Dino Run Mania: An Interview with PixelJam's Miles Tilman and Rich Grillotti (Part 2)

by Damian McKnight
Dino Run Mania: An Interview with PixelJam's Miles Tilman and Rich Grillotti (Part 2)

Game Studio Central is a monthly interview series in which we talk to developers from around the industry and find out what goes into creating the games we all love to play.

Independent video game studio PixelJam has managed to break a few rules. A small studio (2 employees and a handful of contractors), PixelJam has managed to achieve what continues to elude many major game studios in the industry.

Street credibility.

PixelJam's popular action retro-game Dino Run, where players controls a dinosaur running across various terrains to avoid the apocalypse, has been mentioned as being influential in the development of Rocketcat Games' "Hook Champ" (one of last year's App Store indie darlings).

Their addictive Gamma Bros., was nominated for "Best Web Browser Game" at the 2007 Independent Games Festival, and the studio pair is also responsible for the beloved Adult Swim games Turbo Granny, Sausage Factory, and Mountain Maniac.

Get caught up to speed with Part One of this two-part interview.

Part Two

What are you working on next?

Miles: A project with comic book artist James Kochalka called Glorkian Warrior. It’s probably the largest project we’ve done in a long time, possibly ever.

Rich: Yes, Glorkian Warrior production is in full swing. It's mostly a hand-drawn game, but has areas in the game that are 100% pixelly involving his pocket pixel glorkbot. We're also working on Dino Run for iPhone, which will be something more of a 1.5 version -- more than a port, but not a sequel, and we have another interesting little abstract sort of game we hope to finish have out soon that has a lot to do with music.

Then we are very much hoping to get back to Gamma Bros 2. We've been really wanting to get back to work on that one for some time, but you know, we've gotta do what we need to do to pay the bills & keep afloat, so our internal game projects tend to get pushed aside a bit more than we'd like.

We're planning on taking some risks in 2011 and see if we can get back to what we are most passionate about.

What is your (the) development process for creating a video game?

Miles: It always starts with Rich and I comparing sketches and ideas. From that we develop a loose structure for the game and dive right into the coding and artwork creation. Rich or one of our other contractors will work on the graphics in tandem with a prototype of the actual gameplay, coded by myself or one of our programming contractors.

After everyone plays the prototype for a bit, we make revision after revision until it feels right. Then we go ahead and add the rest of the game content. When we think the game is done, we probably still have tons more work to do, polishing, tweaking, fixing bugs, tweaking some more, fixing more bugs…. The final stretch of a game often feels endless. But it always feels great once it’s released and people are enjoying it.

Rich: The initial idea generation part is often fun, and running with that until it seems like we've got a potential game on our hands. The coming up with the style for the game is often fun and also (often) the most challenging part for me. Once thats established, exploring that is enjoyable.

I also particularly like once a game has come together enough so that it's close to finished. Then we get to go through and see what we can add to the fun with what we've already created for the game. This is sort of a final "evolution" phase of the games.

Once we take our idea to what we envisioned (more or less) then we get to see what else we can do with the game that we hadn't considered before. It's important for us to budget time for this final growth phase of a project. Sometimes this makes a big difference on how much fun & excitement a game can have, and add replay value too.

Like the the ability to ride the dactyls & other dinos in Dino Run, for example. Also adding the hats to Dino Run. The game was mostly done and the idea for adding cute little hats came about & that seemed to add something special to the game for me. The option to customize and personalize my Dino, and to see how others did their dinos in multiplayer races.

Have you ever had anything go wrong during a game’s development? How did you handle it?

Miles: We’ve had to completely abandon a few games in mid-development, for one reason or another. Since we are such a small company (2 employees and a handful of contractors), it usually doesn’t mess with the overall company goals too much. We just let it go and move on.

I can’t imagine the stress of having something go horribly wrong on a huge project with hundreds of contributors. This is the main reason we prefer to stay small and independent. When we screw up, we only have ourselves to answer to.

Rich: Yeah, nothing has gone wrong necessarily, or horribly, but we certainly had to learn a lot of things the hard way, like how to properly budget time and resources for a project, particularly the for-hire ones. We consistently wound up going over time & budget for our first many for-hire games, and this messes with our plans & budget for our own games.

