Operation Rainfall Interview: Pwnee Studios (Cloudberry Kingdom)

Monday, June 25th, 2012

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If the success of games like Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV have demonstrated anything in the past couple of years, it’s that people like platformers, and they like them hard. But none of those games have ever had an AI that can create an infinite number of levels and adjust the difficulty automatically. That’s where Cloudberry Kingdom comes in.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with TJ Lutz and Jordan Fisher of Pwnee Studios, the development team behind the upcoming platformer. In this interview, they talk about some of the various modes in the game, the level of customization, and their experience with Nintendo for making the Wii U version.

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Kyle Emch: First of all, how did you come up with the idea for Cloudberry Kingdom?

Jordan Fisher: It started off as a side project while I was procrastinating on some research for my PhD work in math. It wasn’t really intended to be a game; I just wanted to see if I could program an AI to design Mario levels. It seemed like a cool math problem…it turned out to be difficult, but very interesting. After I got the AI working, I showed it to TJ, and together we decided it was awesome enough to drop everything to flesh out into a full game.

TJ Lutz: It was pretty cool when I first saw it. Then we naturally decided to try and crank it up all the way to see what happened and it was still fun!

Jordan Fisher: We then spent the next 8 hours trying to beat the hardest level the AI could build.

Kyle Emch: I’ve seen some of the levels in the trailer for this game. They look absolutely nuts!

Jordan Fisher: Thanks! That’s what we’re going for. The AI can design easier levels too, but the insane ones are the most interesting to watch.

Kyle Emch: So, you mentioned before that the AI increases the difficulty automatically based on your performance. Can you explain how exactly it knows how to adjust the difficulty?

Jordan Fisher: There are few different game modes. The simplest one is kind of like Tetris. The AI doesn’t guess your skill level; it just slowly increases the difficulty until you are completely overwhelmed. There are also modes where you can select the difficulty level, or even help the AI design levels.

Ultimately, we had modes where the AI actually honed in on your skill level, using an adaptive approach similar to how adaptive tests like the GRE work, but it didn’t feel fun. There’s something de-motivating about knowing the level you are playing was custom selected to fit your skill level, especially when you know that if you play worse, the AI will compensate by decreasing the difficulty. It messes with the motivation box inside your head.

Kyle Emch: That makes sense.

Jordan Fisher: Awesome idea in principle, but we’ve abandoned those approaches.

Kyle Emch: Also, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a platformer having a Tetris-like mode in there. That’ll be interesting to try out.

Jordan Fisher: Definitely. You really need a random level generator to do something like Tetris. Otherwise, you’re playing the same levels each time you play, and it becomes more about memorization and less about the arcade action.

Kyle Emch: This is true.

Jordan Fisher: That’s something we’re really excited about with the AI. It doesn’t just make hard levels; it opens up new game design possibilities. We have a lot of competitive mini-games that really don’t make sense if you don’t have an infinite supply of levels.

Kyle Emch: What kind of mini-games are there?

Jordan Fisher: We’ve got I think 5 out in the beta right now. Hero Rush is currently my favorite. The AI throws a bunch of quick, short levels at you. Each level has a new hero, new physics essentially. Maybe you can double jump, or you’ve got a jet pack. You have to adapt quickly to the new hero the AI gives you. And then, to put the pressure on, there is about 10 seconds on the clock, so you’re running through these short levels that you’ve never seen before, trying to grab coins, which throw time onto the clock, all while trying to constantly adapt to the new hero you are playing with, which changes basically every 5 seconds or so (each time you finish a level). And the AI is slowly ramping up the difficulty until you reach you’re breaking point.

Kyle Emch: Sounds pretty intense!

Jordan Fisher: That’s my favorite mini-game, but we have a lot of variations on that idea.

Kyle Emch: Now, those different characters you mentioned. Are those exclusive to that mini-game, or can you customize your main character in the main game?

Jordan Fisher: There are two ways characters differ. One is purely cosmetic. Color, cape, hats, that sort of thing. You have complete control over that. Even in the mini-games, you design the look of your character. But on top of that, the game will change the physics of your hero. It’ll give you a jetpack, put you in a box, etc. That is a functional change, which has a few cosmetic effects as well, and you can’t change that, the mini-game controls that. But there’s another mini-game you can play where you have direct control over those functional changes. You can design the hero physics basically. Everything is customizable!

TJ Lutz: These functional changes will also occur during the main part of the game as well.

Kyle Emch: Oh? Do these functional changes occur at fixed points in the main game?

Jordan Fisher: Yup, that’s the idea.

Kyle Emch: Ah, okay.

Jordan Fisher: That’s the ‘campaign’, which is a scripted sequences of levels to give the player a consistent experience.

Kyle Emch: Now, you’ve recently put the beta version of this game up on Steam. How has that been going, so far?

Jordan Fisher: It’s been great so far! We’ve got about a thousand beta testers out in the wild. The community has been really supportive, and has been a big help in hunting down bugs.

