Do you like classic 2D platformers like Mario? Do you like games that provide you with a challenge? How about games that have an infinite amount of playable levels? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, you’ll want to check out indie developer Pwnee Studio’s upcoming game Cloudberry Kingdom. Created by childhood friends TJ Lutz and Jordan Fisher, Cloudberry Kingdom is a never-ending adventure featuring over ten playable characters, a custom ‘Hero Factory’ that lets you design everything from your characters’ looks to their physics, and an advanced level-designing AI that spawns an infinite amount of randomized levels.
I got the chance to spend some hands on time with Cloudberry Kingdom at E3, and TJ himself was there at the demo station, playing along and answering any questions I had about his game. I had a blast, so we set up a follow-up interview to dig a little deeper into Cloudberry Kingdom. You can read the interview after the jump to catch details ranging from the origins of the game’s peculiar name to its development history to what it’s like being an indie developer in today’s market.
GG:For those who haven’t heard of your game yet, how would you describe Cloudberry Kingdom?
TJ: Cloudberry Kingdom is like Mario, but with the ability to be cranked to a ridiculous difficulty, and it has infinite levels. So infinite ridiculous Mario.
TJ: Haha, way back when we were younger, Jordan and I spent a lot of time playing Mario 3. We sat down one day and beat it…and that was it. It was done. No more levels, the fun was over. We actually had to go outside or something.
That planted a seed in our brains, and 10 years later, Jordan had a moment of genius.He had come up with an algorithm that was able to create infinite platformer levels. So he brought it to me and we played around with it for a little bit, and then we just got sucked in. We started working on it more and more until it turned into what it is today. Lost Levels was pretty challenging, but there just weren’t enough of them to satisfy us.
GG: So how long would you say the game has been in ‘serious’ development, and what has that experience been like for the two of you? Have there been some changes in gameplay during the development process?
TJ: During the Summer of 2009 is the first time we started working full time on it. We put in about 16 hours a day trying to get it ready for the Dream Build Play competition that Microsoft put on. After that summer, we didn’t really know what to do, so Jordan kept toying with it for the next couple of years as sort of a hobby. Then, in the Spring of 2012 we decided that we had to try and release it – so we started working on it full time again and have been going at it ever since! So I guess that’s…oh geez, 5 years in the making.
There have been a lot of ups and downs during the making of the game. As it turns out, making games is tough. We have made a lot of sacrifices to get to where we are today. We look a lot older and more beat up, but I guess it has also been a while, haha.
There have been a ton of changes in the gameplay, we must have gone through 8 different campaign modes. We have also shuffled through a bunch of different hero types and mini-games. The general feel of the game has always been pretty consistent, but the layout has gone through a lot of different iterations.
GG: Were you ever tempted to call it quits? If so, what kept you going?
TJ: There were a number of times that we had thought the idea was dead, but both of us are pretty stubborn. When we picked back up to finish the game in 2012 – we threw everything we had at it. Our entire life’s savings went into making the game.
Once you reach that point, where you have put everything on the line, it is much easier to keep going…you really have no other option! Aside from that, Jordan and I like to give each other crap if the other one is thinking about giving up. There’s nothing like a little bit of hazing to get your friend motivated again.
GG: Speaking of giving each other crap, I have to ask the question that’s on everyone’s minds: Just what in the heck is a cloudberry, and why is it in the title of an insanely difficult video game? ‘Cloudberry’ doesn’t exactly bring a test of endurance to mind!
TJ: A cloudberry is a fruit native to Sweden. Sort of similar to a raspberry or blackberry. We want to eat one pretty bad, because we have no idea what it might taste like. But it looks delicious!
It sort of started as an inside joke between the two of us. We were making a game that felt like Mario to us, and we really wanted our princess to have a little sidekick guy like Toad (The coolest Mario character ever). We were trying to find some silly hat that we could put on someone to make them cute, and hopped on Wikipedia to look up different foods. Finally, we hit a list of berries and found a Cloudberry. We had no idea what it was, but it looked neat. We sort of gravitated to it, and since Toad is from the Mushroom Kingdom, we thought it would be silly to say that this dude is from the Cloudberry Kingdom.
After that, the name just sort of stuck. We did find it ironic that the thing was so cute, and the artstyle was so happy…but the game was super intense. We like it that way!
