Brett Taylor is the developer of Linelight, which won Gameacon 2016’s Best Digital Game Award. This means that the game will be presented at Indie Prize as part of Casual Connect USA 2017 in August. Gameacon combines business-to-business networking and educational with the entertainment and public access for independent game developers from around the world.
“Winning the Best Digital Game Award was an honor! It was also exciting and invigorating to see my efforts recognized,” said Brett. “It will be another honor to show the game off at Indie Prize. It’s heartening to see the community gets a kick out of this thing I’ve spent so long on.”
What if Everything Was a Line?
Linelight is a puzzle game where all of the gameplay takes place on a series of lines. Despite some passing similarities to the classic Qix and the Nintendo DS cult classic Kirby’s Canvas Curse, Brett indicates the game started as a programming challenge.
“I came up with the idea, ‘What if you’re a line and everything took place on lines?’ and was enamored by its surprising difficulty to code mixed with how simple it was to explain and understand. It was so different from anything I’d programmed before. It only really became a game once I added moving streets and enemies.”
“What was my clear, conscious goal was to ask the game what it wanted to be and facilitate its creation. Pretty much the only preconceived notions I had from the start were lines and level-based gameplay. This thing could have been a twitchy action game for all I knew. I tooled around with mechanic ideas, following and expanding on what was fun and allowing things that weren’t working to fade out of the design,” Brett added. “Elegance was beautiful. The simpler the level layout, the more I liked it. So I went after that.”
While many things inspire Brett in what he’s creating, he drills down on game mechanics most of all. “My puzzle-design ethic was heavily inspired from Braid, and while Linelight is a very different game, a lot of what Braid taught me could be possible in a game has made its way into Linelight. For example, only having a few mechanics total, and combining every mechanic with every other mechanic gradually (even though I’ll admit there are many combinations I haven’t yet explored in Linelight, simply because of time),” said Brett. “I’ve also been dabbling in a side-project (I haven’t worked on Linelight in ages; it’s all publishing/bug-fixing/marketing now) that’s heavily inspired by Pikmin. Who knows where that’ll go. I’m just doing it for the fun.”
Finding What Works
Testing for Linelight started when the gameplay was fully implemented. While there wasn’t much to the game (only a few minutes of gameplay) but Brett put a rough version out for testers with almost no polish, since Brett wanted to save that effort when the gameplay was good enough without it.
“In a nutshell, I prototype, follow what works, get a rough playable demo, and show it to only a few people for feedback. Once I’ve established the core gameplay is fun without any polish/art/music, then I add in all that good stuff,” said Brett. He further explained his process with an effective analogy: “I find that asking for feedback too early takes me off course. It’s like you’ve been steering a ship for a while, and ask someone to pilot for a few minutes, and suddenly you’re facing a different direction and thinking ‘Okay, this direction is neat, where do I go from here?’ When you’re only a few miles from land but now you’re heading to land that’s 100 miles away. Basically, I do my best work when I listen to my gut, which requires me to shut up with my own arbitrary agenda and also block out other people’s premature suggestions. Once my ship is within sight of land (i.e. the game is confident in what it is, at least in its current state), then I can ask people, ‘Okay, what port should we dock in?’ If most people are like, ‘This whole island sucks,’ then I can take us somewhere else (i.e. change some core game design). If you listen to your gut, though, and follow what you find fun, the island will almost always be something sweet.”
“I’ve been most surprised by how everyone instantly understands the game, and everyone goes through pretty much the exact same experience in roughly the same amount of time. This is unprecedented for me. For most games I’ve worked on, playtesters would all do something different (at least in early iterations). With Linelight, this hasn’t been the case, which has honestly felt like a blessing. Because of this though, no playtesters surprise me anymore,” added Brett. “Except for Alan Hazelden, who played Linelight at GDC 2016, and ripped through it as if he were speedrunning it for the 20th time. That was pretty fun/scary to watch.”
Not surprisingly with such an original game, Brett doesn’t develop games based upon conventional genres/platforms. “I go by what I want the player to feel and let the game take shape from that. Also, I’m not a huge fan of deliberately working within a genre,” said Brett. “I like the concept of incidentally blending or pioneering genres in the pursuit of fun. That isn’t my goal, necessarily, but I do certainly aim to keep it possible. I still like creative restraints, but only as a means to get the fire going; if a fire is burning strong, I don’t want to turn down ideas because they don’t fit within the mold of the genre I’ve picked.”
Brett indicates that he was under a lot of stress making Linelight. Brett says there was a lot of pain from working hard, resulting in physical pain.
“I recognized this pattern and eventually created the ‘Too Stressed Alert.’ This mandated that any time I found myself running on straight angst and frustration, I have to close my laptop immediately, stop working for the rest of the day, go home, and make taking care of myself my number one priority,” said Brett. “That was the ultimate punishment for me– not being allowed to work– and it was also exactly what I needed in those scenarios. I only actually hit the ‘Too Stressed Alert’ a few times, because the threat of not being allowed to work was too great to risk stressing out over.”
