Interview

Spelunking with Derek Yu

A cave story

Mention the name Derek Yu just a couple of years ago, and you'd likely be met by a few confused looks. Maybe one or two of those particularly tuned into the indie gaming scene might have raised an eyebrow, before proudly proclaiming "Oh! Yeah, he's one of the guys who made Aquaria, right?"

He was indeed. But it was only late on in 2008 that a beta version of a delightful freeware platformer named Spelunky emerged. Since then, the low-bit title - which weighs in at a mammoth eight megabytes - has found its way onto a variety of 'favourite games' lists, and garnered a whole lot of positive attention in the PC gaming community.

So much so, in fact, that it's set for a complete revamp and a release on Xbox Live Arcade. Yu is currently hard at work on the new Spelunky - but that's far from the only way he keeps himself busy. I caught up with him recently to talk about his work, which doesn't just involve the creation of videogames. Yu is also Editor-In-Chief of TIGSource, one of the leading online resources for indie game development. He draws comics sometimes as well.

I have a suspicion he's also invented a device that stops time, which has enabled him to spread himself across so many different and brilliant endeavours.

Were you surprised by the response to Spelunky? Clearly, it is a great game. But it's ended up appearing on plenty of Games of the Year lists, ranked above well-received, big budget titles. PC Gamer UK listed it as one of its Top 100 games of all time. Did you ever expect it to go so huge?

No, I never expected it to be as popular as it is! But the fact that a hardcore pixel art game can be compared to big budget titles seems like a good sign for the industry.

How did the idea for the game come about?

After I finished Aquaria I started working on smaller games. I was playing around with platformer and roguelike game prototypes when I got the idea to combine the two genres. Destructible terrain was another concept I was interested in at the time, and that tied it all together for me.

It's on its way to XBLA. Is this something you'd had in mind from the start, or just a good offer coming in from Microsoft?

Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid, was a fan of the game and helped put me in touch with Microsoft. I never intended to do anything with the game beyond the freeware release.

You've mentioned that the XBLA version will be "much more than a straight port" - what's being tweaked for the new version? Are you considering both versions as totally separate games?

The XBLA version is very much based on the original game, but it's not a straight port. I'm redoing all of the graphics and audio and I'm also planning on adding new content - at least one new area and some new game modes. I'm really trying to make a game that feels like it was made for Xbox... as a result, it might feel slightly different to the original Spelunky. And the original was made for the PC and has a lot of features that the Xbox won't, like the level editor, for example.

Is a love of game design something that's always been a part of you? I mean, you started making games when you were, what, 14?

Yeah, I was interested in games from a very early age. Before I could make any games, I'd design them on paper with my friends, making maps and writing out all of the instructions. I'd even design consoles to play the games on! For a kid, games were fantasy come to life. They still are, actually.

Apparently my mom played Atari when she was pregnant with me - maybe that had something to do with it!

Plenty of your games seem to make a statement of some kind - whether that's as a sort of letter-of-love to a particular genre or design ideology, the bold artistry of Aquaria, or in a more direct sense, such as with I'm O.K. Is this something you keep in mind, or is it just a case of making the games you love?

It's not something I think about too consciously when I'm making a game. Afterwards, I have a better understanding of what I've done and what I was trying to say. In the moment, however, I'm guided more by what I enjoy and what I find engaging. Trying to do it any other way means failure for me, plain and simple.

Even with I'm O.K. the design was guided more by what I found humorous about the video game industry and Jack Thompson than by a need to make a statement against either.

You're kind of working under a variety of different guises. There's Derek Yu of Bit Blot, who made Aquaria. There's Derek Yu, aka. Mossmouth, aka. The Guy Who Made Spelunky. There's Derek Yu the comic book artist, and Derek Yu the TIGSource editor. Have you always enjoyed having your fingers in many pies?

Yes! There are a lot of delicious pies out there and you only have one life to try them all. But I do try to make sure that all of my projects are aimed toward a common goal. For example, being the Editor-in-Chief of TIGSource lets me interact with all kinds of interesting games and developers, and that helps me understand my own games better. It also makes me feel like I'm giving something back to a community that I really love.

My number one priority is to make great games that people enjoy, but writing, drawing, and activism have all helped, rather than hindered, by growth as a creator.

You've always come across as very much devoted to the independent scene. If the right offer turned up, would you spring for a chance to work at a bigger development house, or would you rather keep things small-scale?

I'd rather keep it small... or maybe medium-sized. It's really hard to let go of the freedom and flexibility you have as an independent developer! Plus, the limited resources of an indie is very conducive to creativity - it forces you to think about the right things with regards to game design.

The indie scene seems to be really on fire. Each new year, people are speculating it will be the "year of the indies". What are your thoughts on independent game development at the moment?

I think it's only going to continue growing as better, less expensive tools pop up, as more platforms emerge for indies to distribute their games on... as the community grows. It's a pretty exciting time for people developing games. The childish dreams I had of making it big on my own seem pretty real now. That's one thing that's not fantasy.

And the bigger studios? Is there going to be a situation where it's the smaller guys making all the innovations, and the big names playing catch-up?

Actually, the big studios are doing a good job these days, in my opinion. I've been really impressed with some of the mainstream games I've played recently, like Fallout 3 and Batman: Arkham Asylum. I think those games are actually pretty innovative.

But a lot of interesting questions are being asked and answered by indie developers, who add so much texture and so much personality to the games industry. That's why I called my new company Mossmouth - the forest would be so much less interesting without all the strange little plants growing around the trees!