July 1, 2013 1:50 PM | Anthony Swinnich
When most people talk about "the family business", they mean something like a restaurant or a local pharmacy. For Matt Kain Lewandowski and Jake Lewandowski, they mean a video game studio. The brothers just formed Team2Bit in 2011 and have already released Washington's Wig and Fist Puncher, winning the first season of IGN's The Next Game Boss along the way.
We spoke with the Bay Area, California pair about their experiences as a start-up studio so far. They told us about working with Adult Swim as a publisher, the fear of quitting a good job to pursue development, and how a traumatic real-life nude beach experience made it into their game.
At what point was the decision made to formulate Team2Bit Studios?
Jake: Summer of 2011, almost exactly three years ago. We'd talked about it for a while before that, but that was the first time we officially joined forces. We had made games as kids and in the years before I had started to get back into it with tools like AGS, Gamemaker and then XNA. Matt was working in biotech and medical software and had extensive professional programming experience. So even though we were new to the industry, there were certain areas where we could hit the ground running.
What sorts of unexpected challenges did you face as a start-up indie studio?
Jake: I guess that cuts both ways. In one sense, we do a huge amount of research on what it takes to succeed as an indie studio. The internet has a wealth of detailed accounts of things that go both wrong and right in making an indie game. There's also a very supportive community of indie studios in the Bay Area and down through Silicon Valley that we network with. So in the big picture we've known what to expect for the most part.
The flip of that is there's no step in the process you can really understand until you've done it yourself. You may have a sense of the landmarks because you can talk with people who've done it before, but very often the details don't crystallize until it's first hand. I often find myself thinking, "OH that's what they were warning us about, I wish we would have listened..."
Matt, how was it to quit your job and go full-time into development?
Matt: It was frightening. To leave a stable career and a job with good pay and benefits so you can jump into full-time indie game development, a path which typically has little monetary payoff, takes a special mixture of courage and stupidity. Regardless of the end result, I'm still glad I took the plunge and gambled on trying something radically different and potentially life-altering.
Jake, what is it like balancing game development and another job?
Jake: I'm fortunate to have a salaried job that allows me a little flexibility with my time. I also feel lucky that it's different enough from game development that they keep each other in balance in some respect. My day job tends to be more managing people to solve problems whereas game development is in partnership with Matt but otherwise largely solitary. I like the people I work with so they're usually a refreshing break from staring at a block of code all night.
It's not something that can be done indefinitely though. You have a well of energy and time that gets very scarce, and available for little else. My wife won't be so happy if I keep working this schedule year after year. It can be also very unhealthy to have two jobs that are essentially desk jobs. I need to use my standing desk more often.
Fist Puncher's genesis was due to violence in your community. Do you feel the game has the potential to combat or correct similar situations, and if so, how?-
Jake: It's probably a reach, but a game like Fist Puncher could only be positive I hope. Fist Puncher definitely mocks the absurdity of both videogame and real life violence, but if you appreciate that you probably weren't going to go stab someone tonight.
Still, playing videogames was a way to bond with other kids when we were young. I remember lots of friendships that we formed on the basis of playing a game together. Even a kid you didn't see eye to eye with was a welcome sight when he dropped that quarter to jump into your Double Dragon game. Share a night of local co-op with someone and you are statistically less likely to stab him to death I'm sure.
You guys are big advocates of local co-op. What do you think the biggest advantage of that style is?
Jake: Local co-op turns videogames into a true social experience. I don't enjoy playing online myself, I'd rather be around real people when I play multiplayer. Development itself is a largely isolating experience, and once you add in all the rest of the time you spend on email, Twitter, chat, forums and everything else, playing a game remotely feels empty.
I think most videogames are best experienced with less than 100 percent attention on the game.
As an interactive medium you can advance at your own pace and weave in conversations or other threads from your real life. In local co-op, bystanders in the room can observe and comment without feeling like they're intruding, they become part of the fun, too. It's so much more inclusive. Plus, there's always, "this level's hard, let's make a pizza and come back to it."
What could developers do to improve the online co-op experience in general?
Jake: I don't think I've played enough online games to analyze it seriously. I would be interested in an online co-op game that takes the experience out of the home and makes it an activity. And I don't mean on phones! I'd like to see ideas like Microsoft's Illumiroom lead to a rebirth of the arcade. We just need a reasonably priced technology that can provide a gaming experience you can't have at home.
