from doing the game a bit. But then I decided that I should [finish] Crayon Physics Deluxe, because if I don't do it, then people aren't going to know where it all got started. I was kind of happy that there were so many of the clones because Crayon Physics got a brand name from it—people were referring to them as Crayon Physics clones. The clones were eating each other up and building up the idea that there was this one real game with that name.
AVC: What about the iPhone port? It was kind of shaky. I know you didn't have a hand in the programming of that version, but was it stressful to have it associated with the launch of your game?
PP: I was somewhat disappointed with the iPhone version of the game. I probably should have been more involved. After it came out, they fixed some problems with it, but still, to my mind, it's not the kind of game it should be. They messed some stuff up badly. All of the framerates in the game are very low. One of the powerful things in the game is actually seeing your drawing drop into the scene. They replaced this with small dots, which then would convert into your drawing. That took away from the magic of the game. They used an older level editor, not the one I wanted to ship the game with. I felt that they were rushing the game out there, and I didn't have any real input.
AVC: But did you have time to be working on two platforms at once?
PP: No, not at all. And that's another thing with the clones—I wanted to take more time to do the game, but because there were these clones coming out left and right, I had to push the game and be done with it. I felt I had to push it out a little early.
AVC: When did you decide to make crayons the theme?
PP: It was at the very beginning of the development. I had been thinking of doing a drawing physics game for a long time, but I didn't know what the game would be about. Then I was doing this other game called Daydreaming In The Oval Office. It's this really bad game, but because it was this game about George Bush, I thought the title screen would use crayons—he would definitely use crayons. [Laughs.] While I was making the title screen, I thought I could do this crayon look algorithmically, but what would I do with it? Then I realized, oh, it could be the physics drawing game I've been thinking of a long time ago.
I didn't want to do a cheery kids game, where you'd have bright colors and cheerful music. When I found the music for the game, that's when I realized that's what the direction of the game should be.
AVC: More dreamlike?
PP: Yeah. And with melancholy. The kind of way I really remember my childhood, not the cheery, fake stuff that tends to be put out there.
AVC: Interesting that this other, crappy game inspired Crayon Physics. So does your rapid development style help you generate ideas that you don't get with a traditional process?
PP: In a way, doing a lot of games provides you the possibility of testing a game and throwing it out there and moving on the next one. You don't have to go for any kind of a safe solution. You can go for the craziest stuff you come up with. "This is not going to work at all, but I'll make it anyway, just to see if anything can be done with it later."
AVC: Level editors are a popular feature in games right now. What makes a good level editor?
PP: There are two things. First of all, "easy to use" and "easy to pick up" are very important. Something that you can get into easily. On the other hand, it has to be powerful, so there have to be a lot of these small components that you can use to build bigger things, whatever you can think of.
AVC: Those two qualities often work in opposition to each other, though, don't they?
PP: In some ways, yeah. An example of a great level editor is the Wii's Mii editor. It's a sort of level editor, and it's so easy to use, yet you get such cool stuff out of it. You don't have to do much, but you get awesome things out of it. In my mind, really bad level editors end up being tools like Photoshop. You can do a huge amount of stuff, but it takes hours to learn, so such a small percentage of people actually end up using it.
One definition of when your user-generated content is working very well is the amount of dicks that you get. [Laughs.] So, if people draw lots of penises, you know your level editor is working.
AVC: Crayon Physics Deluxe players have been sharing some pretty incredible solutions on Vimeo and YouTube.
PP: When I saw things like that, I was like, "Yes!" Even though there are players who might not have "gotten" the game, at least there are some people who did. I think it's a different demographic. The hardcore players are very conquest-oriented. They want to conquer the game as quickly as possible, finish all the levels, get through the game. Then there are people, who aren't being served well by current games, who want to do more creative things.
AVC: Is 4 Minutes And 33 Seconds Of Uniqueness a game?
PP: In my opinion, yes. It has rules in it, and you can win or lose at the game. I think that's the definition of a game.
AVC: Do you know how many times Uniqueness has been won?
PP: I haven't checked the latest statistics, but for the first week or so, there were only about 200 players who actually got through the game.
AVC: Out of how many? Are we talking tens of thousands?
PP: I think it could even be a six-figure number.
AVC: You're big right now because of Crayon Physics, and then you come out with this game based on a work by John Cage. Those seem like the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of accessibility.
PP: [Laughs.] I guess that's true. I've been obsessed by John Cage's 4'33"—as a piece of music, it's so interesting. And also, I can't remember the name of the artist, but he drew these big blank canvases—white paintings. I saw them, and I really liked that idea. I didn't think about the timing of it—immediately after Crayon Physics Deluxe, here's this art game. I was just thinking, "This is cool, I'll do it and put it out there." I'm used to putting out experimental games every month. I didn't realize it would be a big thing, but apparently it went over well.
AVC: What games do you play yourself?
PP: I wish I had more time to play games. I test out a lot of different games. It's unusual for me to play something for more than an hour, but I try to keep my spectrum of games very wide, from board games and role-playing games to AAA games and indie games. Indie games are what I play most right now.
AVC: What board games do you like?
PP: The German ones. Settlers Of Catan is a really well-made game. Puerto Rico has some great designs in it.
AVC: When you make a game, to what degree do you start with a fully-formed idea, and how much does it transform through the iterations in development?
PP: That actually changes a lot between different [projects]. I've made a lot of prototypes where I had a good idea of what I wanted the game to be like, down to the graphics and sound effects, and what the game mechanics would be. Usually those games turn out to be the worst ones.
AVC: At his talk on four-hour game development, Cactus said that there's a need for more serious games, and games don't necessarily have to be fun. Do you agree with that?
PP: Most definitely. There is a huge lack of games that—I would say some art games are hitting that spot, like what Jason Rohrer does. They aren't funny, and they aren't about violence, shooting up people. They're not serving teenage boys. They have deeper meaning and aren't about the things that games are usually about.