Some days it’s harder to adult than others.
“Adult” is a strange verb to begin with, and perhaps doubly so coming from someone who spends their days writing about video games. But today in particular, I’m having a hard time adulting. You see, today is September 11th: Super Mario Maker launch day. Sitting at home on my dresser is an unopened copy of the Nintendo game that promises to fulfill the dreams of my inner five year old boy, by handing me the keys to the Mushroom Kingdom and allowing me to construct my own levels featuring everyone’s favourite plumber. Yet here I am, 100 kilometres away, forever pretending to be a grown up.
A mugginess has permeated Toronto by the time I pull up to the offices of 13AM Games that afternoon. As I cross the street to the quaint three-storey office building they call home, it’s not hard to figure out which corner they’re in. Looking down, I see a basement office with a television on one side of the room.
And wouldn’t you know it: they’re playing Super Mario Maker.
Two weeks prior to my visit, 13AM Games released their first major game into the wild: Runbow. Exclusively available for Nintendo’s current home console, the Wii U, Runbow is – at first glance – a platformer. A game that has you hopping your way across a 2D plane from one platform to the next. But there’s much more here than meets the eye. Or perhaps, much less.
Focused on multiplayer mayhem, Runbow allows for up to nine players compete in a series of races. However, each platform on the way to the finish line is a different color, and those platforms will disappear completely when the background color changes to match. “If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist,” Dave Proctor tells me. Dave is the producer at 13AM, and just one of nine people on the team.
Nine people, nine playable characters — so long as no one called in sick, it would be hard to imagine a scenario where they couldn’t get a full squad together.
When I arrive, the team are just wrapping things up for the day. Dave needs a few minutes before we can sit down to talk Runbow, which is just fine with me, as it gives me a chance to watch another 13AMer – and Runbow‘s lead designer – Tom McCall, fiddle around in Super Mario Maker.
“Our office Wii U is mine,” Dave later tells me. “I want one for the office so that I can take my damned Wii U home!” For now, however, McCall is the one monopolizing the Mario-making capabilities of Dave’s machine.
“You’ve got to make something that’s completely teeth-shatteringly hard,” Dave tells Tom.
“But I can beat it in like [seconds],” Tom laughs.
As I sit here, watching a professional game developer just as eager as I am to play with Super Mario Maker, it makes me wonder if our situations might have been reversed had I ever taken the dreams of my five-year-old self seriously and pursued a career in game design. If I’d zigged when I should have zagged, and gone the route of a higher education.
I mean, it makes sense. That’s where the 13AM team met after all.
While each of the nine team members have a diverse range of backgrounds (Tom went to school for engineering, for example, while their artist Lucas Takashi did graphic design in advertising), they found each other in a postgraduate program offered by George Brown College.
“Specifically the George Brown game design postgrad,” Dave says. Tom has put the Wii U Gamepad down and returned to his desk, and I’ve joined Dave at his workstation in the middle of the room. “We had all come from different backgrounds… [but] we all gravitated towards games eventually, because it’s what we all loved to do. And the game design postgrad functions in such a way that you don’t learn coding or art or whatever, you learn the industry and the theory behind it. We learned how the industry worked.”
Like a lot of indie games in recent years, Runbow got its start when the group participated in a game jam — a crunch-mode game making session centered around a certain theme. In this case, the Toronto Global Game Jam.
Often, jams have simple one-word themes that leave lots of room for interpretation. The theme the Runbow team was given to work with, though? Not so simple. Dave tells me that he loves answering this question, because when he tells people, they look at him “bewildered.”
“The theme was ‘We Do Not See Things as They Are, We See Things as We Are.'”
He’s right. I look at him bewildered.
“Have fun with that,” I’m told.
“The whole ‘if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist’ [mechanic]? That was what we wanted. The backgrounds always changing, the platforms disappear when you can’t seem them on the background. That kind of vibe… The theme really fit the color mechanic.
“I think when I had originally thought of the idea, I have envisioned it as a much slower thing. But yeah, we threw it into this absolutely bonkers platform racer, which is another thing that we’d never seen before. And the rest is history.”