How has the response to Fist Puncher been to this point?
Matt: It's been great. We've been getting positive reviews and people playing the game seem to really enjoy it. I think I think I speak for both of us when I say it makes our day when a fan sends us a message letting us know how much they love the game. I've also been getting a kick out of the hilarious Let's Play videos that people have been posting (the Videogames AWESOME! Let's Play is a personal favorite). As with any release, you find a handful of weird and annoying bugs in the first few days after the game comes out so we're still doing a little bit of housekeeping in that arena. Overall, we're happy and a bit relieved to finally have Fist Puncher out there in wide release.
Were there ever points while demoing the game that feedback had a major impact on design decisions?
Matt: I think it's important for any developer to constantly listen to everyone's feedback and criticism (even if it stings to hear it sometimes). We made major revisions to the keyboard controls and difficulty based on gamer feedback over the past year. More recently we made some tweaks to the fighting mechanics based on gameplay comments from the creators of Aztez. As a developer you have to always be ready to listen, react, and respond.
Are there any moments in the game that are based on specific events you witnessed or were a part of?
Jake: When I first moved to Santa Cruz, California, I was still a fairly sheltered Midwestern boy. I had no idea what kind of debauchery was waiting for me. The first time my girlfriend and I went to a beach it turned out to be a (mostly) nude beach. That experience is represented with frightening accuracy in the game. Even the dog was real. That poor dog.
Were there any planned scenarios that didn't make the cut for any reason?
Jake: Lots of things were cut when the gameplay didn't work for us. The related setting or gags were secondary and could be bolted on somewhere else if they were still worthwhile. The main change that the game went through was that it started with a mostly serious theme, and became more humorous as we went on. As we got focused on making a great beat 'em up, we couldn't avoid the reality that it's a genre that is pure comedy at its core. It's really hard to make a serious game about people walking down the street engaging in hand-to-hand combat with literally everyone they see. Although they still make plenty of 'serious' games where you walk down the street shooting everyone.
What was the most important lesson you learned from The Next Game Boss on IGN?
Matt: As ironic as this will sound, since it was a show about competition, our experience on The Next Game Boss really demonstrated the strength and importance of the indie game community. Despite the external layer of competition, behind the scenes the other teams were supportive and friendly. It really felt like one big game jam. In fact, we still stay in touch with just about everyone that we competed against on the show. It was really the first time we saw firsthand how incredibly positive and welcoming the game development community is.
Washington's Wig came out on Xbox Live Indie Games. How was it received, and did its reception affect your thoughts on the service as a whole?
Matt: We got a fair amount of positive feedback, and fans of The Next Game Boss show were happy to have a chance to play the game. Sure, it's just a simple little autoscroller, but we're still proud to have released something on Xbox. Microsoft certainly created a fluid, painless publishing path with XBLIG. Discoverability is an issue, but I think that's more of the responsibility of the developer and not Microsoft.
The Kickstarter campaign for Fist Puncher was successfully funded. What did this mean for the game, and Team2Bit in general?
Matt: It meant everything. It gave us the ability to get the game finished and created a huge community of backers that supported and evangelized the game. I think we would be in a very different position right now if we hadn't Kickstarted.
What are your thoughts on Steam Greenlight in general?
Matt: I think Valve is working hard to create as many opportunities as possible for people to get their games on Steam. They said from day 1 that it would morph and change over time, and they seem to be doing just that - trying their hardest to evolve the service into something that benefits the entire gaming community.
What's the highest high, so far, for Team2Bit?
Matt: I'm very proud of the Steam release of Fist Puncher. It feels like we've reached a sort of finish line with the game. You spend month after month after month developing a game, and at some point you start to lose focus and forget why you're doing it. Seeing the game come out on the largest PC distribution platform brings you back to reality and reminds you why you're working seven days a week until three in the morning.
Conversely, what's the lowest low?
Matt: I'll be blunt. Videogame development is filled with frequent lows: rejection from a publisher, a bug that seemingly can't get fixed, a feature that never seems to work right, a bored teen gamer sends you a profanity-laden diatribe, your game crashes at a show, etc. Overall, we try hard to let those things go. Focus on the positive, and try to forget all the hurdles and bullshit along the way.
Can you describe the process of finding a publisher?
