It's easy to get overwhelmed by the spectacle of PAX Prime. The annual gaming convention brings the video game industry titans like Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, and Blizzard together to give attendees hands-on demos of highly anticipated titles while they're surrounded by giant monsters, massive Pikachus, cosplayers, and more. And while the eye is immediately drawn to the big boys at PAX, there's actually a decent amount of room for the scrappy underdogs of the video gaming world. Each year the expo presents the PAX 10, a curated collection of ten new independent titles that attendees can try out for the first time.
This year's PAX 10 features Tumblestone, a title developed by local game designer Ty Taylor. Tumblestone offers a fresh take on match-3 games (think Candy Crush) that emphasizes puzzle mechanics and competitive multiplayer play. While making the PAX 10 is a huge deal for indie developers, it won't be a new experience for Taylor. The former member of Microsoft's Xbox team was part of the PAX 10 in 2012 with his critically acclaimed M.C. Escher-inspired puzzle game The Bridge.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Taylor about Tumblestone's origins, the PAX 10, and Seattle's indie game development scene.
So, like The Bridge before it, Tumblestone is part of the PAX 10. As a developer, what’s the importance of having a showcase like the PAX 10?
Well, like a lot of indie awards, there’s a kind of prestige. I don’t know how much attention actual fans or consumers pay to it. On basically any platform or trailer, I’ll highlight it as this PAX 10-winning game, but the biggest impact for an award like PAX 10 or IGF [Independent Games Festival] or anything like that is validation for press. When I go to games press before launch, they get dozens of emails a day because there are so many games coming out these days, and so many developers. They can’t possibly play them all, and they can barely look at all the trailers. So if I approach them saying “Hey, this PAX 10-winning game…” that’s something that they pay attention to. Which is exactly what I did with The Bridge. On the email I sent to the press, I wasn’t like this is a wacky M.C. Escher-style game. No, I was like, “A PAX 10-winning game is coming out today.” A pack of industry veterans go through all of these hundreds of games that get submitted from all over the world and narrow it down to ten games every year. They do that curation for the press. So that’s the biggest importance of something like this. And that’s why I enter basically every contest I know about.
And what’s the experience of showing at PAX? Is it just days and days of nonstop busyness or do you have time to actually catch your breath?
PAX is… packed. There’s just a constant flow of people walking down the aisles, and we basically never have a lull or a dull moment because we constantly have people playing the game. I actually don’t have time to catch my breath. It’s so incredibly busy having any kind of booth at PAX. And PAX 10 is very similar to having just a regular booth. In fact, this year at PAX, we’re having two booths: we have our own booth and also the PAX 10 booth. So we’re gonna be split up and make things even harder to manage. And we’re gonna have four TVs, which is sixteen stations to play, so we’re gonna basically have sixteen people playing the game at any given time. It’s a lot to manage between the three or four of us that are actually gonna be there at PAX.
What makes Tumblestone special and separates it from all the other puzzle games out there?
I think Tumblestone is a complete reinvention of the match-3 puzzle genre. A lot of times when I talk to more hardcore gamers, they hear match-3 and they kind of scoff at that. They think of Candy Crush or another kind of casual games. But Tumblestone is only very technically match-3. It’s match-3 at its premise, but it’s much more hardcore or competitive in the multiplayer sense than games like Candy Crush are.
And it’s much more cerebral too. A lot of games like Candy Crush or Bejeweled are about getting over a large pile of color; just tapping to find whichever set of three you can find and getting random points awarded to you and so on. Tumblestone is actually a puzzle. It is a very strictly logical puzzle with one solution. And the idea of the multiplayer is to race each other to solve it first, which is an interesting balance of speed and logic that you don’t see in a lot of games.
So how long has the game been in development and how big is the team that’s working on it?
It’s been in development for about two years now, with four people. I do some programming on the game, but mostly I’m the game designer. I basically design how every single aspect of the game works. I also do the biz dev [business development] stuff, like interviews and whatnot. Mario Castañeda does all of the arts. Alex Schearer does kind of front-end programming, what you see like the UI, [user interface] and the way the game actually operates. And Justin Nafziger does the network programming, to allow you to play with people over the Internet.
What was the creative spark that led to Tumblestone?
