Every week we shine the spotlight on an exceptional XBLIG, and the developers behind them, in what we like to call the XBLIG Spotlight. This week, we take a look at Cute Things Dying Violently, a humorous dexterity based puzzler with an obscene amount of content to offer. Check out the trailer below and as always, my perspective and an interview with the developers behind the game (Author’s Note: I never read the response to the interview questions before writing my review to ensure that it remains unbiased). As usual on CBR, reading has rewards as you may even get a chance to win a copy of the game. Add Cute Things Dying Violently to your download queue! First, check out the game’s trailer:
First, tell the readers a bit about yourself, who you are, and how/why you decided to start getting involved in making games.
Hi, I’m Alex Jordan. I’m 27 years old and live in Washington, DC, where I work for the U.S. Department of Labor. I got interested in computers and video games at a very young age, and having a big imagination, I always wanted to make my own. Before I had any clue how to design an actual game, cardboard was my most prized possession: I’d find it around the house or steal it and use it to make all sorts of custom board games and card games. Eventually, my dad gave me a book on BASIC when I was still in elementary school, and from there I was off and running.
Tell us about your history as a game developer, previous efforts, etc.
I programmed in Qbasic and Visual Basic for a few years, and after that I began making maps for Doom and Duke Nukem 3D. I eventually graduated to making maps for Half-Life, where I cut my teeth as a team member and eventual team leader for the old Firearms Mod. I wound up doing that for a couple of years while I was in high school.
A bunch of us got excited when Half-Life 2 came out and decided to make a mod for it called World at War. It was supposed to be a tactical shooter in the vein of Operation Flashpoint, which we were big fans of, but we were unprepared for the complications of making a total conversion mod for a more advanced engine like HL2’s. The never-ending workload conspired to make the project limp on for a few years until personal and real-life issues finally killed it off in early 2007.
By then I was out of college and working on my career in the government, and game design just kind of faded away as a hobby of mine. But two years later, I heard about XNA and Xbox Live Community Games (what would eventually become Xbox Live Indie Games), and all of a sudden my passion came roaring back. I taught myself XNA by creating a simple geography game called Around The World, which was released in June 2010. And a week after it’s release, I started work on Cute Things Dying Violently, which has occupied me all this time.
If you had to pick one specific game to describe as your inspiration (for this game or in general), what would it be?
To be honest, Cute Things Dying Violently didn’t really have an inspiration. It wound up occupying a specific spot I chose between “games I would love to make” and “games that would be commercially successful on XBLIG.” CTDV might’ve taken a little bit from World of Goo, but only a drop here or there, and mostly because of Goo’s indie spirit.
Everyone and their mom has, of course, noticed the similarities between CTDV and Angry Birds, Super Meat Boy, and Lemmings, but the really weird thing is that I hadn’t heard of the first two and had never played the third when I drew up and started designing CTDV. I was many months in before I got to play Angry Birds and Super Meat Boy, at which point I went, “Oh, Jesus, are you kidding me?” The unintentional similarities are just exasperating, and my punishment now comes in the form of forever being asked, “Have you thought about putting CTDV on an iPhone? It’d go great on an iPhone, just like Angry Birds!”
As for general inspiration, I think that you can tie a lot of my fondness for games and game design back to me playing The Secret of Monkey Island and Curse of Monkey Island at a young, impressionable age.
Have you in the past, or do you currently have plans to work in any other platform? What made you decide to develop for XBLIG?
Yes, I’m actually busy porting CTDV to PC. Thanks to Microsoft and .Net 4.0, XNA runs natively on PC, so hopefully a PC version of it should be ready in a month or two (knock on wood). After that, I’m going to look into porting it to mobile phones. XNA also runs natively on Windows Phone 7, but the costs of porting to iOS and Android are prohibitively high, so I’ll have to revisit that later.
I decided to develop for XBLIG in particular because Microsoft made a big splash with announcing that hobbyists could develop for the Xbox 360 at a very limited, very affordable cost. And what indie developer hasn’t dreamed of getting their game on a big home console like the 360?
