On the last day of PAX West 2016, I had some time before the day started. I was walking past the booth for a company I’d never heard of called Gambitious and I saw it, on the biggest, loudest TV screen possible. It was a flash of colour and thumping rhythms- I was immediately sucked in, transfixed. As I sat down and handed the controller, I was told “left trigger shoots down, right trigger shoots forward” and that was all I needed to hear. I immediately fell into the flow of shoot down, shoot forward, die and repeat. I played for only a couple minutes but it was easily the most memorable game from the show. Before I had to leave I quickly asked “What is this?!” and the woman giving me the demo smiled and said “RunGunJumpGun.”
I grabbed a handful of pins and put them on my backpack and many of my friend’s backpacks. Needless to say I was very excited. I immediately bought the game on Steam and read up on everything I could about this mysterious title and who made it. I discovered ThirtyThree is a Canadian studio working out of a former whiskey storage turned office in Edmonton, Alberta. They originally just wanted to make a little farewell game to their coworkers but eventually grew that idea into the full-fledged title I fell in love with. There are three developers who made RunGunJumpGun: Matthew Satchwill, Logan Gilmour and Jordan Bloemen. I reached out to Jordan via email and got to ask all the burning questions I’d had since that first demo at PAX West. Here is that interview.
[Stephan] How did a small farewell game turn into a year and a half long development? Was there a worry about trying to take on too much?
[Jordan] There was a moment in development when we decided to make an “actual game” rather than a goodbye gift to our co-workers. That moment, and we didn’t know it at the time, was when the scope instantly multiplied. We had never made a game before, and even a simply seeming title like RunGun brings with it all kinds of time-consuming phases we had never thought about. Honing in on the idea, the mechanics, the art, the music, all took revision after revision. Then, you’re testing, trying to see how what was in your head jives with the actual player experience. I think we all thought we were starting with something easy, but when you’re a team of three people, none of whom like to cut corners, you end up taking on more than you can chew even when it doesn’t look like there’s that much on the fork.
[Stephan] Why are you called ThirtyThree?
We’re called ThirtyThree because there are three of us and we split everything equally — so 33.33333333 percent of the project falls on each person’s head. At least that’s the idea. The wildly talented Matthew Satchwill handling art, design and animation. The stupidly creative Logan Gilmour handling programming duty. And me, Jordan Bloemen, scraping together Music, Sound Design and Story.
[Stephan] How was it working out of an old whiskey storage?
Ha, it’s actually a startup space in beautiful, frosty Edmonton, Alberta. They did the conversion, so really it was a big gorgeous old warehouse with ping pong tables and strong wifi. No old casks or anything, but the vibe was there. Incidentally, Edmonton has a killer startup culture. You couldn’t pick a better spot to bootstrap something like this.
[Stephan] What were some of the inspirations for RunGunJumpGun? I’ve read that the pulsing feel of Hotline Miami was a huge inspiration and the difficulty of Super Meat Boy, did anything else inspire RunGunJumpGun?
Yeah, Hotline Miami and Super Meat Boy are the big ones. Hotline for the tone and intensity and the commitment to a vibe, and Meat Boy for its philosophical approach to level design.
[Stephan] The narrative in RunGunJumpGun is actually one of my favourite parts of the game, was the world and characters an early part of the development or did the gameplay come first and the story was added later?
Thanks man. It’s funny, we submitted the game (and I mean a super crummy, broken early, early build) to a game fest like a year before launch, and got rejected. Their criticism was that it “lacked character” which we took way too literally and added characters. So it came later in development, but that realization that the game needed space and context and character instructed a hard won lesson that most players don’t just want a mechanic in a vacuum. A little feeling goes a long way.
[Stephan] There are dialogue lines in between levels asking whether the player is even reading the text. Is it frustrating to put time and energy into building the world and story only to watch somebody skip through it to the next level?
Ha, as the guy who wrote it — yes. That little joke (and thanks for noticing) I think is a nod to how we all sometimes play games, churning through the text, but also the fact that in anything big and action packed, be it games or movies and TV, we don’t think about how there are normal people on the edge of all that juicy action. The story in this game isn’t about the hero, it’s about the people in this world that’s falling apart and now suddenly has to play host to this crazed scavenger. It’s a story told through the people who witness it, and if we lived in a situation like this, fictional or real, I think we’d all be pretty annoyed no one ever cared about what we, as people who had to deal with all this chaos, felt.
[Stephan] The game is incredibly easy to understand with just two buttons but incredibly difficult to master, it’s a really great balance and I found myself getting into the flow really easily (the warp respawn really helped with that). Throughout development what feedback and changes led to the final experience? Were you ever worried people wouldn’t be able to get it easily or get frustrated with the constant deaths?
Yeah we did a lot of testing in terms of what levels killed people, how many times, and where in the level. Our programmer Logan built some wonderful tools that we were able to use to reorder the levels to get things nice and smooth. The biggest insight was, and this is obvious, was that if people put the game down, they did it after a death. That’s where the rainbow respawn came from. We used to fade to black and come back at the start of the level, but by making the respawn this colourful, sonically pleasing woosh, we could keep people in it longer. But yeah, balancing that difficulty curve was a constant question, with each member falling somewhere slightly different on the curve.
[Stephan] What’s some advice you wish you’d had at the start of the development process for RunGunJumpGun that someone trying to get into indie game development should know?
It’s going to take longer, be harder, and tire you out more than you think. I can’t think of two better people to work on the game with, and even if we never got truly annoyed with each other, we all felt that fatigue. As a medium, games are a marathon not a sprint.
[Stephan] Are you planning any ports of RunGunJumpGun?
Yup 🙂 Apple TV is in the works.
[Stephan] What’s next for ThirtyThree? Are you all sticking together for a new super hard platformer or a game from a different genre entirely?
We’re starting to play around with VR, trying to see if there’s something we can make in that space. An entirely new medium is just too appealing.
[Stephan] Months after release how are you feeling about the title? Sales and reviews all seem to be great for the first game from a new studio, but how does everyone on the team feel about it?
We’re just happy to see people playing and enjoying the game. First titles can be a slow burn for sales, but as more people pick up the game, it’s just cool to know we’ve made something they’re getting to experience and hopefully enjoy.
[Stephan] Is there anything else you really want people to know about RunGunJumpGun, ThirtyThree or indie game development?
If you like twitchy, hard, beautiful, loud things, pick up RunGunJumpGun on iOS, Steam or Android.