How do you make a video game that brings joy? A chat with Dev Jana of DevNAri.
Newt One is musical 3D platformer game with a focus on making players happy. I recently sat down to chat with Dev Jana, half of the team behind Newt One.
We talked about the design choices that go into making a game that is meant to bring joy, what it’s like showing the game to non-gaming audiences, and the experience of creating something with a long-time friend. I also got his take on the local tech and game development scenes.
Check out Newt One for yourself at devnari.com
Ian: I was at Minnedemo, at the very the back of the room, when you and Ari presented Newt One. But I wasn’t watching you so much, as I was watching the audience watch you.
There was this moment where you drove Newt off a cliff. When that happened it was like all the air in the room was sucked out. And as soon as you rematerialized there was this huge sigh of relief, and then laughter.
Dev Jana: I do remember that moment.
It was pretty moving, I got a little misty, seeing 700 non-gamedev people have such a real emotional reaction to a thing that someone from our community made was really cool.
What’s your experience been like when you’re showing the game to people who aren’t game developers?
It’s been kind of eye opening for the same reasons.
Our focus early on with the game was to make a 3D platformer [a game genre focused on quick moves and jumping]. And then, the more we worked on it the more the game started to kind of reveal itself. And the more we were like, well it’s going to be totally non-violent, really cute, and colorful.
And instead of it being a 3D platformer, it became about how do we make people happy with a videogame? So we tried to focus on that and not the gamey-ness.
Some of the best feedback we’ve ever gotten was from non-gamers because, we want it to be accessible to them. We’re not making CS GO [Counter-Strike: Global Offensive — a hyper-realistic team based first-person shooter] or something, we’re making this game that people can play with their kids. And one of the main things we saw is when non-gamers play it with their kids, the kids are like “Oh daddy you forgot that flower, oh daddy you fell.”
Falling in the game used to be a death, with this really somber gong sound. And then we replaced it with a [high pitched] bing sound, and it completely changed the feel. It wasn’t so much like “oh, I lost a life” but “oh, I get another chance.”
Those little intentional moments are something people have been able to latch onto.
Non-technical people also don’t say things like, “How many polygons?” or “Oh look, you have an infinite draw distance.”
All they say is “Wow, look at those colors” or “that [music] sounds nice.” They also say “Oh there’s no guns.”
When I was young, people would say “he or she is playing Nintendo”, it probably meant playing video games. It could’ve meant playing on something other than Nintendo. The concept of “playing Nintendo” was something your parents and other kids would say, and usually meant playing something cute and colorful, even if you die a lot like in Megaman.
Then that changed to “he or she is playing Playstation” and then “he or she is playing XBox”, which really means they are playing Call of Duty or Halo or something. The concept of using a generic term for kids playing video games to explain what they’re doing changed.
Now it means they’re playing some kind of “gamey” thing, something different than it did back then. The feeling that we are trying to capture is the kind of the innocence of games when they were young. The Buddy Holly era of games.
[When people play Newt One] they say “I haven’t seen a game like this for a while” or “I haven’t gamed since I was a kid, and it kind of felt like this.” That’s one of the most rewarding things, they see the happiness and the craft that went into it, not the genre that it is.
They don’t have the baggage of knowing so much about games, right?
Yeah because that comes with its own preconceptions.
What else do people say when they’re playing, do they say “A game can be like this?”
Yes, exactly, they say “I didn’t know people were making games like this” and we kind of go “I’m not sure many other people are.”
When we were looking to market the game we thought “I’m sure we’ll find people who cover non-violent 3D musical platformers.” Like, no. It’s really hard to find, we didn’t realize we’re making such a new thing.
Every time we’ve exhibited at least one or two people always say “wow, I feel really happy now” or “That was the happiest I’ve felt all day.” That is always validating.
Usually in games there’s a feedback loop that’s very “spiky”. There’s a challenge, it’s really hard, then you’re over the mountain and now there’s a new mountain to get over.
With Newt One, it’s more like a gently sloping hill you’re going up. For someone who plays games like me, I was surprised by how it was still fulfilling in this calming way.
We do a lot of little detaily things, really small color and music things, and post-FX things that most other game developers probably turn up bigger. And it could have been more juiced, but it’s really subtle in our game.
Ari [Ari Carrillo, game development partner] comes from a background of indie film. His game design and level design are awesome honestly. But, [in film] color correction can really make a huge change. You can imagine watching “O Brother Where Art Thou” before they add color correction. You’d be like “This is a good movie, but something’s missing.” So we try to go for all those little details.