Emma Westecott has been involved with games for a long time. Back in the 90s she worked with no less a luminary than Douglas Adams as part of the Starship Titanic team. Since then, she’s spent time in a Swedish games research lab, organized the 2007 Women in Games conference in Wales, and, finally, migrated to Toronto to spearhead the Game Design initiative at the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD).
(Editor’s note: The fact that I didn’t derail my interview with Emma to talk Douglas Adams for an hour should merit me some sort of award for nerd-related integrity.)
“I think there had been one game class previously at OCAD, but largely my arrival brought games to the institution,” Emma tells me. “And because there was nobody else within my institution teaching this area, I was really interested in how colleagues at other institutions had done it… Somebody had mentioned Steve Engels’ name, and I got a chance to go check out this sort of student showcase he was running at U of T [University of Toronto].”
Believe it or not, this chance meeting was, arguably, indirectly responsible for Runbow‘s success. (But more on that in a bit).
Emma invited Steve to critique her first class at OCAD, and the two quickly realized that their programs complemented each other wonderfully. Steve’s students were driven by programming, with games that lacked some of the aesthetic polish that Emma’s OCAD students were capable of. By contrast, Emma says, “the students I was teaching were way too conceptual and not practically grounded in anything that was playable.” These classes could learn a lot from each other, and so, that’s exactly what they did.
“It was fairly obvious to us that our students would benefit from us working together to collaborate on a course,” Emma tells me. “[It was] an informal collaboration, in that students don’t get credits from both institutions. I think it was easier for us to just sort of go ahead and co-teach.”
As if by fate, the semesters at the two instutitions lined up in a way that allowed for OCAD students to attend lectures at the University of Toronto, and vice versa. “In some ways it’s actually a higher course-load than their [the students’] regular elective,” Emma adds, though it’s hard to imagine many would complain. There’s a brilliance in giving your students the access to develop their skillset through as many avenues as they can.
More importantly, though, this opened the doors for another student showcase — this time featuring students from both programs.
It was the start of something huge.
“The first year… I think it was around the time TIFF [Bell Lightbox] was starting up activities, so we ran the end of term showcase down there.”
What began as a simple extension of Steve’s earlier student showcase, however, quickly blossomed. Now dubbed “Level Up,” the event added OCAD in its first year, more Ontario institutions in its second, and as of Level Up 2015, included more than 80 games from 18 different universities and colleges across the province.
“We ran out of space at TIFF quite quickly,” Emma laughs. The following year they rented out a club, but for the last three years they’ve used the space at Toronto’s iconic Design Exchange. And that too, is starting to feel crowded.
“I think a lot of the reason it’s grown is that there was a real need and desire to bring student-based games together in one place… We’re really proud that we’ve been able to create the single destination for all of the college and university game courses in Ontario.”
For the students themselves, Level Up can often be much more than a showcase.
The event gives potential employers a one-stop-shop to see what the best and brightest in Ontario’s post-secondary game design programs are producing. Some companies, like Ubisoft Toronto, UKEN and Big Blue Bubble even sponsor the event.
“I think it makes complete sense from an employer’s point of view,” says Emma. “They can go to one event. If there’s people that they’re looking to hire, it makes that process much more straightforward.”
Similarly, Level Up gives student game makers the opportunity to show off their work to potential publishers and partners. More important than anything though, says Emma, is the opportunity it gives students to cross-pollinate with their peers from other programs.
“It’s the opportunity to see how your game stacks up against a colleague’s from a different institution. That sort of peer group checking, in some ways, I think is really exciting… There’s something magical that goes on from a personal viewpoint, seeing your own work on public display next to others.”
There’s a value in it for the educators, too, Emma tells me. “It’s a chance to see how our colleagues vary or are similar in their approach to game design.”
Six years later, Emma Westecott is still eager to learn.
Back in those days, it looked quite different. Still, as students, the 13AM team went to the show feeling like they had something close to a final product on hand. They had even launched a page that day on digital game distribution service Steam, in the “Greenlight” section, in hopes of driving potential players to vote their project onto Steam.