Matt: We're lucky. You hear lots of horror stories from indies about being mistreated or swept aside by publishers, but we managed to avoid most of that. We started talking with Adult Swim way back at GDC 2012, and a few months later we signed up to be a part of their Steam initiative (which now includes Fist Puncher, Super Puzzle Platformer, and Super House of Dead Ninjas). They were actually one of the fist publishers that we showed Fist Puncher to, and they've been on board with us ever since.
How has working with Adult Swim Games been?
Matt: It's been a great experience. They've helped with many different aspects of the release (pitching to and interfacing with Valve, testing and gameplay feedback, PR and marketing) while still allowing us to make the game exactly the way that we envisioned it. It's sort of the ideal setup - we make our game and they help get it out to the world. They really are a swell group of people, and they're definitely a good fit for small studios that think outside the box.
Robot Unicorn was made available as a preorder bonus: Are there plans for any other special characters?
Matt: The Robot Unicorn tie-in character turned out really well, and fans of the franchise seem to like that you can finally take Robot Unicorn to the fictional streets of San Cruces and beat the tar out of baddies (because who doesn't want to do that?). We're looking into additional characters and already have some ready to go that we haven't unlocked yet.
Which other studios have allowed you to use their characters or properties in Fist Puncher?
Matt: We've packed Fist Puncher with references to other indie games and indie developers. I don't want to play spoiler so I'll let people hunt through the game and find things for themselves. However, we've always been big advocates of crossovers. When we released Washington's Wig we added Escape Goat and TOM from A Virus Named TOM. It's a great way for developers to cross promote and support one another, and I'd personally like to see more of it.
Are there any developers that will include Team2Bit IP, Fist Puncher or otherwise, in an upcoming project?
Matt: We're also looking into getting Fist Puncher characters into other games that are slated for release later this year. Nothing that we can announce at this point, but we'll hopefully have some more news on this down the road.
Are there plans for Fist Puncher to continue with DLC, or as a franchise and/or see a port to consoles now that the game has been released?
Matt: We have some fun ideas for character pack DLC, and we're looking into the feasibility of adding online multiplayer. As for ports, we have our eye on bringing Fist Puncher to Mac, Linux, Sony Platforms, and Ouya (and maybe even XBLIG). Much will depend on how we do in the first few weeks of the Steam release. Once we have a better sense of the audience we can plan accordingly.
Do the Wii U, PS4 and Xbox One factor into the future of Team2Bit?
Jake: I don't think the smoke has cleared yet. Console ports are still possible. The next few months will be telling in the console struggle, and for us trying to find out where we fit best as a studio. I feel like our timing is pretty good, releasing Fist Puncher is keeping us busy and by the time that has died down we'll understand the next gen opportunities a little better.
What would you change about the development process with your next project?
Jake: Fist Puncher grew organically. Our next game will need to be more defined in scope before we start. We've also talked a lot about making smaller games from now on. Fist Puncher took three years and we're glad we made the effort. The problem is the industry changes so quickly. For a studio our size to make good decisions we have to be able to make them faster.
When you say you may build smaller games in the future, what sort of games would that entail?
Matt: I think our biggest goal for our next wave of games is to make things that are platform-neutral. Fist Puncher plays great on console and PC, but doing an iOS port, for example, would be next to impossible. We have an ongoing list of potential games, and I think we'll probably go with something that is better suited for a wider variety of devices (PC, console, mobile). Many of our upcoming game ideas are also based on the Fist Puncher IP. People seem to really enjoy many of the characters and personalities throughout the game so it would definitely be a possibility that we would continue to work within the world of San Cruces.
Have you considered something with the scope of Fist Puncher, but released episodically?
Matt: We've spoken to other developers who are pursuing this route. It's a possibility. After spending three years in development, it's easy to see the benefit of working on smaller, episodic releases rather than a single, massive release. Going episodic allows for versatility and the ability to change and grow with the vicissitudes of the industry.
What advice do you have for any aspiring developers out there?
Matt: Everyone has heard this advice a million times, but simply said, get the tools and make your game. If development gets frustrating or overwhelming be sure to take breaks to catch a movie, hang with friends and family, or do whatever the hell it is you need to do to relax. Making a game can be an exhausting, consuming experience. Just make sure to take care of yourself along the way!
While we asked Team2Bit about the circumstances surrounding the removal of Fist Puncher's Steam Greenlight page, the team declined to comment.