TJ: I wouldn’t put it out of the realm of possibilities, we are huge fans of retro games! But we also don’t want to just be a studio that makes a bunch of throwback games either. We have a number of things that we would like to try – we’ll see what happens next.
The only reason we made Cloudberry Kingdom is because we could introduce something new to the genre in the random level generator. We would like to continue the trend by introducing something new and creative to every game we make.
GG: You know, there’s an alarming trend in the video game industry right now of developers ‘playing it safe,’ so to speak. Even multimillion dollar publishers are struggling to stay afloat, yet you guys went all in on a concept that many would consider risky. What has it been like for you guys as indie developers in an increasingly more difficult market?
TJ: It has certainly been an adventure! When you are jumping into something as saturated as the gaming industry, you have to make a splash to get noticed. There have been a number of indies over the last few years that have really brought attention to their games by being unique. While it is a big risk, there is also big reward. One of the best things that can happen to an indie studio is to do well enough to continue making games. These people are in it because they have a real passion for it. I don’t know that playing it safe is really an option until you are a much bigger company in the gaming world, but I guess with some of the multimillion dollar publishers struggling… playing it safe may not be so safe afterall.
As far as the market goes, I guess we can’t really say much. We haven’t been around for long enough to know what it used to be like. So to us, it is what it is. There are a lot of very talented studios out there, and a bunch of very good games, but we just have to focus on making Cloudberry Kingdom the best game that we can and hope that people enjoy it. If we had focused too much on how difficult the market is, we probably wouldn’t have been where we are today.
GG: Nintendo Wii U is one of the platforms that Cloudberry Kingdom is slated to release on. In the past, Nintendo had a somewhat negative reputation regarding their relations with indie developers and WiiWare, but they’ve been trying to change that with Wii U’s eShop. What has your relationship with Nintendo been like, and how does it compare to other platforms like XBLA or Steam?
TJ: Nintendo has been fantastic to work with since day 1. They have really been super helpful with everything… I really don’t have anything negative to say about them at all. I assume the rumors of their reputation must have been true in the past, but wow. I would never have expected it to be the case with the way they are now. They are really reaching out to indies in a way that make me feel good inside. Also, we love Dan.
And I don’t want to give Nintendo the full spotlight here. Sony has also been awesome to work with and equally, if not more indie friendly. Sony has really been a huge help to us as well.
Really, every platform we’ve dealt with has had their own unique style to the way they handle things, but we haven’t had a negative experience with any of them. Each one of them has their quirks and hoops to jump through, but overall they have all been pretty good to us. I could go on for pages about each individual one, but that wouldn’t be a very good read.
GG: Glad to hear it’s been a pleasant experience for you! So Wii U offers some unique potential with the GamePad’s touch screen. Any special features planned for the Wii U version?
TJ: Unfortunately we weren’t able to do anything too fancy with the Wii U version of Cloudberry Kingdom. Since we are shooting for a release on all systems at the same time, feature parity was something that we had to keep our eyes on. We still have a few ideas in mind that we would like to be able to add to the Wii U version in the future, but we will have to see how that all plays out. The one thing we were able to sneak in was off-screen play. So if somebody ABSOLUTELY MUST watch their show on TV, you can still have fun with Cloudberry Kingdom!
TJ: Cloudberry Kingdom will be available on the Wii U eShop, Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network (PS3 and Vita), and Steam. Our official release date is Top Secret for now, stay tuned for news on that.
GG: Will do! One last question for you. Having very much enjoyed my hands-on time with Cloudberry Kingdom at E3, I’m hoping to see more from Pwnee Studios in the future. Do you have any plans in the works for future games?
TJ: We have a pretty healthy list of game ideas going right now. It’s on the upside of 10 different ideas at the moment, and we accidentally add more every week. We’re really excited about a number of them, so it is going to be sad to have to put a few of them on hold until later. It is definitely an interesting process to try and decide which game idea to make next, and the more we talk about each one the more ideas we come up with. Eventually we’ll probably have to just put on some spandex and gloves and duke it out to determine which game is the best idea. Or maybe there’s a better method… we’ll keep trying to figure it out.
GG: Well we look forward to seeing what you come up with! Thank you for your time, and best of luck with the launch of Cloudberry Kingdom.
TJ: Thanks! We appreciate the opportunity.