Whitaker Trebella, now operating under the company name of Fixpoint Productions for his game and music work, is releasing his second full-fledged game, Pivvot. The development of the game was quite like how it plays: a long and winding path that was fraught with obstacles, but with success waiting at the end.

Pivvot-bannerIt makes sense because he definitely doesn’t take the easy path through life: he’s a music teacher who also does music for a wide variety of iOS games, becoming one of the most prominent composers on the platform. He was self-started, too – music submissions for Tilt to Live eventually turned into greater attention and more work to start making music for games. Then, he decided to learn how to program in order to make his own games, and he created Polymer, which didn’t make him rich but made significant income for him, was extremely successful for a first release, and was a critical success to boot. He even got married to the love of his life, changing his last name from Blackall to Trebella, a combination combined from his and his wife Dana’s last names. So, what comes next?

That was the one thing he just couldn’t figure out.

A screenshot from the final version of Pivvot. It took a while to get to this point, though.

A screenshot from the final version of Pivvot. It took a while to get to this point, though.

Trebella says that “I struggled for quite awhile with what kind of game I would like to make next. I probably had at least 20 totally different ideas running around in my head, fighting for attention. I sketched out a bunch on paper, prototyped a few on the device, and showed various people a couple of the ideas I had. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do for a long time after releasing Polymer.”

There was one idea that he worked sporadically on at the time, he just never felt all that motivated to work on it because he was struggling to make it work. A talk that Rami Ismail gave, one that wound up influencing fellow Chicago developers such as Dan FitzGerald and Lisa Bromeil of Dog Sled Saga, only helped to sway him toward ditching his idea when he got up to ask about it. His question about whether he should keep pushing with his idea (one he still might pursue in the future) was long-winded, and not exuding much confidence that the idea had a future. “I thought it had potential but it just never struck me. I never had that drive to finish it that I had with Polymer. And because it was a complex idea, it wasn’t even fun to play in the early stages. Eventually, I just scrapped it altogether.”

So it was back to the drawing board. After scrapping his original idea for his second game, he says “I started making a bunch of prototypes. Out of the many prototypes, I decided on one that eventually led to the creation of Pivvot.”

A screen from an early version of the game.

A screen from an early version of the game.

Terry Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon “very much so” influenced Pivvot during its creation. “I just really love the simplistic nature of Super Hexagon‘s gameplay. While it is a VERY hard game, it is VERY easy to understand what to do and how to do it. I wanted to get that same sort of feeling with Pivvot. Someone said to me recently that they enjoyed Pivvot because they knew what to do right away without even playing it. It’s back-to-basics gameplay. I was tempted a number of times to add bells and whistles but I kept thinking back to how awesome Super Hexagon is and how it focuses strictly on that one fun mechanic.” He even has talked to Terry Cavanagh and says “He seemed to think the idea was cool!” when he showed a version of the game to him a couple of months ago.

But curiously, it was also the core technology at work with Pivvot that helped convince him that this was the right idea.”I’m working in Unity with the Futile framework. It took me a long time to really understand how to make cool-looking shapes and objects in Futile. Once I figured that out though, it opened up a ton of options. I was able to create cool-looking obstacles, and maybe even more importantly, I was able to create the winding, pulsating path that is the centerpiece of Pivvot‘s gameplay. Once I had a winding path with some obstacles and some basic collision detection, I was able to play the game and actually have fun.”

“Once I was having fun with the prototype, I knew it had potential.”

He felt like he had nailed the core idea of pivoting around a point traveling along a winding path avoiding obstacles all the while, but making it fun was the biggest challenge. “It took an incredible amount of playtesting on my end. I would create an obstacle, then play the game over and over and over with just that obstacle until I either felt really happy with it or found something that annoyed me about it. For example, if I kept dying on one specific part of an obstacle and it started to feel unfair, I would make that part a bit easier; if a certain part of an obstacle pattern was just way too easy, I would tweak it to make it harder; if an obstacle played well but just didn’t look very cool, I would think about how to make it look better.”

Everything with the game’s art is actually generated through code. Pivvot has a very minimalistic look, consisting mostly of lines and geometric shapes. This wasn’t always the case, though: “the obstacles used to have outlines and other details on them. At first, I thought it looked very cool, but the more I played it, the more I realized the extra details really distracted from the minimalistic look of the game. Having said that, I needed to make sure it looked ‘artfully minimalistic’ rather than just ‘flat.’ ”

Some of the winding paths that Trebella was able to create in Futile.

Some of the winding paths that Trebella was able to create in Futile.

He continues: “While it may seem that it’s all just simple colors and shapes, I added a lot of things that made the Pivvot world come to life. For example, almost everything in the game pulsates to the beat of the music. This makes it so that nothing seems static and dry. Further, I even make the colors pulsate with the music. So while it may seem like everything is blue, it’s actually all different shades of blue that pulsate in and out of each other. This gives it even more of that “alive” feeling that I think is extremely important with a minimalistic game.”

Making sure that the game would work on a variety of devices was a challenge that impacted what he could do with the game. “Performance was always an issue that was driving the obstacle creations. Really complex obstacles with lots of vertices really slowed down the device (especially older ones). While at first this annoyed me, it actually forced me to end up making more minimalistic back-to-basic shapes, which in retrospect improved the look of the game.”

