We often use vague catchall words to describe careers in gaming: developer, designer, producer. But those words don’t tell much of a story. What’s Your Line? is an interview series designed to demystify the people who make their living in games.
There’s always that one friend who invites you to their band’s shows. You go not because you like the music but out of loyalty. It’s an entire genre, commonly known as “friend rock.” When Photos Of Spiderman was released in mid-July, creators Mark Sewell and Christian Stewart assumed their first game would receive an analogous response: Maybe a few of their friends would play it, and maybe a few might even like it. But Photos proved to be popular enough to quickly shoot to the front page of the digital art community Newgrounds. It’s a simple, silly Where’s Waldo-type game in which you hunt for Spider-Man in a crowd of bystanders—all of them waving dumbly at the camera. The game is a witty exercise in subtlety that, surprisingly, inspires a mean competitive streak in its players.
Together, Sewell and Stewart form Cardboard Robots, but they’re still just two college students studying nursing and computer science, respectively. What initially began as a “mediocre podcast about things you’re only marginally interested in” has become an outlet to create and release their own video games. They spoke to The Gameological Society about debuting with a mostly stupid hit, finding happy accidents in the process, and why Photos Of Spiderman is really all about J. Jonah Jameson.
The Gameological Society: There have been a plethora of 3D Spider-Man games made in the last decade. Why did the two of you revisit the character, and put your own spin on what a Spider-Man video game could be?
Mark Sewell: The idea started with J. Jonah Jameson and what could become an interactive version of being the photographer for The Daily Bugle. Christian was talking about a DSiWare—
Christian Stewart: It was 3DS. They were talking about adding the camera and utilizing the camera to check certain distances, and be able to get flat surfaces. I was thinking it would be funny if a virtual Spider-Man could show up in one of the games. Spider-Man would be swinging around or hiding behind something, and you would be trying to take a photo using the real 3DS camera.
The reason Photos Of Spiderman is only 90-something percent stupid and not a failure is because both of us are perfectionists.
Sewell: We sort of joked about that, and we got to the point where we decided we needed to crank out a game fast to prove to ourselves that we could actually finish one. We’d been working on other stuff for a while, and we were sitting there trying to come up with ideas, and I don’t know if we even thought of anything else. We just sat there for a couple minutes, and we were like—
Together: Photos Of Spiderman!
Sewell: It was like, “Let’s just make it Where’s Waldo.”
Stewart: The Where’s Waldo premise originated from our limitations, because obviously we couldn’t do the camera.
It was like, “What will work with our pseudo-8-bit, small-file-size format?” It’s a very different take from Spider-Man 2, with the entirety of New York City in the game. We weren’t thinking about going that far. [Laughs.]
Gameological: Coming from a podcasting background, at what point did you realize you could turn this joke idea into a playable game?
Sewell: I think it was that moment of sitting there saying, “What game can we make?” I don’t think either of us thought that Photos Of Spiderman could be a game until we needed an idea. We were trying to figure out something we could finish in a night. We didn’t. [Laughs.] That’s the sort of plan that rarely works out.
Gameological: Why did you feel the need to get it done in just one night?
Sewell: We had been working on something for so long, and not feeling the progress. I think it was encouragement for ourselves, like, “What if we do make something we can get done really fast?” just to feel the satisfaction of finishing something, to make us want to continue other projects. And then we said “one night,” but of course we ended up play-testing it constantly for a week and tweaking all kinds of stuff. The reason Photos Of Spiderman is only 90-something percent stupid and not a failure as a game is because both of us are perfectionists. We couldn’t just make it and put it out. We had to give it some depth.
Stewart: If we were going to make a Where’s Waldo clone with Spider-Man—even as a joke—we were going to make it the best possible—
Together: Where’s Waldo clone with Spider-Man.
Gameological: There are so many great tiny details that you put into game, from the background to the sound effects. Were there any elements that you two fought over during development?
