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The Zen Of Twisted Pixel: An Interview With Michael Wilford

[Photo by Lance Rosenfield]

Twisted Pixel Games is a tight-knit studio in Austin founded by ex-High Voltage developers Michael Wilford, Josh Bear, and Frank Wilson. The studio is known for humorous, challenging XBLA games like The Maw, Splosion Man, and the upcoming retail Kinect game, The Gunstringer. We recently spoke with CEO Michael Wilford about the company’s unique story, development philosophy, and view of the game industry.

You worked at High Voltage, which is known more for licensed products and porting. How did that experience inform your vision for Twisted Pixel?

It’s really important, because High Voltage generally have a reputation for turning out games pretty quickly and doing a lot of licensed stuff….While I was there the teams were small for what they were trying to do and didn’t have as much time or as much money as we would have liked. Ultimately, what that taught all of us – and we have several people from High Voltage – was being able to make something on a shoestring budget with no time and not many people. That’s a valuable skill to have when you’re making downloadable games.

Right from the beginning, it sounds like you targeted Xbox Live Arcade. Would your company even be possible without XBLA and those type of services?

Definitely not. If XBLA hadn’t happened, I don’t think there would have been WiiWare or PlayStation Network – or they certainly wouldn’t be as important as they are now. If we would have waited a few years and done something on mobile – iPhone has broken down a lot of doors for developers – maybe that would have worked. But in 2006, without XBLA, we would have been screwed. It was part of our plan. In 2005, when Xbox 360 came out, we found out about Live Arcade and what it could do, that’s specifically what we set out to do.

We were getting nowhere fast with Microsoft in the early days, but Nintendo was eager to talk to us. Back then, WiiWare was planned to be more like Xbox Live Arcade, where it’s curated and developers have to submit to Nintendo. Twisted Pixel was the first company to get a green light for WiiWare. We had a game concept that we still hope to do someday, so I don’t want to tell you too much about it – but we pitched a game to Nintendo that they really liked.

So what happened with that project?

A month after that green light, we get the call from Nintendo saying, “Yeah, Nintendo of Japan decided to go this route, so your green light doesn’t really matter anymore. Essentially everyone is greenlit now.” If we had Nintendo’s backing and support for WiiWare, that would make it a lot easier to get funding. But now that it was that different model, we weren’t willing to jump in. So we went back to the drawing board and started making pitches to Microsoft. It was GDC of 2007 when I met with David Edery, who was the games portfolio planner for XBLA at the time. I threw out three concepts, one of them was The Maw, and he pointed to it and said, “I think that would be awesome.” So I went back to the guys and said, “I think we got a green light.”

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