When things get tense trying to finish a late project, that's not exactly fun anymore. We lose sleep, overwork ourselves, and as well the games themselves have to suffer to some degree. Ideas we wanted to add get omitted, animations I made don't make it in sometimes, not all edges get smoothed out to my/our satisfaction. When the quality of our games start to suffer, Id' say something is going kind of wrong..

We just have to keep learning how to propose a project and a budget that will actually be enough for it and allow something extra to put back into development of our own internal game projects.

If we don't think a game will allow us time to work on our own games during and after, we need to say no. We've refused work that would have been rather high profile in the past when it was clear it wouldn't actually help us do what we want to do most.

How do you see the game industry evolving?

Miles: Into games that all types and ages of people will enjoy playing. It seems the age of macho gaming is coming to a close (but not without a final hurrah) . I think eventually games will mature and be universally accepted as an artform like film or music, but maybe not in my lifetime.

Rich: I am interested to find out, really. We've got ideas of how things can be different and are interested in pushing the envelope as well. There's unlimited potential as to how the idea of what a game can be can evolve.

I imagine there will be a lot more realistic immersion for games at the cutting edge technology end. The Star Trek holodeck comes to mind when I project out far enough.. I would very much like to see games become more enriching to our lives somehow, not just repeats of what has been done before & sells well now..

What (or who) has been the biggest influence on your career?

Miles: The infinite visions of imaginary games I had when I was a child. It’s still the main reason I do this. I think when all of my childhood fantasies of making the ultimate adventure game are realized, I’ll probably move on to something else. But we have a long way to go before that day comes.

Rich: Probably the many games I enjoyed throughout my life and growing up. My fist system was the Atari 2600, so I feel that had a lot of influence on the style of games we make. NES as well. I love big blocky colorful pixels & simple gameplay mechanics.

I also enjoy merging that simplicity with todays gaming sensibilities. There are many particular games that have been influential as well.

What advice do you have for amateurs wanting to become a professional?

Miles: Start small and stay small until you really know what you are doing. Eventually you’ll get your chance to make the opus you’ve always dreamt of, but there’s no way it’s going to be your first project, unless you are some sort of freaky genius, which most people are not.

Rich: While nothing I say will apply to how everyone should go about it, I'll suggest starting with prototypes/games you don't expect anyone will see, just to get the learning process of making games under way. Trial and error is very useful. Don't get too detail oriented before the essentials to making a fun/compelling experience are nailed.

Like Miles said, don't try making your cherished epic adventure as the first game project. It also may be helpful to NOT see the first project or two as moneymaking endeavors.. It's good to give yourself all the time you need & allow it to spread out there as much as possible, virally, once it's launched.

Keep your day job for some time while you do this. Get the word out on your games & you/your company & build a fan base. Also beta test with a large number of players, listen to feedback and use it to make those and/or the next games better.

Keep in mind you will never please everyone so accepting criticism lightly & gracefully is helpful. Some people just like to complain & taking it personally isn't going to help. Remember to make your games so that you are personally happy with them & they are something you would very much want to play.

And have fun in the process (or notice if you're not & find out why).

And the last question, something you’re still learning….

Miles: We’re still learning everything about what we do. Design, Art, Programming… we still consider our company in it’s infancy. The day we stop learning is the day we stop making games.

Rich: Lots. We are aware of many areas we could use some more experience with, like automating certain processes, handling PR and having better relations with the gaming press so more people can be made aware of the games we make.

We also continually learn how to better estimate what a project will take to complete, and do our best to learn how to keep a project from ballooning too large with all the new ideas we get during production. We're also about to start venturing into the arena of selling the new games we make, so we've got some learning to do there as well.

And as always, learning to balance the amount of effort and dedication it takes to make games to our satisfaction with living life well and having healthy relationships, getting outdoors & exercising, etc. It's good to find a balance that actually works.

See Part One of this two-part interview »

In Part One, Rich and Miles discuss the skills and education required for a career in game design, the perks of being a video game designer, and their favorite personal achievements.

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