The “End” of Desert Golfing and Other Stories from Mysterious Canadian Justin Smith
Justin Smith’s Desert Golfing has been the subject of a lot of talk recently as it tops the iOS charts while simultaneously breaking the norms of mobile game design (i.e. it has no menus, no ability to restart, and no lose condition). In this interview, the Vancouver-based developer reveals his design process, a dark and terrible secret about Desert Golfing, and how he ended up with the best app icon in the iOS app store.
[Spoiler Alert: This article discusses information about the late game of Desert Golfing.]
Before the release of Desert Golfing in August, Justin Smith was known for a variety of humorous physics-based games including Enviro-Bear 2010: Operation Hibernation, Justin Smith’s Realistic Summer Sports Simulator, No Brakes Valet, and So Long Oregon, Let’s go find…El Dorado.
When Smith appears on my monitor in a small Skype window, he initially appears as a pure silhouette framed by light. This image seems appropriate for a developer whose most recent game exudes a sense of mystery and secrets. A recent Gamasutra interview even went so far as to ask him “Why are you so dang mysterious?”. Soon enough, however, he moves his camera so I’m able to see him more clearly.
One mystery of Desert Golfing that remains a topic of conversation is the “ending” to the game. Smith has said before that he expected an impossible hole to be generated eventually. The idea of a procedurally generated game ending in impossibility is bold and unprecedented. Other procedurally generated games—such as Derek Yu’s popular platformer Spelunky—take great pains to ensure that the game is never impossible to complete. I ask Smith about intentionally embracing eventual impossibility in his level designs.
“Yeah, I didn’t do anything to prevent [an impossible hole]. I wish I had done that with more gusto. In retrospect, I should have done that intentionally…I ran into a hole in the upper 2000s that I thought was impossible. I thought that was a good ending, so I left it like that.”
The hole in question is hole 2866, which players soon discovered could be completed by bouncing the ball off of an offscreen hill present in the next hole.
With this intended “ending” defeated by players, I asked Smith how he felt about how far some players had progressed in the game, going as far as hole 7000 and beyond.
“I thought nobody in their right mind would get that far. Only insane people would get past 3000. More people got that far than I expected. After 3000, it’s literally flat for eternity. I didn’t want people playing forever looking for something, so I put a hole in the early 3000s where you shoot the ball and the game runs a simulation for where the ball goes. If they’re gonna sink it in the hole, I randomly remove or add power to the shot. After I did that, I found the ‘impossible’ hole in the late 2000s and thought that made a better ending anyway.”
The hole Smith describes has become notorious among desert golfers, referred to occasionally as the “demon hole” or hole 3XXX. His reveal of its properties might be the final mystery of the game, at least for now.
“I feel terrible wasting people’s time. I said nothing is past 3000, but they kept going anyways. I might do an update to remedy that situation…”
When asked about his process, Smith responds “I’ve got a whole ton of unfinished prototypes. I have two modes. One mode where I have an idea that’s maybe half baked, prototype this up and see where it goes. When I make a complete game though, usually I have a complete idea of what it’s going to look like beginning to end. I don’t do much exploring while I’m in completion mode. For instance, for Desert Golfing, outside of the ending, I was pretty much in completion mode the whole time.”
I ask him how many prototypes he has sitting around, waiting to be turned into full games.
“Sucessful prototypes that could actually be turned into games, probably about 6. I also have another 5 or 7 really old ones that aren’t gonna go anywhere.”
For the conceptual phase, “I have a list of random ideas and concepts. The worst is when I have a good idea, but it requires a massive game to showcase it. Like, if I think of a simple platform mechanic, but I don’t have any existing code to build a platformer on, it would take a lot of effort for a simple idea.”
I compare this idea to Carl Sagan’s famous quote that “to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
“Yeah, if an idea is outside of my physics Box2D universe, it’s probably not gonna happen.”
I ask him if he feels overly constrained by using a single physics engine, something I personally worry about myself when I limit myself to a certain set of prototyping tools.
“Well it is a physics engine, so it’s simulating reality. Mostly I try to put blinders on and not think too much about what I’m missing.”
