Blink Developer Interview

Conducted By Adam Ames

Blink is a first-person puzzle platformer created by the guys and gals at Blue Void Games.  Co-Founder, Nick Pfisterer, was nice enough to participate in an e-mail interview about Blink and his current Kickstarter promotion.  You will read how Blink got its start, the successes and failures in doing so and his opinions on topics throughout the PC gaming world.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Blink.

My name is Nick Pfisterer and I am the Co-founder of Blue Void Studios. I do a little of everything but most of it is game design and audio. As far as my background goes, I’ve taken a variety of roles on many student and hobby projects since 2005 – everything from lead level designer to project manager to graphic artist and in between. I’ve also been writing music since 2003. Since then I’ve won a few remix contests, done a couple of record releases, and composed a soundtrack for an upcoming XBLIG title called Car Washer: Summer of the Ninja.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

I think my first experience with game development was RPG Maker for the Sony PlayStation. When I first got my hands on it, I was like “Holy crap, I can make my own spell graphics?!” It was that feeling where you realize you have this power and your mind immediately fills with countless ideas of how to use that power. I later discovered RPG Maker 2000 for PC and had a revelation all over again. “Holy crap, the PlayStation version was that limited?!” I stayed with RPG Maker through a few iterations, though if you ask me today I’ll tell you that RPG Maker 2003 is still the best. I was also really into mapping for Timesplitters on PS2 for a while.

When I was in college I did my first mod with a team of other students using Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, and I dabbled in XNA and Source for a while after that. I’ve worked with a lot of tools; Unreal, CryEngine 2, Unity, Flash, Radiant, Neverwinter Nights, you name it I probably made something with it. Through all my experience thus far, I usually prefer to work with Unreal.

Where did the idea for Blink come from?

It started in January 2011 at the Global Game Jam. The theme was “extinction.” We scoured the internet for an interesting use of the word that didn’t have to do with post-apocalyptic scenarios. We discovered a neurological disorder called visual extinction and started developing the core gameplay from there.

What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Blink?

It’s hard to say what we’ve done successfully beyond the original game jam submission, but I definitely think the greatest failure we’ve had so far was not developing Blink sooner! Back at the Global Game Jam, the reception for Blink was very positive. We even landed a feature on the Global Game Jam website. We showed it off at a local IGDA meeting soon after, and that brought in great feedback too. But at the time, we were so focused on our other project that we just didn’t give Blink the time of day. We were happy with it as a game jam submission.

It wasn’t until this summer when a few of us were teaching at iD Gaming Academy at Stanford University that we sat down and realized that Blink was more plausible as a debut title. After a few months of planning and working on an early IGF demo, we needed funding to go much further. That’s where our Kickstarter campaign came in.

In its current form, how close is Blink to your initial vision?

While the core gameplay is largely identical to that of the old game jam submission, Blink has evolved dramatically in terms of aesthetic, narrative and level design. There wasn’t really much of an initial vision since the original game was made in 48 hours. The vision really started to clear up when we sat down and designed Blink as a full game. We quickly realized there was a lot more to the concept than we gave it credit for.

Some devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game.  Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Blink and if you faced a similar challenge.

Difficulty is a major priority for us because of how the core mechanic works.  It’s a lot to wrap your head around at first. Watching early testers, we’ve noticed that people spend a lot of time just coming to grips with what they’re capable of and what’s actually happening on the screen. We don’t want to blast players with text and on-screen HUD giving them detailed instructions around every corner, so we’ve been trying to improve the level design to teach players through experience.

Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Blink would run on the various PC system configurations?

One of the great things about working with Unreal is that we have a clear idea of the minimum specs our players will have to meet right from the beginning. Beyond that it will just be a matter of deciding on the recommended specs for the highest detail setting our game offers. Unreal Development Kit has some great optimization tools to help keep a watchful eye on the framerate and memory usage throughout development.

Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Blink.

If I could sum up the overall creative direction for Blink in one word, it would be ‘surrealism.’ We had a sort of fuzzy vision of a world that felt like a dream. The omnipotence of a dream is incredible; you’re surrounded by familiar things yet they are juxtaposed in impossible ways. It’s that idea of pure thought without the constraints of reason, so your pre-conceived notions go out with window. That’s the foundation of Blink. It all revolves around conveying that feeling of being in a place that you’re drawn to explore even though you know it shouldn’t exist.

There were two primary influences for the art style. The Pure Time Trials DLC for Mirror’s Edge, and a video by Alex Roman called The Third and the Seventh. Both have played significant roles in helping us define the rules and nature of Blink’s universe. I highly recommend checking them both out.

Musically, I have been heavily influenced by a wide range of artists like Solar Fields, Sigur Ros,and Above & Beyond. I love the juxtaposition of ethereal soundscapes with sweeping melodies, especially in the absence of the typical percussion lines people have come to expect.

The level design process has been really interesting. Originally we were designing puzzles first, then inserting them into the world. The problem with that approach is that we had no idea what the world looked like as a whole. So we switched gears a bit and now have a sort of shell of a world that we’re filling with puzzles and opportunities for exploration.

Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?

