Being Derek Yu: A Chat With The Creator of 'Spelunky', 'UFO 50'

From Aquaria to Spelunky 2 and UFO 50

Derek Yu Credit: Derek Yu

In an industry still learning how to celebrate celebrity, Derek Yu is an icon.

That isn’t to say that video games don’t have their share of personalities. Dating as far back as Nolan Bushnell’s troubled legacy, prominent figures have emerged from the hundreds of anonymous coders responsible for the biggest games and claimed the lion’s share of the spotlight. But when Derek Yu was making his first, tentative steps into game design, those figures were largely attached to huge companies, as often businessmen as creators, and the independent scene flourishing today existed only as some nascent chatter on some very niche websites. As is the case for most genuine icons, what attracted Yu to making games wasn’t some vague promise of glory, but a passion to create, a dissatisfaction with being a passive consumer.

“I don't remember a time when I wasn't interested in video games,” he tells Glixel. “My dad bought my mom an Atari 2600 when she was pregnant and I spent a lot of time with it as a kid. I loved that games let you be an active participant in their fantasy worlds; I like playing an active role in my interests. When I read a comic book, I want to draw, and when I play a game, I want to make my own. There's something particularly exciting about watching someone interact directly with the world you created and seeing complexity bloom from relatively simple rules.”

Yu’s journey from hobbyist to indie superstar began when he was very young. In second grade, he and a friend started mapping out simple games on paper, eventually graduating to making text adventures on PC. When he discovered Klik & Play, a simple design tool that let you build your own games with pre-made assets, he was instantly hooked.

“With its built-in editors and drag-and-drop interface, it was the first tool that let me make games almost as fast as I could think them up,” Yu remembers. “It felt so intuitive and powerful that I used it and its successors (The Games Factory and Multimedia Fusion) as my primary creative tools up until the middle of college.”

It was in college, however, that the shadow of self-doubt first began to creep it, and it almost short-circuited his career.

“I became pessimistic about the idea of making games for a living,” he admits. “Part of it was burn out from a tough computer science major and part of it was the indie game movement was still young and I didn't realize it was a viable career path. In the Klik & Play community we only released freeware, so my perception of the game industry was that you had to specialize in art or programming at a large company and if you were lucky you'd eventually get a job as a designer.”

Not wanting to be a small cog in a huge machine, he opted instead to pursue his passion for art and comics. “I spent my first year after college living with my parents and making a comic book about a frog and a bear who were best friends and skateboarded. I sent it to one publisher and got rejected - they said the artwork was great but the story was too random.”

Discouraged, Yu moved to San Francisco and found some work as a freelance illustrator. But he never fully surrendered the idea of creating games. In college he’d finished one major project with his childhood friend, Eternal Daughter, a side-scrolling adventure platformer, but it wasn’t until years later, when an odd confluence of events brought him together with creative partner Alec Holowka, that he started work on his next ambitious project.

In 2005, notorious Florida lawyer Jack Thompson (now permanently disbarred) issued a challenge to game developers, stating if anyone were able to create and sell a game in which the main character kills game developers he would donate $10,000 to charity. Yu took the bait, and he and Holowka developed a game according to Thompson’s insane design doc. While Thompson never paid up, the challenge did lead to a fruitful creative partnership with Holowka.

“Alec reached out to me to collaborate on the Jack Thompson parody game, and while we were working on that he showed me the prototype that would eventually become Aquaria.” The early design, a mermaid swimming freely around an underwater library, appealed to Yu aesthetically, and he enjoyed the simple, responsive controls. They began building on that simple prototype, expanding it until it was a more fully-fledged game, while around the same time Yu stepped into a leadership role at one of the sites that was the bedrock of the fledgling indie scene.

“Taking over TIGSource was a big turning point for me. It wasn't the only indie game website around, but it was noticeably different from the rest. Back then, ‘indie games’ were associated more with what we call ‘casual games’ today - match-threes and very simple arcade titles - and the discourse around them was almost entirely focused on making money. TIGSource stood out by covering a wider variety of indie games and offering honest criticism that was lacking in the rest of the scene. Learning about the business of indie games did make a games career seem more viable, but I gravitated toward TIGSource because it treated indie games more as an art form.”

Adding forums to the site allowed for an even wider discourse around games and art, and created a real community of creators that shared their work and supported one another. “I released the freeware version of Spelunky there and the earliest public build of Minecraft was also announced there. There's a lot of indie game history on those forums.”

After two years of intense collaboration and several iterations, Yu and Holowka launched Aquaria into the world. The response was immediately positive and, Yu says, incredibly gratifying (and solved some pressing practical concerns, as he’d just quit freelancing and lost his primary source of income).

“Aquaria was my first commercial game and it felt like a big success to me and Alec when we released it in 2007. It won the IGF Grand Prize Award, which came with a $20,000 prize, and sold well enough through our website that we didn't have to worry about releasing anything else for at least a few years.”