How long did you spend on development? Can you explain, roughly, how the development process worked for you? What tools and programs did you work with?
I spent 14 long, mind-numbing months working on CTDV. The first thing I did was create an internal level editor from scratch, as that would allow me to prototype ideas and create levels at a rapid pace, and that would also give me a cool additional feature (hey, free level editor!) to ship with the final game. From there, I spent the first few months working on the in-game play and all the various objects and behaviors, most of which I’d wrapped up by December 2010. From there on, I spent the rest of the time finalizing menus, side features, polish, you name it… it turned into this crazy slog where I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything until the game was damn near done.
CTDV required way more programming that it did art, so I was able to develop it with very little. The programming was done in Visual C# 2008 and 2010 with the free XNA framework. All of the art was done in Adobe Photoshop with a Wacom Bamboo pen and tablet, which I reluctantly bought after I realized that my freehand pencil-and-inking skills didn’t come with an Undo button. Thanks to that revelation, I have a digital scanner and lots of wasted pens, watercolors, and brushes that are just gathering dust.
A game’s soundtrack can make or break a game, tell us how you selected yours. Did you produce in house, team up with a music producer or simply purchase royalty free music?
I was shopping around for royalty free music to buy when a friend, Ryan Donnelly at VVGTV.com, introduced me to a gent by the name of Zack Parrish. I’d talked briefly with many musicians while CTDV was in development, but none of them were as talented as Zack. One particular track in his portfolio sounded almost exactly like what I wanted, so I agreed to hire him.
I’m pretty thrifty, especially when it comes to investing in an unproven video game concept, but Zack was understanding and cut me a really good deal, especially considering that the game was almost done and was about to be released. He vowed to give me five musical tracks in ten days, and wound up giving me seven tracks in eight days, at no extra cost. And of course I loved all the music. How’s that for service?
If you had to pick one thing that you would improve or simply do differently in regards to the game’s development, what would it be?
I wouldn’t make the tutorials optional. The tutorials in CTDV are pretty important: they continue to explain crucial gameplay features that users might not otherwise guess at (like using the Left Trigger to hold and drag objects), and they’re funny.
But it turns out that way too many gamers have ADHD combined with an unwillingness to read, so lots of them skipped the tutorials and missed out on both the jokes and the way the game was meant to be played. For future versions, I’m going to look at making the tutorials more intuitive and (cough) mandatory.
It didn’t have to be this way! (sobs)
How much do reviews, ratings, and other feedback for your games affect the development process for future releases?
They affect quite a lot. As far as CTDV goes, meaning future patches and a probable sequel, feedback allows me to figure out what people liked and what they didn’t. Whatever they liked, I want to give them more of it. Whatever they didn’t like, I have to figure out if I’m looking at bugs that need to be fixed, design that needs to be streamlined, or if it’s a pet feature of mine that I don’t wish to change too much.
For instance, the #1 complaint in CTDV reviews was that of the control system. However, the control system is what makes the game what it is. And the vast majority of players liked using the Right Thumbstick to flick things! But a vocal minority did not, so it’s up to me to find a way to improve upon it without sacrificing the core of what made that so compelling to other players.
As far as future games go, lots of publicity and high regard for CTDV will hopefully lead to a built-in player base that knows who I am (or at least pays attention when I release games) and will be looking forward to any new intellectual properties I release. I really hope that “from the creator of Cute Things Dying Violently” will become a useful phrase.
How did you go about deciding on the name of your game and why did you end up with the title you have? Were there any rejected titles that didn’t make the cut?
“Cute Things Dying Violently” was the one and only name I ever considered. I came up with it before I even had a solid idea on how the game itself would play… I just wanted to make a game that was as silly as it was fun, and the title needed to reflect that. Plus, when I came up with the name, I quickly figured out that it would be a marketing tool in and of itself.
In retrospect, I’ve followed in the footsteps of other indie developers whose titles reflect the kind of silly, devil-may-care spirit that I wanted to represent: Orcs Must Die, Shoot Many Robots, and A Casual Disregard for Gravity come to mind.
