The Making Of...
Spelunky, Twitter and seven years of opera: the surprising story behind this exhilarating smartphone shooter
Spelunky, Twitter and studying opera: discover the surprising story behind Downwell
The influence of The Matrix on modern videogames is incalculable. Yet the Wachowskis’ action classic almost meant we missed out on one of the most exciting debut games of recent years. Ojiro Fumoto was in his mid-teens, and deeply in love with videogames. His parents’ SNES had defined his formative experiences with the medium, and informed his decision to pursue a career in game development. Then a trip to the cinema convinced him his dream job might be beyond his capabilities. “I saw those hackers doing all kinds of stuff, with all that scrolling green text that viewers couldn’t make any sense out of, yet they somehow could,” Fumoto remembers. “I basically thought programming was like that – that it was something only the smartest people in the world could handle. So I gave up.”
Happily, Fumoto soon reversed his decision, devising a contingency plan. If he couldn’t become a programmer or designer, he could perhaps sneak in through the back door by learning how to compose music for games. He was so keen on the idea, in fact, that he joined a high school that specialised in music tuition. But to get in, he had to major in an instrument, and he had no experience in that regard. “The teachers there basically suggested that I take up singing. It had nothing to do with composing, but it was just something I had to do. So I started studying opera singing.”
His voice, it turned out, wasn’t half bad. In fact, he eventually ended up at one of the country’s most prestigious institutions, the Tokyo University Of The Arts. “As a result, I ended up practising opera singing for seven years, and by the end of university, I’d almost forgotten what I had originally wanted to do,” Fumoto says. “Or rather I was so focused on singing that I hadn’t really learned anything to do with composing.”
As his graduation date approached, Fumoto began to seriously think about his future. Sure, he had a talent for opera, but this was not his dream. But the thriving independent development scene around Xbox Live and iOS, with several stories of tiny studios achieving great success, convinced him he could study game development in his own time. After conducting some internet research into the most accessible creative tools, he downloaded GameMaker Studio. Fumoto’s dream job was suddenly back within his grasp.
Seeking ideas for inspiration, he happened across a blog post from Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail. A fan of the studio since Ridiculous Fishing, Fumoto was keen on Ismail’s “game a week” idea, which challenged creators to gain useful experience by making small games within seven days. Keen to work within Ismail’s established constraints, he boned up on GameMaker and began to develop his first game.
“The first one was really shitty,” he says, modestly. “So was the second, and so was the third one, and I continued making really small, really shitty games for 12 consecutive weeks.” Ironically, it was the 13th with which he struck gold, as he assembled the first prototype for what would become Downwell. By now, he’d acclimatised to GameMaker and was feeling confident enough to relax that self-imposed seven-day rule. “I thought it would be a good exercise to maybe extend [development] two weeks or a month to make a bigger project than I had been making previously,” he says. “I really didn’t plan for it to become this big, it just kind of happened. I did see some more potential in the prototype than I had in my other games, but it was for multiple reasons that I decided to spend more time on it.”
One of those reasons was a much more ambitious brief. “Really, it started with the idea that I wanted to make Spelunky for smartphones.” Fumoto says. He started brainstorming how that might work, and, having decided to extend the development period, opted to enforce a different kind of restriction, limiting himself to using just three virtual buttons to control the game: move left, move right and jump. He adopted Spelunky’s approach to level design, too, using procedural generation both to save time, and to give his game greater replayability. While most platform games scroll horizontally, Fumoto was aware that the most natural way to hold a smartphone is in portrait mode. “It didn’t make sense to have the levels be long horizontally, because you can’t really see that far,” he says. So from the first week of development, his 13th game had players steadily progressing down a central shaft.
It was two
weeks into development that Fumoto settled on the game’s hook. He equipped the player character with a pair of boots that fired downwards as they fell, and the rest began to fall into place. Still, the shooting mechanics went through multiple iterations before Fumoto settled on the current system, whereby the boots automatically reload when the player touches any surface. At first, the player had a set amount of ammunition and could shoot without reloading – but they would have to pick up ammo drops within the level if they wanted to keep using that weapon, as in most firstperson shooters. Borrowing such a commonplace idea seemed to make perfect sense, but in practice Fumoto found that it had a negative impact on his game’s tempo. “Because there was a limitation on the ammo, it became harder for the player to shoot at all, because they wanted to preserve that ammo. And I didn’t want them to do that, because shooting was the most fun you could have in the game,” he says.
Taking further inspiration from Spelunky, Fumoto was keen to have shops in the game where players could buy a range of upgrades. Initially, he placed those within the well itself; indeed, in the early version of the game, there were no caves to duck into at all. But, like a pushy shop assistant hovering over your shoulder, the bats and other enemies made it impossible to browse. “So I made the shops appear in these side caves that you can go into, so you would have a safe place where the enemies don’t attack you,” Fumoto explains. But that created another problem. Players exiting the shop
“IT DIDN’T MAKE SENSE TO HAVE THE LEVELS BE LONG HORIZONTALLY, BECAUSE YOU CAN’T REALLY SEE THAT FAR”
would often get immediately attacked by bats upon returning to the main well, with no way to avoid harm. Hence the pace-breaking timevoids. “I realised it was very unfair, so I thought it would make sense to have a barrier of sorts that would shield the player from taking damage,” he says. And then I thought maybe if time stopped while you were in that bubble that would be even better. I implemented that, and it was indeed better, so I kept it that way.”