I go through life kind of constantly imagining the world as a game. So, no matter what I’m doing, whether I’m crossing the street or staring at the ceiling tiles, I’ll think of games or puzzles or anything that just pop into my head. And I write everything down. And so I have this Google Doc that’s like 30 or 50 pages just of notes—one paragraph each—quick description of potential games I might make one day. And so Alex, Justin, and I were once doing a game jam, which is an event where some friends get together and you just make a game in 48 hours; basically a prototype. And so I just kind of went to this list and picked out something that sounded interesting.
Originally I had imagined Space Invaders, where there was a constraint where the ships were different colors—blue, red, yellow, etc.—and you had to shoot them in sets of three. Then we kind of prototyped it on a table using casino chips. And we were like, “With the ships moving around and shooting at you, it’s gonna be way too hard to make this constraint,” and so they stopped moving, they stopped shooting, they turned into blocks, and eventually it turned into a puzzle game. Even though in the first 48 hours it looked nothing like it does today. Through two years of development so far, it’s slowly evolved.
When is is set for release?
2016. Probably a year from now.
Was there anything specific you learned while making The Bridge that you’ve now applied to creating Tumblestone?
Oh, absolutely. Dozens of things. I could talk to you for hours about all of the mistakes I made with The Bridge and I try not to make with Tumblestone; everything ranging from game design to programming to biz-dev stuff. Some of the biggest things are how I approach launching the game, and how I approach the press around the game. The Bridge was my first commercial game, I had just made prototypes before that. It was the first, successful game that I went out and sold, and I sold it to a large audience. I felt like the audience could have been a lot larger had I released on mobile platform simultaneously and got a lot more promotion of the game before launch. I kind of hot-launched the game—I basically sent the press an email the day of, which was a terrible idea. No one had time to do anything with that.
Things like that are super important. Just getting the name of the game out there. The Bridge still did pretty well, but I think it could’ve gone a lot better had I planned it a bit more meticulously. And so that’s what I’m doing with Tumblestone. We’re doing something that a lot of independent developers aren’t doing, which is releasing on basically every single platform at the exact same time. That’s something only a few AAA studios do. But I’ve had experience with The Bridge, I have released it on basically everything, just over the course of two or three years.
The process is something you have to actually experience for yourself. Like even before launching The Bridge, I’d maybe heard one of these two things before—about mistakes I made—from other developers, but somehow unless you actually experience it yourself, you don’t actually learn it.
Seattle Indies Expo runs the weekend as PAX. As a small publisher, what’s the importance of having an event like that to pair with PAX?
The Seattle Indies Expo occurring at the same time as PAX was actually my idea form a couple years ago, back when I was one of the organizers. And the reason I did that was because this is the only time of year where so many press members are in Seattle at the same time. So a lot of the SIX happens after hours, after PAX the expo hall is closed. So the press, having nothing to do, go and see some more games.
So this is a perfect time for smaller studios—not necessarily in terms of number of people, but maybe in terms of reputation—people who are early on in their projects or maybe this is their first project so they don’t really have the resources or connections to get a booth at PAX. But it’s pretty easy as an indie developer in Seattle to get into SIX. So basically you just send them an email saying, hey I want to be in SIX, and they usually have room as long as you have anything reasonable to show. These really niche, indie games that don’t have the funding or means to be at PAX, still get a chance to get in front of press and distributors like Nintendo, Microsoft, Valve, or anyone else who’s in Seattle. I think that’s great.
How would you categorize the Seattle indie video game development scene?
I actually think it’s one of the better cities. You might compare it to the Bay Area or Vancouver, which both have really strong indie scenes. I think it’s mostly because of people coming from other companies. I mean, I used to work at Microsoft on the Xbox team, and I was like, “You know what? Being an independent developer sounds way better.” So a lot of people come from Microsoft, or perhaps Valve or Bungee or Nintendo, or even Amazon, and become independent developers. We have so many tech companies, and not only tech companies, but video game-reliant companies. it just has a lot of employees that want to do their own thing. Some people in the area are now just full-time indie, but a lot of indie developers in Seattle do their projects on the side. They moonlight and have a full-time job otherwise.
There’s already such an established scene now. I know some people who came to Seattle just because it has such a strong indie scene, and they just want to work in the same space as other indie developers in Seattle.
Aug 28–31, Washington State Convention Center, Sold Out