Welcome to Day Two 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.
Terry Cavanagh (aka Distractionware) resides in Monaghan, Ireland, and makes games. He first wowed players on Kongregate with Don’t Look Back, a low-fi, atmospheric, side-scrolling interpretation of the Orpheus myth. Since it was first published in March 2009, Don’t Look Back has garnered more than 750,000 plays and a boatload of acclaim for its author.
Cavanagh has continued to develop as a designer, recently releasing a game which equally tests players’ platforming and pronunciation skills, VVVVVV. In it, you guide the captain of a spaceship through an alternate dimension where you can change the flow of gravity at the drop of a hat. Despite its simplicity, or perhaps because of it, VVVVVV has captured the attention of critics and players alike. The Escapist recently asked him a few questions about VVVVVV and indie game design in general.
The Escapist: What was your game development experience prior to setting off on your own?
Terry Cavanagh: I’ve never worked in the games industry, and I’m a self-taught programmer. I started out coding in BASIC on the Commodore 64 when I was a kid and moved onto QBasic on the PC and eventually to C++. I don’t really have anything worth playing from before I started making games full time, mostly just scrapped RPGs and minigames I made in QBasic when I was a teenager.
TE: Are you now developing games full time or working on other projects to finance your games?
TC: I’m making games full time! I quit my job just over two years ago now, and I’ve been living on my savings and on a loan.
TE: There’s been really strong buzz for the last couple months about VVVVVV. With no marketing budget of your own, how did you get the word out?
TC: I don’t really know, heh. I think the people who posted about the game at first knew me from my freeware games, and they started keeping an eye on what I was working on. I keep a development blog, and a few sites posted some of the early screenshots from that. Then when I was a few months into development I made a gameplay video of what I had so far, and a lot of sites posted that. But I don’t really know how to explain how much coverage it’s been getting since the release – I’ve just been very lucky, I think.
TE: How do you pronounce VVVVVV? Can you spell it phonetically for us?
TC: Well, I just call it “Vee,” but I don’t really mind how people pronounce it. “VeeVeeVeeVeeVeeVee” or “Vuhvuhvuhvuhvuhvuh” or “Veeeeeeeeeeeeeee” or whatever you want to call it is all fine by me! (As are any and all explanations for what the title means.)
TE: How did your collaboration with Souleye on the music of VVVVVV come about?
TC: I played Charlie’s Space Phallus and really, really liked the music for it, so I went looking for the guy who wrote the main theme [Magnus Pálsson]. I just emailed him out of the blue with the first prototype of the game and asked him he wanted to compose something for it, and he was up for it!
TE: You’ve created a lot of games for game jams. Can you talk about those events and how they’ve affected your development as a designer?
TC: I think of jams as taking a holiday from my normal projects. The best part about them really is just getting to meet other game designers, and working on stuff I wouldn’t normally work on.
I’m just back from one in Cambridge, actually, though it was a few days after I’d launched VVVVVV so I was really too tired to do very much. Made a start on what’ll probably be my January game, though. And I made this, which I’m really happy with.
TE: How did you come up with the concept of Don’t Look Back?
TC: The concept came about from fusing a lot of different game ideas that I had together – the main idea of the game isn’t just that it’s a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, but that it’s telling it in such a way that adapts consistently as a traditional platform/shooter. For me, that’s what gives it its impact. When I originally had the idea to make a game about Orpheus and Eurydice, it played out in a completely different way. The game didn’t really come together for me until I came up with the idea for how I wanted to make it.
TE: Are there any other myths that you think could translate into novel game mechanics?
Probably – for a while I thought about making a JRPG based on Tochmarc Emire! But having done it twice already (Judith is based on Bluebeard), I’m not sure I’d approach another game that way – people would just start saying “oh, I wonder which myth he based this game on?”
TE: You’ve developed a sort of minimalist art style that really lets the designs of your games shine through. Would you ever work with an artist on more visually detailed projects or do you prefer to keep it simple?
TC: It would depend on the project, but I’m generally happy to do my own artwork for my games for reasons I’m finding hard to explain. I don’t feel this way about music in my games.
TE: I understand a lot of your peers in the indie development community were disappointed that VVVVVV wasn’t nominated for an award at this year’s IGF. How’d you react to the news?
TC: I had my fingers crossed for a design nomination, and I was a bit gutted that I didn’t get anything. But then so were a lot of other people – it is a competition. Maybe I’ll do better next year?
I was mostly upset because I really wanted to go to the IGF this year, and I felt like if I didn’t get a nomination then I had no right going to it. But that’s a bit silly – I don’t get a lot of chances to meet other people in the indie games community in a social setting like this, so I’ve decided to go anyway. Captain Forever‘s Farbs is giving me one of the free passes he got when he won IGF China, and I just booked the flights to San Francisco a few days ago! I’m very, very excited.
TE: How do you define success as an indie developer?
TC: I don’t really know, but I’m very happy with how things are going. Right now I just want to make games; long term, I want to make better games and become a better game designer. I feel like I’m on the right path.