Bennett Foddy created QWOP. Due to a chaotic viral outbreak, its popularity skyrocketed outside of the usual independent circles. More recently, he released GIRP, which he calls “very loosely a spiritual successor to QWOP”.
Development tool(s) of choice?
I don’t have a religious attachment to any of my tools though — as someone who came to coding quite late in life, I think game development tools are awkward and difficult to use (and I’m including purpose-built tools like Game Maker, Stencyl, and Unity in that assessment). The tools have obviously come a long way since the days of punch-cards, but there’s still a substantial barrier to entry that isn’t there for things like music or video.
What do you do?
I work as a philosopher at Oxford University, reading and writing, that sort of stuff. In my spare time, I make games.
How did you get your game development journey begin?
I fell in love with videogames when I was very young, and so I tried a whole bunch of times to learn to make them, ever since I was about five years old. It was always too hard, too much work. Then finally in my late 20s I had a PhD dissertation to procrastinate against, and I was able to break through the barrier. Never underestimate the unbridled power of procrastination.
What are your goals and aspirations as a game developer?
I’d like to put a few pebbles at the top of an enormous, ever-expanding heap. Some of them will roll down to the bottom of the heap and be forgotten, and a few will stay near the top, where other pebbles can come to rest on top of them. That’s what we call progress in the arts.
Does QWOP tick the boxes as a one of the pebbles that has stayed near the top?
I’m willing to admit that it gives me a bit of a thrill to see people cosplaying as QWOP at Comic Con, making movie trailers and covering the event at MoMA in the Wall Street Journal. So it’s had some sort of impact, but then again we haven’t exactly seen the market flooded with QWOP-inspired titles! It may turn out to have been a pebble cast too far out from the pile.
Do you consider game development a passionate hobby, a secondary income or a mixture of both (or something else entirely)?
I’m not really sure how to go about answering that. Game development provided the majority of my income this year, but that probably won’t be the case next year. I don’t want to give up either game development or my day job, so I guess both of them must be more to me than mere hobbies.
You mentioned game development tools creating a barrier of entry to game development that you believe is still too high. Firstly do you think the barrier is gradually coming down and secondly, do you think that it will ever actually be possible to get rid of this barrier entirely?
Yes, it’s definitely easier to make a game today than it was even five years ago. And right now, it’s probably easier to make money from making games than at any prior point in history (although this may change rapidly) which makes it easier to spend time making games. I think those two things are drawing a far larger group of people into game development, which is, for the most part, a really great thing.
I guess practical constraints are always going to be a barrier to every creative art to some extent. To record a rock album you still have to learn to play guitar. But I think we can at least get to a point where I don’t have to spend a whole day hunting for a comma that should be a semicolon, or sorting out incompatibilities between my SDK and my compiler. Only real nerds (and I include myself in this group) have the patience for that kind of rubbish.
I recently read your interview on Wired and was curious about a number of points. When you say “I’m not trying to escape anything”, what do you mean by this exactly?
I hope people didn’t read that and think that I’m saying that games shouldn’t have fantastic settings. I was just trying to say that there’s a certain kind of game that’s an escapist power fantasy, like Infamous or Grand Theft Auto or God of War, and that’s not the most compelling, attractive thing for me. My life is interesting and free, at least compared to how it was when I was a teenager, and I don’t often feel thwarted or unable to achieve my aims, so I guess a game won’t appeal to me just because it lets me fire a gun or drive a luxury car over a cliff. I want a game to provide me with ideas or feelings that are novel or at least relevant and interesting to me.
I’m not against escapist games, and I think they should exist. I just think there are too many of them, especially in the AAA set. Like Barbie Horse Adventures, they should be niche games for a particular age group rather than the dominant style. If I play a game like Bulletstorm or Call of Duty or Gears of War, I actually feel embarrassed, since it feels like many of those games are pandering to the emotional needs of angsty, thwarted 14-year-olds, and here I am playing them at 33. I actually feel *less* like a patronized man-baby when I’m playing Pokémon.
Here’s the thing: the average age of videogame players is supposedly 37, and 41-year-olds buy the most games. Boys under 17 are now less than 13% of the market. 20 years ago, the average gamesplayer was a teenage male. Yet for some reason, we haven’t managed to make games grow up alongside the players. Why is John Carmack still interested in making the same type of game he was making in 1990? The answer is, I guess, because he thinks of himself as a toymaker rather than an artist. I don’t think games are toys, I think they can be a lot more than that. Even simple, self-contained games like mine can be more than that. I think ultimately games can be more than paintings, more than movies or books or music.
