How Kim Swift changed game design at Airtight Games

Airtight Games started out as a small group of game developers from Microsoft Games Studios. Jim Deal, Matt Brunner, and Ed Fries had a lot of game ideas, so they created the studio in late 2003. The team recently released Quantum Conundrum.

The name widely associated with the game was Kim Swift, swiped from Valve after her work on Portal and Left 4 Dead. Given the acclaim that those two games received, Airtight was interested in working with Swift when she approached the team and formulated the idea for Quantum Conundrum.


"We invited Kim to work with us a number of years ago when we saw that she was looking for a place to set down roots and make the kinds of games she was passionate about making," Brunner said. "From the beginning, we tried to give her the space to create a team culture that supported her vision. Quantum Conundrum is a brainchild of her particular way of developing with a team where everyone has a creative voice. They found a mechanic and idea that began to sing for them and then went nuts with it. Square Enix was totally supportive of the process and let the team do their thing, full steam ahead."

Brunner said the team has learned greatly from Swift's approach to game development, an approach that has proven beneficial to development as a whole. "We've always believed that the most creative results come from teams that are totally invested, given the freedom to think creatively, and implement their ideas as friction-free as possible. This is easier with a team that is in the 15-25 range, of course. As soon as you get into a team size of 50-100, the dynamic shifts, out of necessity, to a more organizational structure. We've learned a lot from Kim's totally democratic way of working and we hope it spreads, like a pleasure virus, through all our future development. The most obvious side effect for this kind of development is that people see their ideas showing up on-screen and feel like the time they personally put into the development of an IP is not wasted. It's so simple, but hardly ever happens in this industry. The result is an amazing ecosystem for generating IP's."

Quantum Conundrum spent six months in development before Square Enix took up the publishing rights. When the game released shortly thereafter, it inevitably drew comparisons to Swift's previous project, Portal. Trying to distinguish Portal from Quantum Conundrum proved to be a major challenge for Airtight. One way in which the studio helped accomplish this goal was by making the latter more of a team-based project.

"Anytime an artist applies their aesthetic to a project, it's going to have some overlap," explained Brunner. "However, Quantum Conundrum was as much a team effort as it was an auteur-inspired creation. That naturally turned it into its own creature. Both are puzzle games that exploit physics and a quirky sense of humor. After that, the resemblance disappears. Quantum Conundrum stands out proudly as a unique take on a type of game, not as a derivation of a previous IP."

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With Quantum Conundrum behind them, Airtight has shifted their focus to mobile games, under a new Airtight Mobile banner. The first of these games, Pixld, was released in late October for iOS devices.

"Honestly, for me, it really comes down to making fun games, no matter the platform," senior animator Doug Magruder said. "We had an idea for a simple little game, then a couple of us decided to start making it to see if it was as fun as we thought it would be, and no one ever told us to stop. In fact, everyone encouraged us and helped us out whenever we asked."

With a shift in direction came a shift in scope, as Magruder spoke of the size difference and timetables for mobile projects. "In mobile, there are very few barriers to getting an idea from paper to device. You can take an idea and get it out into the world quickly. As a result, you can make a fun little game, get it out to people, and you don't need a massive team to do it. My boss can let me hang out with a programmer for a couple of months and make an awesome little game for a mobile device."

Airtight continues to work on a number of unannounced mobile projects for the future. However, they have not left their PC and console audience behind. Brunner says Airtight is working with some mid-level IPs alongside some publishing partners. There's also a large-scale console title in the works that the studio is not ready to talk about at this time. Brunner added, "For us, it's not about the platform as much, as it is about the ideas, the energy, and the game."