July 18 2013 by Barry Herbers
Pwnee Studios has been hard at work for the last few years developing their debut title, Cloudberry Kingdom, a 2D platformer with a twist: the game has an infinite number of levels due to random generation. Recently, Gamnesia got the chance to chat with Pwnee team lead TJ Lutz to try and get a bit of insight about their intriguing platformer. We talked for long hours into the night (we did not) about the artistic motivations behind the metaphorical drama at play throughout Cloudberry Kingdom's in-depth narrative (also untrue). Lutz gave us insights into ethical philosophy as well as describing to me to the taste of a color.
All of that is lies, but seriously, some of their responses are pretty damn funny so you owe it to yourself -- especially if you're, I dunno, interested in the game or something -- to read until the end. As an indicator of just what kind of interview this is, I'll just say that Lutz's opening statement was, "Hey Colin, ready for the pain!?"
Q). For our readers who don’t know much about Cloudberry Kingdom, how would you describe the game, and what’s the core reason for your potential audience to buy it?
Cloudberry Kingdom is a 2d platformer with infinite, randomly generated levels. Imagine Mario and Tetris had a lovechild. The child doesn’t look like a mix between Mario and Tetris, that would be weird. It’s more how the game plays, every time you beat a level, the next level is slightly harder. There are a few pretty good reasons to pick up a copy of Cloudberry Kingdom. Randomly generated levels means that you’ll never have to play the same level twice, which is really nice. Our A.I. generates levels custom-built to fit your skill level, so you’ll never be bored! (Unless you just plain hate platformers no matter what). We have a Sandbox mode in the game where you can create your own levels and share them with your friends. There are online leaderboards to compare your scores with others around the world. Our main character is voiced by Kevin Sorbo. You can get $1000 for being the first person to beat the Story Mode. We have a number of other reasons, but this paragraph is already pretty lengthy…I’ll stop there.
Q). How was the idea for Cloudberry Kingdom born?
Once upon a time, Jordan was procrastination from his responsibilities and thinking about Mario 3. He was trying to figure out whether it would be possible to create random Mario 3 level so that he could just sit around and play them forever. He whipped up a simple alpha of his idea and showed it to me one summer when he was in town. We were both immediately addicted. We invited a few friends over and they got addicted as well. It was at that point we realized that we needed to make this into a real game and share it with the world. So we quit our jobs, sold everything we owned, and set off to make Cloudberry Kingdom.
Q). How has Cloudberry Kingdom changed throughout its development cycle? Has it been basically the same since its conception, or has it gone through a deep process of trial, error, and redesign?
The algorithm behind the random levels has been altered and tweaked a ridiculous number of times. In the very beginning Cloudberry Kingdom was just platforms and fireballs, so the gameplay was quite a bit different. Every time we came up with a new obstacle, we had to teach the algorithm how to use it. The mechanics of the jumping have been the same the entire time, but the obstacles have really changed how the game plays. There has been a ton of trial and error for each new hero and new obstacle. We usually gave it a week or so for each to get a feel for whether or not it would work, and then remove it from the code if it wasn’t fun. We tend to come up with a lot of crazy ideas, and they each seem like they’re worth a shot. It’s hard to come up with something innovative without giving new ideas a try.
Q). What about Cloudberry Kingdom is unique to you and how do you hope to convey that experience to gamers?
The most unique feature of Cloudberry Kingdom is definitely the AI that makes our levels. It is able to take into consideration the physics of the hero, the required difficulty level, which obstacles are needed, and a number of other factors to create just one level. And then it goes through the entire process all over again as you run through the level you are currently facing. What it really does is makes the focus of Cloudberry Kingdom on being skilled, rather than being good at memorization. We really want the fun parts of platforming to come out of this, and leave rote memorization somewhere else.
Q). You seem to be pretty fond of the old school difficulty that came with platformers of the past. What old platformers did you like to play back in the day, and what elements of those games have you tried to preserve in Cloudberry Kingdom?
Well, Cloudberry Kingdom was mostly inspired by the Mario series, namely Mario 3. There have been other platformers in the last few years that have also been big inspirations to us. The biggest element that we wanted to capture was the feeling that you are in control. Very tight controls give you a sense that the game is “fair” and allow you to be completely in control of your environment. The worst way to die in video games is when something happens that you feel like you weren’t responsible for. Sliding into a spike because an animation had to end or something like that can be super frustrating. The other thing that we really liked was variety. The more variety there is in a game, the more time you can have fun with it. We tried to really cram as much into Cloudberry Kingdom as we possibly could…that probably didn’t help our development time.
