Welcome to Day Three of The Escapist‘s Indie Developer Showcase, a five-day celebration of the individuals and small teams who are making a big impact on the games industry. Each day we’ll feature a new developer and new games to play, so keep checking back throughout the week for more indie goodness! To see the full list of developers, click here.
If there’s such thing as a “typical” indie designer, it isn’t Mark Essen, aka Messhof. For one, Essen makes individual games as much for art galleries and universities as he does for gamers at large. It all seems rather high brow until you actually get your hands on his work. Jetpack Basketball, for example, is a two-player game of … well, basketball with jetpacks. You Found the Grappling Hook, meanwhile, lets you explore a primitive 4-bit environment with – you guessed it – a grappling hook. There isn’t a whiff of pretense about these games; they’re simply fun, weird and awesome.
Essen is perhaps best known for Flywrench, a technical platformer in which you guide the most simple of game characters – a tiny, flapping line – through a number of extremely punishing color-coded obstacle courses. It’s one of the most visually sparse games you’ll ever play, yet it’s endlessly captivating (and, we’ll be honest, more than a little frustrating). The Escapist recently spoke with Essen about Flywrench and his body of work in general.
The Escapist: How did you get started with game design? Did you have any formal training, or was it a hobby that became a career?
Messhof: It was a hobby. I just started using programs like RPG Maker and Game Maker in high school and went from there. I got involved with some forums and tried out my games with friends. I made Flywrench while in college in 2007 and started getting a lot of attention. I still use Game Maker, but I’ve been working with other programmers for some new projects as well as digging through an ActionScript 3 textbook.
TE: You produce many of your games specifically for art galleries, right? How do you approach the design process differently depending on where people will play a game?
M: I have an idea of how the game will be played, not really a venue or who will play it. It’s a pretty unstructured process of working on whatever game interests me and adding features I think up to a project that’s appropriate.
TE: You recently set up a donation drive to fund the ongoing development of Flywrench. How did it work out?
M: It succeeded; I was able to raise the full amount I was asking for. The idea was to get enough money to just work on the game for a while and if necessary pay a programmer to help port it to C++, which would be faster and allow me to then port it to other operating systems and all that. I’m very happy that I got the response I did, and it really helped motivate me.
TE: What kind of changes do you plan to make to Flywrench?
M: I’m adding a bunch of new obstacles, a level editor and a replay mode. The resolution is also much higher and widescreen. I want to have many more levels and facilitate the sharing of user-created ones. You’ll be able to set up level playlists and compare times and that sort of thing. There will be some new music as well. Alex Krasij is helping to port the whole game to C++, which has given it a huge speed increase and opened it up to be ported relatively easily.
TE: The color-matching mechanic in Flywrench feels a lot like some of the ideas in Treasure shmups (particularly Ikaruga). What inspired that part of your design?
M: I wasn’t thinking about Ikaruga so much. I had the movement down with the state changes, and there were colors attached to each state. I wanted it to be a sort of acrobatic game with obstacles. The first two I made were lines that could be passed while red and white. Then I had lines that had to be passed through going a certain direction like left or right, up or down, and lines that would break apart at a certain velocity. A lot of those lines had little icons next to them instead of color coding; it was just a matter of simplifying everything so that the player could read the course. I also took out lines that weren’t any fun like the one-wayers and destructibles.
TE: Edmund McMillen just announced that Flywrench would be a playable character in Super Meat Boy. How did that play out?
M: He just asked me if I was into the idea, and then we talked a bit about how it might work as more of a platformer than a game about avoiding floors. I’m looking forward to seeing it in action.
TE: Many of your games are meant to be played by two players. What about this mode of gameplay appeals to you?
M: I’ve always liked two-player games. I’ve been trying to make games that are more concerned with the relationship between the people playing them more than anything. There was this game I used to play on the SNES called Mechwarrior 3050, the two-player one. One guy controlled the top and one guy controlled the bottom. I never got very good at it, but it seemed like a really cool idea. Games like Battlefield do it now where you have pilots and gunners, but you rarely see cooperative games that put you in such an intimate setting with the same person the whole time.
TE: It seems like your games fluctuate between being incredibly subversive (The Thrill of Combat, Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist) and pure, stupid fun (Party Boat, Jetpack Basketball). Are you consciously trying to stay out of a rut, keep players on their toes, or just go wherever your ideas take you?
M: I go with whatever is interesting to work on. Party Boat came out of playing The Thrill of Combat a lot without regard to the actual game objective. I liked seeing how close I could get to the missile launchers without getting hit. It seemed worthwhile, but it didn’t really make sense in the context of the game, since there wasn’t really a score or any reason I could think of for encouraging it, so I just made the Flash game. I sort of make all my games the same way, just by starting with the player control and making that as tight as possible. Sometimes I think of other things to add in terms of the overall game, but other times it doesn’t make sense.
TE: Can you say anything more about Space Edge: Edge of Space at the moment? What else are you working on right now?
M: Space Edge: Edge of Space is really Malfunction, a game commissioned by FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) in Liverpool for their “Space Invaders” exhibition that’s going on now. It was a game I wanted to make after Randy Balma that used some of the same zero-g space navigation. I’d also been reading about Dale Gardner catching a satellite while totally untethered 50 meters from his shuttle and how wrong that could have gone. I wanted to make a sort of platforming game where you had total freedom in your movements; you can grab onto anything and move around really quickly, but if you’re on the outside of a chamber, one wrong move can send you reeling out into infinite space.
I’m also working on a two-player fencing game commissioned by NYU. It’s sort of like football in that it’s not so much how many times you knock the other guy down, but how many times you make it to your end zone. The other player keeps getting in your way and trying to take possession.
Another thing I’ve been working on is this open-source game system called the Uzebox. It’s a “retro minimalist” 8-bit console you can build yourself and then plug into a TV. My friend Jon Culp and I are working on developing some games for it, the first of which is a port of You Found the Grappling Hook.
TE: A lot of indie developers are putting their games on platforms like Xbox Live, PSN and Steam. Do you have any plans to bring your games to other platforms?
I’d like to. I’m hoping Flywrench will be a good fit for one of them.