Road to the Student IGF: Beglitched

'I was immediately hooked on the idea of cyberpunk that wasn't dark, green, and gritty,' says Alec Thomson. 'Frank Lantz ultimately came up with the term cyberpink; blame him for that one.'

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

Beglitched is a match-3 game like no other. It has a hilarious premise, something about hacking and viruses and sentient spam and made up tech jargon. It has a delightful pastel pallette and a pixel art aesthetic.

It also has an IGF Student award nomination. It's the second game that the two-person development team known as Hexecutable have had nominated in this category.

Hexecutable is Alec Thomson and Jenny Jiao Hsia, two independent game developers who are studying at NYU. Alec handled "the programming and stuff" on Beglitched, while Jenny dealt with "the art and stuff."

The two answered some questions about themselves and the development of their game below.

How do you describe the game to someone who's never seen it?

Alec: I usually start with the tagline "It's a game about insecurity, in computers and ourselves" and then talk a little about the "cyberpink" aesthetic. In terms of actually describing the play, well...that's kinda tough, mainly because the game is a pretty weird mashup of different ideas. I usually say, "playing it is the fastest way to find out" but if that isn't an option then I'll resort to the line "It's like a mixture of Minesweeper, Bejeweled, and a traditional JRPG." 

Jenny: Beglitched is a game about hacking, magic, and secrecy. It is very pink and purple and all of the characters in the game are pretty squishy-looking. Make your way across these pastel computer networks where strange and bouncy enemies lurk. Enter into hack-3 battles with them. Your objective is to locate and disconnect these enemies using computers, compasses, and bombs. All of the characters seem to have some relation to this mysterious glitch_witch… but who is she, really?

What's each of your background in making games?

Alec: Making games was how I was originally taught to program, and for a while it seemed like the only thing programming was actually good for (still feels like that sometimes). So I've been making small stuff here and there since I was in grade school. As an undergrad, I worked at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab and learned a lot about the game making process by working on a variety of game-related research projects. When it came time to graduate, I had already decided I wanted to pursue game making as my career so I applied for the MFA program at the NYU Game Center which is where I ended up meeting Jenny and collaborating on a whole bunch of stuff, eventually resulting in Beglitched.

Jenny: I stumbled into games after my pre-med plans didn’t work out. I’ve always done art but never thought I could pursue it seriously. A couple of years ago, I participated in a Code Liberation game jam and that was where I made my first game. I took an introductory game design course in the spring of 2014 and sabotaged most of my other classes to work on the final project for that course. That was probably around the time I knew I really wanted to make games. I spent the following summer working on a small project with Alec which eventually turned into Stellar Smooch (which became a student IGF finalist last year). We’ve worked on a bunch of stuff together since then and I’m currently in my final year of BFA program at the NYU Game Center.

What all development tools did you use to build Beglitched?

Alec: Beglitched was built in Unity with a few plugins (2D Toolkit, iTween, etc.). I started writing the music with Terry Cavanagh's excellent Bosca Ceoil, but then switched to GarageBand once I managed to get a good set of instrument presets. The sound effects are a mixture of microphone recordings and generated sounds that I fooled around with in Audacity. The writing is all done in a custom xml format so I just write everything in emacs and then run a spell checker over it. Oh yeah, I also use Google spreadsheets to feed a bunch of data into the game.

Jenny: Photoshop! I make everything--from the mock-ups, UI, backgrounds, sprites, and animations--in it.

How much time have you spent working on the game?

Alec: For a while the game was a series of prototypes that I kept experimenting with until I found something I liked, so it's debatable about when I started actually working on the game that would become Beglitched. The first prototype that led to Beglitched was made in April of 2014, but the actual structure of the current game didn't come together until Jenny joined the project in March 2015. So you could say 1 or 2 years, I dunno.