“It was clunky and awful, and you’d hit your head on platforms above you,” Dave laughs, thinking about how far they’ve come in the 16 short months since. “Oh, [the Level Up build of Runbow] is a nightmare.”
While the original build might seem rough by comparison to the final release, Runbow in 2014 was still incredibly impressive by student standards. It earned a spot in an article I’d written following the event, “5 Student-made Games You Need to Play,” and – more importantly – took home the award for Best Game Design.
The biggest takeaway from the event, though, was the feedback players were able to provide Dave and his team.
“We got to hear some really critical feedback [from] a couple of industry vets. I remember specifically someone was saying ‘Too rough,’ and I was like ‘Cool! talk to me.’ I took down all his notes and everything that he said was implemented in the next version of the game.”
When I pressed Dave for details, he described the advice as the sort of things anyone with experience would know, but that beginners could only learn through trial and error — or, in 13AM’s case, the wisdom of their betters.
“There are really smart people that are playing and making games in this city.”
“[For example,] if you fall off a platform – especially in our game, which you do constantly because that’s the mechanic – you should have a little bit of forgiveness for your jump. [In] the time it takes for the light to hit your eyeballs, you’re already falling. That exists in every platformer, but it’s something that we’d never thought about.”
If you’ve had a chance to play Runbow, you’ll likely remember that the goal in each race is to be the first player to grab the trophy at the end. Believe it or not, this is an homage to the trophy they won at Level Up — and there’s a lot more to the story than, “Hey, they won it.”
“We broke it the day of the show,” Dave tells me. “When we took the pictures, they were passing us promotional items to take photos with. We were holding the trophy, and they were like, ‘Now hold your promotional UKEN water bottles,’ and we all [held] our UKEN water bottles. ‘And now, here, you have to hold your RAZR headphones.’ And we held our RAZR headphones. And they’re giving us stuff and passing it along, and I put the trophy down next to me.”
“And then [they said] ‘Okay, now let this person in,’ and we just shift — and I hoof the trophy over. It wasn’t a quiet break,” Dave makes a loud crashing sound, reliving the embarrassment. “It’s like dropping a bowling ball. And everyone looks at me and goes ‘…did you [just] break the trophy?'”
“Yeah, I did.”
“And I put all the pieces in and held it up, and [the broken pieces have] been sitting in the top ever since. It’s still a trophy. It looks cooler now. It inspired us to make the end goal of Runbow, at every level…the trophy. That’s where that came from.” He looks, almost lovingly, at the prize.
“It’s my turn to dust it.”
The contacts Dave and his team made at Level Up continued to provide feedback, forwarding articles that would be beneficial for the team to consider and learn from. In particular, he calls out a great series of articles from Yowan Langlais of Montreal’s Juicy Beast that appeared on Gamasutra, discussing the platforming mechanics of Toto Temple Deluxe. “We were like ‘Yeah, this makes sense!'” says Dave.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in this industry, at least in Toronto, that won’t tell you honestly [what they think]… If you don’t want that feedback, you shouldn’t be in a public arena. But if you’re in a public arena like that, get it. Get it all. Take everything that you can, because there are really smart people that are playing and making games in this city.
Emma Westecott is a big believer in learning from others, and not just for herself. Her spirit of curiosity, of wanting to learn from her colleagues, is infectious. She speaks of Level Up as a place where students can learn from students and educators from educators — but ultimately, that’s only one day a year.
Her passion, however, is year-round.
“Last year [we did] collaborative lecturing [across various Ontario institutions],” she tells me. For example, she speaks of an instructor at Sheridan College whose specialty is game “feel” and mechanics, so Emma had her come to OCAD to give a lecture to the students. “The idea is [that] if anybody wanted the skills or expertise that we hold, we [should] offer our services to go and lecture at their institution.”
“It’s proven really, really valuable to go beyond our institutional walls.”
Steve Engels, the U of T instructor who doubles as Emma’s collaborative partner-in-crime, had the idea to create a mailing list for game professors. Once or twice a year, they all try to get together to discuss best practices and shared obstacles.