Sewell: As far as fighting about stuff, what we fought about was the scoring system. A lot. Christian had an idea for a system that was balanced, but the numbers didn’t communicate anything meaningful. And I had an idea for a scoring system that was completely unbalanced, but you could tell exactly what the score meant. [Laughs.]
Stewart: We wanted players to have at least two different play styles that were viable. It seemed like with my style, the people who looked directly for Spider-Man and not so much for the potential villain bonus on the level, would get a higher score. My score was how much time you have left over from your 10 seconds.
Gameological: That’s how I play it. I like that way.
Stewart: But Mark plays a completely different way.
Sewell: Well, I don’t necessarily play it totally different from you, but the other play style is the sort of looking around for villains to get the added time bonus. We wanted the scores to come out about the same. Christian came up with a scoring system that pretty much did that, but we fought for a long time because I wanted the score to communicate how many levels you did. I knew that’s the thing that people would latch on to. I held on until level 25 or something. We argued about that all night, one night until we stumbled upon the scoring system that would work. It was like two ideas that we had separately that came together. On the first try when we put it together it was like—
Stewart: [Relieved] “This make so much more sense.” So we just stuck with it.
Gameological: One thing I really loved about Photos is that it doesn’t fit into two kinds of indie flash games that are put out pretty regularly, which are either very serious and emotional, or super breezy and colorful. What inspired that idea of making a Spider-Man game that had such low stakes?
Sewell: I think because the focus of the concept wasn’t Spider-Man, it was J. Jonah Jameson. That’s where it came from.
Gameological: So this is more a game about J. Jonah Jameson than it is about Spider-Man?
Our entire game development strategy relies on hoping for accidents.
Sewell: There’s no question of that. [Laughs.]
Stewart: We liked to have Spider-Man and all the villains, because if you’re aware of the universe—
Sewell: It’s something to latch on to.
Stewart: But J. Jonah was the driving force behind our idea.
Gameological: In a recent Reddit interview with Notch, the creator of Minecraft, a user asked him if he ever got tired of playing his own game. Do you think you will, or have you grown tired of Photos?
Sewell: I played Photos Of Spiderman a lot when we first put it out. I had the second place on the leaderboard for a while. But I think we both got tired of playing. I think that’s part of its nature, is that it’s not necessarily that we want people to play forever. It’s a game that we want you to sit down and play for maybe a half hour, play a few rounds, and see how high your score is.
But I’m definitely not tired of Photos Of Spiderman entirely. We’ve tossed around ideas for what would be in Super Photos Of Spiderman. It’s possible that’ll happen at some point.
Stewart: Possible, but we’re not putting any confirmation at this point.
Sewell: We’re still attached to the idea, certainly.
Stewart: I don’t really play it anymore.
Sewell: The person who never got sick of playing it was Christian’s girlfriend. I think the top score she’s gotten, she didn’t even upload to the leaderboard, was like 20,000.
Stewart: There are people actually beating her now though. It’s getting pretty competitive. Speaking about being competitive, we didn’t initially have the idea of an online leaderboard, and I think once I implemented that, that’s what the game became about. Of course there’s the joke that was the main premise, but when we added the online leaderboard, it was like, “Okay, we can have this be a little bit more than that.” If you found the joke funny but you actually want to do something with the game, you can compete. I know a lot of Flash games already do that, but I feel like in Photos, with the score system—
Sewell: It gave us more direction for the actual game. Like we said, it’s not necessarily a game that we expect anybody to sit down and play more than an hour, or probably less. But that gives a replay value beyond playing it for a round and going, “Ha ha. That was amusing.” That gives you an excuse to sit there and see how well you can do, and then move on with your life.
Gameological: Were there any happy accidents?