Jenny: I’ve been working on the game for a long time, but not as long as Alec. I’ve probably spent a total of 4 or 5 months intensely working on Beglitched in total… I probably made the most progress during the NYU Game Center Incubator over this past summer. I don’t really have much time to work on the game during the semester so I’ve only recently started to work on it again over winter break.

How did you come up with the concept?

Alec: I'd had this idea floating around in my head since at least 2012 where I thought about how debugging is usually the most despised aspect of programming but under the right circumstances (a good understanding of the system, easy access to information), it can actually be a really fun, exhilarating experience. When you get into the flow of it, you end up feeling like a master detective and I really wanted to make this feeling more accessible. So that was really the initial seed of Beglitched; I wanted to make a game about debugging that was actually fun. Of course, over time, Beglitched started to diverge a bit from that seed.

How did the concept evolve, and what special talents and insights did each of you bring to it?

Alec: Starting with the idea of "make debugging fun" I tried to prototype a procedural detective adventure game. The idea was you'd get a procedurally generated city with generated citizens all with their own relationships and schedules. A crime would then randomly be generated and you'd need to interrogate witnesses about where they'd actually been (or what they'd actually seen) at the time of the crime and use inconsistencies to determine who the perp was. This prototype was a total failure. The entire thing felt too much like the bad parts of debugging without any of the fun, so I shelved the idea for a while.

When I came back to the idea again, I was taking a weekly prototyping class taught by Bennett Foddy and our theme for the week was to participate in Ludum Dare 29 which had the theme "beneath the surface". I'd been reading about the Deep Web at the time and thought back to the procedural detective idea but this time you'd be chasing a criminal across a computer network. I wanted to avoid the mistakes of the previous prototype and tried to make the new one as simple as possible, basing it on the idea of "one small piece of information per space on the board" which is done really well in Minesweeper. The result of this was my prototype Deepweb which I liked despite feeling it didn't really explore the concept enough to my liking.

I ended up trying to expand Deepweb for my MFA thesis at NYU, but ran into a lot of roadblocks and went down a lot of paths that didn't work out so well (at one point it became a weird investment game??). Towards the end of the Fall semester I said "screw it, I just wanna make some match-3s now" and started prototyping match-3s (I guess I just felt like it). Eventually I made a match-3 prototype that borrowed the deduction mechanics from Deepweb, and that's when the actual shape of Beglitched started to come together.

Shortly after I made that prototype, Jenny joined the project and we really started to get into it. With her help, I was reminded that computers can be really silly, playful, and magical objects which is how we started to build the foundation for the narrative of the game.

In terms of special talents and insights I brought? Uh, I guess a weird love for computers combined with a willingness to make a whole bunch of bad stuff before I find something I like?

Jenny: The most obvious transition that took place when I started working on Beglitched was the game’s color palette changing from mostly green to mostly pink. Conceptually, the game began to embrace a more playful and silly attitude. The game’s visual style has evolved after many iterations. I think I’ve redone most, if not all, of the assets more than several times because I didn’t feel like it quite nailed the mood and look I was going for. Each attempt brought me a bit closer to what I envisioned the final visual style to look like. I’m pretty satisfied with it now. I guess my special talents include figuring out how to bring a new look and aesthetic to traditional cyberpunk and posting good .gifs of Beglitched on twitter.  

What did you draw inspiration from in making this game? (All sources: Other games, films, music, books, comics, manga, cartoons, etc.)

Alec: In terms of games, the two major influences were match-3 games like Bejeweled and my personal favorite deduction game Minesweeper. Other influences included JRPGs with a "transition-to-battle" structure (think Pokemon) and recent roguelikes (think 868-Hack). I was also definitely inspired by Christine Love's Digital: a Love Story and the way it took place completely within a computer interface.

Originally, the aesthetic of the game was inspired by traditional cyberpunk stuff (Neuromancer, Hackers, Bladerunner, Snow Crash, etc.), but when Jenny showed me a tumblr she'd put together of computer stuff rendered in cute pastels I was immediately hooked on the idea of a cyberpunk that wasn't dark, green, and gritty (Frank Lantz ultimately came up with the term "cyberpink"; blame him for that one).