I designed the important stuff for the box art: the sad, puppy-eyed Critter, the two-tone lettering, and the ironic phrase “a game where absolutely nothing bad happens.” However, I was having trouble pulling it all together for the box art itself, so my brother took a crack at it. On his first try, he added the bright red blood and the gray background and really smoothed out the layout. I loved it, and I haven’t messed with the box art since then.
As for inspiration, or a story? There isn’t one, really. Developers need compelling box art, and I always wanted to make box art that tackles main themes of the game: the cute Critters, the violence, and the sense of humor. The box art you see hits on all three of those things.
Many gamers dream of making their own games, what advice would you give someone hoping to make the jump from gamer to developer?
I hope you don’t mind, but I was asked this exact same question over at Indie Games Channel, and I think my answer there still stands:
Once you first make the switch, keep working at it, because knowledge comes slowly. Expose yourself to all major aspects of game development: programming, 2D art design, 3D modeling, rigging, animation, level design, sound engineering, writing… everything! To be a one-man team, you need to be a jack-of-all-trades. Maximize your strengths, and if you identify weaknesses that might be holding you back, only then look for third party support. (There’s a lot of good places you can buy 3D models, sound effects, or music, but the cost quickly adds up, so you better know what you’re doing.)
Identify what markets you’d like to put a game in, and figure out what kinds of games sell in those markets. Play to the market’s strengths, and go multi-platform if possible to increase your sales and downloads. Draw up a list of gaming journalist sites that might be able to spread the word about your game. Look at the list, then make it double in length. Contact all of them, then find more to contact.
Also, join a community. Make friends with fellow developers, because their support and advice is invaluable. Be active on Twitter, and have a blog or website.
If you quit your day job, game design is now your new job. Hurl yourself at it, and make sure your days are spent productively. If you’re like me and don’t quit your day job, cut back on design effort if you’re feeling stressed or real life is intruding, but never stop completely. Recognize that you have a constructive hobby (that can make you money!) and learn to enjoy it. Just keep plugging away, and make sure your skills keep improving, too.
XBLIG have had mixed results so far, what is one aspect/idea/change you think would better solidify the platform as a contender in the gaming industry? What one thing do you think would improve the service as a whole, from designer to consumer?
Making it a contender in the gaming industry? Nothing short of leading it into the backyard, shooting it in the head, and telling your kids you sent it to live on a very nice farm will cause XBLIG to be a serious contender. It needs to be killed and revived as a wholly different creature before that will happen. But, the very same things that makes it an incredibly wonderful platform for hobbyists and brand-new indie developers is what also holds it back: it’s easy to get onto and it’s cheap (so it’s flooded), it’s easy to develop for (so it’s cluttered with fad-based “me too!” games), and it’s relatively unsupervised (so it’s prone to partisanship and ratings abuse). You could work to fix all that, but then it wouldn’t be the same market that gives up-and-coming developers such an eye-opening experience.
That said, there are some simple fixes that Microsoft can do to spruce it up. Naturally, they will never ever do them, not in a hundred years. For one thing, they could add Achievements and Leaderboards to titles priced $3 and over. They could also make it easier to browse the Indie Games store from the Xbox Dashboard and Xbox.com Marketplace. And, finally, they could add better quality-control filters to that browsing experience… maybe a section like “Most Successful” that is based on revenue, not individual purchases, so that the more expensive titles that sell less can still get a shot at being recognized.
But Microsoft won’t do any of this. Their arrangements with commercial and Xbox Live Arcade developers are much too lucrative to share any of the features that the Big Boys get to play with. Plus, the Xbox Marketplace is not just a game store, but also a music and video store. Giving the Indie Games section more representation means subtracting space from these bigger players, who pay thousands of dollars for a good spot on the Dash. It’s to Microsoft’s credit that they gave the Indie Games Summer Uprising (which CTDV was a part of) such a good week-long spot on the Dash, but they’re not going to make a habit of it. It doesn’t make any financial or business sense for them.
What can fans of your game(s) expect in the not too distant future?
