An interview with FlipSide creator Brian O’Keefe
March 29, 2010
So impressed were we of independent game FlipSide, that we asked its creator Brian O’Keefe to answer some questions about his Xbox Live Indie Games title. Happily, he obliged, answering the following questions by the magic of email from all the way across the pond. Find out after the jump how the game came about, why it’s so bloody hard, what it’s like getting a game onto Xbox Live Indie Games and what that murderous zebra on the box art is all about…
infinitecontinues: Hi Brian. Who are you and what do you do?
Brian O’Keefe: I’m a college student, a programmer, and a gamer. I’ve been programming for almost half my life, and I’ve been gaming since as far back as I can remember. Naturally, these two hobbies have come together, and I’ve begun to make independent games.
ic: We found you, and your site http://www.bokstuff.com, from your recent Xbox Live Indie Game, FlipSide. Is this your debut commercial game?
BOK: Yes, it is. It’s not my first game ever, though – I have a few completed PC games under my belt, but I don’t consider them very good, and only a few people have seen them. I also have a ton of unfinished games for both PC and Xbox 360. Most of them are just random ideas I’ve had that I never fully went through with, or they ended up being too huge in scope, or they ended up being just not fun.
ic: What was the inspiration behind FlipSide? How did the idea come about?
BOK: The inspiration came from a few different games. I had been trying for a while to think of a concept for a game that would be simple, yet addictive and challenging. I remembered a TI-83 calculator game I wasted way too much time playing in high school, called Falldown. I used its simple, but fun, mechanic of moving through gates as a starting point for the idea. I thought, “What could make this more challenging?” I thought about some random Flash games I had played on the Internet that required the player to multitask, videos I’ve seen of people playing the co-op mode of Ikaruga by themselves, and my own experience playing light-gun games with both guns, and I realized that multitasking is a pretty interesting game mechanic that can make games both more difficult and more fun. And so, FlipSide was born. I should also mention that Ikaruga was part of the inspiration for the black-and-white color scheme.
ic: It’s interesting you should mention the colour scheme, as it’s one of the things we love most about FlipSide. It’s an incredibly pure visual experience, probably the most pared-down art direction we’ve ever seen for a commercial game. And it ties in perfectly to the very, very simple gameplay. Were you tempted to embellish the game, by adding further objectives/power-ups, for example, or were you determined to keep the single idea of piloting each ship through each gate undiluted from the start?
BOK: The simple art was definitely intended to tie in with the simple gameplay. I figured, for a such a simple game, what more would you need, right? The inverted colors on the right half of the screen are supposed to act as a cool way of differentiating the two playing fields. I really wanted to stress that you’re doing two completely different things at once while playing.
As for making the game more complex, yeah, the thought definitely crossed my mind. I got a lot of suggestions for power-ups, different types of gates, a “bullet-time” mechanic, etc. But I felt like messing with the simplicity of the game would take away from its appeal. I wanted to make something that was very simple, so that anyone could start playing and grasp the concept immediately. But at the same time, I wanted it to be very hard. So, anyone can pick up and play it, but because there is so little to learn, they could be pushed to their limits right off the bat.
ic: Going back to Ikaruga, it’s generally cited as one of the most difficult games ever released. You’ve just mentioned yourself that you wanted FlipSide to be very hard; do you think you risk alienating players with the difficulty or are you confident that players will rise to the challenge? Or are you just sadistic…?
BOK: Well, I knew from the start that I wanted FlipSide to be really, really hard. I love hard games – I’m of the opinion that modern games in general are becoming way too easy. I’m the type who will sit there for over an hour trying to beat a single battle on the hardest difficulty of Ninja Gaiden. There’s just something I like about the repetition. First, you get completely and utterly wrecked by the game. But you keep trying, again and again, until you figure out the perfect strategy. Your concentration builds and builds until you enter a state of gaming zen and finally execute your plan perfectly and succeed. It’s kind of a rush of satisfaction – much more so than what beating an easy game gives – and that’s what I wanted to let the players of FlipSide feel.
I know I risk alienating players with the extreme difficulty of the game. But at the same time, I know there is a niche of players who are just like me and love this sort of gameplay. Plus, I’ve always read that game developers will find the most success if they make games that they themselves like, and not games that they think other people will like. If you make games that you want to play yourself, you’ll know exactly what will make them good.
Am I sadistic? Maybe just a little…
ic: I’m currently not getting very far with FlipSide. I managed, after many tries, to get through Challenge 2, only to be completely annihilated on Challenge 3. I’m also only up to 58 points on Endless mode. How good are you at your game? What’s your highest score in Endless mode?
BOK: Well, after developing and testing the game for almost five weeks straight during my spare time, I got pretty good at it. I can beat any challenge stage now in only a few tries – it seems like once you beat a stage once, you’ve pretty much got it down for life. I don’t know what my all-time high score for Endless mode is because I had to wipe my save file a bunch of times during development, but it’s somewhere in the 250-300 range.