I have a four year old and we were playing Newt One last night. At one point in the first level he got a little scared to go forward, because it looked like you might fall. I told him “just try going forward anyway” and then these hexagonal tiles appeared to form a path for him.
So he started trusting the game more. In all games you have to believe that the rules you are operating under are comprehensible. But I felt in Newt One this idea of trust was more pronounced.
It’s not that it’s completely linear and you’re following a straight path, there is non-linearness. But there’s something resembling a path that you learn to kind of go with it and trust in. Do you see that?
Trust is totally a word that we’re looking for. We also want to encourage people to be like “Can I go that way? I’m going to stand on the edge and see if something shows up.” It gives you a reason to explore a bit more while you’re playing.
In the later levels it’s like “Where IS the level?” And then you have to walk to the edges, “Oh, there’s a whole bunch of crap over there I didn’t see before.”
Ah man it’s such a cheesy sentiment but it’s totally true, we want it feel like when you go to a friend’s house and you’re think “I’m comfortable here.” He or she isn’t going to care if I go in the fridge and grab myself a water. That’s the sense of comfort we want you to have while you play the game.
A lot of games, even some of my favorite games, are not going for that, it’s the opposite. It’s more like “I can’t trust anything in this environment, everything is trying to kill me.”
The old game adage is “if it moves, shoot it”.
In our game, well, you can’t. Instead it’s “If it’s not moving, bring it to life.”
But we don’t have to tell people that. That’s my favorite thing about the simplicity of the game. There’s not many verbs.
That’s really cool to hear that your kid was like “Oh kayyyy…oh, oh, ok!”
I actually had to kind of fight him to leave the house to talk to you, he still wanted to play the game. Sorry, I need my laptop to talk to the guy who made the game!
We had a friend who literally had to rip the controller from his daughters hands.
She plays for hours and hours. I was like “Oh my gosh, we’re having this kind of impact on her life”. That means as much to us as sales.
It just blows my mind, could you imagine when you were eight years old, talking to people who make video games?
I can’t even imagine. I used to live in the same building as my friend Marty, and his daughter plays Newt One. She probably just remembers me as some guy that she might see at the pool. It’s like “Oh, it’s just my dad’s friend,” yeah totally also blows my mind.
One pitfall that we’ve both seen other game developers fall into is this tendency to not show their game enough, to not playtest, because it’s scary. But you and Ari definitely didn’t have that problem.
I think it goes back to my history working in mobile games, because you can show those to people anywhere. Like “hey, give it a shot.”
I should probably mention that Ari and I met in grad school. We both have the same masters in 3D animation. I was critiquing his work and he was seeing my work before it was done, and that was a part of how our group of friends and that school worked.
It was like, “I want you to tell me what’s wrong with this.” Whereas I had a couple friends who were the exact opposite, “There’s two pixels that are not correct so I can’t show this.”
That’s an art school thing right, the “critique group?”
Yeah. Ari’s undergraduate was in art, but my mine was in compsci where nobody sees anything that you do. But musically I was always like “hey, let me know what you think of this demo.” That’s become one of the most important ways to get feedback.
The second that Tommy Sunders from Space Mace [local team behind cooperative multiplayer game Joggernauts] played the game and asked “Why does the game have lives?” And I was like well…um….I don’t know!
Like you were saying getting it in front of non-gamers, that was the real challenge. We made little things that went on the controllers that told you what each button did. And nobody looked at it. I was like “well, we need to put that in the game.”
Those were the things that people don’t complain about when they play our little indie game, it’s really easy to just ignore all that stuff when you’re building.
And Ari is just such a positive guy. He’s like…
He really is isn’t he? I’ve never seen him scowl. Does he have those muscles?
I honestly don’t think he does. In grad school he was a freshman when I was a senior. And I was like, I don’t know about this guy. He’s so nice, he’s hiding something. He wants something. Nobody is this happy. I just fell in love with him. You know he’s the perfect kind of person to complement my personality on a project.
Okay so my last job was as a project manager, I’m not rigid but I am detail oriented. He very much embodies that “Oh, it’s going to be OK. You know it will be done when it’s done” and I’m like “here’s the deadline, I need these assets.”
There are definitely times where we both agree and it’s great, but once he was like “I know you understand perfection, and we’re not going to put this out until it’s perfect, so I need two more months.”
So he can kind of, not challenge you exactly, get you out of certain mindset?
I think for Ari that’s challenging me. He’s just so nice about it. And I trust the guy with my life.
There’s very few people I trust as near as much as him.
