DEADTOAST ENTERTAINMENT - MY FRIEND PEDRO
21st Feb 2020
DeadToast Entertainment is one guy: Victor Ågren, an independent videogame developer who began creating games as a child and teenager. He began creating My Friend Pedro on Flash before being hired by Media Molecule as a Level Designer. In this role, Victor contributed to games like LittleBigPlanet, LittleBigPlanet 2, and Tearaway.
Victor went indie again, moving from England (where he had worked with Media Molecule) to Brazil and creating the Flash game Nunchuck Charlie: A Love Story, which was sponsored by Adult Swim Games. He returned to Sweden, re-designed My Friend Pedro in Unity, and teamed up with Devolver Digital to create the My Friend Pedro we now know and love.
Special Reserve Games and Victor connected and started working to create the most outstanding collector’s edition of My Friend Pedro we could imagine. With a limited, exclusive production run, we knew we had only this one chance to craft a game bundle that would make thrill fans and make Victor proud.
After many discussions and much hard work the SWITCH RESERVE of My Friend Pedro was born … due to fan requests we also created a SWITCH SINGLE edition, and put together a retail-only version available at Best Buy and GameStop, and online through Amazon.com.
We talked to Victor about the path to Pedro, and working with SRG on our special, limited physical collector’s edition for the Nintendo Switch.
Special Reserve Games: I was playing My Friend Pedro last week and I noticed that you hid your portrait on the wall of Denny's office! It’s a great little Easter-egg cameo.
Victor Ågren: Ha! Yes. That's actually more than just ego, it’s a reference to the original Flash game version of My Friend Pedro. The final boss in that earlier game is basically that picture, a big version of me sort of bumps in and fights against the player, who has turned into a butterfly.
SRG: How did that come about?
Victor: The story of why I ended up putting myself into the first game as a boss was that originally, I had some picture from some really old, black-and-white commercial, some sort of gentleman fellow that I wanted to be the final boss.
But then I thought maybe there would be some sort of copyright or legal issue with that, so I had to quickly swap it out with something else. I ended up using myself just because that was safe. I knew I wasn’t going to sue myself!
SRG: Are there other details in My Friend Pedro that you’re particularly proud of or just think are neat that maybe people don't notice as much?
Victor: The faces in the background of Pedro's world, the ones with big googly eyes. Originally, that was based on my face as well. When I was mucking about in the first year or so of development, the playable character was basically that head, had that face but without the googly eyes.
Later, that model was laying around and I thought it would be funny to put that in the background with googly eyes, since I wanted the Pedro’s World portion of the game to be different from the rest of the levels and look as weird as possible.
SRG: When did you hit on the idea of moving away from that face toward having the character wear a mask?
Victor: That was in connection to signing with Devolver Digital. Before, I wasn't sure about the scale of the project. I was just sort of making it. I thought it was just going to be a fun little game. But once Devolver was interested, and I started seeing there was more interest from fans online, I felt like this could be something bigger if I put the work in.
I also started to feel like the original design was a bit too generic. I started to feel like I had an opportunity to go all-in on the game and craft a more unique visual style. So, then the character design needed to be cooler and more iconic.
SRG: You spent a long time perfecting this game, and as you note a very different game, an early Flash version, is still available online. What was the key element that moved the game fundamentally toward what it is now from those earlier versions?
Victor: Since the original game was made in Flash and then I moved over to Unity, I remember one of the things that I was really excited about was that I could finally use the right mouse button. That fed into the whole idea of split aim, for example.
That was one of those things I experimented with right away. At first, to split aim you just mirrored the direction you were aiming the other hand. But that wasn’t fun enough, so I tried locking on to where you clicked the right mouse button. And that just felt really good. That was a temporary idea but when I saw people playing the game, I saw that people seem to get it, so I stuck with it.
SRG: After I first tried split aim, I thought, "Why isn't this in every game?" It really opens up the gameplay a lot, especially in My Friend Pedro where you have such emphasis on doing things in a cool and stylized way. The focus mode of moving in slow-motion plays into that too. How did you hit on the idea of trying to do that?
Victor: That was a core idea, even before the Flash version, always the core feeling I wanted with this whole project. Even before the released Flash version there were a couple of iterations that had spinning in the air and slow motion.
