Indie Adventures: PixelJAM and Dino Run

Boom boom acka-lacka-lacka boom
Open the door
Get on the floor
Everybody walk the dinosaur.

For PixelJAM's Richard Grillotti, it's all about dinosaurs, Transformers, and old-school pixel art.

Like most independent developers, he faces some steep obstacles. After his planned source of funding vanished without a cent, the artist behind all of PixelJAM's freeware Flash efforts--including the upcoming Dino Run--resigned himself to full-time employment in an unrelated field, just to get the bills paid. He's trying to get as much work done as he can on the company's games, but acknowledges that the balancing work with, well, work, can be rather difficult.

Seeing as how I had already fallen in love with Dino Run, I caught up with Rich to learn more about PixelJAM and its games, the studio's future and his tips for other independent developers.

Shack: Where did the idea for Dino Run come from?

Richard Grillotti: I started sketching and I sketched dinosaurs. It just sprung up; the game is a very simple concept. I think maybe I was trying to think up a game with high action and high heartrate-inducing gameplay [laughs].

All of a sudden that sprung up. "Dinosaurs! And you've got to escape this wall of doom! Cool, that sounds fun." That's essentially what the game is. We've added a lot of detail to it, because just running up and down hills would have been kind of boring. Now we're in the process of, "What challenges can we add? What can we do to make every moment of the game exciting?"

Shack: Where do you get inspiration for your games? Is there some message you're trying to convey?

Richard Grillotti: Not so much, not yet. In some future games, I'm starting to really consider ways to put some subtle messages in, good things that people can take away with them somehow, for betterment, for awareness of consciousness or appreciation of life, I don't even know.

I'll just sit down and design characters, playing with the style, seeing what springs up. Suddenly, I'll see this thing I made, and I'll be like, "Look at that guy, he's got a lot of personality." Ratmaze was pretty easy, he sprung out and it's like, "Yeah, yeah, look at him, he wants to go eat cheese." I made one little green guy, and for some odd reason, he seemed like he wanted to garden. So we got this platform [idea] in our minds, for this little green guy that dances in Ratmaze. We want him to have his own little single-screen platform activity game in which he'll be doing some gardening.

Other times I'll just be like, in this pen and paper sketchbook, "I want a game where you have to move fast and have to use your reflexes," and then I'll get an idea for a car racing game, and we've got a pinball game we want to make. Some stuff springs from just a general idea of the kind of game we want to make, and then the form it takes will just reveal itself over time.

Shack: What struck me most about Gamma Bros. was that it was obviously inspired by classic shooters, but had modern, rather forgiving, gameplay. Is that the approach you're trying to take?

Richard Grillotti: We like the pixel style for whatever reason. It's embedded in our psyches. I've always had this desire to see more Atari-type games, more Nintendo games that never existed. So in a way, I'm moving on as if 3D didn't exist.

The gameplay definitely has got to be fresh and new and exciting. It has to be something I'd want to play, because I do go back and play the old games. I'll play a Nintendo or Atari and be all excited, and then I'll play a game I used to love. Within five or ten minutes, I'm like, "Okay, next game." Most of them, particularly the old Atari games, do not hold the appeal [they once did]. You start to see these things you'd like to have seen in these games.

As far as forgiving goes, for Gamma Bros., at first it was hardly unforgiving. We were going to have one shot, you're dead, the end. In time, I was like, "Miles, um, that's not cool. This game is going to make people mad. They're going to get so far and just die? No."

I kept playing and playing while Miles was building, and we talked about it, and we lived together at the time, so it was easy to go back and forth. Every time I got frustrated with the game, I'd tell him about it, and then we'd discuss ways in which we could avoid that and keep people with hope and without frustration [laughs].

Shack: Do you all still live together?

Richard Grillotti: No. I'm in Eugene, Oregon, [Flash programmer] Miles Tilmann is in Chicago. Our friend Mark DeNardo, who does the music and sound effects, he's in New York.

It works though, we've got Skype going and we talk a lot. The internet helps quite a bit. I think we'd get things done faster if we did live together, but it's just not the way it is, so we'll just have to make things work the way they are.

Shack: How did PixelJAM come about?

Richard Grillotti: It kinda converged. I'd always had an interest in abstract pixel art and animations, since about '95 or '96. So I put up this site, I bought PixelJAM.com somewhere around that time, and it was [and still is] an abstract pixel art site.

