15th Feb 2020

Moppin is Ojiro Fumoto, who began developing games in 2015 and whose raw talent led him to create the breakout indie smash hit DOWNWELL, published by Devolver Digital, that same year. Ojiro was hired by Nintendo and worked there throughout most of 2018, then left the company to return to his roots as an independent videogame developer.

When Special Reserve Games and Ojiro began creating a limited-run, collectible release of DOWNWELL, we talked to Ojiro about how to best augment DOWNWELL’s unique gameplay through a physical edition. For the Nintendo Switch version, decided to include a Fangamer Flip Grip, which allows players to rotate the Switch screen vertically for what Ojiro says “might just be the best way to play the game.”

We talked to Ojiro about his journey down the well of inspiration for DOWNWELL and working with SRG to create the best possible gaming experience for fans.

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Special Reserve Games: Before you began making games, you were studying opera. How did that shift happen?

Ojiro Fumoto: Yes, I come from a very strange background in that I used to study opera singing, starting from my high school days to when I almost graduated college. About seven years of opera singing practice.

But I’d always wanted to be making games ever since I was a little kid, maybe 10. I just gave up early on in my life because programming seemed like a super hard thing that only like the geniuses of the world could do.

So, I went into opera singing. But then, after having practiced opera for seven years, around the time when I was about to graduate from university, I kind of realized there was no future there. I just didn’t really have enough passion for this opera singing stuff.

I started wondering what I really wanted to do with my life. Around that time, indie games were really taking off, with smaller smartphone games like Ridiculous Fishing from Vlambeer.

I started thinking about whether or not it might be possible for me to just start being a developer for this smartphone platform. And then I thought, what the hell, you only live once, so I might as well just go at it. Even though I had no knowledge of programming or anything like that.

I felt like I should follow my passion instead of doing something that I wasn’t really interested in. From that realization on, I started studying programming and everything related to game development.

SRG: It may seem like a weird question, but is there anything that you learned studying opera that actually was helpful in developing Downwell?

Fumoto: Not really, no. Although I have to admit, having gone to this music university, I think in English you’d call it a conservatory, one thing that was good was that I had fewer classes than I would’ve had to attend if I went to a normal university, so I had a lot of free time compared to other students in the country.

In a strange way, I don’t regret having studied opera because otherwise I wouldn’t have had as much free time to be playing games.

SRG: It’s interesting that you built a game around falling, which is usually something people have to avoid in games. Why did that game mechanic of falling appeal to you?

Fumoto: I was really into this game called Spelunky at the time when I was getting into game development. I was making a bunch of small games, just for practice, and when it came time to make another small project for my personal studies, I had the idea to make something that would feel like Spelunky but was playable on smartphone screens.

What I set out to achieve was a Spelunky-like game on a vertically oriented screen. It didn’t make sense to me to have the game scroll horizontally if you were holding the screen vertically because you just can’t really see ahead. Right? That limitation of the device naturally led to me thinking that the game had to progress up or down.

Spelunky was a game where you could go both horizontally and vertically, but it was also a game where you started from upper part of the level and then had to get down to find the exit. I think the core idea for why the game progresses down really came from that inspiration.

SRG: Is that why you settled on having level generation rather than prebuilt levels? You didn’t want people to see what was coming or remember what came next?

Fumoto: Yeah, exactly. Also, I felt that the game would be more suitable for smartphone devices if it had more replayability. I felt that the maps should be randomly generated to enhance the replayability of the game because if the levels were prebuilt then you couldn’t really get anything new out of it.

Also, since I was working by myself at the time, I didn’t really have time to be hand-designing the individual levels, and random map generation meant that I didn’t need to make all these levels for the game to have enough content to keep players coming back to it.

SRG: Can you give me an example of the kinds of rules you had to give the level generator?

Fumoto: The levels consist of a set number of areas, or “level chunks” is what I would call them. The game would generate these little level chunks, and then the game would start placing these level chunks in a random order. As a result, it would form this long level.

If you keep on playing the game repeatedly, you might start to notice, like, “Oh, I’ve seen this set of rocks,” or, “I’ve seen this particular arrangement of platforms before.” That comes from the level chunks. It’s generating new levels but from pre-created level chunks.

Then, in each level I would set how many level chunks would be generated. Also, I set the number of side rooms that you could go into to get items, or shops, or a chunk of the gems that work as currency in the game. If I remember, it was two or three, three I believe. There are another set of rules in terms of the map generation itself.

SRG: Can you talk more about the thought process that went into that level design?

Fumoto: Initially, when I was making the levels, they were really dense. They were filled with traps and enemies, because I thought if the level wasn’t dense then it might mean the game was low-quality somehow, or that the levels might be lackluster.

But afterwards, I realized that the levels needed to be really open and spacious because it was a game about falling down and maneuvering through enemies and just keeping the momentum going. If the level was too dense and forced you to land in order to avoid traps, it really diminished the speedy feel that was a great part of the gameplay.

So, level design change happened through an iterative process. It just became clearer and clearer that it made the most sense to enforce vertical movement and require as little horizontal movement as possible.

SRG: How did you come up with the idea of gunboots?