But the original prototype was too messy to play. It was too uncontrollable, and so I scaled it down and made it more traditional, like running left and right. But still trying to incorporate spinning in the air in slow motion. I always wanted that and was so happy to finally get it, that Matrix bullet-time vibe.
SRG: Along those lines, of moving from a prototype to a final version, do you have advice to new developers, people who are just starting with their first games?
Victor: The best advice is to start very, very small. Whenever I learn a new tool or a new engine or something, the first thing I do is make some version of something like Pong. First, you want to learn how to move something on the screen, and read the position of an object and things like that. Start super simple, and keep making super short things and release them. Just keep doing that until you find your process.
You have to find what you're excited about, and figure out if you could do it on your own or if you need people to work with. And then maybe find those people and make really small projects with them, until you figure out your process as a team.
You want to make sure you are confident in your abilities, not just your final abilities but your ability to learn. You need confidence in the core idea of the project as well. Things can evolve from there. Work from a point where you feel like you have worked through the hurdles on a few small projects before you attempt something bigger I think.
It obviously takes a long time if you're going to make a bigger, more serious commercial project. There are a lot of costs that you don't really consider at the start, beyond money, like your soul cost.
SRG: On My Friend Pedro you were basically doing pretty much everything yourself other than the music, working alone, but now this is a massive amount of people who are interested in this game. What has been the weirdest moment in all of that for you?
Victor: When I originally released the trailer and started showing the game on Twitter and things like that, before I signed with Devolver, just having people like Devolver and other publishers coming to me and saying, "Hey, let’s talk." That was pretty weird. It was a strange mental shift, like, “Wow, okay, I guess maybe this could work."
Also, somebody got a tattoo with Pedro somewhere on their body. That was pretty weird. And a few other things that just recently happened that I can't really talk about yet. Just blowing my mind. I don't know, it’s all pretty weird.
SRG: I guess there's a pretty high bar for weird when you've got a talking banana leading you to murder.
Victor: Life is pretty weird, if you think about it.
SRG: You worked at Media Molecule as a level designer on LittleBigPlanet. How did your work there influence later working on a game like My Friend Pedro, which is quite different?
Victor: Well, my philosophy when making the levels for My Friend Pedro was similar. I started with making loads of little “motifs” as we call them, these little snippets of gameplay that are sort of self-contained. Then I take all of these pieces and see how they could fit together for an interesting flow inside a bigger level.
Once I have that, I know the difficulty for that area, and what needs to be introduced before I can have this level. Then I know better the broader, bigger progressions that have to happen throughout the whole game. That's basically what I learned at Media Molecule. That style of working.
SRG: What do you think goes into a great level?
Victor: I tend to think of it like a language. Like grammar, the way you introduce things is important, it has to be done in a way that is natural to learn it, and have players start with a very obvious example that you have to complete in order to progress. Then on some level they think, "Oh I understand. This means that.”
Then later on you can combine it with something else that they learned in a similar way. Doing those combinations forms new pathways in your brain, in the sense that you see how things combine. I think that tends to be when I really enjoy a game, when it's teaching me new things even if it’s only within the realm of the game itself. When it shows a concept from different angles, and how you can combine different concepts to make something new and interesting.
It's a little bit like how music works. In classical music you might have a certain melody and then that melody turns upside-down, so it’s still sticking to the hook, but showing it from a different perspective. And then it suddenly cuts in a different melody that's a bit sadder, but then it comes together with the previous melody. Then it all becomes something new, even though you can still recognize the individual ingredients. That's how I think about it.
SRG: At what point in that process do you start thinking about elements of the environment, details that don't necessarily matter to the level in terms of completing it but could really amp up the gameplay?
Victor: I don't really have a formula for that, but it’s something I learned more about while making this game, and really started to see the value of doing. Like if you take something like the frying pan, that came from when I was implementing a kicking mechanic.
If you were close to an object, you could aim with your mouse and then press a button to kick it. Originally, I wanted to do this so you could be kicking gas canisters into the air and shooting them so they explode. Because that's a cool thing to do!
Then I was just trying to think of other things you could kick. I had a model of this frying pan already that was used to ricochet bullets and I thought, “Well, what if you kick the frying pan?" The idea evolved from there. I realized it was cool to have more objects that you could play around with in the world and I started thinking of other things.