Speaking specifically about his previous games, I ask him if would look differently at Enviro-Bear now, mainly because Enviro-Bear is more of a “maximalist” game while his recent games have tended towards minimalism.
“It still feels really how I think. If I didn’t create Enviro-Bear then, I probably would now. I think Desert Golfing is my only minimalist game.”
In Enviro-Bear, the player is tasked with controlling a single bear arm to drive a car, eat fish and berries, and eventually return to a cave before winter comes. When I mention the idea of “concept soup” (a phrase I borrow from designer Bennett Foddy that indicates a lot of unrelated ideas working in dissonance with each other), he responds,
“There’s nothing wrong with with concept soup. It can work just as well as a minimalist game. As far as the future goes, I don’t know where I’m going. I might be on a minimalist phase.”
I ask him how game jams fit into this process.
“There’s certainly a difference between my game jam games and my more thought out games. For instance, you can’t really prototype Enviro-Bear. It’s really its own unique thing. There’s no concept to prove. It might emerge out of necessity at a game jam.”
I ask him whether No Brakes Valet, his recent Ouya and mobile title about piloting fast cars into parking spaces, was one of his more thought out games.
“That was actually one of the least enjoyable ones to work on. It was a two day jam game that was this fun little prototype. People kept bugging me to work on it more. Three years later, I’d end up doing it.”
I ask him, which came first, the actual mechanic or the title for the game, since No Brakes Valet is a title perfectly evocative of how the game plays out.
“The mechanic came first, then I made the title to describe it. Lot’s of people actually told me it should be called ‘No Gas Valet’ since that was technically more correct, but I definitely preferred ‘No Brakes’.”
I take this opportunity to mention how No Brakes Valet might have the best app icon in the entire iOS app store with a joke riffing on Nirvana’s iconic album cover for Nevermind.
He laughs, “I was worried that some of the younger generation wouldn’t get it…The icon was definitely the last thing I did.”
Since we’re on the subject, I bring up that the money in the No Brakes Valet icon is Canadian while the currency in the game appears to be American. After some initial confusion—“I thought it was Canadian in-game”—he reveals some of the origin behind the game.
“There was originally gonna be a large story in the game and it would take place in America. I found myself googling the location of Bed Bath and Beyond all over the country. I didn’t want the game to take place in a city like New York, I wanted it to happen in a series of crappy suburbs, so I learned about America by googling the locations of every Bed Bath and Beyond.”
But ultimately, “It was overwhelming. I had to think of a story and a world map and everything. It might have been huge or it might have been like a little prototype thing. I think it ended up somewhere in between.”
I ask him where humor fits into his process, as all of his games seem to be guided by their strong sense of humor.
“I guess it’s a philosophical thing in a way. If I have an idea and it makes me laugh out loud, everything has to change. I can’t whittle down a funny idea.”
I ask him if hole 3XXX was one such idea.
“It made me laugh in a demonic way.”
*core games and beyond
To wrap up, I ask him about the kinds of labels his games receive, namely “trollcore” and “normcore”.
“The whole “normcore” thing was just one off the cuff tweet. When you’re dealing with press, you have to make it interesting. I was reading about normcore, made that tweet, and suddenly people approached me being like ‘Normcore!? Explain!’”
When asked whether these labels are useful or accurate, “I think they’re fun. Music has all these ridiculous genres. All it does is give you some information.”
Smith ends the interview with a parting look at his design philosophy. “One of my sort of core things that I try to live by is to not try to appeal to anybody. That’s the difference between the Backstreet Boys and Radiohead. You don’t have to worry about players not enjoying something or having a moment that’s not quite fun. It’s good to stick to your guns.”
I don’t ask him what he has planned next, but he volunteers this information. “This is the one trolling thing I like to do in interviews. Almost always, the last question will be ‘what’s next?’ I usually fabricate something right then and there.”
The ideas that he mentions to me include “Harbor Master but sped up ten times” and a game based on the movie Rain Man “where you’re on a road trip and constantly have to stop every day and watch People’s Court”. Both ideas—fabricated or not—seem to fit in with his philosophy of design, not for anybody in particular but strangely appealing nonetheless…
Like golfing across an endless desert.