The toughest aspect of being an indie developer is definitely the struggle of balancing life and work. There are a lot of risks you take when you decide you want to go your own way, to make the games you want to make, so we knew this would happen getting into it. I’ll tell you what, though; even with the financial hardship and struggle for time management, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Another challenge we personally face is that of working remotely. Jessica and I are on the west coast, while our coders are on the east coast. It can be tough sometimes because without an actual studio where the whole team meets every day, it’s harder to maintain that feeling that you’re part of a team.

How did you go about funding Blink and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?  Also, tell us about creating the incentives for your Kickstarter promotion.

The financial burden is tough to bear when you haven’t released anything yet. The capital is all from our own pockets, and it’s not much. That’s why we turned to the people for help via Kickstarter. We want nothing more than to ditch our not-game-development jobs and do this full time. We don’t want it to be a hobby forever. Game development is what we’re passionate about.

When creating the rewards for our Kickstarter campaign, we knew we wanted to do something special. We did about a month of research on where previous Kickstarter campaigns succeeded and where they failed. We decided we wanted every pledger to be a part of the game in some way or another. We’re offering opportunities to get your own easter egg or achievement, do beta testing, voice acting, and puzzle design. Even the people who only pledge $1 are getting their name in the credits. Everyone’s going to be a part of this.

Are you in the process of delivering playable versions of Blink to the various digital distribution platforms?

We’re not there yet, but we plan to release Blink on Steam, Desura and the Mac App Store.

How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels?  Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?

Again we’re not there yet so I can’t offer specifics on pricing, but we’re already doing a lot of research as to where in the market Blink will fit in.

Are you planning to release a demo for Blink at or near launch?

Yes! In fact, thanks to the recent announcement from Epic Games that Unreal Engine 3 will support Flash, we’re hoping to offer a web-based demo that you can try with any Flash-compatible browser. We’ll have more details on that once the Flash support for UE3 comes closer to release.

How important is it to get instant feedback about Blink from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

Feedback is critical to us, especially as a startup with no reputation. We try to engage the community through social media channels regularly and we’re always coming up with ways to improve in that area. We also plan to host our own forums in the near future for beta testers to report feedback and interact with each other.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Blink professionally?

I definitely look forward to reading professional reviews for Blink, but I don’t think it will be the end of the world if we get any bad reviews. After all, reviewers are gamers too, and we value the feedback of every gamer out there. Reviews will be taken into account just like any other feedback we receive from the community.

How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?

I think the whole concept of indie bundles is great. It’s an excellent marketing opportunity for indie developers that may otherwise have not gained much notoriety outside of a niche crowd. On top of that, it’s a great deal for the consumer. The bundles I’ve seen so far all appear to be full of amazing games from amazing people. It’s hard to beat that.

What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

It makes me sad that DRM and piracy are touchy subjects. I don’t think DRM solves anything related to piracy in the gaming industry, though it certainly contributes to the network security industry. Hackers will always circumvent DRM methods no matter how advanced they become; I don’t think you can argue that. It’s good practice for them.

As a gamer, I find DRM is mostly a hindrance because in many cases it can mess with the experience of enjoying a game. Imagine a scenario where someone is playing Diablo 3 and gets really immersed in this difficult dungeon. If the internet connection weakens at all, you run the constant risk of breaking that immersion and causing the player to become more and more frustrated.

As a developer, I don’t plan to use any DRM beyond what our chosen distribution platforms require.

Bill S.978 was introduced to the United States Senate earlier this year which could make it illegal to post unauthorized copyrighted content on YouTube and other video sharing sites.  How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Blink?

When Blink comes out, I will not only approve, but encourage, that users post videos of themselves playing Blink, talking about it, singing about it, whatever. It doesn’t matter. Websites like YouTube are founded on free speech, and I don’t want that to change anytime soon.

How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

I think DLC is great because it allows developers to try new things with existing games. Pricing models and implementations seem to be all over the place, but I think maybe that’s not such a bad thing. There are so many games out there and they can vary greatly in how they look, feel, play and sound. Everyone has their own idea of what’s overpriced, what’s “worth the money.”  If anything, the only standard for DLC should be that it rocks.

Recently, there has been a lot of talk about modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders.  How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Blink?

I love the modding community. I started out modding before I fully understood the work that goes into a full-scale game. If you ask around, you’ll find a pretty high number of developers get hired based on portfolios full of great mods for existing titles. It’s an awesome way to break into the industry as I understand it.

We haven’t made plans yet for modding Blink, but it’s something we’re always considering. It’s more a question of whether it’s appropriate for Blink or not. If we release a game in the future that would be fun to mod, you can count on us allowing modders to have at it!

What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

Developing for PC offers you so many avenues for success. Between the many free tools and distribution platforms that are out there, there’s almost no excuse not to go indie right now. The price of entry is lower than ever for budding game developers. Just be prepared to struggle. Whatever you do, don’t give up. -End

TPG would like to thank Nick for his detailed answers and wish Blue Void Studios nothing but the best from here on out.  You can learn more about Blink and help contribute to their fund-raising efforts by visiting their Kickstarter page.

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