Then I started thinking what would feel really cool to do in the game. The skateboard came from that, and running on the barrels, and all sorts of bits like that. But those things came fairly late in the whole design of things.
I originally focused more on linear levels. But that mentality evolved more, to get the game to where it’s at now. Thinking of really cool scenarios where it's okay if the player doesn't do it, but I could at least set things up so that they could do it.
SRG: When did hit on the idea to having occasional special levels, like on the motorcycle or when falling, where you depart partly from the normal gameplay? What special challenges come with that, say with the falling level?
Victor: I felt like I needed some sort of punctuation moving between the worlds, and normally you'd have a boss, a big tough meanie that you have to defeat for something like a crescendo to the levels. But I wanted to do something more original.
I wanted similar feelings, the sort of excitement a boss can give, but extended, and I decided on these levels with special gameplay. It seemed like a good opportunity to make a few levels that broke from the mold.
The falling level required a lot of custom scripts, for how enemies spawn in waves, for example, so that when one wave ends it can trigger the next one rather than them coming in at particular locations how they normally do. And then the background, you're not actually falling exactly, it’s scrolling, flipping back, things like that. But that level was actually pretty quick make.
SRG: What are the principals you have to keep in mind while you're forcing players through a level like that, as opposed to laterally letting them move through the level at their own pace?
Victor: I still wanted it progressive as a level, so tried to make each wave of enemies a little more interesting and different. One thing I tried to do with the falling level specifically was adding all the boxes that fall down as well with you.
The idea was that you could use them as cover as you move around. The level ended up being hectic, so maybe players don't directly think about that but it adds to the variation and makes the experience a bit more designed.
SRG: Another interesting detail, in terms of things I just thought were really cool, was all of a sudden when you're in the sewers these knights come at you. There are a lot of really cool elements like that, where just when things start to seem normal and you start getting used to the game this crazy new thing comes out of nowhere.
Victor: That stuff comes out of my process for creating the game. The main reason that I wanted to make this game was for the gameplay’s sakes, not that sort of thing. The mechanics and feeling of jumping through the air, the “bullet-time” action. I felt like that was strong enough on its own to hold up that it almost didn’t matter where you put it, the game would be interesting.
I'm not the best storyteller, so I don't put a lot of focus on the actual story, although it’s there and I worked on it. Especially doing this all on my own, I had to put my focus on certain things, and I decided to put most of it on the gameplay.
I white-boxed the whole game first. Pure gameplay, no visuals, no setting, nothing else. I made an interesting progression and made sure that was fun and interesting on its own. Later, I came up with a story to string it all together. And then choose the settings for each piece.
Since the gameplay was solid and worked, and since the story was in some ways just there for consistency, I had freedom to be fairly random at times and do stuff that was really weird and fun without breaking the game. I knew the game would work no matter what crazy thing I put inside the game.
SRG: Those details really fit with the wild tone of the game, where you have this bloodthirsty banana leading you from room to room.
Victor: Yeah, exactly. That's part of the purpose of having the banana. The empathy that helps you through the game is that you just open with the banana, and then players are going to be open to accept most things, you can’t get much crazier than that. And it also highlights that the game is not really about a story but about having fun in this weird world.
SRG: Once you move into Pedro's World, those levels, it’s massively strange. Where did that idea come from?
Victor: One way I thought about it is that as you progress through the game, you want a spike of emotions on the journey to keep you playing and keep it interesting. Going into that world is a bit like, “Wow,” maybe you thought you knew what to expect but now you don't know what can happen.
Also, as I was making those gameplay motifs like I was talking about earlier, I made the bounce pads and I thought that they were pretty fun to jump on. But then I thought, well, I can't really put that in this setting that's more grounded in the real world.
However, it made sense to have some sort of “Pedro's World” for that. A space where I could remove some restrictions that I was using in the rest of the game.
SRG: You started making games when you were very, very young, around age nine.
Victor: Yeah, or seven. I don't actually know for sure.
SRG: What started you on that path? Lots of people play games when they are kids, but don’t necessarily think about making them.
Victor: One of the computers we had in the family came with a program called Klik & Play. Now that company makes Clickteam Fusion. You can still use their stuff to make games, but anyway, the original software had options where you could play a game or create a game, basically.
