Incredipede interview: how lizards and subways inspired the bohemian globetrotting devs
Two years ago, Colin Northway - the extravagantly-bearded, globetrotting creator of Incredipede - sold everything he owned except for a backpack, some clothes and a laptop, and got on a plane with his wife and a plan: to travel the world making indie games.
Since then, he's been to Turkey, Czech Republic, Italy, Malta, Scotland, Paris, British Columbia Canada, Honduras, Costa Rica, BC (again), Tokyo, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Greece, Scotland (again), and France.
I caught up with Northway to ask about the inspiration for creature-constructing puzzle-game Incredipede, how travelling helps him make better games, and how to stay productive while working within a stone's throw of a tropical beach. You can read more about the game in our Incredipede preview, vote for it on Incredipede's Steam Greenlight page, and even pre-order it at Incredipede.com.
Hello Colin, where on the planet are you right now, and where are you going next?
I am in Vienna, Austria, staying with a friend who is part of the indie studio Broken Rules. They made And Yet it Moves and are working on Chasing Aurora. His cats are chasing each other around the room knocking over his young son's toys and books.
From here we will fly to Vancouver Island on the west coast of Canada. My wife Sarah and I both grew up in British Columbia and like to spend a few months in the summer there. In the summer it is the most beautiful place in the world. We'll go to PAX and to Orcajam, a game jam held every year on the island.
You're about to release Incredipede. Tell us a little about it.
Incredipede is a game about life and feet. All animals are made with bones and muscles. Just bones and muscles can create a huge variety of movement and a huge variety of creatures. Incredipede takes the vast creativity of the natural world and gives it to you to play with. It lets you get your hands sticky with the raw wet strings of life.
From a more mechanical, game-design point of view Incredipede gives you a simple, small tool-set and challenges you to overcome various obstacles. What's the perfect creature to push over a tree? Or scamper across lava? Or climb a cliff? Or swing through the canopy? First you design the creature out of bones and muscles then you control her as she overcomes whatever obstacle she's been dealt.
Where did the inspiration for the game come from?
The idea could only have come from the jungle. Sarah and I lived in Honduras for two months in a house slung out over the water at the end of a terrible dirt road. We were surrounded (and occasionally invaded) by the natural world and creatures of all sorts. Fish swam underneath us as hummingbirds visited our balcony, baby boa constrictors and land crabs crawled through the yard, and ants invaded our kitchen. Not to mention the lizards and manta-rays and cuttlefish.
It's impossible not to marvel at the ingenuity of life and with so much of it around Incredipede was inevitable. To give myself (and other people) the chance to play in that world was fantastically enticing. I actually credit this lizard with the game idea.
What is it about travelling that informs your game ideas?
When you're traveling you're always being confronted with new ideas and all art is made of new ideas. Novel input, novel output.
But in game design there are lots of problems to solve. One of the most important for Incredipede is the controls. How do players actually build creatures? What do they click on? Incredipede is very original and I had to design the interface from scratch. Tokyo was the perfect place for this. You don't want to base your interface design on a jungle, jungles are confusing places. Tokyo on the other hand is meticulously designed for human use.
Tokyo has a great subway system but it's very complicated. There are a lot of lines. But one line, the Yamanote line, is a simple ring around the city. Instead of spending forever studying maps and optimising paths we just took the Yamanote line. It got everywhere eventually.
One of the biggest breakthroughs in Incredipede was how you build muscles. At first you could put a muscle anywhere and it felt like this gave you a lot of freedom. But sometimes freedom is free doom. In this game there are really only two options for each muscle. Either the muscle pushes the limb left or it pushes it right. Now when you build a muscle you choose between these two options instead of a world of possibilities that are all identical. Which is just like we use the Tokyo subway system.
The plot of the game is inspired by the differences in wealth we've seen around the world. The labor history of Scotland was really inspiring (my family is from Scotland). It's easy to forget that those huge castles everyone loves represent a gross imbalance of wealth between the few lords and their teeming subjects. I hope the game manages to echo a little bit of the bravery and effort of the struggle to overturn that imbalance.
It must be tough to make games while travelling around. Do you find yourself getting distracted by your surroundings?
Spending more time in a place is the key to being productive. If you only spend a week or two in any one place you end up being incredibly distracted the whole time because there's this big exciting new place outside! Given a few months you can pace yourself and get into a rhythm. Sometimes you can even be more productive while traveling.
If you rent apartments/houses by the month you can get good rates and in some countries you can get great rates. Our house in Greece cost a third of what our San Francisco apartment had cost us. As long as you don't criss-cross too many oceans during the year you can keep airfares under control. We're not rich, we just have itchy feet.
What are the best places to work?
Abandoned stretches of coastline. Hands down. We get a lot more work done in Costa Rica or Thailand than in Vancouver or Istanbul. Big cities are filled with distractions. Especially if you have good friends there. If you live beside a beach in the middle of nowhere there isn't much to do but go for long thoughtful walks and write code. If you can walk out your front door and spend a few hours surfing or snorkeling you'll be calm and focused for the rest of the day.
It's surprising that the places we get the most work done are also the most beautiful and also the cheapest but it's true.
Do you ever have trouble getting power and internet access?
Mobile phones have changed the world. The way they've changed the world for your average European or Canadian is nothing compared to how they've changed poorer tropical countries where there were no landlines.
Small cities in the tropics bristle with cellphone towers and every one of them is radiating a decent, affordable, 3G connection. You aren't going to be streaming Youtube or getting headshots in Counter-Strike but you can slurp the knowledge you need and stay in communication with team-mates and the world.
Power is often flaky but provides a good excuse to go outside and do something fun.
There are indie developers dotted all around the world, have you ever visited them?
We like to meet other independent game authors while we travel. Istanbul has a really friendly indie community who invited us in. We had a blast with them and attended the first ever Istanbul Game Jam. We sung karaoke in Tokyo with Indies and even attended an indie rice tasting with an indie gamer. We've also met indies in France, Athens, and Hong Kong. They're all great people and having a local connection makes travel ten times more fun.
Have you ever managed to persuade anyone to join you on your travels?
We're always trying to convince our friends to come with us. Ron Carmel (World of Goo) and his wife Arlie came with us for two months to the Philippines. We've also shared the road with Nathan Vella (Capybara games), Mike Boxleiter (Solipskier, Fig. 8), Aaron Isaksen (AppAbove games), Marc ten Bosch (Miegakure) and the Broken Rules guys (And Yet it Moves, Chasing Aurora).
I think we've planted a seed. People really like it when they try it. Selling all your stuff and ditching your apartment feels like a big step and people are hesitant to do it. But as we prove it can work and people start to get a taste for it I hope we'll have more companions drifting around the earth writing games with us.
If I had Minecraft money I would buy a sunny little island somewhere and dedicate it to the production and the producers of games. People would come and spend a few months being inspired by nature and by the other people there. We would all be artists in residence in paradise. I think a lot of really good games would come out of a place like that, and we're always looking for the perfect island.