Don’t give up! Keep trying, you’ll get it eventually! I find it helps sometimes to sit back, rather than lean in close to your TV.
ic: Tell us a bit more about the process of getting your game onto the Xbox Live Indie Games service. Were there any setbacks along the way, or handicaps? For instance, the Endless mode seems to be crying out for online leaderboard functionality – is that something that Xbox Live Indie Games lack as a rule, or was it simply just out of the scope of your project?
BOK: It was actually a fairly smooth process, which surprised me. There were thankfully no major setbacks. Every Xbox Live Indie Game has to go through a peer-review process, in which other developers test your game and try to break it. If they can cause your game to crash, then it fails, and you have to wait a week before submitting it for review again. If you’ve got a lot of bugs in your game, then this can become a very long process. FlipSide, to my relief, passed on the first try. I was extremely paranoid, though. For example, what would happen if some guy is running his Xbox in Spanish, and he plays the trial version of the game, purchases it from the main menu, beats stage 1, 2, and 3, then pulls his memory card out while saving? You have to make sure that there are no weird bugs that would make your game crash in obscure situations like that. There’s also a set of standards that is imposed on every Indie Game, like there can’t be any text that’s too small to read, your game should react correctly if you log out of your gamertag while playing, etc. If you don’t follow these standards, your game won’t be approved. It’s nice though, because it enforces some degree of quality on Indie Games.
Online leaderboards are possible for Xbox Live Indie Games, although there isn’t standardized support for them like you might see in commercial XBLA or disc-based games. You have to come up with your own system for leaderboards, and it has to be peer-to-peer because of certain limitations imposed on Indie Games. I definitely wanted to add online leaderboards for FlipSide, and in retrospect, I guess I could have. It’s never too late though – I can always patch it in later!
ic: Beyond FlipSide, what’s your next project? Are you currently working on any further games?
BOK: I’m always working on something or other. I’ve got a lot of ideas swimming around in my head for my next game, but I’m not sure what I want to do yet. I’ve had a Mario-inspired platformer in the works for quite some time now, and I hope to release it someday, but it’s a pretty huge project. I think I’ll get it done eventually, though.
I’ve always found music-based games like Rez to be really cool. I’ve done some experimenting with gameplay based on the player’s custom music – you would be able to plug your MP3 player into your 360, and the game would generate gameplay based on the music you choose. I’ve been trying for a while to figure out the perfect set of gameplay mechanics for a game like that. Be on the lookout for a game like this from me in the future!
I’m also a huge fan of online FPS, and as far as I know, there aren’t really any Live-enabled FPSs on Xbox Live Indie Games yet. I’d love to be the first to release a really cool online FPS for Indie Games, but again, it would be a huge project, and I am just one guy (well I guess I can’t take ALL of the credit for FlipSide; a good friend of mine did the music). Someday, I hope to overcome this and release a cool game like that anyway!
So my next project could be any of those games, or it could be something completely different. Whatever it ends up being, I’ll be sure to post lots of info about it on my website when I figure it out.
ic: Finally, Brian, tell us what the ‘super-pissed-off zebra’ has to do with FlipSide? We struggled to find the connection, other than the black-and-white connotations?
BOK: Ah, I knew this question was coming. The whole black-and-white thing is basically it. My sister (who ended up drawing the zebra) is actually the one who came up with it. She said I needed a mascot and suggested a “crazy zebra,” as it was one of the only mascots we could think of that could be represented with only black and white. The original design for the zebra was crazy happy and had a sombrero. I decided that a crazy angry zebra fit in better with the near-impossible gameplay. The idea was sort of like… “Yeah, this zebra is pissed, and he’s pissed at YOU. Why? I have no idea, but now you have to face the consequences… by beating FlipSide.” Yeah, it’s kind of random, but I figured a crazy zebra on the box art would be more likely to draw people in than just the title of the game or something.
ic: Well it certainly drew me in! Thanks for taking the time out to talk to infinitecontinues, Brian. We hope FlipSide gets the attention it deserves and wish you luck with all your future games.
FlipSide is available to download on the Xbox Live Indie Games service right now, for the ridiculously low price of 80 MSP. There is also a free trial version of the game should you wish to check it out free of charge first so, as Brian says, “You have no excuse not to try it.” Not only do you get a fantastically pure, addictive game for a few measly pennies, you also get the warm fuzzy feeling inside of knowing you are helping support independent game developers to further hone their craft and put out more great games. You can download the game directly from the Xbox Live Marketplace on your Xbox Dashboard or follow this link, and purchase it online.
You can keep up with Brian’s future work by visiting his website, www.bokstuff.com, and also become a fan of FlipSide at the game’s Facebook page. While you’re there, don’t forget to Become A Fan of Infinite Continues to keep up with developments on the blog.
N.B. Since this interview was conducted, I managed to beat my high score on FlipSide’s Endless mode by achieving exactly 100 points. Anyone who can send me photo evidence of a better score will have their gaming prowess immortalised forever on the infinitecontinues website. Consider the gauntlet laid down!