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Interview: The Developers And Daniel Johnston

Gamasutra talks to artist Peter Franco and developer Steve Broumley, developers of Hi, How Are You -- the iPhone game based on the art and music of Daniel Johnston, and catch up with Johnston himself.

Jonathan Glover, Blogger

November 19, 2009

9 Min Read

[Gamasutra talks to artist Peter Franco and developer Steve Broumley, developers of Hi, How Are You -- the iPhone game based on the art and music of Daniel Johnston, and catch up with Johnston himself.] The anthropomorphic heroes, demons and Nazis that litter the world of musician Daniel Johnston’s marker drawings seem like the perfect fodder for video games. Touching upon ideas of alienation, capitalism, distorted ‘Americana’ and over-muscled dudes punching each other really, really hard, his artwork — swathed in the psycho-surrealism that’s been prevalent since the early years of 8-bit Japanese development — is still rooted in the adolescent male fantasies that have populated gaming for years. The transition into interactive entertainment almost seems obvious. Artist Peter Franco and developer Steve Broumley [flanking Johnston in the picture shown] agreed. Friends and acquaintances (via Peter’s wife, who works directly with Daniel and his family), the ex-Midway developers released Hi, How Are You?, a game featuring the art and music of Johnston, in late September. The game, featuring old school puzzle mechanics reminiscent of Marble Madness, has seen generally positive reviews, the most glowing of which have surprisingly been from mainstream outlets like The New York Times. FingerGaming spoke with developers Franco and Broumley immediately after their meeting with Daniel in Austin to celebrate the launch of the game. We talked about everything from their decision to develop for iPhone to the surprising ease of pitching a game based on the work of someone that doesn’t even own a computer. And then… we spoke to Daniel. Part One: The Developers How did you guys come together on this project? Peter Franco: Steve and I have been making games for over 30 years combined. Our careers first crossed paths at Iguana Studios here in Austin, TX in the late 90s. Since then we have worked together at several companies, including Acclaim, and Midway Games. My wife, Heather Olson, had been working with the Johnston family for over 5 years, helping promote Daniel’s art by creating art prints, t-shirts and collaborating on PR events around the Austin area. She had been talking with Dick Johnston (Daniel’s brother) for a while about someday doing a video game consisting of Daniel’s art and music. Steve and I left Midway several months apart and we each started our own indie development studio. Steve started the tech oriented Smashing Studios and I started the creative DrFunFun. At the beginning of the year we both decided it was the perfect time to join forces and develop a game based on one of our favorite esoteric and reclusive artists. Was Hi, How Are You always intended as a vehicle for Daniel’s work? PF: Absolutely. The intention was to try to figure out a way to combine Daniel’s music and art in a way that hadn’t been done with any other popular music figure. We brainstormed a few different game play ideas, but we always intended to put Daniel’s music and art front and center. His universe is full of unusual and bizarre characters that beg to be brought to life. The intention artistically was to bring Daniel’s marker art to life. If you’re familiar with Daniel’s marker art, you’ll see the vivid (sometimes garish) colors, the rough outlines and the primitive drawing style. Those are all things that we strove to maintain. The “cut-out” style cinemas were also done in a fashion that we feel resonates with Daniel’s lo-fi world. Why the choice of platform? Steve Broumley: The Smashing Studios tech involved behind the game was developed on the PC with cross platform support built in from day one – in fact we can edit and play the full game on PC using an Xbox360 controller. Our initial thought was to develop the game for Xbox Live Arcade (and this is something we may still pursue in the future), but both Pete and I are avid iPhone/iPod-Touch gamers and we noticed that there aren’t too many indie titles as unique as ours that exist on iPhone. So we thought – what the heck – let’s give it a try and bring something new to the platform! So why was this Marble Madness-esque game play system such an appropriate framework for Jeremiah and company? SB: I’ve always been a big fan of 80’s classic arcade games such as Marble Madness, Q-Bert, Frogger, et cetera, so I naturally gravitate towards that kind of old-school game design. In addition, I really like physics-driven gameplay and the tech theory behind it — yes, I’m a big math geek. So from a tech standpoint, I attempted to combine all these different flavors. Now one of the hardest things to do well on the iPhone (especially for a 3D game like this) was, of course, the controls – what works well with two analog sticks such as those found on Xbox 