In his acceptance speech at the Independent Games Festival, Yu effusively thanked his parents. It’s a gratitude that came through clearly in our conversation as well, for a support system that not only provided him the freedom and confidence to do what he wanted with his life, but encouraged him to chase his dream.

“My family and friends have always been very supportive of me. My parents spent a lot of time drawing and playing games with me as a kid, encouraging me to be artistic. I give them a lot of credit for letting their grown son live in their house for a year making comics after graduating with a computer science degree. I did work extremely hard and created some opportunities for myself, but it's hard to overstate the importance of having supportive parents, access to creative resources, and friends who accept you for who you are, especially at a time when video games were so poorly understood by the wider world.”

As successful as Aquaria was, however, it was quickly eclipsed by a blitz of high profile indie games that absorb much of the credit for establishing the independent renaissance. Braid, Castle Crashers, and World of Goo all launched the year after Aquaria, and hogged the limited limelight. “But for us it was a fantastic outcome to a grueling two-year development - we just wanted to keep making games.”

After a two year marathon, though, Yu was burnt out, and the prospect of launching another huge project, and being tied to someone else’s schedule, was too much.

“That's when I decided to part ways with Alec and go back to being completely independent. My current company, Mossmouth is just me, and for now I'm choosing to work with other people only as independent contractors. The nice thing about this arrangement is that there are no expectations to keep working together after a game is released, but it also doesn't prevent us from collaborating again if we want to.”

He took time away from the often grueling pace of development to get married to his wife Frances and become a father, but found he couldn’t resist the siren song of building games for long.

“Initially, I just wanted to go back to solo development and make something small without any pressure,” says of his first foray back into development. “I chose Game Maker because I saw some cool things being made with it by people like Matt Thorson, Jonatan Soderstrom, and Mark Essen,” the creators behind Celeste, Hotline Miami, and Nidhogg. “I'll probably always feel that pull back to the Klik & Play style of development, especially after a big commercial project - it's where I'm most comfortable and relaxed.”

He started playing with the idea of a roguelike platformer and creating little prototypes, and the seed of Spelunky was born.

“From there, the ideas flowed naturally and there was plenty of inspiration to be found in platformers, roguelikes, adventure stories, and mythology,” he remembers. “I released the freeware game publicly a little over a year after Aquaria released and a month after that Jonathan Blow told me he liked the game and wanted to recommend it to Microsoft for XBox Live Arcade.”

For all its eventual runaway success, Spelunky began as a slow burn. Even after it evolved away from its freeware roots and found a home on XBLA as a proper commercial release, it wasn’t an immediate hit. Sales were steady, but it didn’t perform as well as contemporaries like Fez and Super Meat Boy, the titles to which it was constantly being compared. “It definitely stung to feel like we hadn't lived up to the everyone's expectations.”

But when ports rolled out on PC and PlayStation, Spelunky’s popularity exploded. It went from being a niche XBox title to being the it game of 2013, a sales juggernaut and a huge part of the gaming zeitgeist (a position it still very much occupies today, as evidenced by the fevered reaction to the announcement at Paris Games Week this year of a sequel.)

“Ultimately, I feel great about what we've accomplished with Spelunky - it's nice to leave a mark on gaming since I've been passionate about it for so much of my life.” He reflects that it’s probably for the best that success didn’t hit all at once, but was a gradual build towards the crescendo that Spelunky represented. “My first released game got me a few fan emails, which felt incredible. Eternal Daughter received more recognition, but it was still mostly limited to the Klik community. Aquaria did well, but Spelunky did better. As a result, I think success has mostly been positive. The hardest part for me has been going from being behind a computer screen to having to be a public face and voice for my work. That's where I'm glad I had some time to adjust.”

It’s one of a huge number of lessons that have resulted from the whirlwind of Spelunky’s development and the success that followed. It’s a process that taught him not only some of the finer mechanics of development but, perhaps more importantly, instilled him with the confidence to make critical decisions and stand by his vision.

“I think it's normal to wonder if you'll have a sophomore slump, so the fact that Spelunky did well was heartening and makes developing Spelunky 2 and UFO 50 easier. I can't predict how well they'll do, but when I'm making decisions there's less hesitation. I can look at a piece of artwork I drew or an idea I had and say ‘Yeah, this works.’ And if it doesn't work, I can figure out how to fix it more quickly.”

The other big takeaway is the importance of planning. For Spelunky 2 and UFO 50 (an ambitious project with four other designers to create a package of 50 complete, playable games), Yu wanted a comprehensive understanding of the game’s vision before he started working on them.

Aquaria started with Alec's cool-but-tiny prototype and we had to feel our way through the design with a lot of trial-and-error and discussion. Then I lucked into a process that worked well for me where I created the basic concept of Spelunky myself without much external pressure and used that as a blueprint for the commercial version. Moving forward, I want to go into every big project feeling like I understand it well from beginning to end, because it's so easy to underestimate what's involved, even as an experienced dev.”