Around 2003, maybe 2004, sometime in there, I started doing a project for a fashion show--I was invited to contribute some artwork. I decided I wanted to make some pixel [art of] models, it was going to be projected on these external windows, really huge windows. I made these models and I worked in a style of trying to get as minimal as possible, and finally found something I really liked and made all these pieces for that.

Then Miles saw them, and we both had the similar idea that it would be really cool to see them move and walk around. I took one of the characters, made a male version with that style, and made it walk. Miles took it and put it in Flash and basically made it work with the arrow keys and we were amazed. We were like, "Wow, let's make a game."

Shack: How long has each game taken?

Richard Grillotti: Ratmaze took about a month or so, month and a half. Ratmaze 2 took about a month. Gamma Bros. 2 took like six months. We weren't working full-time eight hour days on these. Some weeks we'll work like 60 hours [on the games] and some weeks we won't work on them at all.

If we can crank out a decent simple game in three months or so, I think that's not so bad. We do want to make some that are going to be a little bit longer. We don't want to go into the year-long or longer development cycles. We want to continue to make games, and we don't want to get burned out. So we're going to do our best to keep things six months and under, if possible.

Shack: Now, you're animating all of these pixels by hand, right?

Richard Grillotti: Oh yeah. Painstakingly. With love.

Shack: Can you talk about the difficulties you've experienced with that approach? I remember you were telling me about some of the issues you had animating a moon rover.

Richard Grillotti: Oh wow, that thing. That was a unique challenge. That's for our upcoming game, it was supposed to be after the dino game, but we're gonna do Gamma Bros. 2 instead, because we figured it's definitely time.

So, the moon game, you're basically going to be hanging out on the moon. You know, jumping around in moon gravity. In the game, there's a moon rover, and we wanted [the animations] to be fluid. We've got rolling hills, and so it basically had to be a fluid motion from 0 degrees to 90 degrees, and then you can just repeat that to the other quadrants to make a full circle.

Usually, the challenge comes from the fact that I'm using so few pixels. If I had made the thing use twice as many pixels, it would have been much easier.

Shack: So you're animating these in Photoshop?

Richard Grillotti: Yup, Photoshop CS2 is what I've got. It has an animation window to it, so that's helpful. I used to work between Photoshop and ImageReady, and there was some color pallette differences between the two, which I never understood because they're both [from] Adobe. I'm really happy that they integrated that into Photoshop.

I just do things frame-by-frame. For example, in Gamma Bros., where they jump in their ships--it happens really fast, but I think that took about 6 to 8 hours just to get them from standing in front of the ship and into the ship, frame-by-frame, trying to maintain a fluidity to it. That's a personal challenge I've been taking on. I am using pixels and I'm keeping it old-school style, but I also want to have it be organic and smooth and natural. That's pretty difficult, because pixels don't lend themselves to smooth and organic.

Read on to learn the perils of trying to fund game development through the sale of Transformers on eBay. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: Did you have any past experience or instruction with pixel animation, or was it all self-taught?

Richard Grillotti: I never learned anything about pixel animation, that was all self-taught. I did have some experience in the past, also on a computer, just hand-drawn frame-by-frame kind of stuff.

In the beginning, it was very intimidating. I would say, "Wow, we're going to make games, now I have to animate this stuff and I don't know anything about it and I don't know if I can do it," but I just kept trying. There were some days I'd pull my hair out for about four or five hours or two days or whatever, I'd say, "I can't do this, there's no way I can do this." Then I'll just keep trying it, and usually at some point, some a-ha moment pokes through, "Ah, I get it, I can do this little challenge I've been working on and not getting." It usually involves a bunch of failure, but these days, I'm doing a lot better with reducing the amount of failure before success, just through experience.

Shack: I understand you tried to finance your games by selling your Transformers collection?

Richard Grillotti: Before I moved, I had started, a year or so before, to purge stuff out of my life. When I was a kid, I was a serious collector. I started realizing it was all a horrible anchor, I just wanted to have next to nothing, only what I really use to survive on and create with. I had sold a bunch of things on eBay the previous holiday season, and decided to put all my Transformers up as one monstrous collection. There's like, 400-plus figures, with all their accessories, and boxes, and tech specs, and booklets.

