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The Odd Gentleman Interview

Game: P.B. Winterbottom

Ricky Tucker AKA StarScream recently had the chance to speak with Paul Bellezza of The Odd Gentleman regarding their development of the upcoming XBLA game The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, being published by 2K Games and also coming off of great succes at this year's PAX. Here's what he had to say.

GV: Where did the original idea for P.B. Winterbottom come from?

Paul Bellezza: The game started as my thesis project at the University of Southern California. In school, I was always playing with ideas of replay, alternate timelines and time loops. I wanted to try to game a system using these ideas. I also was spinning around an idea about a game that would capture the essence and charm of an early silent film. I have my B.A. in film and still love watching early films. These two ideas along with Back to the Future Part II, and delicious treats, merged sometime around my first year in grad school.

GV: How did you come up with the game's art style?

Paul Bellezza: The look came from old silent films like: Trip to The Moon, Metropolis, and the comedic films of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin. We were also inspired by the illustrations of Edward Gorey, Pixar shorts and children's books.

GV: The time recording mechanic has been used in other games with mixed degrees of success. Did you look at how other games handled the mechanic, or just try to focus on something unique to your game?

Paul Bellezza: At the time of Winterbottom's conception, only Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Blinx were out. Both games used time as limited power and did not really build their core experience around them. In PoP, we felt that the time rewind was more of a clever way to undo and restart. During the process of making Winterbottom, other time-controlled games started to pop up. We looked at the other time mechanic games, and evaluated them to see if we still felt like what we were doing was valid. We made minor tweaks but always stuck to our core concept during development. Tons of edge cases arise from trying to make a game about paradoxes and changing the past. We worked hard to solve each of these problems for our game, one by one... Winterbottom's state machine is ridiculous.

GV: How do you keep the mechanic from becoming stale?

Paul Bellezza: Because the recording system is so open, we were able to put a lot of variance on the mechanic. We have a huge puzzle document of different spins on the mechanic. We probably have hit one-sixteenth of these ideas in the first game. Some ideas that are covered in the game include: What if your clones were evil? What if you only had a limited amount of time or clones to use? What if there were pies only clones could collect? These ideas, while keeping the same basic actions, allow for keeping the mechanic fresh, and puzzles intriguing.

GV: What was the puzzle development process like? How did you keep the solutions neat, but allow for some player flexibility?

Paul Bellezza: It took awhile to figure out how to design challenging puzzles that allowed players to solve them however they wanted without a set scripted solution. We would think of a Winterbottom interaction, chain reaction, or machine we wanted to see and then work backwards. We placed pieces in the scene for the player to perform with and then we observed how people actually tried to solve the puzzles. From there, we tweaked and adjusted until the play tester's way was possible. Other times, we saw a way we thought was too cheesy to allow and would tweak the other way. The goal was to be able to go on YouTube and see a solution that the designers never thought possible. Fortunately, we have experienced this already at the different shows P.B. Winterbottom has been at. It's a crazy feeling seeing a 10 year-old kid show you up in your own game.

GV: How did you prototype the initial concept? Did you do any paper prototyping, or jump straight into Flash?

Paul Bellezza: We started with sketches and simple renderings of possible interactions (standing on your head, riding yourself, etc). We also have a Bible's worth of levels sketched on paper, some better than others (the rare dessert was better off cut). I taught myself enough flash to get the basic recording mechanic working. We created over 50 simple digital prototypes showing off all the possible interactions of the system we wanted to create. This is where the project really began to come together, we knew we had something with potential and we rallied a team around the concepts.

GV: Braid designer Jonathan Blow served as an advisor for P.B. Winterbottom. How did he influence the game?

Paul Bellezza: Jon was my thesis advisor on the student version of the game. Early on we discussed the goals of the game, what the player should feel, scripted versus non-scripted puzzles, and minimizing loss cases. We were very lucky to have very intelligent people advising us on the student game.

GV: As student designers who have "reached the top of the mountain" (so to speak), what advice would you give aspiring student game designers?

Paul Bellezza: Oh we are definitely not on the top of any mountain just yet, we're barely in the foothills right now... lost, cold, and in need of some crumpets.

The best advice I can give to students is to work on projects constantly. Many of my friends from film school had this false idea that when they finished Spielberg was going to hand them their next picture. This simply isn't the case; no one will give you a job unless you have already done something. School is a great place where you can concentrate on your work and not have to worry about the external pressures of life. Take advantage of that time and find like-minded people to collaborate with. If you want to design games, then you have to make games, lots of them whether it's on paper or in digital form.

I highly recommend learning a prototyping language or getting familiar with software like Gamemaker or Flash, whatever gets the idea out. Don't be afraid to start small. Many students mistakenly think they should design games that rival Halo... but with dinosaurs. Students do not have the resources to design a game with a scope like Halo and will never be able to compete with 100 man teams. So make something that is unique and personal with the resources you have, it's amazing at what you can come up with.

Many thanks to Paul Bellezza for taking the time to answer our questions and stay tuned for a full review when The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom hits the XBLA Marketplace!

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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