Winner of the Audience Choice Award at PAX 2008, The Maw is set to eat everything it can when it hits Xbox Live Arcade January 21. In the game, Frank, an unassuming blue alien, has crash-landed on a beautiful planet with the bubbly purple blob known as the Maw. In order to explore and progress through the lush environment to find his way home, Frank needs the Maw's eating abilities to solve puzzles. While being dragged on a plasma leash, this walking bobblehead will eat almost anything it comes in contact with, gaining in size and sometimes learning a specific skill to help Frank get past deadly piranhas or other harmful obstacles. Both characters exude an enormous amount of personality and charm, so we decided to talk to Michael Wilford, CEO and software engineer at Twisted Pixel, to find out more about their lovable alien friends.
GameSpot: How did the idea of The Maw originate?
Michael Wilford: The idea for The Maw started many years ago, before the Xbox 360 was available and before Twisted Pixel was even born. One day Josh Bear (CCO) and Dave Leung (art director) were brainstorming new game ideas like they always do and they got on the topic of Ico and other games that involved two characters working together. The idea of using a plasma leash to connect the two characters was inspired by games like Wild 9. Then when it came time to put some concepts together for Microsoft, The Maw jumped out as one that would be a lot of fun to develop and ultimately play.
GS: What are your goals for the game?
MW: We talked about this a lot before we put down any code. There are a lot of directions you could go in with the core concept, but far and away the most important goal for us as a team was to nail the personality and humor between the characters, especially Frank and Maw. We felt that if we nailed a solid character-driven and funny action adventure game, it would be something special for XBLA.
GS: Is the final product what you had originally intended?
MW: I'm not sure any game ends up the way you see it in your head at first. But I can honestly say that The Maw is better in many ways than I originally intended. I was really worried about the feasibility of a small self-funded team building a large 3D action platformer from scratch using only 150 megabytes. But I can't say enough about the team and their dedication to do whatever it takes to make a great game. We all worked really hard. One of the nice side effects of owning your creations and having complete editorial control is the increase in quality because everyone is fighting hard for a shared vision.
GS: What inspired the visual style?
MW: From the get-go the game was intended to be broad-appeal, kind of how Pixar movies are. Obviously kids love Pixar films, but the production values are so good, from the writing and pacing to the voice acting, that adults can't help but like them too. That's the angle we were trying to play--something visually inviting, colorful, and fun. But we worked really hard on making sure all the details were there: realistic lighting and shadows, complex shaders for subtle effects like soft rim lighting, intense visual effects, etc. The game has a lot of in-game cinemas where we tried to push the bar for production value.
GS: Tell us about Frank. What's his story? How did this character evolve visually?
MW: Frank is the playable character, and he's a simple creature. We intentionally designed him to be innocent looking and not a typical badass hero stereotype. Hopefully it makes you wonder why Frank was captured along with all the other dangerous creatures. But then you realize that Frank is the only creature that Maw doesn't try to eat. The gem on Frank's forehead glows every now and then basically because he can befriend and control Maw, thereby making Frank the number one most dangerous organism in the universe!
Visually, we needed Frank to be something Maw could riff off of. We wanted people to look at Frank and immediately know what they were getting. Maw was going to be the wild card, so Frank needed to be the opposite of that. We went through many design iterations, ranging from cute to crazy. Ultimately we stuck with something cute and innocent looking.
GS: The Maw looks cute and vicious at the same time. How did his design come about?
MW: Dave Leung is our art director, and the dude is just amazing. He did some early prototyping and testing to make sure he could get the emotions he needed out of Maw's rig. But it's tricky because Maw continuously grows throughout the entire story. When Maw gets too big to fit onscreen, Dave was still able to convey emotion with nothing but a giant eyeball to work with. We weren't sure it was going to work, but when we saw how sad Maw was able to look, we knew anything was possible with Dave on our team.
Sean Riley, the lead designer, also had some valuable input about making Maw's mouth even bigger than we had it originally and moving the eye higher on his head. All these things helped to make Maw look both cute and vicious at the same time.