Q). Given how easy a lot of modern games can be, do you think Cloudberry Kingdom will have any difficulties reaching a sizable audience in the present day?
Luckily for us, our level building A.I. is very flexible. It can build levels from the easiest of the easy, to the hardest of the hard. We like to show videos of the super hard difficulties because…well, it’s awesome to watch. I think once people start to get the game, and really share stories with each other, the misconception that it is always hard will die off fairly quickly.
Q). The higher difficulties in Cloudberry Kingdom look absolutely insane. Is there any certain strategy or rhythm you’re supposed to come to understand in order for the “masochistic” setting to even be possible, or are they more geared towards watching the computer players zip through?
There is a nice trick that we like to call “the flow”. After a while of playing Cloudberry, you can start to sort of catch on to the way that levels are designed. It is sort of like being able to see the matrix. You’ll suddenly get into this zone where everything just sort of makes sense. I can normally identify the correct route to take even in the most difficult levels in a matter of seconds, the harder part is actually performing it correctly. The Masochistic setting is for people who really like to punish themselves, it is ridiculous hard. They are all possible, but just stupid hard. It’s always fun to watch the computers run through it, but when you have a group of people watching someone work their way through it, the cheering at the end makes actually running the level so much more satisfying.
Q). From reading your website, it seems that Pwnee Studios is made up of a pretty funny group of people. How is that comedic tone reflected in Cloudberry Kingdom?
Well that’s odd. We don’t find ourselves to be very funny at all. Video games are serious business. Next question.
Q). What’s your favorite little detail about Cloudberry Kingdom? Something so small that few players may even notice it.
I personally lose it every time when watching one of the Cinematics. There is a line in there that is completely unintentional, and for some stupid reason I find it hilarious. Unfortunately nobody else in the office really enjoys it as much as me. Rhetorical questions being unintentionally answered is just funny to me I guess. Jordan’s personal favorite is the little ways that we help the player out. Most people won’t really notice things like this, but we give you a nice 3 pixel buffer for things like missed jumps. If you’re not quite going to make it, we’ll give you a little boost just to make sure you’re alright. We’ve got your back. There are a number of tiny mechanics like that to sort of stave off some of the things that make a lot of platformers super frustrating.
Q). Cloudberry Kingdom seems to be coming to just about every major platform. How does the experience differ between working with Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo as an indie developer?
It’s really hard to say. It is sort of like being in a group of friends. Everybody has their little quirks and certain ways that they like things to be done, but it is difficult to really pick out big differences. I suppose each one of them has their own “attitude” but all in all, they are just out there doing their jobs, and helping to get Cloudberry Kingdom on their platform.
Q). The release details have been a little up in the air for Cloudberry Kingdom lately. Are you able to share a definitive launch date with us?
We sure are! We’re going to be releasing on the PS3 July 30th, Xbox and Steam PC on July 31st, and Wii U on August 1st. The Vita will be sometime later this year, as well as Mac and Linux versions.
Q). Do you hope to bring Cloudberry Kingdom to other platforms in the future?
In our minds, the more the merrier. We’re taking a look at a number of platforms and trying to figure out whether it is feasible to actually be on them. Our biggest dream is to make copies for the SNES…but that seems a bit far off at the moment.
Q). Do you have any plans or hopes in mind for a sequel?
We have a number of other games planned out for the future, but if the people want more Cloudberry Kingdom, they will get more Cloudberry Kingdom! We will just have to see how things play out. We do have a lot of ideas that we weren't able to fit into the first game, so we certainly have a lot of ideas that could be used for a potential Cloudberry Kingdom 2.
Q). If you were to make a sequel, what changes to do anticipate bringing from the first title?
Well that sounds like we would be giving away some Top Secret information. We have a number of crazy ideas in mind, but none that we are willing to share at the moment. I’ll just say that we’re dreaming big, and we have tools necessary to let us do what we want.
The last question we asked Pwnee was about what image, what "picture worth a thousand words" would they use if they had to sum up Cloudberry Kingdom in just one little depiction. Well, no need to delay it any further. Here's what we got:
Q). If you could sum up Cloudberry Kingdom not in one word, but in one picture, what would that picture be? A screenshot of the game? A smoking monkey in a bowler hat? A spaceship?