The path from independent to retail is a long and selective journey, but given the resources available to aspiring developers today, we are seeing a resurgence in original ideas akin to when computer games could be written by a couple of programmers on a computer in a garage. While the advance in technology has made the “garage studio”Â model extremely difficult, it certainly isn’t impossible, and today’s up-and-coming developers are finding ways to battle the hardships involved in the process. Tomorrow, gamers will be able to get their hands on the results of the newest rise of the independent game, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom.
P.B. Winterbottom comes from the minds of graduates of the University of Southern California’s Interactive Media MFA program. In 2008, the Odd Gentlemen started off as an independent studio founded by Matt Korba and Paul Bellezza. Now in 2010, they are setting out to expand their mission of making experimental games. The first of these titles is a re-imagining of P.B. Winterbottom, set to be expanded and improved upon thanks to the Xbox 360 hardware and published courtesy of 2K Play. The publisher has taken a recent effort to expand on its portfolio with key downloadable titles on the Xbox LIVE Arcade format and so far, P.B. Winterbottom is looking like a perfect, and surely an original, addition to the service.
Hot off the heels of the development of The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, The Odd Gentlemen co-founder Paul Bellezza took some time out of his schedule to answer some questions in regard to the game and its development, The Odd Gentlemen, what it was like to develop games independently, what the future holds for the company and more. We figured someone whose initials were P.B. would give us the best insight on The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom (although we had to lock up all of our pies), so please continue reading as we examine the past, present and future with Paul Bellezza:
DHGF: To set the stage for those not in the know, can you introduce The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom to our readers and describe what makes the title a unique experience?
Paul Bellezza: The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom is a 2-D side scrolling puzzle platformer starting the nefarious P.B. Winterbottom – pie thief extraordinaire. The game takes place in a macabre silent film inspired universe and involves Winterbottom’s quest to chase the elusive Chronoberry Pie, which has caused P.B. to become unstuck in time. Because of this, Winterbottom receives the ability to record any of his actions and spawn time clones that repeat his previous actions. With the help of these time clones, Winterbottom can stand on his own head to get to higher places, smack himself or his clones with his umbrella, which is a launching mechanism, and can be in multiple places at once. All of these tricks are good for one thing: Nabbing delicious pie.
DHGF: P.B. Winterbottom’s noir motif definitely gives the title a unique identity. What are your concerns in regard to current gamers being “spoiled”Â on today’s visuals? What kind of challenges did producing the title in this art form produce?
P.B.: In this current generation of consoles, the march over the uncanny valley is expensive, draining and consists of mostly green and brown color palettes. We don’t care about creating visuals that are photo real. We feel we get enough of that in the real world. We’d much rather create stylized worlds that are bent, twisted and fantastical as these are the types of places we dreamed of as children. These are the worlds that suit the games we want to make.
In terms of Winterbottom’s development, we were able to create our aesthetic by modeling all of our assets in 3-D with global illumination, exporting them to 2-D and then painting them over. While we were able to create a one-of-a-kind look, it’s the most inefficient art pipeline ever. In essence, each puzzle scenario has as much detail as a movie set. It was a balancing act trying to keep the bar of high quality up during production. Stylized art is hard work but it tends to age better in the long run. Games from the PlayStation One 3-D era were cutting edge at one point but, by today’s standards, they are unsightly.
Now that’s not to say we don’t appreciate the glitz and glamour of today’s modern games. Uncharted 2 is one of our favorites. We just don’t have an interest in making worlds that utilize that style.
DHGF: Can you expand on the game’s silent movie inspiration? Were there any silent films or actors from the time period that directly inspired P.B. Winterbottom?
P.B.: We’re fans of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. There are several segments in the game that are heavily inspired by Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last and Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. A Trip to the Moon, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Metropolis inspired us as well.
DHGF: The original development page for the title shows a number of concepts for the P.B. Winterbottom character. Can you reflect on the evolution and creation of the character? How did you know when you finally had exactly what you wanted in the character?
Paul: Our creative director, Matt Korba, modeled and animated the first version of Winterbottom, which we used in the student version of the game. Even in the student project, Winterbottom went through a few transitions. We knew we wanted him to creep around in a gremlin-like manner while keeping an air of dignity around him. When we started the commercial version of Winterbottom, we set out to revamp the character for HD. With the help of our concept artist, Vincent Perea, we began rethinking him. We added more details to his face and attire and got him re-modeled and running in the game world. Several months later, Matt Clausen, along with Korba, decided we wanted to revamp him a third time. In this final pass, we gave him a new color treatment and added extra details like black shadows around his eyes, while reshaping his head to make for a better platform. We almost didn’t have enough time to get the final version in the game but once we got a set of test frames into the game itself, we knew he was where we wanted him to be.