Like I said, I’m busy porting CTDV to PC and rebalancing it for use with a mouse and keyboard. The first distribution platforms it’ll be appearing on will be IndieCity and IndieVania, and once those versions are up, I’ll start looking elsewhere. God willing, one of these days we’ll see it on Steam (fingers crossed).
Both the Xbox and the PC version will continue to run off the same source code, so players on both platforms will (hopefully!) get the same experience. The Xbox version recently got patched with some new Aiming Tools and some graphical and performance tweaks, and more patches will be on the way, including ones for new objects to play with in the Level Editor and a Level Sharing Hub that I hope to unveil once the PC port is done.
CTDV has been extremely well-received so far, and I’d like to take advantage of the unique indie way of saying “Thank you!” to fans by continuing to release new, free content for them.
Anything else you would like to say?
Absolutely! Much as I love helping out American workers during these tough times as a Labor employee (and I do), at some point in the future I’d look to do indie game design for a living. I hope to make that possible by continuing to create fun, interesting games and by nurturing a relationship with players that encourages them to have a good back-and-forth with me.
Maybe some of them will become deluded enough to continue to actually pay me for my crap. Which would be awesome.
I have to admit something before I really get going with this review; typically when I start a new XBLIG I do so happily. I’m usually excited to see what an indie developer has come up with, but in the case of Cute Things Dying Violently I had to start it begrudgingly. Not because I wasn’t excited to see what the developer had done, or that the simple yet charming graphics or the puzzle based gameplay didn’t interest me, but because Mother Nature had declared war on me and was using my head as the battlefield. I’ve had a “I just want to lay here and do nothing” type of cold all this past week. So you can imagine my surprise when after having forced myself to start the game I suddenly found myself looking at the clock again a couple hours (and about 40 levels) later. “Alright Cute Things Dying Violently”, I thought, “You’ve got my attention.”
And it certainly did. Nothing about Cute Things Dying Violently, when looked at bit by bit, is particularly overwhelming, but the combined result is hours of fun all bundled up in a small little (one dollar!) package. The basic premise is that each level has a certain number of “critters” (the cute things) that you must get into an elevator so they can escape the level (or they die violently). To do this you must avoid various obstacles as well as activate certain switches and buttons, and all of it is done with a flick of the thumb. The entire game uses a similar, popular, mechanic found on a certain iPhone game involving upset fowl; but it is far from a clone and I would go so far as to say that outside of a basic similarity there is little in common between the two games. You launch the critters in any direction by pulling back on the right analog stick like a slingshot. The further you pull back, the harder you throw the critter. Using the combination of power and aim you fire your critter at whatever it needs to be fired at. While the similarities may be there, you simply can’t mimic the level of control an analog stick provides with a finger on a touch screen, and you’ll need that control.
It all sounds pretty simple right? It is at the core, but the fun, consistently fresh and clever puzzles keep it engaging. The difficulty ramps up from level to level at a fairly consistent and proper pace while the various objects continue to be used in ever increasingly interesting ways. The fact that you can pick up and throw other world objects as well as the critters also adds tremendous depth and possibility to the game as well. Oh, and have I mentioned that there are sixty levels in the main campaign? Plus local multiplayer, plus some special levels that you can access after you unlock certain “achieve mints” and last but certainly not least a level editor so you can really let your inner psychopath fly? Well, guess what, it has all that. All this content would of course be meaningless if it was inferior or even just mediocre, but the fact is it is quality stuff and there is a lot of it. Ultimately though it’s hard to really sell how the game plays with a wall of text, and you need to play it for yourself (read the in-game notes on how to play!) to fully appreciate it.
Moving beyond gameplay the game maintains relatively simply but charming graphics. In all honesty, the game doesn’t need more than what it has. The visuals could have been mind blowing, but ultimately it would still come down to how fun and addictive the game is. That said, I enjoyed the game’s visuals. The environments and various objects were sharp and clear, while the critters were… well they were kind of interesting. When you hear the title you certainly expect the “cute things” to be a little bit different, but the little blue orbs grew on me (not to mention they kind of reminded me of a combination of the 7-up Dot and the California Raisins). Really though, the sounds they made is what made them great. Their little, high pitched voices sounded so sad, so happy and so angry all at the same time. Also on the topic of sounds and soundtrack, CTDV has an incredibly appropriate soundtrack; by that I man the music just fits it like a glove.
