If you’ve ever imagined you’d like to create a video game of your own, take some inspiration from Irvine, Calif.’s Kilroy Fx, whose game BloodyCheckers has been topping the charts on Xbox LIVE Arcade’s Indie Games channel since it was released in June. Out of the blue, this sleeper hit has gotten waves of great reviews from industry critics as well as gamers, and it keeps getting better thanks to Kilroy‘s updates (a big one, his fourth, is coming soon). And it just goes to show that one guy with a good idea and a whole lot of persistence can still make a difference.
In case you haven’t checked out the game yet – why not? Part of the appeal of this game lies in its price: 80 Microsoft Points – that’s $1. Another part of the appeal lies in the story of its creator, who was a gamer and film industry veteran with zero programming knowledge a year and a half ago. He spent hours and days and months learning and researching everything from the Middle Ages to board game strategy and creating fonts, developed his own game in 10 months – often in a self-imposed cone of silence – and is now making his software and his techniques available for free to anyone who’d like to use them. Bucking the industry’s norms can be a difficult proposition, and Kilroy Fx is doing it with style.
But the major part of BloodyCheckers’ appeal, of course, is its execution: a detailed and polished title centered around a rather simplistic family game that’s been updated for modern sensibilities. We caught up with Kilroy Fx to chat about his vision, the game, and where he goes from here.
VidThru.com: Where did the idea for BloodyCheckers come from?
Kilroy Fx: I basically tried to come up with the worst idea and the simplest idea that I could, and apply all my passion to it. I know that sounds a little backwards. I looked around and I found there wasn’t a game of checkers, which is the simplest game around–a simple board game. It allowed me to have some multiplayer turn-based action, and it allowed me to have some simple rules of the game that were already defined. I knew at the time that this was not going to be a successful game but I knew it would work really well for me to build on. I wanted to learn and I wanted to build onto something, and I wanted to apply my passion to this idea. So it fit some criteria. There were no good checkers games on the Xbox, and there were no real great checkers games on the Internet, because they didn’t capture the essence of when you play a game with your friends or family sitting down in the middle of the summer. It’s hot outside, you’re sitting at a table and your brother looks at the checker piece and you’re going, “Oh, don’t move that one, don’t move that one.“ And then he picks it up and he moves it – and just that essence alone, I could feel it. I was sculpting this passion for that feeling when you play against someone else, someone else’s mind, someone else’s body – they’re right in front of you. I wanted to recreate that in checkers to see how well I could. And I always knew this.
It’s not the story that you tell, it’s how well you tell the story, right? And the game went through many iterations of me hating the game, to me loving the game, to me hating the game, to me loving the game, and that was the starting point. From that I applied what I call “the one-chance philosophy.” If you only had enough energy and enough time left to present one idea, you got one opportunity to present only one idea, you would choose your best idea, and the most vision you could get and the most passion, and you would present it. And according to (Harry Potter creator) J.K. Rowling, that is how you succeed. If you have lots of different opportunities and chances you will never risk everything and you will never take your brightest idea and present it. She says you really need to end up down on the street in the most desperate situation and present your brightest idea to succeed. That’s what she has said, and I tried to apply that.
VidThru.com: Checkers was your best idea?
Kilroy Fx: I talked to a friend and said, “If I can make people like checkers, and I can make a profit off it and I can make people buy it, I can make any game.” If I can take a bad idea and make people love it, bring checkers back to the 21st century, then I can do anything. Because that’s like a total uphill battle. I couldn’t even play checkers when I was first playing it on the Internet. God, it’s so boring and people quit all the time. Its painful to play and checkers has a really bad – and accurate – reputation. A lot of people are like, “Checkers is crap.” You’re right. Let’s be realistic here; checkers is a really flawed board game. It ends up in ties a lot, and the game has been solved already by computers so you can guarantee wins. It’s a dying game. There’s no reason for it. So I thought I’d just give it one last breath of life and put it on the Xbox and kiss off a bunch of people. There are developers who saw the animation, the traps and the attacks and the graphics, and they got really mad and said, “Why would you spend all this time on a horrible game like checkers? You made all these beautiful animations and graphics and particles and really cool stuff and you put it to checkers. What a waste.” I’d say, “Yeah, you don’t understand. I’m building my company on this prototype.“ What you see is a game of checkers; what I see is a company….None of this stuff was micromanaged or personalized. It was turned into a sort of a turn-key assembly line system. It’s modularized. That’s what Bloody Checkers is – just a medium, it’s just a vessel.
