Road To The IGF: Ratloop's Mightier

Continuing interviews with the 2009 Independent Games Festival finalists, Gamasutra talks to Ratloop's Lucas Pope about Mightier -- a combination puzzle and action game, best played with a printer and webcam -- nominated for the Innovation Award.
[Gamasutra is talking to this year's Independent Games Festival finalists, this time interviewing Ratloop's Lucas Pope about Mightier -- a combination puzzle and action game, best played with a printer and webcam -- nominated for the Innovation Award.] Raising the game's barrier of entry and requiring players to go beyond their usual efforts to fully experience its unique mechanics, Mightier Engineer section asks players to print out puzzles before attempting to collect "Datagon" pieces scattered around a particular stage. Players draw out a solution -- a plan for eventually obtaining those Datagons -- on the printed sheet, and use a webcam to record the sketch into the game. In Mightier's Actionaut portion, they'll explore a 3D version of the puzzle, jumping on platforms that were shaped by their drawings to reach the level's Datagons. The PC title's printing aspect also enables players to illustrate their own characters and see them appear in the game in 3D. For the less bold, or for users without a printer or webcam, Mightier provides an in-game interface that allows users to draw puzzle solutions and characters with their mouse. We spoke with Pope about Mightier, nominated for the Innovation award at this year's Independent Games Festival (part of Think Services, as is this website). He discusses the game's origins as a technology experiment in 2001, his thoughts on 5th Cell's Drawn to Life for Nintendo DS, and why he believes that most people would've dismissed Mightier, despite its quirkiness, were it not for the more traditional, mouse-drawing interface. What kind of background does your team have making games? Lucas Pope: Both [co-developer Keiko Ishizaka] and I are professional game developers in our day jobs. I've been making games for myself, a small game company I started with some friends, and bigger companies for something like 10 years now. Keiko's been making games for 4 or 5 years. What sort of development tools did you use? LP: We used standard stuff: 3dsmax, Photoshop, and Visual Studio. The game is written in C++ with DirectX, and the tools are in C#. I composed the music on a Motif ES.