One might get the impression from the title of the game that this is really going to be a violence for the sake of violence game, when in-fact it is full of goofy and offbeat humor. One of my absolute favorite bits in the game was on one level where I had managed to save about four of the six critters; one spoke as the elevator ascended in its’ high pitch voice full of innocence, “You managed to save most of my friends…” I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. The game is full of these little bits of humor, especially in the various text boxes on how to play the game scattered throughout the levels. You should read these because they tell you hot to play the game, but you should also read them because they are often funny and very cleverly written. To be blunt, Cute Things Dying Violently actually manages to pull off much of the humor that many XBLIG’s attempt, but just wind up looking like it was written by Internet nerds.
I realize that till this point this review has been absolutely glowing and there is a lot of reason for it to be, but the game is not perfect. The aim is a bit touchy, but I want to be clear; it works like it is supposed to, it can just be a little difficult to work it. This is mostly made apparent though when playing some of the more obnoxious levels, of which there are few. One such example is level 4-8, “Quick Drip.” The shot required on this level is bound to be more luck than skill and in this case you aren’t very likely to have much luck. It is a “one in a million” type of shot that if you manage to get will make it seem rather easy and simple… that is of course if you ignore the hour of cursing and fist waving leading up to that moment. This occurs so rarely in Cute Things Dying Violently though that I feel I should point out that this is probably the first puzzle-based XBLIG I’ve played where I never completed a level due to the game making an error (or vice versa). Obscenely difficult at times? Yes. Broken in any true sense? No.
At the end of the day I could keep going on about how solid the game’s mechanics are or how interesting and fresh the puzzles remain even after so many levels. I could also ramble on for some time about the little moments of pure humor or the pleasing visuals that help to make Cute Things Dying Violently a success. All of that though I think pails in comparison to the simple fact that it had such a strong “just one more” effect that even in my sick, just want to go to bed because I feel like my head is going to explode, state; I wanted to keep playing. Cute Things Dying Violently is possibly the best puzzle game I’ve played for XBLIG. There is so much quality content here for such a little price tag I can’t help but recommend anyone with an Xbox at least try it out.
Final Rating: 9.3/10
CBR Break Down:
Console Played On: Xbox 360 – XBLIG
Gamer Score Earned: N/A
Price Bought at: N/A – Review copy furnished by Apathy Works
Current Price: 80 Microsoft Points ($1)
Recommend Purchase Price: Doesn’t get any lower and worth every digital penny.
Add Cute Things Dying Violently to your download queue!
Apathy Works wants to help make sure more cute things die violent deaths so they have hooked us up with three download codes for the game so that we can in-turn hook up thre of you up with a free copy! No puzzle to solve here, just plain awesomeness. You can gain up to three entries, please read the details on how to enter below:
First entry: We’re going to keep this one simple; tell us your favorite puzzle game! That’s it, whatever your answer, just tell us in the comments below and you have your first entry!
Second entry: Follow us on twitter and send the following tweet:
Another #contest! @ClearanceBinRev is giving away 3 copies of the #XBLIG Cute Things Dying Violently! Enter now at http://bit.ly/uXsi6Z
Remember that you have to follow us; any winner we attempt to DM via Twitter who isn’t, automatically forfeits their win. If you enter via Twitter include your twitter name in your post below, winners who have their twitter listed will receive their codes immediately after winning.
Third Entry: Like our Facebook page and then simply like the post on our wall for this article. Simple as that. (Keep in mind the article may be lower on the Facebook page towards the end of the contest and it may take a minute or two to post on FB)
Contest will go until Monday at 8pm CST. A pool of all eligible entries will then be randomly selected from and the winners will be notified. CBR reserves the right to disqualify any entry we feel either violated the rules or spirit of the contest, including attempts at duplicate entries. Winner selected with no twitter name provided will be notified by email and have 24 hours to respond. We do not announce the names of contest winners, but do encourage them to post about their win.