GSW%20DY.jpg[Continuing a series of indie-centric interviews for GameSetWatch, Phill Cameron sits down with TIGSource supremo and Aquaria/Spelunky co-creator Derek Yu to discuss his projects, the state of the independent gaming scene, and reasons to be cheerful.]

Derek Yu is the cultivator of TIGSource, one of the primary sources of information about the indie scene on the web and host to one of indie's best forums, bringing creators and fans together to share novel new ideas and the greatest new games.

He also happens to be a pretty talented developer, with the IGF winning underwater adventure game Aquaria, along with the fiendishly addictive and brilliant Roguelike-infused 2D platform game Spelunky as his current champion, as well as the new iPhone title Diabolika. He's collaborated with the likes of Alec Holowka, now of Infinite Ammo, and he's maintained a seat on the IGF Judging panel for the last few years. You could say he knows a bit about independent games.

I talked to him about how one man can do so much, his thoughts on procedural generation, and how he felt about killing hundreds and thousands of people in his death trap/cave. Looking at Spelunky, you could be mistaken thinking he had a mind like H.H.Holmes.

For those who don’t know who you are, could you explain a bit about what sort of games you develop and your involvement in the indie scene?

Derek Yu: The games I’m probably best known for are Spelunky, Aquaria, I’m OK, and Eternal Daughter. Like a lot of game players growing up in the 80’s, I’m undeniably influenced by 16-bit games and the era of “Play It Loud,” Blast Processing, arcades, and id Software.

The hard part is reconciling that nostalgia with a mature approach to game design. Basically, I’m still trying to figure out what kinds of games I like and what kinds of games are important to me. The only thing I’m sure of at this point is that I enjoy good artwork, interesting characters, and a hearty challenge!

I also run The Independent Gaming Source, an indie games news site/community, and started TIGdb, a database for independent games, with my friend Jeff “progrium” Lindsay. I’ve been a judge for the Independent Games Festival (IGF) for a few years now, too.

Your most recent game, Spelunky, has gained some level of fame in the gaming community due to its addictive and entertaining nature. Did you anticipate such a warm reception?

I didn’t expect the game to be as popular as it is, no! While I was working the game I thought I might be onto something, but it was a surprise and a relief that so many people not only enjoyed the game but made part of it their own by creating stories, artwork, and levels, and giving me all kinds of feedback and ideas. That’s been really gratifying.

How does it make you feel when you think that you’re responsible for thousands upon thousands of player deaths worldwide? Are you happy?

Haha, yes, I am. Call me “Deathbringer.” I have no regrets for virtual deaths – dying isn’t something you get to practice much in real life, so I like to believe that I’m doing people a very morbid service.

Spelunky seems to be riffing off Indiana Jones quite heavily. Was this as deliberate as it seems?

Yeah, definitely. I love Indy. Indie! I thought it might be fun for people to get to play out some of those scenes from Indiana Jones, like the rolling boulder. The difference being that in the movie, Indiana Jones never eats it. That’s his loss, quite frankly.

In the past you worked with Alec Holowka on Aquaria, with Spelunky as a solo project. What are some of the differences and benefits of working in a team or solo?

It’s a great experience to be able to make games with someone as passionate and talented as Alec. I really enjoyed sharing the creative process with him while we worked on Aquaria (and also I’m OK). I’ve worked on teams before and have had pleasant experiences overall, but Alec was by far the most driven. Working with him took me to a higher level than I could have attained on my own. You can obviously do a lot more working on a team, and you can be forced to think in different directions than you would normally.

That said, I think Alec would agree with me that teaming up comes with some serious frustrations. Miscommunication can lead to a number of problems. I feel like I’m particularly bad at explaining my ideas sometimes. There have been times where I’ve been on a different page than my creative partners for days or weeks without even knowing it… so yeah, communicating well is really key, and that’s something I’m still learning how to do.

What I enjoy about working alone is how quickly I can manoeuvre around ideas. Sometimes you have to entertain a lot of ideas and then scrap them before you find the common thread that makes them all interesting and is worthwhile following to completion. It’s hard to take someone else with you on that journey, and it’s hard to be led down that journey yourself.

I’m looking forward to collaborating with other developers in the future, because you can do a lot with a strong team and it’s good for growing as a person… but for now, it’s nice to have the ultimate responsibility rest on my own shoulders, for better or for worse.

As a large part of TIGSource, do you find your perspective on the community side of indie games helps those you make yourself?

Oh yeah, for sure. The people on TIGSource are a constant inspiration for me, and they’ve taught me a lot – about art, design, programming, and business – that would have taken me much longer to learn on my own. To be able to share their successes and also their failures is an important experience, as is getting direct feedback from the players. I get a lot out of being involved in TIGSource.

The procedural nature of Spelunky makes it almost infinitely replayable, with the allure of trying to see just how deep you can get always there. How do you see procedural generation effecting gaming development in the near future? Why did you favour it over designing the levels yourself?

I’ve always been a big fan of random-generation in games, starting with Hack and Nethack. As a player, it feels more exciting when you know you’re not playing by a script. It feels more improvisational. As a designer, I enjoy the randomization because I get to play with rules and then see what kind of crazy things come out of them… rather than placing each piece meticulously. It feels more like mad science, in a way.

And I know procedural generation has been used successfully to create really large worlds in games like Dwarf Fortress, Noctis, Spore, and some of the Bethesda RPGs, to name a few. I hope we’ll see it used to make some absolutely massive game worlds in the future that are populated with the kind of detail that has thus far only been managed by human level designers. I love the idea that a creator could design something that is larger than he or she could even imagine, and then get lost in it just like a player experiencing it for the first time.