“I don’t want to play a game with a gun or a space marine anymore.” At what point did you become tired of ‘escapism’ and why?
The point about guns and space marines is partly about escapism and growing up, but it’s also about simple repetition. There is a deep, fundamental conservatism in making games that are set within space-opera scenarios, or high fantasy scenarios. And I find it pretty boring, after 30-odd years of playing games in those exact same settings! For me, it’s not cool anymore to shoot a robot in the head with a futuristic, lovingly-rendered gun. I think there is an almost infinite number of game ideas that don’t even involve the verb ‘to shoot’ or ‘to hit’, and I want to see more of those ideas turned into actual games.
Of course I wouldn’t want to claim that all current games, or even all commercial games, are set within these established conservative genres with the same established videogame verbs. And many important and exciting games have shared these genres and verbs, like Ultima IV, or Demon’s Souls. I couldn’t even be a fan of videogames if I refused to play games that focus on shooting or hitting! But mostly, when a game is set up this way, it’s a missed opportunity to do something better and deeper with the design.
In my eyes, the excellent Amnesia: The Dark Descent would have been worthless if they had given you weapons — it’s a game about running and hiding and feeling threatened. And Mirror’s Edge would have felt much less thrilling, much less *free*, if they had done the obvious thing and put guns in it. Thank goodness they resisted that temptation!
Alternately, what appeals to you about ‘realism’?
I hope it’s clear by now that I’m not really setting up ‘realism’ as being the opposite of ‘escapism’. In a sense, Grand Theft Auto is simultaneously realistic (in that it simulates a real-looking world) and escapist (because you aren’t bound by social or legal rules within that world). And in any case, it’s not that I want us to go to the opposite of escapism, it’s that I think that escapism is just one item on a very long menu, and we already have way too many games that are focused on that one thing.
The setting of a game can give you a lot of information about what its rules are, at a glance, it can help to establish context and mood. Friends told me I should make the character in QWOP a drunk guy trying to get home from the pub, rather than an olympic runner. But I think if I had done that it would have felt like the point of the game was to stumble awkwardly, rather than run smoothly. Most of the value in QWOP, for me, comes from the fact that you’re trying — and usually failing — to run like a normal person. Making him an olympic athlete sets up a particular context where running fast is expected, and this maximises that feeling of playful frustration when you fall over on your head.
I guess if I’d been publishing QWOP with Activision, we’d have had some kind of meeting in Conference Room B with focus group results and brand managers, and someone would have told me that the guy should be a giant space robot that fires lasers and stomps people in their houses. Then we’d be back to that teenage escapist power fantasy. But that would be completely wrong. QWOP is at its heart a powerlessness fantasy.
What I’m trying to get at is that the design of the game, and in particular the design of the sensations that the game wants to elicit, should determine choice of setting. Mario, famously, was made into an Italian plumber because it was easier to represent a mustache than a mouth in a small number of pixels. Sonic is a hedgehog because the game is fundamentally about a guy who can roll into a ball and go really fast.
What have you taken away from both the success of QWOP and criticism of its difficulty curve?
When people say that QWOP is really hard, I don’t see that as a criticism. They’re reacting, mostly, to the context that’s established by making him an Olympic athlete who looks like Carl Lewis. If I had made him a drunk guy or a paraplegic, nobody would say the game was hard, because it’s basically not all that hard. La-Mulana is hard. Super Meat Boy is hard. I probably should have made QWOP a lot harder, just to put hair on people’s chests.
And QWOP doesn’t really have a ‘difficulty curve’, since there’s only one task and you can either do it or you can’t. A difficulty curve is established when you set up the game so that the level design or the rules make things harder as you progress. If you make a game with a lot of content, you might want to make a difficulty curve to ensure that the right percentage of players get to see all your content, but I don’t have time to make a lot of content, and most of my games are free to play, so I don’t feel bound by that requirement.
The thing I like most about QWOP is actually that you can choose to degrade yourself and and shimmy all the way to the end on one knee over the course of an hour. At first, I thought that I should fix that so that people would be forced to play honestly, but I changed my mind when I started to get emails from people who were proudly claiming to have ‘beat’ the game in this way. There’s something great about the idea that all these people are cravenly shimmying their way to the finish line, with the hurdle dragged along by their trailing leg, inch by inch. To really win at QWOP, you need to have both skill and dignity.
Looking back, maybe that’s why developers used to put hint systems or cheat codes in their games. As a test of dignity that many of us repeatedly failed. IDDQD, Carmack — it turns out your games were art all along. Space marines and guns notwithstanding.