How did you two start working on Newt One together?
He posted something, he knows the exact date which is kind of funny, like “I would like to make a game.” And I just happened be online and said “Yeah, let’s do it!” And you know he was like “Yeah, OK!”
I asked him “I’ve been making this music, you know for fun, you want to try something with it?” And he’s like “Sure!” And three years later we released a game. So it really was kind of born of our friendship.
I don’t know a ton of people who do side project stuff or make creative output outside of work with a partner. It’s much easier to fail alone then succeed together. It’s nice you have a friend who has very complimentary skills, but is also fun to work with.
We’ve been talking a lot about the game publicly and in interviews. Last time we were in Wisconsin someone at the end [of our talk] was like, “Dude it was so great to see you guys riffing off each other up there, I need to find someone with whom I can work with”
And I’m always like that’s great, but it’s kind of like looking at the happily married couple and thinking “I got to go find me the perfect match.” We luckily have just known each other for so long and been really close friends for a while….Ari years ago would literally drive me home, open my door and throw my drunk ass in bed and make sure I didn’t have my shoes on.
I’d call up the next day like “Thanks man.” There’s not many people that I trust on that level.
That’s really lucky.
Yes that’s the core of it too. At the core of our friendship is our ability to be happy together. Our ability to try to make other people happy. So when it came to expressing ourselves through technology, it became very natural for us to think, that’s what we are doing with our game. Of course it is.
You’re not going to make a shoot-em-up-em game together, it doesn’t make sense.
We would’ve been trying really hard to be what we’re not. I talk about guiding lights which is a really bad soap opera or something, but one of the main guiding lights was “Is this going to make people happy?” And it was like “Yes, or no?”
Going back a bit, you are from Pennsylvania originally?
Yes, I’m from Erie, Pennsylvania which is about two hours north of Pittsburgh, an hour west of Buffalo, and an hour East of Cleveland. It’s a small town, but it’s not like one of those 7000 people towns. It’s like 300,000. It’s like if Bloomington had nothing else around it.
It’s squarely in the Rust Belt. In college I stayed home, I was a townie, got my undergraduate from Mercyhurst University there.
I left in January of 2003. I remember it was January 12 and it was 12 degrees. It seems nice and warm now here in Minnesota.
My full arc is Erie, Pennsylvania, then to Boca Raton, Florida. Then I came up here and taught in Brown College’s Game Design & Development program for three years.
Then I moved out to Phoenix and I ran the game department at Collins College for a couple years. Then I moved up to Burlington, Vermont where I taught at Champlain College.
During all that time I was working on mobile games in Phoenix and PC games in Vermont. And then when I moved down to Sarasota I was working on a mobile app for the medical industry.
And then I went out to LA for a couple years and now I’m back.
So you’ve seen a lot of different sort of tech scenes in different cities. This is always kind of a narcissistic question, but I am interested to know, what’s your take on the community here?
There are two ways in which I’m currently involved with the Minnesota tech scene.
That’s a different feel than the gamedev scene, which is more Glitch and IGDA Twin Cities [two local organizations focused on supporting game developers]. So I kind of have two perspectives.
With the businessy tech stuff, I think Minnesota is in a place where there’s a lot of startups, which is cool, but also Target is trying to be as much of a tech company as it is a retail company. So there’s things happening that brings people here that doesn’t happen in a lot of other places. Best Buy has a big webdev division. They employ a bunch of people in technology. We’ve got 3M here and stuff. That’s it’s own thing.
A little tiny gravity well.
Yeah, exactly. And then the startup scene, I’m not super plugged into it, but the feel that I get from it is there is a sense of solidarity.
Minnesota also has this sense of identity that’s based around the state of Minnesota. Which is very different if you compare say Pittsburgh and Philly, they kind of argue with each other, and are like “we’re very different.” I’m from Pennsylvania, but I’m from Philly, Eastern Pennsylvania. In California I lived in LA, my sister lived in San Francisco for eighteen years. That’s a sibling rivalry between those two cities.
But there’s this sense here of Minnesota solidarity. And that absolutely permeates the gamedev community. The support and the interest that people have here is in a different direction than a lot of other places.
At the IGDAs [International Game Developer Association meeting] in LA or Phoenix everyone in those places was trying to be the next big thing. People here are trying to do more of the next cool thing, the next interesting thing. Like Super Deference Fighter [oddball alt-game made by interviewer]. I’m not sure anybody would have made that in LA.
Winters have a lot to do with it too. As a musician and as a programmer that’s kind of my woodshedding time. It’s cold out, I’m going to stay home and play music.