Emma is quick to unknowingly echo Dave’s thoughts about the quality and quantity of game developers in the 6ix. And – like she does with fellow educators – whole-heartedly encourages her students to soak up knowledge from one another.
“I tend to send a lot of my students out to Hand Eye Society or to Dames Making Games, and they really sort of benefit from that interaction with the community here… It’s proven really, really valuable to go beyond our institutional walls and figure out ways we can build mass beyond our particular institutions.”
“I think that’s some of the idea and thinking behind Level Up, really.”
While bonds formed at Level Up proved valuable to informing the continued development of Runbow, the event isn’t where 13AM met Nintendo. To hear Dave tell it, that sounds like it was a case of good old fashioned door knocking. It just so happened that Mario was happy to answer.
“We pitched it to a couple of platforms, and Nintendo immediately was like ‘We see the potential in this.'” Looking back at that early Level Up build, as well as the later build they submitted to Nintendo, Dave seems a little dumbfounded by the risk Nintendo was willing to take on them. “How did that [build] ever get us as far as it did?” Just as quickly as he cajoles, however, Dave reflects honestly.
“But we made them a nice pitch, and catered a build for them. We gave them something they could play. And they loved it.”
That love translated into plenty of support from the Big N. On the morning of my visit, I booted up my Wii U and took a look at the Nintendo’s eShop — the company’s digital storefront. Runbow was sitting right at the top in a prominent banner, side by side with…Super Mario Maker. Even prior to this, for the first two weeks of Runbow‘s release, the game had what the team dubs a complete eShop takeover. “All the banners were us. Today it’s Super Mario Maker and Runbow…It’s really huge. And in Europe, when you boot up your Wii U…it would say ‘buy Runbow, Runbow‘s out.'”
“This whole interview is an ad for Super Mario Maker, by the way.”
If you’re an indie developer who has worked with other platform partners -or even a player who’s perused their storefronts – you might be a little surprised by the sort of push that Runbow has gotten. This is typically the sort of promotion that, outside of Nintendo, seems reserved for AAA titles that can move millions of units.
I asked Dave why he thinks that is.
“Indies are super important to the PlayStation and Xbox brands… [but] I’ve heard [they’re] still less than 30% of their total business.” By contrast, Dave suggests that Nintendo doesn’t look at things in term of indie vs. AAA vs. other revenue streams so much as they look at the end user experience. “Nintendo’s budget — I don’t know their finances — but the way it seems? They make their money off [of] fun.”
That may sound like a warm-and-fuzzy sales pitch on the virtues of Nintendo, but Dave continues, exemplifying the way Nintendo’s uncompromising belief in playful experiences informs their decision-making — including some decisions that aren’t terribly popular among consumers.
“This whole interview is an ad for Super Mario Maker, by the way,” he jokes. “That came out today, and that’s 70 bucks. That will never be cheaper, because it will – in their eyes – it’s always going to be as fun. So they never lower the price of a game. You can buy a brand new copy of Super Mario Sunshine for $60.”
Not everyone is a fan of Nintendo’s refusal to discount their titles, but from a developer’s point of view, it’s easy to see the value in treating the pricing of games the same way we treat other media like movies and books. “I admire that dedication. It makes [some] people not understand what the hell they’re doing, [but it’s them saying] ‘It’ll always be good.’ [Super Mario] Galaxy is still good.”
If a “fun above all else” approach is really what’s driving Nintendo, it begins to make sense that they’d lend so much support to an indie game like Runbow. A smaller title like this – stuffed to the gills with opportunities for emergent moments of fun with your friends – needs the extra push much more than any Mario or Zelda title might. And in terms of Nintendo’s commitment to indie, specifically? Runbow is far from an isolated case.
“Our friends from Too DX in Seattle, they made a game called Sportsball (and Swift Thornbrook is in our game, we love Sportsball so much). There was a time, right around the time [Super] Smash [Bros. for Wii U] came out — they came out like a month before Smash — and it was ‘Local Multiplayer Games: Sportsball, Smash Bros.’ like, right next to each other. And Sportsball is a tiny game, but [it was] because Nintendo respects fun and dedication to the craft.”
