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


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

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