Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Misadventures of some Odd Gentlemen

When a gaming publicist pitched me an interview with the men behind P.B. Winterbottom, my first reaction was to decline. I write about PC gaming, not Xbox Live. But the opportunity to go one-on-one, or one-on-two as it may be, with these gentlemen was too good to pass up. So I accepted, and I'm glad I did. Hopefully you are too. Originally published at Hooked Gamers.

The Birth of Winterbottom

Silent films, clones, and pie. Lots of pie. This is the world of P.B. Winterbottom - a world that lead designer Matt Korba and producer/janitor Paul Bellezza have lived in for the past three years while developing The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom.

The game began as a thesis project. While a graduate student at USC's Interactive Media Division, Korba saw Zbigniew Rybczynski's short film Tango. The film's complex choreography provided inspiration for the game's time-manipulating looping mechanic. And the works of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd - auteurs Korba gained experience with as an undergraduate film major - supplied the aesthetic.

Korba joined with fellow student Bellezza to create a team comprised of other graduate students, undergraduates, engineering students, and even a high school student - all focused on making Winterbottom a reality. After many sleepless nights and lots of pie (of the pizza variety, not dessert), the team had a Flash-based bare-bones Winterbottom prototype.

"We just submitted it to the [2008] Independent Games Festival and then waited by our e-mails for weeks until we found out if we got in," said Korba when I asked the cofounders of The Odd Gentlemen about how the game came to fruition. "We ended up getting in and that's where the ball started rolling."

Trade Shows, Press, and Publishers

After winning a spot on the IGF Student Showcase, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom garnered significant attention from media and publishers. "It was overwhelming, trying to work on the game and handle all this press."

Korba and Bellezza began actively shopping their game to publishers after receiving more positive attention at GDC 2008. "We literally had a meeting with everybody."

"Some of the publishers we met with had their own spin on [Winterbottom]," said Korba. They told him the game should be made in color, Winterbottom should talk, "and all this other crazy stuff."

However, one publisher stood out. "2K, from the start, got what we were going for and they weren't going to mess with it creatively. They got it and they know that… you should just leave the creative people to be."

But neither side was ready to strike a deal. After all, Korba and Bellezza still had to finish their graduate theses. The two went back to school but continued publicizing their game by submitting it to E3's Indiecade, Wired's NextFest, and the 2008 Tokyo Game Show. Korba reminisced about the 2008 Indiecade. "It was really cool that year because it was the year that [E3] was really small, so we were literally right next to Mirror's Edge."

"We actually won Best of E3 Awards and Top Ten of the Show from giant sites, which to us was just flabbergasting. We were totally honored because we were a little Flash game that was nominated with these big huge budgeted games."

Of course, Winterbottom's continued success was not lost on publishers. "2K came by again," Korba chronicled. "I think they were starting to get a little nervous because of all the attention we were gathering."

After negotiating with the publisher, Korba and Bellezza finally signed over The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom's publishing rights to 2K Play. But the duo didn't have time to enjoy their accomplishment. They still had to make a fully developed Xbox Live Arcade version - Winterbottom remained a Flash prototype.

A Braid Intermission

Winterbottom has often been compared to another XBLA game, Braid, and not without reason - both are side-scrollers with time-bending mechanics. To lend even more credence to such comparisons, Braid developer Jonathan Blow served as Matt Korba's thesis advisor at USC.

When I asked Korba about the influence Blow's game had on his project, he was quick to respond. "When we started this game, Braid wasn't out. We didn't know about Braid."

So I asked if the opposite was true: Did Winterbottom influence Braid?

Bellezza chimed in, "The advice from Jonathan on our game wasn't even really about mechanics but more about, 'What do you want the user to feel? What do you want the experience to be like?'"

Korba persisted, "We never swapped time tricks. It wasn't like, 'Hey, try this time trick or try that time trick.' [Jon] was more about… 'What do you want the player to feel?'"

I guess great minds really do think alike.

From Students to Professionals

The first step for the professional partners was to build a completely new team, under the recently formed Odd Gentlemen studio, that could develop the game for its new platform. "When we had to go professional, we had to hire outside engineers and artists… cause half the student team was either still in school or didn't have the skill sets we needed to actually build the Xbox version," said Bellezza.

Korba continued, "As a student, in Flash, it's so easy to just get things up and running. We didn't really need a team of engineers. But obviously that's not the case with C++ and harder code."

The Odd Gentlemen then began the arduous task of reimagining Winterbottom. "Everything that was on the student game was just a prototype. We had to flesh it out and fully redesign the game. There was no magical way to take the student game and push it to the Xbox."

"I remember one day on the whiteboard, we had this crazy flowchart about what happens if you pull the trap but another clone is standing on top of the clone [that pulled the trap]. Does the clone fall down? Does he poof and disappear?" said Korba. "We were trying to figure out these paradoxical equations to make… sure we had all those edge cases covered."

Despite having had to essentially start from scratch on Winterbottom's professional counterpart, Korba maintains an attachment to the original bare-bones student version. "One day I want to just put it out there so people can see where we started from."

Looking Back

Both Korba and Bellezza took a moment to appreciate their tumultuous journey into the videogame industry when I asked them if they ever considered dropping Winterbottom to pursue something else.

"We've been moving so fast we really haven't had any time to think about anything. Making a game in a year has been pretty hectic. It's not really a road I want to walk down again, trying to do a brand new IP in a year. It's just been really crazy," said Korba.

Bellezza expressed more awe than fatigue. "It's surreal that the game's coming out because we've literally been working non-stop since March 2007. That's almost three years now, and we're finally at a point where… the game is coming out. I'm three years older. It's been a whirlwind."

I also asked Winterbottom's designer and producer if they had any advice for current students trying to develop and sell their own games. Both were very forthcoming.

Korba began, "I think the best advice is just do something personal that means a lot to you and worry about the game… I think one of the things we did right is, even though we had all this crazy stuff going on, we always focused on the game first. No matter what, it was always about the actual game."

"And I would say if you can't code… if you don't have engineers or you don't have artists or whatever, just do whatever you can do. Do it in Flash. Do it in Game Maker. It doesn't have to be this huge thing."

Bellezza echoed his partner's sentiments. "A lot of students talk huge ideas, like Halo-scope ideas. And you, as a student, will never be able to make a Halo. You might one day in your career, how many years off, but as a student, you've got to keep it in scope for what you can do… Don't design this grandiose design document and think 'this is what is could be if I had unlimited resources.' You've got to look at your resources and see if you can make something that speaks to you out of it."

"If you can demonstrate some core nugget of fun, even if it's the worst possible art… you've got something and that's what you should invest your time in."

The Possibilities

So what's next for these odd gentlemen?

"Anything's a possibility right now… We're excited to obviously work on something new, but we are excited too about the possibilities of what else we can do with Winterbottom and his universe."

Given their seemingly meteoric rise from students to indie game rockstars, it really does seem like anything is possible.

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