DHGF: So far, the title seems like a pretty big victory for The Odd Gentlemen. What was your initial reaction to a publisher such as 2K Play being interested in your title? What kind of a process was involved in going from an independent effort to a spotlighted retail release?
P.B.: The whole journey has been an amazing but surreal journey for us. We never had any inclination that this would turn into a full-fledged downloadable console title. As students, we were only interested in making the best game that we could make. The real turning point for us was when the game earned entrance into the Independent Games Festival at GDC 2008. Demoing the game on the show floor at GDC opened up a ton of doors for us. We met every major publisher in the industry and garnered attention from the gaming press. 2K Play was one of the first publishers we spoke with and from the get-go they made it clear that they would support our creative vision for the game. After signing with 2K, they provided us with tools and resources to get our studio up and running. It has been very collaborative, as they’ve worked with us to develop a schedule that would best suit the development of the project. All in all, it’s been a smooth working relationship.
DHGF: Do you think P.B. Winterbottom would have had the same appeal if it would have been built in the suggested Ogre 3D, as a postmortem for the USC thesis build indicated? What is it about the differences between 2-D and 3-D that you feel defines a game and how it is approached and developed?
P.B.:To be frank, we couldn’t have pulled off the look we have achieved with The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom for XBLA if we used Ogre 3D. The type of shading and lighting used to make our models just wouldn’t have been possible to do “live.”Â Furthermore, we were interested in making a puzzle platformer and a 2-D plane was the way we envisioned the game happening. As a puzzle game, we wanted the player to be able to see the problem they were facing in one shot. Were it in 3-D, the puzzles would have required a different type of design that wouldn’t necessarily work the same way. So the decision to design the game for a 2-D perspective was a deliberate design choice.
DHGF: What aspects of the game were made possible through Xbox development as opposed to the Adobe Flash format utilized originally?
P.B.: Developing the game on the Xbox gave us more raw power than what was available to us in Flash. Therefore, we got more clones on the screen, higher-resolution assets and less slowdown.
DHGF: With the original product, were there any instances or comments that still stick out in your mind when the game was showcased at the Independent Games Festival 2008?
P.B.: The critical response was overwhelming. I don’t think anything else will compare … well, maybe upgrading my 1999 Chevy Prism to a non-broken, smelly car will … but nothing else.
DHGF: What does it mean to you as an independent developer to have the awards and press you’ve been receiving thus far?
Paul: I felt honored by the warm reception we received from the gaming press and industry. When we were at E3 2008 with Indiecade, we received several E3 award nominations. We were flabbergasted that our little student Flash game were uttered in the same sentence as titles such as Mirror’s Edge, Prince of Persia, and Spore. The awards and press help with morale, but we never lose sight of the fact that attention is only as good as the game you are making. We pour our energy into making the best games we can and everything else is just gravy.
DHGF: What is next for The Odd Gentlemen? Would the team rather move on to bigger, disc-based games? What is the ideal genre the team would like to work on and why? How is the company mission statement of being the buffest development team in the world working for you?
P.B.: We have another game baking in the oven right now and it’s just as crazy as Winterbottom is … and it’s in COLOR. As for disc-based games, it’s not out of the question for us in the future but we’re not in a rush to go big. The size of the game we make will be determined by the game design and direction we’re chasing, so if an idea warrants a large scope, then perhaps we’ll end up making a disc-title.
It’s no fun working in genres… we want to shatter them.
Well, we definitely have a lot of muscle under our post-crunch love handles. So in that regard, I’d say it’s going quite well. Making a game about delicious pie was not good for our goal.
DHGF: What are your thoughts on the overall landscape of the independent video game development scene? Is there any advice you would give to someone with aspirations for getting into independent video game development?
P.B.: The indie game scene has a lot of interesting games. Developers take big and very exciting risks. As long as people are passionate about making games their way, then the indie scene will continue to yield more great games. Every year the number of submissions to the IGF and Indiecade increases and this is testament to a new generation of self-guided game developers rising up. It’s awesome!
Advice for anyone passionate enough to going into independent game development, the best tenet we recommend is to make sure the game you’re making is personal to you. When a game is personal to the creator, it shows in the design and is more effective.
Diehard GameFAN would like to thank Paul Bellezza, 2K Play, The Odd Gentlemen and Jim Render of The Redner Group for their time and the interview.
Xbox 360 owners will be able to experience the hijinks of pie thief extraordinaire P.B. Winterbottom starting tomorrow for the price of 800 Microsoft Points. Stick with us through the week as we’ll be sure to have impressions and a review of the title as soon as we possibly can but, until that time, be sure to check out the Diehard GameFAN P.B. Winterbottom media gallery.