Fumoto: The gunboots developed almost by accident. Initially, Downwell wasn’t a game about gunboots, I was just trying to make a Spelunky-like game, and so it started as a very basic platformer with no distinctive mechanics. Just a guy jumping up and down this really long cave.

But even though I had no idea what the game was going to be like when it was finished, I did know that I wasn’t very satisfied with just having a really basic platformer. I knew that I needed to add some stuff to it.

I kept on adding and trying different mechanics, very typical things like double-jump or something like the ground pound move, the hip drop that Mario does in Super Mario 64. Eventually, as I was throwing everything I could at the game just to try things out, I came up with the idea to shoot bullets downwards from your feet.

That was when everything clicked. I realized it was a strong enough mechanic that I could base the entire game around it.

SRG: What led you to that point, to combine jumping and shooting from the boots?

Fumoto: I was focused on utilizing the jump button more. A limitation I had at the time was that I really wanted the game to be playable on smartphones. I didn’t want many buttons on screen if I was going to be using a touch screen.

There are games where you have a lot of buttons to press on the touch screen on smartphones, but it’s always hard to play, at least I feel that way. I wanted to keep everything simple in terms of buttons. Left, right, and the jump button.

So I wanted to keep it that way, but I also wanted to find a way to utilize the jump button for something other than jumping. I focused on what function I could give the jump button when you didn’t need to jump, which was when you were already in the air.

The first obvious gimmick I thought of was the double jump. It was not an original idea, so I quickly scrapped that one.

The next idea was something like that Mario 64 ground pound, but I didn’t think that had much potential either. But I liked the idea that pressing jump while you were in the air would cause an action that had some kind of downwards element to it. Maybe not the character slamming downwards, but something else.

So the next real idea was that the character stays in the air but a bullet shoots down. I don’t know why I landed on that idea precisely, what my exact thought process was, but it came naturally to me after going through that process of trying to find another use for the jump button.

SRG: What was the most difficult part of making this game?

Fumoto: I think the most difficult part was the level design. I finished the first two couple of areas, which were the caverns and the catacombs, really quick, but then I couldn’t come up with what else I could put into the game.

I had a really hard time coming up with the third and the fourth levels. I worked for maybe three or four months with really no progress, during which I was thinking and testing things.

SRG: How did you break out of that?

Fumoto: I just kept on trying. There wasn’t really a moment where something clicked, I just kept on trying new stuff and seeing what worked. At one point I had a sci-fi looking level with gates opening and shutting and a level with a lava-like thing coming down from the top where you would have to hurry to get down.

But none of those things worked so I just kept on trying. As with the discovery of the gunboots mechanic, I was just trying a lot of different things until I found something that felt good.

SRG: What has been the most rewarding experience for you that’s come out of creating Downwell?

Fumoto: Launching the game to this amount of success and having people tell me that they really love the game is still very unreal to me and I’m really happy about that. Downwell has been keeping me alive, financially, ever since the game launched, and I’m also very appreciative of that.

But I have to say the most valuable thing that I got out of it was developing the game itself. It was the first game that I’ve developed at that scale. I did work on projects before Downwell, but those were only week-long practice projects, super, super tiny games. Downwell took about a year and three months. I learned so much from making this game, from programming to making graphics to game design and everything like that. It was just a really great process that I got a lot out of and learned a lot from, and really loved.

I grew up playing a lot of video games and I really love video games, but as I played them, even when I was just a gamer and not a developer, I would think, “Hey this game could do this better.” Or, “This game would be better if it had this or that.” You know, gamers are kind of like that, right? They think it’s as simple as that to fix the game, or at least I did. As I got into development, I learned a lot of what actually works and what doesn’t, and I learned that it’s really not as simple as, “If it had this, it would be better.”

It’s more like a puzzle, really. If you add something, something else starts to not make sense, so you have to fix that part. But when you do, something else starts to fall apart. It’s a process that you have to go through yourself to really understand and really appreciate game development in general. I enjoyed that process. Despite all of the success of Downwell, the most valuable thing I got out of it was just going through the development process itself.

SRG: What is it like to have a physical edition of the game?

Fumoto: I think it’s any indie game developer’s dream to have something physical come from the game, like merchandise or a game package. I had some merchandise released, like stickers and the soundtrack and stuff, but I always wanted a package of the game itself. I’m really excited to be able to own that myself!

Game packaging is a special thing for any gamer, I think. When you get it, you’re really excited about what’s in the package and you can’t wait to open it up and boot up the game. For me to be able to do that for my own game is super neat.

SRG: Our edition of Downwell for the Nintendo Switch is going to be shipped with a Fangamer Flip Grip, which lets you turn and play the Switch vertically. What do you think that’s going to add to the experience of playing Downwell?

Fumoto: I’m really excited to get my hands on the Flip Grip myself.

I made the game for smartphones only at first, and didn’t think I would be launching the game on PCs and consoles. Initially, I was only designing for vertical screen devices. So even if you play on normal screens, on consoles, the game still plays on the vertical screen. You have a blank space at the sides.

I don’t think the game looks bad on normal screens, but I do think the game looks best on vertical screens. It’s great that the Switch lets you detach the screen and put it sideways.

Using the Flip Grip on the Switch might just be the best way to play the game. You get the whole view of the vertical screen like with a smartphone and you also have controllers.