360 controller, does not translate very well to an accelerometer/touch screen as on iPhone. Pete and tried out a ton of control schemes before we settled on the current implementation. PF: We definitely approached it from the aspect of trying to make a fun game first and foremost. Having developed lots of games between the two of us, we have learned the lesson that you can have the best intentions in the world, but if the game isn’t fun, no one is going to care. So we took inspiration in games that we found to be fun and casual, and that would translate well to the iPhone. That’s how we landed on our game style, which is a bit of “Mario-meets-Qbert-meets-Marble Madness”. Marble Madness itself almost seemed to be a Daniel Johnston-inspired game, with some of its bizarre enemies and surreal situations. And you mentioned an ongoing discussion with the family? Daniel is so famously tech-averse — was it at all difficult selling them on the merits of a video game? PF: I think ordinarily it would have been pretty difficult. However, Daniel’s brother Dick ended up trusting us a lot largely in part due to the years they’ve collaborated with my wife. We are Daniel Johnston fans, and this project came from a sincere place. I think once we got started, they could see that. So ever since then, the tech was merely looked at as an exciting new way to spread some of Daniel’s overflowing creativity. How involved was he in the development process? I ask because he’s been prodded a few times and his answers range from completely unaware to enthusiastic. PF: We’ve worked closely with the Johnstons in the early phases of the project. The Johnstons started by giving us unrestricted access to all of Daniel’s artwork to pore through. This was, at first, overwhelming. His art is filled with a myriad of characters that all played a role in the fight between good and evil. So we turned to a great book that Daniel’s brother, Dick Johnston, had given Heather, called “The Life, Art, & Music of Daniel Johnston” by Tarssa Yazdani & Don Goede. It is essentially an encyclopedia of all of Daniel’s characters, concepts and motifs that he uses in his art. Studying that book helped ensure that the fiction we created in our game fit in line with his ideas and concepts. Regarding Daniel himself, when we showed him the game several months ago, he thought it was a riot when he saw Satan come down from the sky and turn poor Jeremiah into a frog. When we showed it to him again just today, he said the same thing, as if he was seeing it for the first time. That’s pure Daniel Johnston. Part Two: Daniel Johnston I spoke to Steve and Peter. They were really excited to hang out with you and said you were impressed with the game they’ve made. Daniel Johnston: The game? Your game. The iPhone game based on your art. DJ: Yeah, it’s like a little game that you hold in your hand. Very cool. It’s pretty complicated, actually. I also had toys made, last year. They want to do more! [laughs] And someone wants to make shoes. Have you been pleased with the positive reaction? It’s been written about on the Guardian and New York Times websites. The New York Times?!? Really? Wow. Wait... you mean the album? No, no. The ‘little iPhone game’. Oh, good! I didn’t know. What did they say? I don’t recall, exactly. I think the tone was pretty positive. Good, good. It features your artwork and music, so it’s very much a tribute to you. Yeah. But otherwise, it’s a traditional, sort of throwback puzzle game. Uh-huh. ...I guess. Well... I don’t have a computer, I need to get one. I want to get one for at least my dad, so he can use it. Anyway, do you play games? Well, there’s a few. [Galactic Invaders], and those big, 3D dimensional games. Air Force and Army games are my favorite. The Terminator games are a lot of fun. I was watching one one time, and it had people standing in front of you and off to the side and you had to shoot stuff but, I didn’t care. I was shooting my own people. Gunning them down. [laughs] I remember seeing a Journey game at Astroworld, back when I worked there. [laughs] Awesome. Did you ever play pinball as a kid? No, I could never figure out a pinball machine. A jukebox machine, yeah. How about the Guitar Hero and Rock Band stuff, have you ever been exposed to any of that? You’d like the new Beatles: Rock Band. No, I’ve never seen any of that. I know they released the albums again -- I want those. Apparently Kurt Cobain is wearing your Jeremiah shirt in the new Guitar Hero. Again? The little digital Kurt Cobain, in the video game. Oh... neat. That’s so cool. That’s wild. I love his music. You’ve obviously been a passive participant in the development process, but would you be willing to play a larger role in the creation of future games? Oh yeah. Well, some of the stuff they’re planning to do, uh... I don’t know what to tell them, how I would help them. I think the only way they can make a game about me would be to make one of those huge arcade games. That would be cool, in five dimensions that the Terminators can see in.

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