In addition to promoting Runbow in their eShop, Nintendo has been helping 13AM Games get the word out through plenty of avenues over the last year. “They put us [into] a lot of promotional events,” Dave tells me. Indiecade, GDC, E3, PAX Prime — you name it, Nintendo made sure Runbow was there. Even now, with the game released, the promotional train shows few signs of slowing. 13AM is gearing up for a trip overseas to the EGX expo later this month in the UK.
“Looking back, the amount of money that they spent — and not just money, man, but time that they spent marketing our game, promoting our game. They put a team of geniuses, who probably have much more educated developers to deal with than us, on [the task of] promoting our game. And I still have the privilege of getting to talk to them on the phone…I talked to them today.”
When they returned to Level Up in 2015, the shoe was now on the other foot. While Runbow wasn’t out yet, Dave and his cohorts had put twelve more months of development into the game. No longer the students looking for feedback, they were now the full-time developers checking out what Ontario’s students were working on.
“I saw a couple of studios, wisely so, looking for local talent. They [even] asked me, ‘Are you here recruiting?'” While the shoe may be on the other foot now, Dave still needs a bit of time to break it in. “No,” he laughs, retelling the story. “We don’t have any money [for that].”
In looking back at the success of Runbow, Emma Westecott can’t help but also think about what it means for the future.
“It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because actually what people are showing are prototypes. They’re early stages, what I’m calling increasing game sketches rather than fully releasable games. And yet, from that potential, some of the strongest games have been able to move on from there.
“I don’t necessarily think we’ll get a Runbow every year, but I think that we’ll get good games. One of the things I’m really interested in – we’re all interested in – is how we can sort of follow up on that one. Not everybody will be interested, but for those who are interested, how can we help support them getting out into the market?”
Not every game is made for marketability, but sometimes that’s the entire point. Door, a project by OCAD students that was showcased at Level Up 2014, is the sort of game that’s sheer and utter brilliance couldn’t work as anything more than a showcase piece.
Played using a whiteboard and a projector, Door is a co-operative platformer where one player explores an unseen environment while the other player draws what’s discovered. It’s clever, unique, and a clear indication that video games can be much more than what traditionally comes to mind.
In some ways, Door is almost the exact opposite of Runbow. Instead of platforms disappearing, you’re discovering them. Instead of competition, you’re co-operating. Instead of marketability, you’re crafting something so experimental that it requires equipment more often found in a board room than a living room.
If you’re ever given the chance to play Door – and speaking with Emma, I’ve confirmed the game still makes public appearances – it’s the sort of experience that warrants my strongest recommendation: eleventy-billion thumbs up.
To that end, Emma seems quite enthused about last year’s Level Up winner; a puzzle platforming game from her own OCAD students called Pitfall Planet.
“One of the things that I’d really like to do is find a way to explore Pitfall Planet in terms of getting it out, and getting it seen by potential distributors and publishers.”
Despite her enthusiasm for the project, Emma laments her institution’s lack of contacts in the distribution world. Though if I’ve come to learn anything about Emma Westecott during our conversation, it’s that roadblocks are really just opportunities to build something new.
It’s been six weeks now since I’ve met with the team behind Runbow, and I’m still wondering about a lot of things. I’m wondering how far the team might have gone had they lacked the opportunity to present at the Level Up student showcase. I’m wondering if they might have gone further, even quicker if, there had been support at the institutional level to help bring student games to market.
More than anything, I’m wondering if Tom ever made that “teeth-shatteringly hard” Super Mario Maker level.
As for me? I managed to rip the shrink wrap off my copy of Mario Maker as soon as I got home, and have had a blast making levels these last few weeks (and playing the creations of others).
My five-year-old self didn’t really grow up in a time when “game design” was something that Ontario colleges and universities were taking seriously — and I certainly lacked the high school focus that would have been needed to take it seriously even if they had. But as I watch my kids play Super Mario Maker, making better levels than I ever could, I smile.
Maybe I’ll be playing their games at Level Up one day.