PAX is taking place online this year until September 20, offering fans and media outlets a chance to experience panels, game demos and developer interviews from the comfort of their own home.
On the first day of the online convention, I virtually sat down with Marc Gomez and Theresa Wollenstein from Tic Toc Games, the studio behind the 2D platformer Adventures of Pip and the upcoming action multiplayer game B.Ark, recently featured in one of Nintendo’s Indie World showcases, as well as Emily Tidd, the studio’s community marketing manager.
Tic Toc Games is an independent games studio primarily located in Burbank, California. Since its founding in 2011, the studio has released numerous branded games, such as Funko POP! Blitz, as well as Adventures of Pip. In Adventures of Pip, the player controls Pip, a single-pixel character who must evolve to 8-bit and 16-bit forms as he traverses the kingdom to save the princess from an evil queen. B.Ark, the studio’s latest title, is a multiplayer space shooter for Nintendo Switch, slated to release later this year.
BUT WHY THO: What was the inspiration for Adventures of Pip at Tic Toc Games, specifically in regards to the difficulty level?
Marc Gomez: For me growing up, everyone played Mario. That was my base point for the type of platformers and the type of difficulty I was looking for, probably leaning a little more towards Super Mario World than the earlier Mario titles.
In terms of the industry, I started out on the Game Boy Advance where I worked on a lot of pixel platformers, doing level design and art and animation. I used to work at this place called WayForward Technologies and we did a lot of platformers there, so that was the bread and butter for me as far as types of games I wanted to make.
As far as the type of game Adventures of Pip is, since I started with pixel games in the GBA period, I definitely wanted to make a game that showed all these generations of pixel art and how a character can evolve from one to another. At the same time, I didn’t want to make one stronger than the other, which is something that you see in Mario-type games.
You can be a little Mario but you always want to be the bigger Mario or the Mario with a cape or the Mario with the suit, but this is a game where I wanted to make sure that every single evolution of the character had its own special purpose, which ties into the overall narrative and storyline behind the game.
BUT WHY THO: I think that’s what I really enjoyed about the game personally. At first, I was expecting it to be sort of “Oh, you get bigger throughout the game” instead of having to devolve and evolve and use each type of Pip constantly.
Marc: Yeah, there were a few games when we first launched the title where you were going through a few different evolutions of gaming, but not really focusing on a purpose behind it or a narrative behind it. We really wanted to tell the story of this digital underdog character that starts off as a single pixel and is looked down upon, but as you go through your adventure, you can see that even as a single pixel, he has a lot of purpose. That was just the kind of narrative that we wanted to tell.
BUT WHY THO: One thing that I was really impressed with was that I never felt like I had screwed up and couldn’t get to the right evolution to finish the level. How did you go about the level design process to make sure that happened?
Marc: I think a lot of that came from when we first were developing the rough idea of the game and thinking “How can we make this feasible? How do we make sure people don’t get stuck?” That was one of the keys as far as how we decided what direction to take for the core elements of the game.
Initially, this game was going to be more of a Metroidvania-type title. You would unlock areas that you could access through evolution, but it started to feel too much like every other Metroidvania, which is very lock and key. We wanted to do something where you’re more flexible between evolutions.
It became very clear early on that you can get stuck with a certain evolution and not be able to get past an area. The important thing was just making sure that people had all the tools that are necessary to get through the puzzles. That’s why we ended up sitting in the middle between something that is just pure platforming and something that has more puzzles.
BUT WHY THO: On a technical level, were there any difficulties or changes when porting the game from one system to another? Especially with the new Switch release?
Theresa Wollenstein: In the beginning of the process, we read some of the initial reviews of Adventures of Pip on PlayStation and Xbox and took note of what things people were complaining about or thought could be better.
The original game did not have the shortcut back to town. You would have to traverse the entire map every time you wanted to go there and then go all the way back to the level you left off from, so that was a small quality of life improvement.
Before, 16-bit Pip, the biggest Pip, would walk instead of run and move way more slowly. People thought that was kind of a silly hinderance that made the levels a lot longer to get through without a real purpose and we agreed with that, so we made big Pip move as fast as little Pip.
The other complaint people had is that gems would fall and you wouldn’t be able to reach them, meaning you’d have to go back to collect gems from a chest. That was kind of annoying, especially because we had an item in the shop that would magnetize the gems and push them directly to Pip. Now, we’ve enabled that on Pip automatically and that made gameplay a lot smoother and easier to get through in a lot of ways.
BUT WHY THO: Was that just for the newest Switch version?
Theresa: Yeah, the original versions of the game came out in 2015, I think on Wii U first and then Xbox and PlayStation a few months later. So all those changes are made specifically for Switch.
Marc: So definitely get the Switch version.
BUT WHY THO: Yeah, I keep telling all my friends to get the Switch version anyway because it just runs really well on it.
Marc: When the Switch came out, it truly felt like the perfect platform for this game. It is definitely an indie title and Switch has been really good for its indie titles. It’s easy to pick up these types of games.
I love the Switch. I wish every game I could get would be on the Switch because it’s so easy to take to the couch and play, but what I really love about it is that we get to reintroduce the game to an audience that might not have even heard of it. It’s kind of like a whole new relaunch of the title, which is nice.
BUT WHY THO: So are you on the Tic Toc Games team working on B.Ark as well?