Creating the structure of the game – of just how players would approach – was another hurdle. In the initial release version, there are two campaigns called “Voyages” that test players against a variety of hazards, along with three endless modes of increasing difficulty. “The game started very very hard. While I had a lot of fun playing it at that difficulty level, I soon realized that most people would need time to practice before they got to the really difficult sections. I started making easier obstacles to make sure people didn’t get frustrated too early. Further, I added the level structure of Voyage to allow the player to learn about each pattern before it got thrown into the mix. Thus, when people beat Voyage mode, they should be fully prepared to tackle Endless. If I had just thrown Endless on them at first (like I was originally planning), I think a lot of people would have gotten frustrated and given up rather quickly.”

The absurdly-difficult Berzerk mode that serves as the most difficult endless mode, and final unlockable.

The absurdly-difficult Berzerk mode that serves as the most difficult endless mode, and final unlockable.

So he had an idea that he was happy with, he had a vision for where it would go, he just needed to make it happen.

While he has a popular Twitter account known for his game dev insights, looks into his personal life, and often just his strange sense of humor, he was loathe to reveal too much about Pivvot. What happened was that he would tease out vague mentions of the game and what he did with it without revealing the larger picture, usually hashtagging his tweets with #GAME2.

“I had some social media strategy in mind, but not too much with the ‘Game 2′ title. The ‘Game 2′ thing came about out of sheer necessity. My ‘strategy’ (if you can call it that) was to start talking about the game early. However, I didn’t want to give too much information too early, because I knew many things were bound to change. I also wasn’t sure what kind of a game it would be exactly, so I was afraid to name it something only to have it not fit with the gameplay later. Plus, my wife Dana — who helps me a lot with PR and marketing – helped me realize that waiting to announce a title until just a month or so before launch is a good way to build buzz. If the title is announced too early, people might forget about it easier.”

The placeholder title screen.

The placeholder title screen.

And coming up with the title of Pivvot was not an easy process either. “That took quite awhile. My wife and I sat down a couple times with the plan of hashing out an idea. We literally filled an entire piece of paper with words that the game made us think of. Things like fulcrum, pendulum, oscillate, pivot, tilt, rotate, swirl, ball, obstacle, etc. From there, we looked back at the piece of paper and went through each word and thought of variations and combinations of them. Fulcrate, pivotilt, rotascillate, things like that.”

“The first major name idea we had was Pendulo. It was pretty cool, but the problem with it was that it was almost too obvious a name. Also, pendulums usually use gravity rather than free spinning. After that, we thought of another name we were pretty sure it was going to be: Oscillum. Sounded pretty cool, but this time, the more I thought about it, the more it just sounded too sciency. Too hard to grasp and abstract. We kept coming back to the word pivot but it seemed too generic. Adding the second v seemed like a natural way to differentiate it from the normal word yet keep it simple and understandable.”

Whitaker Trebella might be a musician by trade, but making music for his own game wasn’t necessarily any easier than creating music for others’ games. “Since I’m primarily known as a musician (and have been for all my life), I definitely feel a special pressure with the music of the games I make. Because the expectations are high, I always get nervous about if the music fits perfectly. As a result of that pressure, and since I’m so analytical about my music anyway, I ended up having a bunch of abandoned projects that didn’t go into the game.”

“I knew from the start I wanted the music to have a steady, driving beat, and to have varied repetition throughout. When I first started working on Pivvot I was listening to the Hotline Miami soundtrack a lot, which ended up really inspiring me. In fact, early on I even put one of the Hotline Miami songs in the game. Since that fit so perfectly, I knew I needed to make music in a similar style.”

While he may have been secretive about Pivvot‘s gameplay, the same can’t be said for the music which he livestreamed the creation of at different times. “It was very cool and very fun to be making music while other people watched. It also made me hold myself to a higher standard. At first it was quite stressful because it added even more pressure, but once I got used to it, I started to really love it, because it made me feel like I was doing something for others, rather than just for myself.”

So now Pivvot is out, and Trebella is somewhat nervous about how it will be received by the general public. “I think it would be very strange if I weren’t. I think it’d be very hard to find a single developer who wasn’t nervous about their game’s launch. I am definitely heartened by the early feedback it has been getting, but when it is available for the masses, it definitely gets scarier.”

He did learn something from the release of Polymer that feels especially timely given recent events in the gaming community sparked by Fez creator Phil Fish’s seeming departure from the industry. “I remember when Polymer first released, I had a really hard time dealing with some of the negative comments and reviews I got. After awhile though, I started to grow a thicker skin, so I definitely feel more prepared to take the punches, listen to feedback, and ignore the really mean comments.”

What does the future hold for Trebella and for Pivvot? Because the game’s in Unity, his games being released outside of iOS is a likelihood. “Ever since releasing Polymer, I’ve been frustrated that it’s only on iOS. The main reason for that is simply because I don’t know how to port a game from Objective-C onto other platforms. I’m sure with enough time and effort I could figure it out, but it seemed like a huge hassle. After Polymer, I always planned on going into Unity development because of how easy it makes porting. I didn’t know C# before starting it, but it was relatively easy to learn since I already knew some C and some ActionScript (which is rather similar).”

“Now that Pivvot is in Unity, my options are wide open for launching on various platforms. I’m very glad I made the choice to go with Unity.” As well, he may just return to the idea that flustered him before to see if he can make it work.

Pivvot-final3But for now, the long voyage to making his second game is reaching its climax. The big public unveiling on August 1st with both the release and a scheduled event at the famed Emporium Arcade Bar in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, with the game featured on the Indie City arcade machine, will be the public’s first chance to see the efforts of his work over the past year come to fruition. It wasn’t easy, and the game’s success like any other game release is still an open question, but for now, this step in his voyage has ended successfully.

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Released: 2013-08-01 :: Category: Games

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