Interview: Mike Wilford of Twisted Pixel

Mike Wilford is CEO of Twisted Pixel Games, the Austin, Texas-based independent developer responsible for cult hits like The Maw, ‘Splosion Man, and most recently Comic Jumper. After graduating from Penn State University in 2001, Wilford spent several years with High-Voltage Software before teaming up to found Twisted Pixel in 2006. Mike was kind enough to spend some time answering a few of our questions about Comic Jumper and what’s in store for Twisted Pixel next…

CG: Comic Jumper has been out for a few days now. Have you been surprised at the reception it received?

Wilford: I am surprised at how strong the reactions are, both positive and negative. We always talk about how we’re just happy if people walk away feeling a strong emotion one way or the other, be it love or hate, and I think with Comic Jumper we have achieved just that.  It’s been pretty polarizing. Thankfully, more so in the positive direction than the negative.

CG: Comic Jumper had a relatively long publicity cycle for an XBLA game, starting at PAX 2009. Do you think that as downloadable titles become more popular we’ll see them adopt longer publicity cycles?

Wilford: Yeah just before PAX ’09, on the heels of ‘Splosion Man, people were constantly asking us what we are doing next.  We had just completed that promo video (which was originally created solely as a pitch to get Comic Jumper greenlit), so we decided, screw it, let’s toss it out there and get some early reaction and excitement going.  I thought it worked out really great for us and anytime you can generate some buzz around a product it is a good thing.

CG: The comic book art styles that you chose for Comic Jumper are not exactly mainstream. How did you arrive at those particular styles?

Wilford: We got together and tossed out a ton of ideas for comic styles we could spoof and pay homage to, but we ended up stripping it down to the four we have in the game now for a number of reasons.  We did not want to make this game exclusive to hardcore comic readers and picked what we felt were some pretty recognizable eras to even the most casual fan.  We also wanted to make sure that visually each comic was distinct and completely separate from one another. Lastly, it had to be something we could do a lot with in terms of writing.

Little internal fun fact: We actually had a fifth style, which was a Hellboy-inspired horror comic. But due to time constraints we decided we had to cut it.

CG: You’ve stated recently that Twisted Pixel has found a niche in Xbox Live Arcade. What do you think has made Twisted Pixel so successful in that arena?

Wilford: Our focus on “personality” seems to have really hit home with people. We spend a lot of time making sure that the personality of the characters in their design and animation in each game is top notch, and it really has helped make us stand out from the crowd, especially as the production budgets and quality of download games continues to increase.

CG: Writing and audio production really stand out in all of your games, but especially in Comic Jumper. Yet the gameplay is fairly basic—platforming, twin stick shooting, etc. Going forward, do you think that will stay the same? Does Twisted Pixel have any interests in getting into more complicated gameplay?

Wilford: Audio and music for us is extremely important.  In many games we have worked on at past companies, sound design and music always felt like an afterthought, and that is just completely wrong to us.  Bad sound and music can make the most beautiful art suck or make the simplest visuals feel amazing.  Matt “Chainsaw” Chaney, along with our contracted composers Josh Mosley and John DeBorde, do an amazing job and deserve a ton of credit.

CG: Even with the fundamental game mechanics, some people—myself included—have criticized ‘Splosion Man and/or Comic Jumper for being very difficult. Is this by design? Does Twisted Pixel have a guiding philosophy for creating challenging games?

Wilford: We have sadistic game designers in Sean Riley, Sean Conway and Alex Jones.  Conway especially loves to make people sad.  In all honestly we have to ask him to tone a lot down because believe it or not… he’s pure evil.  However, I think today there is a void of old school style games like the ones we all grew up playing in the NES and Genesis eras, and we are trying to channel some of that into our designs.  Those old games were way less forgiving with features like no checkpoints, no saves at all, instant one-hit kills, limited lives before you start over from the beginning, and tricks like “You think you beat the game?  Sike! Start over from the beginning with twice the difficulty”, to name a few.  Even as difficult as ‘Splosion Man or Comic Jumper get, they are still cake in comparison to the classics.  And ‘Splosion Man specifically is a great example of how just the right amount of difficulty is extremely rewarding for the player.

CG: Comic Jumper features a ton of great music. Are there any plans to release a soundtrack?

Wilford: All the music is available in the extras of the game itself, but as with ‘Splosion Man, I do believe at some point in the near future all the soundtracks will be posted on our website for free.

CG: I noticed in the credits that a number of musicians are cited in addition to Twisted Pixel’s own Matt Chaney. Where did these contributors come from? Have you considered tapping Austin’s famed music scene for game soundtracks?

Wilford: A lot of the extra music that you hear on the radio in Smiley’s base are bands that people from the company or friends of the company are in.  As for the Austin music scene, it is tremendous. But we have built up a really great relationship with the composers John DeBorde and Josh Mosley, who have contributed to our past games, as well as recently hiring Chainsaw full time.

Little internal fun fact:  Brina Palencia (Gerda and Paper Lad) and Chris Sabat (the voice of Smiley and Star) created the music for the Manga levels.

CG: Typically, Twisted Pixel has announced their project only a few months after releasing their latest game… (You see where I’m going with this?)

Wilford: We will have something to announce soon.

CG: Can I get an invite to Pancake Thursday?

Wilford: No. But you can come to Money Money Honey Mondays, where we are showered in crisp bills.  Ok, its only monopoly money, but if you close your eyes…

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Written by MarkP

I am a 32 year-old father of three--twin boys age 6 and a one-year-old baby girl. Gaming is a fundamental part of our family life. We game together. We talk about games together. We shop for games together. But we also each like different things. My preference is for shooters, action games, and RPGs. I have a degree in English. When I'm not playing games, I'm reading or writing.

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