[This interview was originally conducted by Travis Boisvenue and has been reprinted here with his permission. You can find the original article and more indie game developer interviews at The Happy Medium.]

Matthew Wegner is the CEO of Flashbang Studios, editor of physics game site Fun-Motion.com, an IGF content director, and an avid unicyclist. Though he has carved a distinct niche in the video game world, he reminds me of Will Wright in a lot of ways. Like Wright, Wegner loves games because they are fun. Fun in the way that inventing rules, or using a chemistry set is fun. They each use the medium to explore the things that fascinate them. Even the way they discuss games is similar: casually, insightfully, and seemingly unaware of how funny they are.


I'm wondering how unicycling inspires your game designs, if at all.

I don't think it directly influences me. The fun thing about unicycling is that when you first start, everything seems impossible. It just feels impossible to even stand on it. Then after that, if feels impossible to turn. Then after that it feels impossible to jump, or go up a curb. It's a fun challenge to do things that are seemingly impossible and then just keep doing them more and more.


Which is kind of how physics games work.

Oh yeah, definitely. There is a certain challenge in unicycling that I like to find in physics games. In Ski Stunt Simulator, one of my favourite games, it seems impossible to do a flip or even simple challenges, but after you play the game for hours it's easy to do the things that once seemed so hard.


Do you enjoy traditional games as much as physics games?

I don't play as many retail games as I used to, mostly because of time reasons--like I wouldn't have time to play through Bioshock... though I did play through Bioshock--but the games that I play for enjoyment these days are games I can just pick up and play.


Are you what someone would call a casual gamer?

It really depends how you define "casual gamer". A lot of the industry that focuses on casual games really focuses on the 35-year-old-housewife demographic. Or the people who want to play Bejeweled on the phone while they're talking to their friend. I wouldn't consider myself a casual gamer in that regard, but then there is the other side of the coin. There's the mainstream that considers casual gamers anyone that's not playing Halo 3 and Madden. So I'm definitely casual in that sense.


Do you find it odd that the term casual games is applied to games designed to be addictive?

Yeah, I think the term is a little silly. When you're talking about a game like Bejeweled where people are playing five to ten minute sessions, but some people are playing hundreds of hours. People have talked about it before, that the moniker of casual games is a little bit silly because we don't refer to casual books, or casual television, or casual movies. A game is a game.


You seem interested in the visceral fun-ness of games. Do you see games as anything more than fun?

Some of our guys [at Flashbang Studios] are more interested in games as a means to tell a story, but I think most of us here are more interested in games as fun. Like when I was a kid, I used to just have fun by throwing a tennis ball onto the roof and watching it fall down--to me, there is fun in that, and I would enjoy making a game as simple as that in terms of goal structure.

I don't really have a personal interest in pursuing games as a more serious way to tell a complicated story, or making people cry. I really am just interested in games, and especially the play, I guess. Like play in that sense of two kittens playing, or when you're just a kid bouncing a ball. I think games as a medium is definitely capable of that meaningful exploration, but I just don't have any interest doing the exploring myself.


What kind of research are you putting into Jetpack Brontosaurus? The skeleton seems incredibly accurate.

[Laughs] Yeah, actually, some of our guys are--they're not really dinosaur aficionados to begin with, but they're the kind of people that correct you if you speak improperly, and they have a ridiculous amount of physical knowledge. The artist that did the brontosaurus model can name any muscle in the human body without any hesitation. When he was modeling that, he actually had all these books open from the library of the actual skeleton.

And even then we had the name--the brontosaurus--the actual brontosaurus isn't a real dinosaur, there was some mixup in the discovery. There were bones mixed together, and the guy that found it thought he found a new dinosaur called the brontosaurus. It turned out that, no, it was just an allosaurus bone mixed together. So the compromise we had over a huge discussion at lunch was that it was an apatosaurus with the christian given name of Brontosaurus, and then we keep the brand recognition of brontosaurus but we satisfy the people [who know it is an apatosaurus].


What's with the dinosaur fixation?

We did Off-Road Velociraptor as a joke. The goal was actually to explore certain features in the engine we are using, so we were about to explore vehicle features and terrain, and we needed a game on top of that and somehow we ended up with a velociraptor in a jeep. And for the next game we had a sketch of a brontosaurus with a jet engine strapped to him, and we decided that it was funny enough to be the next game. Our next game actually isn't a dinosaur game though. I'm actually a little worried that any dinosaur fans we have accrued will be upset about that.


Can you talk about that game at all?

It's Minotaur China Shop. So it's a minotaur straight from the labyrinth. He took out a small business loan and started his own china shop, and then he's not quite equipped to run a china shop, and so it doesn't go well. He's prone to fall into a rage and sort of trash the place.



Right, I saw the demo video on your vimeo account. What kind of playable game will that be?

This is also partly a technology test. We developed a system for Jetpack Brontosaurus because [Brontosaurus] is essentially a ragdoll but has joint strength to enable him to match animations. So the reason the animation is really weird in the china shop video--you can see he is a physical cohesive creature--we still have to fix it so he doesn't look so clumsy. But the actual game will be: customers walk in and say, "I want that plate over there", or, "that piece of china in the corner", and you have to go get it without breaking things. But as soon as you do break something, you [become enraged and] basically need to be tranquilized, so you might as well trash the place while you still have time.

So it will be kind of a mix of Diner Dash and trashing things--watching things mash around.


That's a beautiful idea.

We're trying to make something shorter because Jetpack took about four months, which is a little bit too long for us. But in August we are actually going to be launching our game site, because right now we have all our games under different domain names. So we are launching Blurst, which will be the single destination for all of our games. There will be a single login for achievements, leaderboards, and everything. So we are hoping to launch Blurst this month and then we are actually going to launch it with Jetpack.


You mentioned on your blog that you beat Grand Theft Auto IV recently. What did you think of the physics in it?

The Euphoria stuff is neat. I think the car physics are remarkably well tuned. They hit the sweet spot where it feels like you're doing things more complicated than you actually are doing. I didn't used to kill pedestrians in that game, and then I realized if I have to drive from point A to point B a hundred more times, I might as well drive down the sidewalk. There's a lot more visual reward for doing that--people slamming off your trunk and your windshield. I think it's a great example of how physics can make doing the same action again and again--like running over pedestrians--slightly different.


In the past you've mentioned games that could be based on quantum theory. How would you design a game based on quantum physics?

It would probably be very confusing. Actually, a PhD student was interviewing me and his thesis was--he actually thought that the cartoony physics used in video games was actually damaging people's real-world understanding of physics. And one of his questions was, "Why isn't there a physics game based on strong and weak gravity, and magnets, and quantum physics?"

I didn't really have an answer for him. I think a game like that would require a lot of deep thinking, and I think a lot of developers use short cuts that don't involve deep thinking. I think there are a few game developers--I think Jon Blow's Braid is a great example of a game that requires a ton of deep thinking and I think he's the type of guy that can do that kind of deep thinking really well.


Do you think games negatively affect people's understanding of physics?

I think if anything it will help people discover more important properties, people who don't have any interest in real physics research. I think the people on Fun-Motion, 12 to 16 is about the average age range, a lot of these people spend a ton of time with these tool kits that are not even games. Like Phun, and OE-Cake, these are sort of physics toys and I think they help quite a bit. I don't think it's damaging. I think that's sort of a weird hypothesis.