The game’s striking three-colour palette, meanwhile, was not a conscious restriction so much as Fumoto acknowledging his own limitations. “It came from the fact that I can’t draw pixel art that well,” he says, almost sheepishly. “I had no real sense for a good colour palette, but I knew I really couldn’t go wrong with just black and white and red. It was just basically a way of me slacking. Well, not really slacking, but simplifying so that I could handle all the art by myself.”
Fumoto might not be the finest pixel artist – and he’d be the first to say as much – but his designs are charming, and in combination with the palette, they gave Downwell a distinctive look that was warmly received even in its early stages. Suitably encouraged, he began to post screenshots of the game on social media. Among the comments he received, someone suggested it might look good with a Game Boy theme as an unlockable. “At the time, you would just play the game, you would die, and you would restart, but there was no progression, no incremental aspect to the game,” he said. “So after that [suggestion] I figured maybe I could prepare a bunch of different colour palettes, and that might make for a cool unlockable. It ended up working pretty well, I think.” In the meantime, Fumoto had been emboldened by the game’s first public airing in Japan. At Picotachi, a monthly show-and-tell event for designers held in a Tokyo cafe, Fumoto demonstrated Downwell during a short presentation. Having only previously shown his game to close friends, he was very nervous. But he needn’t have worried. “After the presentation everyone came up to me and they were like, ‘Wow, is this really your game? You’re making this alone? This looks amazing’,” he recalls. “That really helped boost my confidence about the game.”
As development continued, Fumoto noticed a trend among developers of posting GIFs on Twitter rather than static screens. He began to produce some of his own for Downwell, a decision that would ultimately bring the game to much wider attention. One GIF in particular, showing a drone following the player’s avatar, and shooting as they did, was shared by a host of indie developers, catching the eye of Devolver Digital. The publisher expressed immediate interest: ‘What is this and how do we play it?’ it replied. Clearly thrilled, Fumoto responded, and Devolver asked him to send over a build. “They played it and said, ‘Do you want to partner up with this, maybe?’ and I said, ‘Hell, yeah!’” he recalls. The number 13 was proving lucky for Fumoto.
Devolver’s involvement with the game’s design was minimal, the publisher acting in an advisory capacity, happy to trust Fumoto to get on with making the game. “One of the guys from Devolver would play it occasionally and he would give me his personal opinions on it – like ‘Maybe it’s too hard’, or something,” he explains. “But it was never anything like ‘It’s not going to sell, you have to make it easier for accessibility’, it was just his personal opinion.” Any final decisions on the game’s difficulty, and even its pricing, were left to Fumoto to decide.
As a new graduate, Fumoto was all but broke, certainly incapable of footing the costs of touring Downwell at events. So his publisher flew him to the likes of PAX and GDC, where the designer got to watch strangers play his game for the first time and listen to their feedback. The process was, he says, incredibly fruitful and informative: “It was a great experience to see people play the game with no bias. I mean, they’re not my friends, so they’re not going to just say nice things about it.” Watching players alone was enough to convince Fumoto that Downwell was a touch too hard for most. After each new convention he attended, he would tone down the challenge slightly. Readability was another issue: if it wasn’t immediately clear to a player how an upgrade would behave, he would take note and fix it after the event.
It was at GDC that Fumoto was finally able to get help making the game’s music and sound effects, a job he’d been putting off for some time. By a stroke of good fortune, he was able to recruit talent from two of his favourite games. At a party organised by Devolver, he was introduced to Spelunky composer Eirik Suhrke, and the man responsible for Nuclear Throne’s wonderfully crunchy sound design, Joonas Turner. “They were basically my heroes,” he says. “I couldn’t have dreamed that I’d be working with them, so when they offered to become part of the project, there was no way I was going to decline.”
Fumoto expresses an interest in making a sequel, though he has plenty on his plate for the foreseeable future: he’s already teamed up with Suhrke, Spelunky creator Derek Yu and others on retro-themed compendium UFO 50. But can we expect him to combine his talents for opera and game design at some stage? “Probably not, no,” he laughs. “I have no passion for singing at all. It was just something that I ended up doing.” Still, if the whole game development thing ever falls through, Fumoto has the unlikeliest of fallbacks. On the evidence of his debut game, however, we doubt he’ll ever need one.
Developer Moppin Publisher Devolver Digital Format Android, iOS, PC, PS4, Vita Origin Japan Release 2015
The heart balloon is a highly useful upgrade, slowing your fall speed and exploding should an enemy come into contact with it. It renews at the start of a new stage