I think the side effect of that here is we are chasing cool things, here’s a shiny new cool thing, and we’re not shipping as much. Which is why I think with us and Verdant Skies [life simulation game by local team Howling Moon Software]…
I’m super happy to see you both shipping within weeks of each other.
Two days! They shipped on the 12th and we shipped on the 14th. We’ve always seen them as elder siblings to us. Interestingly enough the first time that we presented at IGDA [Twin Cities meeting] they presented at IGDA that day too. It was a couple weeks after our first Minnebar and we just feel like we are connected.
It’s like you’re both in the same graduating class.
Yeah, exactly. So we chatted with them and asked, “How are you feeling? I’m nervous about the release. Are you nervous about the release?” And there was this sense of personal solidarity again.
The size of this city is big enough to have a scene like that, whereas if Burlington tried, Sarasota tried, they’re not really big enough.
But it’s not so big that people are just trying to make like a hit game, we’re trying to pursue things that are cool.
We did our post-mortem at IGDA Twin Cities on Valentine’s Day, and the next day I got a text that was like, “hey sorry I couldn’t go yesterday. IGDA is hard sell on Valentine’s Day.” But they said “the whole scene is proud of you.”
I’m not saying that this person was qualified to speak for everybody but I was like “Man, that was one of the best texts I’ve gotten in a really long time.” I’m not sure what would would’ve happened anywhere else.
It seems like there’s an equilibrium between those two kind of extremes. Room for experimentation but there’s enough people who will look at your experiment too.
Yeah, and give you good feedback.You can imagine if the scene was three times as big, the Slack channel [mspgamedev slack group] would just be unmanageable. It’s a really wonderful size and I think good people all around.
Back to Newt One, how is it to be kind of done? Do you feel it’s done?
I totally feel it’s done because reviews are out. It was the moment we were like “Oh, wow. We’re getting reviews.” And really great review quotes. Things like when Gameranx said “It’s a colorful concoction of cute.” That’s exactly what we want in our next trailer.
So what comes next?
Next is a Steam conversion, we’re definitely going to do XBox One because we’re in the ID@Xbox Program. And we’re talking about a couple other possibilities but we need to see how that works out. What we’re hoping to do is a packaged console release. Where it’s on whatever consoles we can get it on, all released at the same time. Right now I’m estimating it takes me about two months do one console conversion.
So our hope is maybe August or September. Definitely this year.
We’ve also started designs for the next game. I hope to have prototype together in time for the next year’s Mega Minne Multi Indie Mini Arcade [local popup indie arcade run by interviewer]. But I would want it to be self-explanatory enough that you can just hand someone the controller [and they can play].
It’s going to take place in the same universe as Newt One and it might be a little bit more music generative, kind of puzzly. I’m super interested in doing a mobile co-op thing where you’re making music and playing with people together.
Anything else we should cover?
Just going back to the to the local indie dev scene, I’m really excited to see a bunch of these other games getting mature right now, that I think should also be releasing really soon.
Things have really been blossoming this last year. I’ve always loved Charles McGregor’s AntiPiracy. It’s genuinely one of my favorite games, every time I see it I’m like “sweet!” and I drop my pack and I run up to play it. But Fingeance is looking really great, Astral Gunners is coming along, Verdant Skies is out, Pixel Lake’s new game Treasure Stack. Pinbrawl is gonna be awesome. Color Jumper is great.
There’s also just a lot of variety. People aren’t really stepping on each other’s toes. I think that’s a big thing for us. I can’t wait to see what, as an old guy, what these kids do next, the next generation, because in two year from now it’s going to be a whole different set of games.
Which probably means people will be shipping and we’ll have this culture of people getting games done, shipping and moving forward.
I never thought of it as generational. You mentioned earlier with you and Verdant Skies it’s almost like there’s these cohort groups that are sort of moving along together. It’s an interesting way to look at it.
I think Space Mace and Zach Johnson probably more than than anybody else, I think of them as Mudhoney. It’s this Seattle scene, they are the first ones, and it’s like if anyone is going make it big thing it’s gonna be those guys. But there’s all these other bands that are around.
There was this boom you know in 1990, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pinbrawl in particular or AntiPiracy was the Badmotorfinger or the Facelift. These things are happening and we’re genuinely happy to be part of it. I’m really super excited to see all these games ship.
I think we’re about to see in 2018 and into early 2019 it’s going to be a totally different feel. It’s going to be huge.
That’s really exciting.
It is right? Culturally it is.