“Two more things that I’ve used to keep myself from getting too serious: writing down something I’m grateful for every hour (using a phone alarm), and mandating three daily 30-second dance breaks. The latter is the practice I still continue to this day,” Brett added. “When I don’t feel like dancing, I know I need to the most, so I force myself out of my chair and shake my shoulders loose even if I don’t feel like it. It’s an important reminder not to take myself too seriously.”
Because of these experiences, Brett is keen to suggest to developers that they care for themselves both psychologically and physically. “If you’re stressing out a lot, that sort of defeats the purpose of working on games in the first place,” said Brett. “I could say that about following any passion. I frequently would remind myself, ‘Okay, did I leave my job with a salary to run on stress and anguish?’”
“Another piece of advice would be to stop comparing your games to other games so much, or your work to other work at all. When you compare two things, you kind of lose sight of what either really is,” added Brett. “I’d also recommend the book Big Magic, which is about creative living beyond fear. The book is fantastic and a must-read for most people in a creative field.”
Right now, Brett is working by himself in order to to pursue what he loves doing. He doesn’t consider himself much of a “studio” at this point, but he still takes game development very seriously.
“There’s more I want to work on than I can even come close to in a lifetime, so I’m still not sure what direction My Dog Zorro is heading, but I can tell you that I’m going to do my best to follow my curiosity and enjoy the journey,” said Brett, adding, “I do actually have self-talk sometimes. To put it in the words of Walt Whitman, I contain multitudes. This happens every once in a while: I’ll see myself in a mirror and realize I’m stressing out, and stop, look myself in the eye, and just sort of let my inner voice say a few words to me. Often something like, ‘Hey. You’re doing fabulously today. Look how much you’ve done already! You’re on a roll. No need to guilt yourself for anything. You are doing your best.’ It really makes a difference; it is like having someone else give me a pep-talk. I only do this if I know no one is in earshot!”
“I work alone 97 percent of the time nowadays, as opposed to a co-op space or something, simply because staying home is totally free and saves time! About twice a month, I’ll get too cooped up and either go work at a friend’s place for a day/weekend or maybe have someone over to work here,” noted Brett. “And I’ve decided to keep my office a physical location, because I’m just not ready to upload myself to any mainframes!”
Brett waxed philosophical when asked what he was hoping to bring to the gaming community. “I feel like every indie dev should answer this question at least once a year,” laughed Brett. “There are things I really enjoy bringing to the community and the world: inspiration is the big one that comes to mind. I wanted to be a teacher when I was younger because I’m enamored by the idea of motivating and enabling people to be their best selves. I hope in some way I’ll offer this to the gaming community, maybe through my story, my personality, my games, who knows. Enabling others to fulfill their desires brings me great joy.”
Drawing People In
The visual and audio aesthetics of Linelight were designed to be minimalistic from the beginning. At the same time, Brett wanted the environment to be relaxing to draw the player in.
“I wanted the music to be relaxing, energetic, and easy to listen to on repeat (which is why the music de-emphasizes a strong, catchy melody),” said Brett. “I sort of had ideas of what I wanted the player to feel while playing the game, and I basically made the music and visuals to achieve that.”
“I wanted the visuals to be minimalist to match and support the core game design pillar, and abstract because I’m rubbish at non-abstract stuff,” Brett added. “I’d kind of want to work with an artist on my next project, but I’ve been hesitant because I know I can be a bit stubborn to work with. I’m waiting to find someone whose art style I don’t think I can make the game without.”
This soft touch translated to the plot and subtext of Linelight as well. “There are a few non-puzzle moments I adore, though, though they weren’t intended as comedy moments. Although one of them I do find pretty hilarious,” Brett noted. “People laugh/throw up their hands in victory/etc. at all sorts of different points in the game; it’s really about the puzzles they had no clue about, and then suddenly it clicked, and they get super excited and executed the solution with ease. These moments are everywhere, and perhaps what I love most about the game.”
Don’t Forget to Have Fun
Brett sees every new game as an opportunity to explore new ground. Because Brett looks to push beyond their comfort zone, so he would look to create something new if he had extensive resources to create it.
“If I had unlimited time, I’d probably make a game designed to better the lives of its players by promoting healthy self-talk, motivation, self-empowerment, etc. I have yet to see a game attempt this,” mused Brett. “The idea of a general ‘self-help’ game has been on my mind for a few years now, and there’s a pretty good chance I’ll attempt it within my career.”
While Brett will try multiple things, he doesn’t want to go beyond the model of selling the game upfront. “I just don’t like the idea that someone could spend hundreds of dollars on something I made because they aren’t paying close attention to how they’re spending their money,” said Brett. “No judgment on F2P games– they’re just not my style.”
When asked about advice for other indies, Brett said, “Don’t beat yourself up, and try to avoid comparing yourself to other games or people. No one has ever done, or will ever do, something quite the way you’ve done it.”
“And of course, don’t forget to have fun!” Brett concluded.
David Radd is a staff writer for GameSauce.biz. David loves playing video games about as much as he enjoys writing about them, martial arts and composing his own novels.