Programatically, we scale the size of Maw's eye at a different rate than the rest of his body. When Maw is smaller, his eye is bigger and more childlike, but when he's huge, the eye isn't as big in relation to his body.
Audio-wise, Maw's voice is programatically pitched down as he grows. So it's the same voice throughout the game; it just gets deeper and meaner. It gives you an uneasy feeling when you ultimately realize that your cute little buddy has slowly turned into a monster right in front of your eyes.
GS: What influenced the personalities of the Maw and Frank?
MW: Well, Frank is named after our CTO, Frank Wilson. We try to put Frank into every game we make.
Personality-wise, Frank is a goody-two-shoes-type character. He just wants to mind his own business and live happily ever after. But he gets captured and must learn to fight his way out of trouble.
On the other hand, Maw is amoral. He doesn't know right from wrong; he just eats because he is hungry. But he's also a big chicken. Despite being indestructible and able to absorb powers, he freaks out at the strangest things. You'll find that you need both Frank's thoughtfulness as well as Maw's instincts to survive.
GS: What was the inspiration behind the gameplay? What can we expect from a gameplay perspective?
MW: We looked at a lot of games for reference, including the Mario series (mostly for its 3D platforming and general control feel), Ratchet & Clank, A Boy and His Blob, Ico, Wild 9, Katamari, and many others. I'll also throw a little bit of Earthworm Jim in there because the gameplay is varied in The Maw. One minute you're leashed to Maw feeding him creatures, the next you're swinging through the air, then you're riding on Maw's back, then flying a spaceship, and on and on. As Maw grows, Frank needs to interact with him differently, so the gameplay evolves throughout the game. The leash can be used in many ways other than simply attaching it to Maw. Each level requires a bit of puzzle-solving and experimenting with Maw's powers.
GS: What is the music like? What kind of mood and atmosphere does it set?
MW: Music is a big deal for us, especially for a game that relies so much on mood and emotions between characters. Before we even pitched the idea to Microsoft we picked out Winifred Phillips, an award-winning composer behind many other great titles, including God of War. We had worked with her before and knew she had the perfect sensibility for the mood we were going for, and she created an excellent jazz-influenced soundtrack that hit the nail on the head.
Also, our chief creative officer, Josh Bear, really wanted to make the score interactive. Like when a level starts, you only hear the bass line, but then as you progress through the puzzles, additional layers start blending in. By completing each level you are filling out the musical score that Winifred designed specifically in this fashion. A nice side effect is that it serves to reinforce a sense of accomplishment with players. As soon as they solve something and hear that new stem of music kick in, they know they did something right.
GS: How did you come up with the voices for Frank and the Maw?
MW: The Maw's sound design was done by a great partner of ours called Gl33k, here in Austin. We went back and forth with them a few times and then they found the perfect voice talent for Frank and Maw. Trivia: The voices of Maw and Frank, Chris Sabat and Brina Palencia respectively, are also known for voicing characters like Piccolo in Dragon Ball Z.
GS: Any plans for downloadable content?
MW: We are very interested in doing DLC, but we haven't made any announcements yet.
GS: Do you see this becoming a franchise or migrating to other platforms? MW: The great thing about owning your own IP is that you can totally take it wherever else you want. We're new to the concept of building out a franchise and making the most of it, but we're up for trying. We have a lot of fans asking for Maw plushies, shirts, and other things, so we're looking into that. We also had fans ask us about bringing The Maw to other platforms, so we are looking into that as well. No announcements yet, though.
GS: What is Twisted Pixel working on next?
MW: We're ramping up for our next project right now, actually. It's a new character-driven IP with a lot of humor, but we won't be talking about it for a little while yet.
GS: Thank you for your time!
MW: Thank you for the great questions! We hope everyone has as much fun with The Maw as we had making it, but I hope they get more sleep than we did. We did the best we could to make the most ambitious XBLA game at 800 points that we knew how to make. Enjoy!