I went ahead and launched the auction at the same time the movie launched, I thought it was a good plan. Somebody won it for $21,000. It blew me away. He just never paid for it. I never shipped it or anything, they're actually in Chicago all ready to go in six huge boxes. He kept promising and promising and kept giving me all these excuses, and I gave him two months--it was way too long. Finally, I was like, "I'm about to run out of money," I'd been living on credit, thinking that once he paid, I'd be able to pay off all this debt I'd been incurring. I didn't really have much before I moved out here, I was reaching financial low points.

Shack: So the idea was to live off the money and develop games.

Richard Grillotti: Right. I even put that in my auction, I'm like, "Okay, here's the deal, this is my plan. I'm not gonna go buy a sports car. I'm not gonna be frivolous with this."

I actually did try relisting the auction in September, but it didn't even go up beyond $6,500 or so. That was disappointing. I'd be happy to make $10,000 on it, or even less at this point, because anything I make would allow me to work for at least a few months on our games.

That's part of the whole putting time into PixelJAM thing. I can't put it into a full-time job or this PixelJAM thing falls apart. It needs our serious attention and time.

Shack: How do you plan to make money?

Richard Grillotti: We're going to try a few different approaches. For Dino Run, since we're entirely self-funded, we get total control over it. Ratmaze 2, for example, we got a sponsorship from Crazy Monkey Games, but beyond that, we don't make any money off Ratmaze 2.

Sponsorship's good in a pinch, but we're trying to make more where we can keep the game [going]. We won't launch Dino Run without our own high score table to link back to, because there is some kind of advertising revenue on a page like that, where people people visit constantly. We're also going to do a multiplayer version of Dino Run with XGen Studios. Stick Fighter Arena was one of their games, they have a really good thing going and they can support themselves, they have a company. Their games actually pay the bills.

We're gonna throw a multiplayer game out there, and hopefully if it's got a lot of really high replay value, we'll be able to do some ad-sharing through that. We actually licensed Gamma Bros. to an online multiplayer site, something for kids, to have the game in the game, where kids can come across Gamma Bros. in the online universe and play it.

Shack: What are your plans for the future of PixelJAM?

Richard Grillotti: We'd love to get onto Xbox Live Arcade, other sites, and even cell phones. InstantAction looks like a great platform to be involved in, and hopefully we'll get involved there when we have something that will work for them. I'd go pretty much wherever with it, especially if it would make us some money. Not that money is the end goal, but more like, a sufficient income.

It'd be great to make some money, it'd be great to get some people involved, but really what's most exciting is the idea of the games we can create and the experiences. All the un-thought of experiences in games are pretty exciting too. There's so much potential.

I'd love to make some 16-bit looking games. Probably wouldn't go too far above that, like maybe old-school computer-style games, that'd be great. I'm also going to make some super minimal stuff.

If we want to do any games that are non-pixely, non-retro, we'd probably do that under a different name, because we also do have ideas that wouldn't lend themselves to this style very well.

Shack: If people wanted to volunteer, how could they contact you?

Richard Grillotti: They can e-mail us at e-mail us at pixeljamgames@gmail.com or just go to our site. We welcome people. We're pretty picky about what kind of work would be going into our games, so people have to be pretty good at what they're doing. If someone wanted to help, I would certainly welcome it, I'm pretty sure Miles would too.

Our credits are so small, you'd definitely get noticed at the end of a game. There are like, four names.

Shack: Any advice for up and coming independent developers?

Richard Grillotti: One big one is, for your first game, don't bite off more than you can chew. Keep it really simple and small. Make tests, almost like film shorts, try some shorts out to get some experience.

It's more satisfying to produce and finish things, especially in the beginning. If you just go and go and go, you might burn out and never finish anything. We're using Flash, it's pretty accessible. Distribution is great, it's online, anyone can play, it's not platform dependent. There's a lot of Flash portals out there.

It kinda hurts us that we don't have a C++ programmer for Xbox Live Arcade, because we think Gamma Bros. 2 would be a great game for that platform. We do have a game in the works, about bees, where you use the mouse to control movement. That would be a really good one for the Wii.

Good luck. Don't give up. Be willing to take all the hard work you've put into something and just let it go and start something new and fresh, if that's what feels right. Sometimes people get trapped putting so much time and effort into this thing, and really, it just starts to kill them.

Just let things go, and go for it.

All things PixelJAM can be found at PixelJAM.com. For more on the company, check out its official blog and the personal sites of artist Richard Grillotti, programmer Miles Tilmann, and composer Mark DeNardo.