Some of the enemies and traps in Spelunky are fiendishly hard. Why exactly did you make it so difficult to progress in the game?

Well, for one thing I personally enjoy tough games. I like the gratification of being good at something. I’d argue that rewards in games are only as satisfying as the challenges are hard, i.e. the harder a game is to master, the better it feels when you do! I didn’t want to make a game that people were going to run through in a few sittings and then never look back at it. I didn’t want people to get to the end and feel like they hadn’t accomplished anything.

Also, the mid-to-high level of difficulty in Spelunky works well with some of the other basic concepts behind the game, like the humor and the randomization of the levels. Death is always such a source of frustration for players – the antithesis of fun. I tried to make it laugh-out-loud funny and an inherent part of getting better and making progress.

There is a surprisingly widespread notion amongst designers that if you make a game hard you will lose a lot of people who don’t have skill, but I don’t feel like Spelunky would be nearly as popular as it is if it wasn’t so challenging. I’d rather assume a player enjoys the game enough to get good at it. People have a surprising way of rising to insurmountable challenges if they feel like it’s worth it.

You created the entertaining and frustrating mechanic of having saved damsels healing you with kisses. Was this just another tongue-in-cheek cliché or is the character in Spelunky lonely?

In most games, it’s either food, drinks, sleep, or love/sex that give the player more health – one of the essential life requirements, basically. It fit Spelunky well, I think, both in terms of the game’s sense of humor and also the game’s design, to have the hero get health from kisses. I could have hid turkey dinners or medkits around the cave, but it’s not as much fun as having to carry a girl around without losing her.

While Spelunky isn’t commercial, do you think that its success is almost entirely down to the passion of the community? Without sites like TIGSource, do you think it would have garnered such interest?

Of course, but these kinds of small-budget games have always relied on the passion of game players, starting with the old text-based adventure games, on through the heyday of shareware, and on until the present.

However, only in the past couple of years have sites like TIGSource and Indiegames.com come about, which are solely dedicated to this new independent movement. Forums like Penny Arcade and Something Awful are also instrumental in getting the word out, and drove a lot of traffic to Spelunky. I did literally no outside marketing of the game other than what I posted in that first thread on TIGSource. So that’s something.

You've recently released Diabolika for the iPhone. How did you find the platform to work with? Would you consider bringing more of your PC games onto the iPhone?

I used the Unity game engine to create the game, and I found both Unity and the iPhone great to work with. There were definitely some technical challenges involved, but hey, that's all part of the experience, right? Overall, I think the iPhone is a great platform for small games. I'm definitely considering putting some of my other games onto it (and inventing new ones for it). As time permits!

Diabolika is a remake of one of your old PC games. Did you enjoy working with the game again? Did you find that coming back to it after a time away presented new ideas and ways to improve it?

Yes and yes! It's great coming back to an old idea. I think we've all experienced that feeling where we saw a game we liked and immediately started thinking about the ways we'd improve it. Revisiting some of my old games is like that.

For Diabolika iPhone, the first thing we (co-creator Jon Perry and I) had to change was the board size - we reduced it from 12x12 to 8x8 because of the iPhone screen size. This started out as a limitation, but ended up making the game a tighter experience, in my opinion. The other two major things we changed were the scoring and the graphics. The original game was made 10 years ago and finished in a weekend without much testing, so yeah, we had to monkey around with the iPhone version quite a bit before releasing it. This feels like the definitive version now.

Did altering the interface from keyboard and mouse to the touch screen of the iPhone present any problems?

Not at all! In fact, it felt much more natural with the touch screen.

Do you think the success of your PC games, Spelunky in particular, will help sales of something like Diabolika?

Yes, I believe wholeheartedly that every game helps... especially the popular ones! In the end, though, a bad game won't make it on the reputation of the developer alone. Which is as it should be!

You won the IGF Seumas McNally prize with Aquaria. Do you think the IGF’s role is growing each year? Do you think its growth is tied to the rise of indie gaming?

I think IGF and indie gaming as a whole are tied together and are growing together, attracting more and more attention each year. In my opinion the IGF is still a great way for indies that want to to really push out into mainstream visibility without compromising too much of their own interests. The awards will probably continue to be an important launching pad for successful indies in the near future.

Being so involved in the indie community, are there any particular developers you have ties with? Is the community very tight-knit?

Yeah, it’s incredibly tight-knit. I’m partial to the Flashbang Studios guys (Blurst), Dan Tabar (Cortex Command), Brandon McCartin (Balding’s Quest), Kyle Pulver (Snapshot, Verge), Mark Johns (Shit Game, Space Barnacle), and Edmund McMillen (Gish, Super Meat Boy), all of whom I’ve known personally for a long time now. And my Aquaria partner-in-crime Alec, natch! But I feel close to all the guys and gals on TIGSource who I spend time with on the forums every day, and especially the ones I also meet at GDC/IGF. All the good times and requisite drama – it’s great. This is a really fun and interesting crowd.

Are there any indie games you’re specifically looking forward to?

Geez, there’s a lot, so I’ll pick a few of them: Cryptic Sea’s Super Meat Boy and Gish 2, Polytron’s Fez, Jonatan “cactus” Söderström’s Brain-Damaged Toon Underworld, the next updates to Dwarf Fortress and Cortex Command, Cave Story Wii, and our two TIGSource forum projects (Balding’s Quest and Indie Brawl). It’s hard to keep track of it all these days, even for me! I guess that’s, as Martha Stewart would say, “a good thing.”