From that moment, it just sort-of made me realize, "Hey, it’s possible to create games." I didn't know English at the time, and the program was in English, so I had to learn it by brute force, just clicking on everything to see what happened.
SRG: As you were growing up and making more complicated games, and then started to work in the games industry, was there a core thing that kept you engaged in making games, that made it the thing that you wanted to do above all other things?
Victor: Part of it is that I just love to create things. But also, games as a medium are amazing because they combine all of the creative disciplines.
There's also a freedom in creating games, where you can be in control of everything. Even though there are moments when you feel like you don't have control of anything, when everything is crashing and whatnot.
At this point, my mind is so wrapped up in making games that I don't really know what else to do!
SRG: Speaking of that control, for My Friend Pedro you basically did everything yourself, other than the music. Why was that important to you, rather than building yourself a team?
Victor: Well, it partly came from life circumstances. I was working in England for six years, at Media Molecule, I moved there when I was 19. Then while I was there I met my girlfriend. And then we moved to Brazil for a year, and after that I moved back to Sweden, where I'm from.
Since I was moving around a lot, I lost contact with a lot of people, and as I came back to Sweden is when I started working on this game.
I'm from a small town as well, so there never were a lot of people around me in Sweden here that could even work on something like this. But also, I just like to do everything, as I say I like to be involved in all the different creative disciplines. And I didn't really have a budget to pay anybody else at the start, I just had some savings I was living off while I worked on the game.
SRG: How did you manage to accomplish anything? Because in addition to working on the game, which is hard enough, you're running a company essentially. You've got to do paperwork!
Victor: Yeah, that's true. That's one thing when you leave a big company and you go on your own, you're like "Aha, I'm my own boss now!" But that comes with a lot of boring things as well, like paying your taxes and knowing how to pay your taxes and bookkeeping and all that stuff. That took quite a while to learn and understand, it’s like another job.
SRG: Do you see yourself doing the next game like that, working by yourself that way, or not?
Victor: I probably wouldn't take on a big project like this on my own again. I say that, but I might do it anyway!
SRG: Do you feel there are a lot of expectations for your next game?
SRG: How are you dealing with that?
Victor: Part of me just wants to consciously make a really terrible game! Just to get it over with. And then I'd feel free to do anything I want again.
But my real plan is to make something small. Keep it really relaxed, and the luxury for me now is I'm in a position where I don't need to make something commercially successful for a while. So, I might just try and have fun with that.
I might change my mind, but that’s the temptation, to just do a small, winding-down project or something like that. But I'm not sure yet. Right now, my project is just health. Eating well and doing some exercise and finding a healthy routine to feel well. So that I can do this for the long run.
SRG: People who order the Switch Reserve edition of the game will get a stress banana to help them with their own health goals. What stressed you out the most making My Friend Pedro?
Victor: I think the hardest part was just the endurance of actually finishing the project. It’s fun to start something, and play around with things, but once it becomes a product that people pay for it needs to be as good as it can be, as bug-free as possible, and things need to be stable and understandable.
The bit I enjoyed the least was optimization, implementing localization and making menus, re-mappable control, all that stuff. Motivationally, that's been the most challenging thing.
SRG: What's been the most surprising part, either making the game or just seeing how people react to the game?
Victor: I just keep getting surprised by how people have been responding to the game. There is a ton of fan art now, and people doing cosplay, and there's even a fan film.
I'm still surprised that I managed to make this game. But it's an empowering feeling. If you put your mind to it, you can make something that has an impact.
SRG: We are packaging the Switch Reserve edition of My Friend Pedro with six lenticular cards, so can you talk about the reasoning behind that? It’s a nice way to preserve some of these fun elements from the game.
Victor: Yes, and also the lenticular cards make sense because what made people react to the game in the first place were the GIFs that I use to post on Twitter. I feel like lenticular cards are a physical medium for GIFs, in a way.
SRG: Why is having a physical release important to you?
Victor: First off, it’s just cool, to have made something that is worth making a physical copy. I am very excited about that.
You spend five years sitting and doing something at the computer, and it’s amazing that people enjoy it and so on, but you still can't really touch anything so it’s strange and unreal.
Once I have a physical copy it will be easier to understand a bit more what happened! Maybe I will feel like I’m finally finished working on the game. I still haven't quite had that feeling. I think it's going to be really cool.