VidThru.com: What did going through the process of making a game teach you?
Kilroy Fx: The one lesson I learned, the hard lesson is that you can do it. Anyone can do it. Anyone can make an amazing project like a game for the Xbox. They’re physically capable of doing it. But you have to understand this. Very few people will support you. Your parents may not support you, your friends may even laugh at you. People in close relationships may not even support you, and this can really shake your foundation. But you have to remember this – that’s just kind of the way it is. Nobody will empower you in this world. Nobody’s going to give you power. You have to give yourself power, and when you do that you learn how to fight through the moments where maybe you get really excited about your project and you’re working 15 hours a day – but then suddenly you have three weeks where you don’t even want to look at the project, you can’t even get out of bed and you don’t want to work on it anymore. You just want to give up. It’s very hard to stay passionate and keep strong with that vision. But I had a system of constantly changing my perspective, and I learned how to create tools to succeed.
And I really want to tell every gamer out there: First of all, I made (BloodyCheckers) very affordable so that every gamer could afford it, and look at it, and see how someone with little or no experience can make a game from scratch. And I definitely want to make that information and the experience and the techniques and the software completely available to any gamer who wants to take on the task of making a game, whether it’s really small or really large. One man alone can create amazing things in his life and I really believed I could do it. And I’m not saying making a game is any huge achievement, but it is difficult. The physical work is not difficult, the process itself is very fun. I think the sensation of knowing if you’re doing it right or doing it wrong or if you have the right amount of passion, or feeling like there’s a lack of support – that emotional up-and-down can be what makes it difficult.
VidThru.com: Can you tell us what the experience of actually creating the game was like for you?
Kilroy Fx: Honestly, when I look at programming and coding, it is the closest thing that I can find in this world to performing magic. It literally is like learning magic spells, which are these commands – they’re complicated, focused, hard-to-read incantations. I’m not kidding. You look at this stuff and it’s gobbledy-gook. Like, “Vector three quaternion five based in radians,” and you say, “I have no idea what that is.” You memorize these commands and then you execute them and you practice and the next thing you know magic is happening. Your TV comes to life. Colors flood your living room. Strange audio comes out of the speakers. It’s exactly like performing magic, and I don’t think people make that connection. So, when you look at it like that, and you don’t look at it like something boring, and something tedious, you say, “I’m creating an illusion.“ This isn’t the real world, you’re not in a castle – it’s an illusion of a castle. You’re not playing a character in the game, it’s the illusion of intelligence. AI, artificial intelligence, is actually an incorrect term. I just want you to think you’re playing a human. It’s the illusion of intelligence. So you’re a magician; you’re an illusionist when you’re making a game. You don’t want people to see the man behind the curtain.
To make it feel like one of the better games out there, I actually looked deep into the past. I looked back a hundred years to board games – I looked into the Egyptian period, I looked into the medieval period, I looked into the Mayan period. What makes their games fun? It’s not the rules, it’s the human interaction. It’s the physics. It’s how the environment reacts around you. And by doing that I was able to constantly change my perspective. I would be on the computer deep in the code but then I’d get up and I’d go outside and I would look at things around me. I’d look at a kid kicking a soccer ball and I’d go, “Why is that fun, because that certainly might not be fun on the Xbox?” There are a thousand wrong ways to do it. So when I made the checkers game I was like, “No, that checker has to be picked up off the board. It has to tilt a little bit. There has to be a little bit of the shadow.” I honestly played the game of checkers I was working on for hours every day. I played my game until I loved it. And when I didn’t love it, I just kept working on it until I did love it, and that was my approach.
VidThru.com: Did this give you a better appreciation of the games you play?
Kilroy Fx: Yes and no. I know a lot of the games I play are made by a huge company with lots of employees. And I know that once you write the code, it’s written, and I also know there’s downtime, there’s lots of bureaucracy, there’s lots of red tape, there’s lots of politics. Once I create the tools and the process for making the game, I can make changes within minutes, whereas I know if I asked an artist to do it, it would take a week. Because it’s not his game. His name is not on it. He doesn’t have a vested interest. So I knew I had an advantage because I could be like a really tiny, fast speedboat compared to a battleship. A big company’s a battleship, and that’s great. They’re powerful, they have better technology, they have better weapons, cooler things to make it just look better and perform better. But it’s a battleship; to turn that thing around requires a committee. Everyone has to agree, a bunch of things have to work in unison. I’m in a little speedboat, I can do circles around the battleship. Granted, I can’t make a game as big as the $60 games, but I can definitely create an experience, even if it’s for five minutes. I can create an amazing experience and sometimes these restrictions actually lend themselves to the perfect solution. The restrictions will actually make me make a better game. When I have a limitation on size, speed, or memory it actually forces me to be creative. I learned to work within those constraints. I do have an appreciation for a very few number of people who make a game by themselves and they complete it. Completing your work is very difficult and I think it’s a psychological thing. It’s the scariest thing in the world.
