Derek Yu is the creator of indie classic Spelunky, recent sequel Spelunky 2, and Mossmouth, the game studio behind both games. He has created one of gaming’s most celebrated roguelikes, with Spelunky sitting as both a critical and commercial success and the sequel off to an excellent start. None of his accomplishments in the gaming space, however, could have been possible without his unmatched love for game development.
Yu recently took the time to talk with The Escapist about how he got started in the industry, his passion for creating, and the pressures of working on Spelunky. Though there is a team at his back now, his journey into game-making started humbly, with Yu’s breakout title being the original freeware version of the now-popular indie roguelike. With post-release work on Spelunky 2 underway, the major thing keeping him going is the excitement of what he will create next.
The Escapist: Tell us about yourself! Where are you from, what title would you give yourself, etc.? I’d like to know how you view you.
Derek Yu: Officially, I’m the president of Mossmouth, but I’m also the only member of the company ha ha. I was born in California and never moved. I love drawing! I love making games! It’s hard to imagine not doing both.
What sort of stress were you under when developing the original Spelunky and the remake that came later?
Derek Yu: The very first version of Spelunky — the freeware, pixel art game that I call Spelunky Classic — was pure joy to make because I had no expectations for it. I never meant for it to be anything other than a fun little freeware game. The remake was much more stressful to work on because there was much more pressure to succeed at that point, and neither me nor Andy Hull (the programmer) had made a console game from scratch before!
You seem to be the largest force behind each project. Could you explain how much work on each game is done by you versus work from others? How much of the development on each game you’ve worked on has been collaborative?
Derek Yu: For Spelunky Classic, I did everything myself in GameMaker, except for the music, which was composed by Usagi Buzinkai and Jon Perry. For Spelunky and Spelunky 2, I was the lead designer and the lead artist, but while I did the majority of the work in those areas, there was a lot of input from the rest of the team. It’s very collaborative.
Why did you decide to pursue a sequel? Were there ever any doubts you had about making a second game?
Derek Yu: I had some ideas for Spelunky 2 right after we released Spelunky on Steam, but I didn’t think about it seriously until I started writing my book about the game. While writing the book, I had to reflect a lot on Spelunky’s development, which got me really excited to work on the sequel. That’s when I reached out to BlitWorks (who ported Spelunky to PSN) and Eirik Suhrke (the composer for Spelunky) about working on it together. Thankfully, they were all excited, too! I didn’t have any doubts about the project at that point.
Why did you choose to work on a sequel to Spelunky as opposed to something totally new?
Derek Yu: Technically, I’ve been working on something totally new, also — UFO 50, a collection of 50 retro-styled games! For the first part of Spelunky 2‘s development, Eirik and I worked on that project in parallel. So I’ve been scratching both itches at the same time: UFO 50 for the “new game” itch and Spelunky 2 for the “sequel” itch. Both are satisfying in their own way — I really love getting to build on Spelunky‘s world and mechanics through the sequel.
Were there any projects from you that never came to be so that you could focus on Spelunky 2?
Derek Yu: UFO 50 isn’t done yet because toward the end of Spelunky 2‘s development Eirik and I had to stop working on it to focus on Spelunky 2! But the rest of the UFO 50 team kept working and Eirik has already returned to the project. I’ll hop back on once I have less post-release work to do on Spelunky 2.
Comparing the level of pressure you were under with the first Spelunky, would you say it was more or less difficult to work on Spelunky 2? Why?
Derek Yu: Surprisingly, I felt a lot less pressure working on Spelunky 2. Spelunky 1 would always exist no matter what we did to it, so I felt free to follow my vision for the sequel. And maybe more importantly, we had a lot more resources and freedom to develop Spelunky 2. The team was larger and more experienced — we weren’t just three people making our first console game.
I’m sure you’ve seen how many fans say that Spelunky is a “perfect game.” Do you agree? How did the reception impact the sequel’s development and the development of other projects?
Derek Yu: No! I’m too close to the game to call it perfect… but I don’t think fans who say it’s “perfect” necessarily think it’s flawless. What I think they mean is that it’s a game that’s much greater than the sum of its parts. But no matter what, I wouldn’t have approached BlitWorks and Eirik to make Spelunky 2 if the fans didn’t care about it so much. And I wanted to make sure I stayed true to the unique spirit of the first game.
Spelunky 2 received similar praise; I saw many on my timeline alone saying that it’s an easy “game of the year” contender. Is it at all surprising to see how well the sequel has been received? Why so?
Derek Yu: I was surprised, only because it’s hard to know what people want out of a sequel. Some people want more of the same, and some people want something drastically different. The first Spelunky was considered an innovative game — would people expect a similar kind of innovation in Spelunky 2? As a team, we were really proud of our work at release, but you never truly know how it will be received. So I’m thrilled about the reception, to be honest!
How much fun did you have working on Spelunky 2?
Derek Yu: A ton! I loved working with BlitWorks and Eirik again — they’re such chill people and great teammates. And I loved getting to revisit the world of Spelunky with more experience and play with all the different pieces once more, including elements from Spelunky Classic. It was super fun!
Do you have a favorite memory from your time working on Spelunky 2?
Derek Yu: My favorite recent memory is right after we released the game on PS4 and the entire team was on Slack, reading reviews and watching streams. It felt really good to enjoy our hard work together, especially since Andy (Hull) and I were so stressed out about the Spelunky 1 release that we didn’t spend a lot of time doing that stuff.
When did you realize that game development and drawing were your two passions? Is there a specific moment that you could describe for each?
Derek Yu: I’ve loved drawing for as long as I can remember, so it’s hard to think of a specific moment when I realized it was my passion. Apparently, my parents set a bunch of random items in front of me as a baby to see what I would pick up first, and I picked up a pen. (It’s a fun Chinese tradition to “see” what your baby will grow up to be.) It was a similar situation with games — I fell in love with them instantly and wanted to start designing my own on paper right away. But the moment when I really felt like a game developer was after I released my first completed game, Trigger Happy, on AOL and got my first fan mail. That’s when it set in, I think.
How does your personality shine through in your work not only with Spelunky and Spelunky 2, but in UFO 50 as well? Do you feel it comes through at all?
Derek Yu: I feel like my aesthetic preferences, interests, and sense of humor shine through a lot in my artwork and game design, even though my games aren’t explicitly about my life experiences. Spelunky was about perseverance and mastery over something providing a kind of enlightenment, and Spelunky 2 added themes of family and community. Even UFO 50 reveals something unique about the people working on it — our interest in the magic and mystery of childhood as experienced through strange video games.
As you sit right now, how long could you see yourself developing games? Is this something you see yourself doing for the rest of your life, and why?
Derek Yu: Yeah, I think I will be designing games until the end. I have a lot of interests, and game development touches on all of them. It’s by far the most satisfying art form for me to work on.
Why do you think game development brings you such joy?
Derek Yu: There are just so many possibilities with game development… It’s an art form that literally has infinite potential because of the interactivity. I love making worlds that the audience can participate in and designing systems that players can test the boundaries of!
The Escapist thanks Derek Yu and Mossmouth for this great discussion.