Marc: Yeah, I’m also helping out with the direction and art direction on B.Ark. That’s another title that’s coming out this season, so it’s been pretty hectic. We’ve got back to back interviews and both games showing up at the PAX booths.
With B.Ark, we’ve just been staying up really late, trying to get everything polished for the release.
Theresa: I actually worked on B.Ark from July of last year until March of this year to get the prototype out for what was going to be at GDC as part of Nintendo’s Indie World display, which just became part of the video.
We kind of took the whole premise of the game and remade it this past year so now it’s getting ready for launch and I’m getting to help out again with the marketing and PR team and getting all the assets together for the trailers and videos and going to the conventions.
It’s been a pleasure going back to B.Ark. I love playing that game and the demo is actually on Steam right now so everyone can try it out.
BUT WHY THO: Where did the idea for it come from and how has it contrasted with the development for Adventures of Pip? They’re two totally different kinds of games so I was shocked when my brain finally connected the dots and I figured out they were from Tic Toc Games.
Marc: I went to animation school so I just love animation and trying to incorporate 2D animation into everything that I get to work on. With Adventures of Pip, it’s more of a nostalgia towards pixel animation, whereas B.Ark is fully hand-drawn traditional animation, which is something I haven’t been able to do in a game since the remake of A Boy and His Blob.
Being able to jump back into another title, especially a space shooter where you can save a lot of animation time for characters that you really want to focus on…it just really felt like the right type of game for traditional 2D animation. That’s why we’ve got that kind of art style.
It also lends itself to telling a visual narrative. It works with these four very cute characters and we were able to get cutscenes and stuff like that. It’s very charming, I’d say.
BUT WHY THO: I was looking at Nintendo’s page for the game and couldn’t find an answer, but is B.Ark online multiplayer or local co-op? Or both?
Marc: It’s couch co-op, yeah. It’s something where you just sit together with friends and play together. It’s up to four players.
It’s something that we really wanted to introduce to Switch players specifically, but also to the space shooting genre, which is usually built for hardcore players but is so easy for other people to just jump into. You just dodge and shoot, so why not try to make it a little more accessible to try to introduce more players to it? Better players can carry not as good players.
Theresa: I feel like he’s laughing at this because I play it and I have two kids who are six and eight. I play it with them and they make me play the character that has a really big shield so I can protect them and then they just get to play the fast shooting characters and enjoy the game. I get to be the shield guy.
BUT WHY THO: That’s like when I would play New Super Mario Bros. Wii as a kid and my friends would all bubble and I’d have to carry us through the level.
Marc: At least you were the nice one. I’d play it with a friend who would just run off to the right and leave you behind to try to get you killed.
BUT WHY THO: Of course, in these unprecedented and trying times, etc. etc., how has COVID impacted Tic Toc Games as indie developers in the middle of launching a multiplayer game like B.Ark?
Theresa: The studio went 100% remote pretty much immediately in the middle of March. Luckily, we were already using Slack all the time so a lot of our work was already online. There wasn’t a huge impact in that way.
When it got to the point, and Marc can speak to this, where you need multiplayer people sitting on the couch in order to play this game, that became a challenge.
Marc: I was going to say “Yeah, everything’s been working fine” and then I remembered multiplayer.
For the development end of things, it’s been pretty smooth. I think the hardest part is not being able to communicate in person, not being able to look over someone’s shoulder to see what’s on their screen, and makes comments on it. It’s like “Okay, now you’ve got to screen share, now my computer’s going to melt.” That part has been a little bit difficult for me because it’s hard to have Unity chugging your system while at the same time having a video conference running.
Other than that, it hasn’t been too difficult to keep the same pace that we’ve been developing at beforehand, but definitely, as Theresa said, the four-player testing aspect has been a little challenging.
The few of us who can go into the office have to make sure we’ve got all the safety precautions before doing a play session. We only did that a few times, just with whoever’s available, and we’ve got other testers who are living together who can do that as well. Just playing it safe, you know?
BUT WHY THO: So was that the solution? Social distance test sessions in the office?
Theresa: Yeah, we actually stream it on Twitch sometimes, but I don’t know if we save all the videos. If you look at our Twitch page, there’s B.Ark gameplay there, and I think this Tuesday, they’re going to play it again.
There are Switch pro controllers, so they’re wireless, and they all have masks on and they sit as far apart from each other as they can in the room. It makes streaming kind of funny because you need everybody on screen but they can’t be close to each other and are wearing a mask, but they power through and have a good time playing it.
BUT WHY THO: That was the bulk of my questions. I’m mostly just excited to play B.Ark now.
Marc: It’s a completely different game than Adventures of Pip and for maybe a slightly different audience. But it’s got the same charm and definitely is in the spirit of the types of games that we make at the company.
From the origins of Adventures of Pip as a Metroidvania to what we can expect from the upcoming B.Ark space shooter, Tic Toc Games supplied me with a plethora of information about the studio’s inner workings and development processes with a clear passion.
PAX Online lasts until September 20, showing off game demos and new trailers for fans internationally, all from the comfort of their own home. For more information on PAX Online, including panels, game studios, and more, visit the official website.
Adventures of Pip is available now on PC, iOS, Wii U, Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch. B.Ark launches on Nintendo Switch later this year and a demo is now available on PC.