Interview with Kyle Pittman, Creator of You Have to Win the Game
By: Haylee Fisher (@haylee_fisher)
You have to win the game…no, really. With what is perhaps the most obvious video game title of all time, Kyle Pittman of indie game company Minor Key Games seeks to explore that premise with his newest offering. You Have to Win the Game appears to be a simple, retro-inspired game, but Pittman flips that notion on its head and has created a complex and difficult world. You may yearn for the days of the Atari, but this ultimately challenging game will make you thankful for the technology of today.
Two years to the day after it was first released online, You Have to Win the Game comes to Steam free of charge today. I had the chance to conduct an email interview with Pittman so read on to learn more about his exciting new game!
I interviewed your brother David about your company’s previous game, Eldritch, a few months ago. Can you tell me what’s new with Minor Key Games since then?
It’s been a busy couple of months! In January, David and I attended Steam Dev Days in Seattle, which led to my reconsidering Mac and Linux ports for You Have to Win the Game. I had first attempted that work last October but only gotten about halfway through the process. After listening to some talks about Valve’s motivations and experiences with the platform, I picked up from where I had left off and finished bringing the game to Mac and Linux in early February. Since then, I’ve been working on new content for the Steam release and an upcoming sequel.
What inspired you to create you newest game, You Have to Win the Game, and can you explain how it came to be?
It started near the end of 2011. I was working for Gearbox Software at the time, and I had been making small indie games in my spare time for a few years. The last project I had undertaken, a first-person action-RPG called The Understory, got mired down in poor development choices and never really got off the ground. I wanted to try something new, and I knew that I needed to aim for something a little smaller and more achievable. I had recently played VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy and was really enjoying those sorts of difficult platformers. I had never developed a platformer game before, and it seemed like a fun challenge.
It’s a very retro-inspired game. What was behind your decision to create it with that aesthetic?
My origins as a game developer go back to the late 80s and early 90s, when I taught myself to program in BASIC on a PC with a CGA monitor and only an internal speaker for sound. I’ve always loved the look and feel of technology from that era, sort of a hybrid of digital and analog elements, and I had previously implemented some graphics tech to simulate a CRT screen for an older game jam title. I wanted to reuse that tech, and I felt that by constraining my palette and working roughly within the bounds of the technology that I grew up with, I could make something that would be amusingly nostalgic for the player and also more conducive to my limited abilities as an artist.
Despite being very 80s-influenced, it’s not a side-scrolling game as one might assume. Why did you choose to make it a more single-screen explorer as opposed to the more classic – and expected – side-scroller?
Some of my favorite games are those that emphasize leisurely exploration over immediate goals. I found it interesting that upon release, some players categorized YHtWtG as a “Metroidvania” because I had never consciously set out to make that sort of game, but had inadvertently stumbled upon that formula in making something that I hoped would be appealing and compelling.
The single-screen rooms in particular were mostly a nod to VVVVVV and l’Abbaye des Morts and their progenitors, but it also goes back to the earliest origins of the game. I had been in a habit of playing Bubble Bobble during lunch breaks and was originally planning to make a similar sort of one-room-after-another arcade game. It wasn’t really until I had a functional level editor and started thinking about how rooms could connect to each other that the idea of making a more open, free-roaming environment really crossed my mind. At that point, comparisons to VVVVVV became obvious, so I ran with it.
So is there a plot to the game besides the goal of winning?
Not so much. There’s a paper-thin narrative involving messages inscribed on the walls, apparently by someone else who’s been trapped in the game world for a number of cycles. That was a last-minute addition that I came up with about three weeks before I released the game because I was worried the lack of a narrative would harm the experience. I don’t necessarily think it was the best possible option, but it did become a bit of a talking point and helped to convey a sense of mystery about the world.
Why did you choose to go in that direction?
As both a gamer and a developer, I tend to prioritize and focus on other aspects of games, especially game feel or kinetic sense. I don’t think I ever consciously made the decision to omit story so much as I made a game and then realized it didn’t have a story.
On what platforms will You Have to Win the Game be available? Why was it important to you for it to be on those platforms?
It is available for Windows PC, Mac OS X, and Linux. I originally developed the game exclusively for Windows, because that was what my tech supported. I tend to write my own tech whenever I can, and my preference for Direct3D over OpenGL led me to be Windows-only for years. After David ported Eldritch to Mac and Linux, I felt that I would have to do the same or risk looking like our next release was a technical step backwards. It was one of the most difficult programming challenges I’ve ever undertaken, but I’m pretty happy with the results.
Eldritch was greenlit and released on Steam as well. What kind of role does Steam play in the development of games and why is the site vital for indie developers like yourself?
We had two very different experiences with Greenlight between Eldritch and You Have to Win the Game. Eldritch was added to Greenlight a month or two before it was scheduled to be released, in the middle of a big promotional push, and it was greenlit within about three weeks. By contrast, I put YHtWtG on Greenlight several months after releasing it on my personal site with little or no fanfare. I did virtually nothing to promote it and pretty much just let it “fail upward” as everything else above it was greenlit in larger and larger batches until it eventually made the cut.
I’m curious to see how that process changes in the coming months or years. Valve has indicated they have plans to eliminate Greenlight in favor of a more autonomous process, but it remains to be seen exactly what that will entail.
Why should people get You Have to Win the Game? What makes it special? (i.e., are there any fun components that make it stand out, etc.)
If you grew up playing games in the 80s or 90s, you’ll probably enjoy the nostalgia factor, and underneath the aesthetic veneer, you’ll find a difficult yet rewarding exploration platformer. The Steam version in particular also includes a number of new features, some that I’ve added over the years since the game was originally released and some that are entirely new for Steam. There’s a new remixed campaign that introduces some of the most devious challenges I’ve ever designed and a new playable cat mode, which is a little silly and kitschy and adds another challenge to the game, as you only get nine lives.
Where can people find out more information about You Have to Win the Game?
You can download the game for free on Steam at http://store.steampowered.com/app/286100 or from my personal site athttp://www.piratehearts.com/. You can find out more about Minor Key Games at http://www.minorkeygames.com/.
Anything else you would like to add?
As excited as I am to get YHtWtG onto Steam, I’m also really looking forward to showing off its sequel, Super Win the Game. Where YHtWtG looks and feels like something you would see on a mid-80s PC, Super Win the Game would be right at home on an 8-bit console. I’ve rewritten a lot of the graphics and audio tech to suit this aesthetic. (Yes, this one will actually have background music and it will be appropriately bloopy.) It’s going to be a bigger game with more powerups to collect and levels to explore, and I’m also fundamentally shifting away from the extreme difficulty of the original game and aiming for a purer, more inviting exploration experience. If VVVVVV and Super Meat Boy were my touchstones for YHtWtG, Super Win the Game’s would be more in the direction of Fez, with a heavy nod to Zelda 2, Kirby’s Adventure, and countless other NES games.
You can check out early screenshots and an announcement trailer at http://www.superwinthegame.com/ and follow me on Twitter at @PirateHearts for more development updates!