Finally, a major source of inspiration for the narrative was shonen manga (think Naruto, One Piece, Prince of Tennis, Eyeshield 21). These stories tend to follow a pattern where the protagonist is constantly confronted by rivals with powerful and odd abilities (that naturally have an exploitable weakness). I liked the idea of making the enemy hackers have odd abilities that were fundamentally tied to their own insecurities. For instance, the Spam King abhors solitude which is why he floods networks with spam minions, the dog is concerned with justice kinda to the point of chasing his own tail, and the owls hate the idea of being watched despite constantly spying on everyone.

Oh. P.S. The idea for having the hackers use their own fictional slang was inspired by the way the characters talk in the webcomic Achewood and also this amazing story of the New York Times reporting on made up "grunge speak."

Jenny: So I actually have a secret, password-protected tumblr which I reblog stuff I’m into. I mostly use it as a resource to help me feel out and define certain moods and styles I’m going for. Around the time I started working on Beglitched, I was really into pastel color palettes and cute, glitchy pixel art. For character design, I drew a lot of inspiration from Tamagotchi, Pokemon, and Sanrio. Backgrounds and general color palettes were inspired by Steven Universe. As for the computer interface, old windows and mac operating systems definitely influenced me. I also found myself looking at a lot of clothing and fashion subcultures--particularly pastel goth and soft grunge styles which helped me articulate the visual style of the game.

What has making Beglitched and getting it greenlit on Steam taught you about game development?

Alec: I guess it's taught me to recognize a potential feeling that can spell danger when you're designing. Sometimes, working on a game feels like you're climbing a steep hill but everything is going to be worth it when you get to the top. But then sometimes you realize there isn't actually a great view at the top of the hill and it's actually just gonna be a brick wall or something and what you should actually be doing is climbing a different hill. I'm definitely not perfect at telling the two apart yet, but I think struggling with this project has at least made it a little easier to tell the difference between those cases.

Also, prior to Beglitched, most of my released games have been on iOS, so I really didn't know what to expect from the Greenlight process. I was actually super impressed with Jenny's ability to get the word out and get people excited about the game when we put our Greenlight page up. Even if I don't have those skills myself, seeing them in action made me really respect people like Jenny who do.

Jenny: Making Beglitched has taught me that great and seemingly impossible things start out small. It has taught me that game development isn’t just falling in love with an idea but how it is about taking action and making deliberate effort to turn that idea into something real and tangible.

It has taught me that the small things matter and maybe matter the most and paying attention to the tiniest details and doing them well will have huge impact on the overall and larger picture.

Finally, it has also taught me a lot about my own limits and capabilities as a developer: It has revealed ugly and embarrassing sides of me.  don’t think I’ve ever experienced so much fear, jealousy, and insecurity working on a project before but I’m also grateful for the opportunity to learn how to deal with these aspects of myself.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?

Alec: I've played and enjoyed all the finalists that emerged from the New York area. These include Cibele, Ape Out, and Circa Infinity. All of those are great! Outside of those, I've also played and enjoyed The Beginner's Guide, Undertale, Orchids to Dusk, and Infinifactory. Finally I had a really short opportunity to play Gnog and I really liked it!

Jenny: Yes! I’ve also played all of the games from the NYU Game Center Incubator (Ape Out and Circa Infinity). I’ve also played Cibele, Gnog, Her Story, Orchids to Dusk, Panoramical, and The Beginner’s Guide. I still haven’t finished Undertale but I like listening to the soundtrack sometimes when I work on Beglitched. I’ll get to it eventually. That’s the thing about making games for me, it’s kind of hard to play them when I’m making them.

Don't forget check out the rest of our Road to the IGF series right here.

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