How did you come upon the idea to combine printed blueprints with 3D platforming? Was it your intention from the beginning to have players print out and complete the puzzles? LP: The puzzler/platformer stuff came about after we had already committed to developing a game that used the printer and webcam. Back in 2001 or so, I wrote some tech called Ink for converting a mouse-drawn 2D sketch into an animated 3d character. I spent a lot of time trying to turn that into a game, but drawing with the mouse is not that fun and there was no consequence to what the player drew. I experimented with giving the characters physical properties based on the form, but unless you really exaggerate the features, it's difficult to tell how a character will behave when you draw them. I put the tech in a drawer marked "close but not quite," and moved on to other things. When [5th Cell's DS title] Drawn To Life was announced, I assumed they had solved these problems and figured I was officially late to the party. After playing Drawn to Life, though, I saw the drawing technique was different -- their's is pixel-art, and Ink was more sketchy -- and although the character creation was cool, the real game was in the platforming. I wanted to make a game that put more emphasis and importance on the drawing. It wasn't until Sony R&D released their videos for capturing hand-drawn user-generated content with the PlayStation Eye that I convinced myself to board this train before it goes somewhere cool -- I hope my metaphors aren't getting too mixed here. I still didn't have any good ideas about gameplay at that point, but drawing on paper is pretty much the ideal way to handle sketching in my opinion. At the beginning of 2008, I decided to develop a simple storybook-style action game in which the player gets to draw all the characters on paper and capture them with a webcam. Part of this plan involved making the capture process as foolproof as possible, which is where the printer came in. By printing 5 red dots on the paper, it's possible to detect the exact position of the page without the user needing to align it perfectly with the camera. After Keiko was on board with the concept and we were moving ahead with the engine code, I got a little antsy and started pushing for a more original game idea in which the drawing was central to the gameplay. Requiring a printer for the page detection was a burden, but it also allowed us to include other stuff on the page. This gave us the direction for brainstorming gameplay and puzzle ideas. We spent a few nervous weeks trying to come up with something cool before I sketched out a rough concept of the height markers that need to be enclosed to create platforms. It provided a nice puzzly challenge along with the follow-up bonus of seeing your solution turn into a platforming level. Keiko was skeptical about the idea at first, but my stubbornness prevailed, and I got an initial prototype done pretty quickly. After seeing it in action, we had a feeling it could probably be pretty fun. What did you think of Drawn to Life? LP: Drawn to Life is a great game. Part of the reason why we de-emphasized the character creation in Mightier was because 5th Cell had done it so well already. In Drawn to Life, the drawing is paired with a fun but traditional platformer. For Mightier, we wanted the drawing to be more important gameplay-wise. With the puzzles in Mightier, it really matters what you draw, which I felt was missing from Drawn to Life. Were there any camera-based games that you took some inspiration from? LP: Sony's R&D videos were hugely inspiring. I saw limitations in how they were capturing, and I didn't think they had a solid game behind the concept, but the idea really got me interested in doing something similar. I was never enamored with using the webcam as a controller input like most camera-based games. I just wanted a drawing game where you could draw by hand with a pencil on a nice sheet of paper instead of on the computer screen. Did the title "Mightier" come first as the in-game company's name or the game's title? LP: "Mightier" is just a lazy extraction from "the pen is mightier than the sword." I think the idea of a space laser came first, and "Mightier" fit well with that theme. I have tendency to try to rationalize game mechanics, and the whole space laser and crystals thing seemed to explain a lot of the concept. Players can unlock characters, design them, and play them in 3D. What purpose do the unlockable characters serve? LP: The characters are a nice counter-point to the puzzles. It doesn't matter what you draw, so there's no pressure to do them right. They're not really central to the gameplay, and they weren't present in early builds of the game. Even though we started with the Ink tech, my purism felt drawable characters would distract from the focus of the gameplay, which was the puzzles and platforming. Keiko strongly disagreed, and several of the testers wanted to draw more traditional stuff, so we added the characters and objects as fun side tasks. I've seen kids enjoy the hell out of drawing them, and now I feel they're an important part of rewarding the player's progression. What steps did you take to make Mightier's later stages more challenging for both the Engineer and Actionaut portions? LP: Once we settled on the basic heightfield markers mechanic, it was pretty easy to dream up new crystal types. Some of those types were rather complex, so we just saved those for the later levels. The tricky part was just designing the levels to gradually introduce and recycle the crystal types. I don't think the Actionaut ever gets very challenging though. One of our decisions in balancing the puzzlin' with the actionin' was that the action bits would always be a cakewalk. Were there any elements that you experimented with that just didn't work with your vision? LP: Our original concept focused on the paper aspect a lot more. We really wanted to emphasize the player's interaction with something physical and turn their thoughts away from the computer. We had crazy ideas to print all the instructions and to include a variety of puzzles that involved cutting and folding the paper. The game would start by printing a letter of acceptance welcoming you to Team Mightier. There would be no saved progress except for whatever pages you had sitting in a stack on your desk. We even talked about distributing [Mightier] as a bound book with all the puzzles pre-printed. For the graphics, I was prototyping a more augmented-reality style with everything overlaid on the webcam view. Some of these ideas were cool, but just too far out there for a game we expected people to actually play. We ended up scaling back to a more traditional game-like presentation with the printed platforming puzzles and a single cutout puzzle at the end. There's seems to be a lot of potential here for a two-player cooperative experience, or even with a lot more players -- say, a group of online friends playing the two different roles as part of a company, taking on jobs to increase the company's standing. Have you explored any multiplayer ideas? LP: I wouldn't call it exploring, but we did notice that different people enjoy different parts of the game. A few of our friends played Mightier with their kids. The parents liked solving the puzzles and the kids loved drawing the characters and watching them run around. There's also a lot of community potential -- players possibly sharing/trading user-created puzzles or their characters. Your thoughts? LP: We included the level editor so people could try creating puzzles of their own. Unfortunately, we didn't have quite enough time to take it all the way, and you need to hack around a bit in the text files to get it to load your level. During testing, it was really interesting for us to see how other people solved the puzzles. Everyone does it a little bit differently, and it would be cool if there was a place you could publish your solutions for others to check out. We had plans for a site designed around this, but never fleshed it out. How do you think this camera/printer feature could be taken further? LP: I think a more palatable gameplay concept could be developed that used less paper. For instance, if you only needed to print a few pages at the beginning that could then be used throughout the game. There's a lot of potential but, honestly, it has to be something pretty good to justify the hassle of using the printer, ink, paper, and webcam. I'm fairly certain that if we didn't include the mouse-drawing mode, only a few people would even bother playing Mightier. Printing is slow, and people are really averse to using paper and ink. Even though each puzzle uses a minuscule amount of it, printer ink is so expensive, it's hoarded like gold. There's a strong psychological barrier against printing something unless it will end up on the President's desk; and even for that, you'll use the "Less Ink" print setting. From the first alpha test, almost everybody was asking for a way to draw on the computer with the mouse. Adding the mouse-drawing mode knee-capped the lofty concept, but it improved the accessibility so much that we decided it was worth it. In the last week before submitting to the IGF, I redesigned the entire interface to work with either printing or the in-game drawing tablet. If you could start the project over again, what would you do differently? LP: This is a tough question. Developing Mightier was such a whirlwind six months of evening and weekend work that I think I suppressed all the bad bits in a cloud of exhaustion. Starting it earlier probably would've been a good idea. The programming aspect took so much of our time that I was only able to throw together the game's art and audio in the last few weeks. The art we ended up with is the second iteration on the visual style, and it probably needed another pass or two to get a style I'd be more proud of. We also waited a little too long for compatibility testing. With a PC game that uses peripherals, this was a bad move. We could've caught a few bugs if we'd tested with more video cards and webcams earlier. With the webcam feature -- Mightier seems like it'd be a great fit for Mac laptop -- or even iPhone -- owners, since their systems include a camera. Have you considered bringing the game to those platforms. LP: A few people have suggested this, but there are some hitches. The MacBook camera is in a pretty poor position to point down at a piece of paper on the desk; and the lack of a good printing method means the iPhone isn't ideal either if you're planning to use the camera interface. I have some ideas about porting Mightier to the iPhone, but it would probably be using the touchscreen and with slightly different gameplay. What do you think of the state of independent game development, and are there any other independent games out that you currently admire? LP: I'm amazed by the quality of independent games being released these days. Sometimes, people complain that there are too many retro-style indie games, but I see these as improvements on what are extremely solid gameplay concepts. For me, the most important thing is that a game is cohesive and fun to play. I'm a product of the NES generation, and I have no problem enjoying a good sidescroller. I also really like seeing the creative ways that people solve the manpower problem. If it's just a few people working on a game, you have to really concentrate on efficiency if you ever hope to finish the thing. This has led to some really innovate mechanics and visuals. As for specific developers, I really like the stuff Cactus is doing.

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