Kyle Emch: That’s great to hear! I’m looking at the Kickstarter page and I noticed that you mentioned something called Bungee Mode. Can you tell me what that is?

Jordan Fisher: Ah, yeah. It’s a multiplayer mode. The game supports full 4-player local multiplayer. It’s already pretty hectic and crazy as is, but we wanted to do something to really up the ante, so we designed bungee mode. All 4 players are tethered together with an elastic bungee, and have to coordinate their efforts to navigate levels. Sometimes you have to drag other players, or use the bungee to slingshot people up. And if someone dies they become dead weight that the rest of the team has to carry around. It’s a lot of fun, and the AI designs levels that specifically require coordination to beat.

TJ Lutz: The first time we tried it with 4 people, we laughed to the point of tears. That’s how we knew we had to keep it.

Kyle Emch: I don’t know if I’d be able to handle that kind of pressure, but that’s just me.

Jordan Fisher: Haha. It’s not really pressure so much as, uh…well, it leads to a lot of grieving. Usually the game devolves into trying to pull your buddy into a spiky ball.

Kyle Emch: Based on my experience with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, I can definitely see that happening.

Jordan Fisher: It’s a small part of the game, so it doesn’t detract from the main experience, but its fun to get your griefing on sometimes.

Kyle Emch: Now, you said that you’re also developing this game for the Wii U. Can you tell me how developing for a Nintendo console has been going so far?

Jordan Fisher: We have not officially started the porting process actually. We’ve just got our ducks lined up in terms of working with Nintendo. Right now we’re focusing on finishing the Xbox/PC version, locking everything down, and then we’ll be guns blazing on the Wii and Playstation port. Probably Vita and 3DS too, but we haven’t decided timelines for those devices yet. We only have so many hours in a day, unfortunately.

Kyle Emch: I find it interesting that you guys decided to distribute this on Nintendo’s upcoming Wii U platform. WiiWare has been a bit notorious for how iron-fisted Nintendo treats developers on its digital storefront.

Jordan Fisher: Nintendo has been a pleasure to work with. They’ve been very enthusiastic from the get go.

Kyle Emch: Recently, I reported that an anonymous developer said that Nintendo’s made its Wii U eShop MUCH more developer friendly.

Jordan Fisher: The more we talk with Nintendo, the clearer it is that they are really trying to make the Miiverse online experience work. They know that digital is the future, and are planning accordingly.

TJ Lutz: As far as huge incentives…we’ll apparently have to investigate this more thoroughly. We haven’t heard of anything completely off the wall yet.

Kyle Emch: So, no word on things like bigger revenue cuts than other digital platforms or any kinds of promotions?

Jordan Fisher: Ahh.

TJ Lutz: Confidential information.

Jordan Fisher: ND *cough* A. I will say that developers previously burned by WiiWare should seriously consider giving the Wii U a second chance. And, of course, they should wait a healthy amount of time before doing so, so that Cloudberry doesn’t have competition.

Kyle Emch: Now, does the Wii U version of your game have some differences over other versions?

Jordan Fisher: Awww yeah!

TJ Lutz: With the capabilities of the Wii U controller, we pretty much had to! We have a number of ideas for how to use the features of the new controller, especially since we got to play around with it a little bit at E3. There are a lot of unique ways that it can be used, which we will have to test out a little bit in-house before we actually decide to put it in the game. The big thing that we think will be cool is using the touch-pad to draw up new items for your character customization. New faces, hats, etc.

Kyle Emch: So something like Drawn to Life, where you drew what your main character looked like?

TJ Lutz: That’s the idea! Having the ability to customize your character is something that people always desire, and this is a great way to let them customize it much more than the regular restrictions allow.

Jordan Fisher: We’ve got a lot of ideas for unique gameplay mechanics too. The AI designs a level and then scrambles the blocks, then the player with the gamepad has to unscramble the level by dragging the blocks into the right place while the other players are simultaneously playing the level.

Kyle Emch: That sounds interesting. Finally, do you have a release date and price in mind, yet?

TJ Lutz: We do not currently have a set release date, as these things tend to be decided later on, and between all platforms. But we will certainly let the world know when we have official word. As for the price point, we are also negotiating that with each platform, but the general feel is somewhere between $10-$15 dollars.

Kyle Emch: That sounds reasonable.

TJ Lutz: Yep, especially good for getting infinite content. We plan on adding content to the game indefinitely. More obstacles, different heroes, etc. to make infinity even more….infinitier.

Kyle Emch: Heh. Nice! Well, thank you guys so much for letting me interview you. I wish you the best of luck with this game.

TJ Lutz: Absolutely! It was our pleasure!

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Thanks again to TJ and Lutz for being great interviewees. You can learn more about Cloudberry Kingdom by visiting their website.

About Kyle Emch

Kyle has been studying music at college for about three years now. He's played the piano since he was 6 years old and has been recently been learning how to write music. He has followed the Operation Rainfall movement on Facebook since it started and was happy to volunteer for the website. Just don't mention Earthbound or the Mother franchise around him.