VidThru.com: How long did making this game take you? What were your days like?
Kilroy Fx: I would say the whole process took me 10 months. It’s not a linear progression. It’s not like doing any other sort of project. Sometimes it was extremely scary and confusing. When I went on the (developer) forums, I couldn’t even understand what I was reading. It takes me a long time to understand things. I literally downloaded videos of programmers typing in code into the computer and I just copied them for hours. They would type in commands, I’d type in commands. And I told myself, it’s just straight memorization. These are like magic spells, and I just need to say, “That’s just the way it is.” I’d be like, “Why am I typing this in? I don’t even understand what I’m typing.” I would just copy these videos for weeks. And suddenly it became instinct – I just knew what to type in.
At first, I couldn’t play anything. It was horrible…It sounded like a child banging on the (piano) keys. But you know what happened after about three months of this – I found out chords and notes that I really liked, and I was able to put really interesting rhythms together, stuff that ended up being music in the menu system, or ambient music in the castle. Then I would use a different part of my day for modeling, getting lists and pictures of different items I wanted in the castle, then a different part of my day would be researching medieval times, then when I went to bed at night I’d be reading books about checkers. I was looking at patterns. Checkers to me was boring, and I hated it. It was difficult, and I wanted to simplify it. The game is a simple game – anyone can play it – but if you really want, it can become complex. So I came up with really simple lessons to take a bad checkers player and turn him into a good checker player without hardly any memorization required. So my days were really rich and had a lot of variety. You wouldn’t even want to be around me when I was in the middle of making the game because that’s all I would talk about.
VidThru.com: Once the game was done, how long did it take to get it released and up on Xbox Live?
Kilroy FX: The approval process (on Xbox LIVE) was blindingly fast, and the game got released about four or five days too early. I had no marketing. I had nothing. I did not know that having a product is just part of the process. I don’t know anything about pricing, I don’t know anything about advertising or even technical support. I had none of that, because I didn’t expect so many people to get the game. It was supposed to take a week and it ended up taking two days.
VidThru.com: Did you experience any unexpected obstacles during the making of the game?
Kilroy Fx: I had done playtesting four or five months earlier, and the playtesting had actually gone very badly, in my opinion. It’s very difficult to make a game when you’re one person because you don’t know if it works in other households. You don’t know if the networking works across the world. The way my wife played it, she would make the game crash, because she just did different things….So I knew that it was a huge risk, and I thought the game would have all these problems so I playtested for many months.
But releasing it and playtesting it is the least of your concerns. A lot of people say, “Oh, I could make a game, I have all these ideas,” but what you don’t know is that a lot of your ideas are bad ideas. If you run out of ideas when you’re in the middle of a game you’re in trouble – just making a simple graphical interface of a shop, if you don’t have any ideas, you’re stuck for weeks just sitting there wondering, “What do I do?” So with lot of my ideas, I’d spend a week making it and then I’d try it out – and it was a horrible idea. It made the game boring, it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t as exciting as it was in my head. And sometimes your bad ideas end up being your best ideas on the game. Someone will make a suggestion and you’re like, “Eh, I don’t want to do that,“ but you have to be open-minded and you have to try it anyway. And you try it and you’re like, “Wow, that is a great idea.” One of my best ideas, which I thought was a lame idea, was just putting a percentage on the saved game slot. When I put that percentage on there, suddenly the game had this motivation to finish it. People would get really upset that they were at 95 percent and they couldn’t complete it. That meant there was more things in that castle they had not found yet. Of if they were at 20 percent, and they felt they played for five hours and they were only 20 percent done, they’re like, “Wow, I have another 80 percent, this game is amazing!” It really harnessed the gamer’s imagination, which is all part of the illusion philosophy. If you really learn how to use the gamer’s imagination to your advantage the idea itself will become fun and exciting.