Sewell: Our entire game development strategy relies on hoping for accidents. [Laughs.] The first happy accident was like, “What is an excuse for Spider-Man to be standing there in a crowd of people?” And the first thing [we] said was, “What if Spider-Man’s just at a party?” That would be a thing that J. Jonah Jameson would want there to be a picture of, Spider-Man slacking on the job. So it’s a party on somebody’s roof, and I thought, “I’m just going to draw everybody in the same pose, holding a red solo cup.” [Laughs.]
I got the pose and I started drawing the cup, and thought, “This doesn’t look like anything.” But then, I stopped and just drew a hand, and thought, “Wait a minute. This is the first frame of a waving animation, and everybody is going to be waving at the camera.” [Laughs.]
Stewart: Well first it was going to just be Spider-Man waving at the camera, but that was too easy.
Sewell: We thought, “What if everyone is waving?”
Stewart: It was such a bizarre thing that really, there was no reasoning behind it.
Sewell: I just happened upon it when I was drawing the sprite.
Stewart: We plugged the animation into Flash, and we put the frame rate on. When it came out it looked pretty funny. It was like, “Let’s try that for everyone,” and we put a bunch of people in Flash, and it looked pretty funny.
Sewell: And then the other accident was Christian’s—the cowboys multiplying. The guys in the cowboy hat with the red shirt and the blue pants who are sort of a little more challenging than the regular people, but not quite as challenging as the people in Spider-Man hoodies. How does that work again?
Stewart: It was a little problem with the code. Every level after they’re introduced, they have a higher chance of showing up. So the further you get into the game, especially when you get to the 30s if you’re really crazy about Photos Of Spiderman—I can’t get to level 30—but there are people who get there, and you’ll see more and more cowboys showing up, because the chance gets multiplied each level you go up. With the blue pants and the red shirt and the shirt has a symbol that almost resembles Spider-Man’s—
Sewell: It gives it a degree of difficulty.
Stewart: But it’s not as hard as the hoodie people, so I think that worked really, really well. So we left it, like, “That works.” [Laughs.]
Gameological: It’s a pretty big leap to go from podcasting about something to creating what you’re talking about. Has this been the plan all along, or did it just happen?
I don’t think either of us is entirely convinced that we can do this, but we’re starting to think we can do this.
Sewell: I think it’s been the plan all along for Christian. There was definitely a point when I was younger where I thought I wanted to make video game graphics for a living. But that was probably 10 years ago, and in the meantime I had settled on various other careers at other times. But when Christian said, “Hey, I need somebody to draw the sprites for this,” I was like, “Hey, wait a minute. That’s a thing I really want to do.” Now that we’ve started doing it, and now that we’re getting actual—
Sewell: Feedback from different commenters on Newgrounds and your review. Now we’re sitting here, kind of going, “Oh man, how soon can we quit school, and do this for a living?” [Laughs.]
Gameological: So any plans to quit your “day job”?
Sewell: The next game won’t have stolen intellectual property in it, so we’ll try making money off of it. We’ll see how much comes in. Probably not too much, but as soon as we can quit the day jobs, I think both of us will be on top of that.
Stewart: I’ve tried to program games for years. I taught myself over the summer in various programming languages, and it’s primarily why I’m in Computer Science right now. I know I say [I’m in it] for other professional reasons, but it’s really just to program better to make better video games. It’s literally just that. But don’t tell my family.
Sewell: I don’t think either of us is entirely convinced that we can do this, but we’re now starting to think we can actually do this. We put out a game, and it was something so simple, but it was so well-received that we’re like, “Huh.”
Gameological: Do you have any immediate plans for other ideas you’ve been throwing around?
Sewell: What we’re initially going to release is a prototype to test the engine and graphics that’s going to be basically like a survival mode, almost like Photos Of Spiderman. And after we finish our [shoot-’em-up], we’re going to come back around to it and make it a full campaign. [It’s] our take on Bionic Commando, where it’s a platforming-focused ninja game where you have a grappling hook. That’s the core mechanic.
Stewart: Well, we’re hoping that’s going to be the core mechanic. [Laughs.] But we’ll see after any happy mistakes.