Last year, I sat down to have a chat with a pair of developers who were working on a simple title with a concept that I found personally interesting. That game is Awkward Date, a co-op platformer where you play two socially awkward characters going out on a romantic excursion. I got to see a bit of it at a Playcrafting expo, and some time later I managed to chat with the two developers behind the project.
I played a few rounds of the game myself, and I observed other people playing it at multiple expos. Cooperation is essential; if you don't move in sync with your partner you're doomed to failure (especially on the more difficult levels). The early concepts were basic, and later evolutions added more elements to fit the dating theme. Take a peek at a gameplay trailer to get an idea of what it's all like and we'll jump right into the interview after that.
TechRaptor: Let's start with the name of your game, your names, and the name of the company that's making the game.
Fernando DeSilva: The game is called Awkward Date and the name of the company is [Asterism Game Studio LLC]. The people working on it are... I'm Fernando DeSilva.
Abe Gellis: And I'm Abe Gellis. We met at NYU Poly and we're working on this as a project together. That's how we ended up developing this together.
TR: Okay. Tell us about the general idea behind what your game is.
FS: Awkward Date is a two-player platform game where the players are playing cooperatively. They're each playing two characters that are going on their first date together but they are super socially awkward. If they get too close they feel too shy [and embarassed] and if they get too far away they feel too lonely. The players have to move towards the end of the level while keeping track of their distance or else they'll lose.
TR: Did the mechanics of the gameplay come up first and [was] the theme of it being an awkward date added after that or did you start with the premise of an awkward date and figure out the mechanics for how that would work? Which way was it?
AG: You got it right the first way. We started on this with another team member who brought a prototype of two rectangles that could jump around and couldn't get too close [and] couldn't get too far. We played around with that, built it up, rebuilt it up. [Along] the way we wanted to not make it be an abstract game about blocks and make it a game about something. We tossed around some stuff. We considered setting it space and having a temperature mechanic instead which we didn't feel "popped" enough (for lack of [better] terminology). We ended up going with this, although internally we still use a lot of the temperature nomenclature.
FS: We thought about this idea of if you get too close you get too hot [and] if you get too far you get too cold, but we didn't feel like we had that much interest in keeping with this theme. It [had felt] like the easiest thing to think of even though that was how the other team member envisioned [the game] when I was building this mechanic. After brainstorming [eventually] Abe had this idea of having this date and have this socially awkward situation. We [thought], "This is way more interesting. There are not a lot of games like this. This is something we could work a lot more on."
AG: It's also uncomfortably close to both of us. [laughs]
TR: [laughs] Is there any special message behind [the] social awkwardness to you guys or is it just [a] convenient explanation for the mechanic of the game. I know it's kind of similar to the last question, [but I want to go a bit deeper].
AG: I'd say it's mostly a convenient explanation. I do feel like it's a subject I'm, you know... I'm an awkward person. We're all kind of awkward people. I like to think of myself as the most awkward and I have the little trophy on my nightstand at home.
TR: [laughs] Awkward game developers? Come on...
AG: There is a little bit of that. It's fun to talk about. It's fun to think about situations to throw these guys in and just sort of a little empathetic cringing or "I've been in that situation." First and foremost, like you said, it's [more] of a justification for the mechanics.
FS: [I can say] for myself that I have been in a situation like going on a first date and not wanting to move forward too fast. Because I feel like, "Oh maybe I'm jumping the [gun] here, should I keep my distance?" I did have that kind of situation before. Although it's like Abe said, mainly it was a purpose to really talk about the mechanic rather than anything [else].
AG: That's still better than me. I didn't even know we were dating until [my girlfriend] told me.
TR: [laughs] Okay, so... [laughs] I've been there man. So! Next question. Abe, I asked you this in person [previously] but that wasn't on the record so I'm gonna ask it again. Why [did you decide] to go with two men as the people on the date? Was there a particular reason [you made that decision]? Are you going for a particular political message? Did you not even think about it? What was the reasoning behind that decision?
AG: Well, when we were fishing for themes, so to speak, [I] was just trying to move things along graphically. Just get it away from rectangles, maybe put us in a better frame of mind to think about this sort of thing. And so I made two awkward-looking humans. They were originally a lot more retro-looking than they are now. I didn't like that style [and] we adapted it. But the fundamental character designs themselves came from a rough approximation of all the awkward people around us at engineering school. It being two guys is both... I wouldn't really say we're trying to do anything political or meaningful with that. I think that generally society, games, people who play them - we're at a point where you can just do that and not make it the deal or the point of what you're doing.
FS: I would go as far as saying Abe designed those characters. [They] looked good and they [both happened] to be male and we were fine with that. The game wouldn't gain anything from not being like this. That's [why] we're fine with having a same-sex couple although we didn't design the game [to] make [a] statement of any kind.
TR: One thing that sort of popped into my head. Do you have any plans to [make] it possible for people to switch [out the characters]? Like if someone wanted to play as two girls or a boy and a girl or anything like that? Or are you gonna just stick with those two designed characters and leave it at that?
AG: We were actually just talking about that. We do want to add more characters. We want to add some female characters - at least two to match [the currently male characters]. I don't think there will ever be fully-fledged character customization of any kind. But [there will be] a few more characters to choose from. I don't think it'll really affect the game in any way besides your sprite on the screen, though.
FS: We've discussed it before. The option of having multiple characters people can choose from and they could match. Either they wanna play with a boy and a girl, two boys, two girls. That would be up to them. But I did have people that played the game before and say like, "Oh, I wish I could play as two girls [and] not only two boys because I would feel represented." That kind of thing always [was in] our minds. We are discussing whether we [will] add more characters because we do have a lot more stuff to add to the game right now. That's definitely something we have [in] the back of our minds. If we come up with some interesting designs we might have more new characters and maybe have female characters as well and people could match them up however they like.
AG: Yeah, the art is really what's blocking us there more than anything else.
TR: [I'll move on] to a technical question. What did you guys make the game in? Did you use an engine or a [prefabricated] thing [or] did you create [Awkward Date] from the ground up?
FS: We started [when we were] taking classes at NYU Poly. During the class we had to make rapid prototypes. At that point in time we were encouraged to use Unity. Abe [already] had a lot of experience with Unity. He did an internship that they use Unity on. I just started with the engine and I got used to it. It was something that was super easy to work on. We already had a lot of experience with Abe. Since the beginning, the very early prototype, everything has been done [on Unity].
TR: So it's all 100% Unity. Do you guys have eyes on a release date for your title yet or is that still up in the air?
FS: It's kind of up in the air. We wish we [could] get it done by the end of the year. Maybe release it early next year? That [our] reasonable goal right now. But that depends on how much content we get [in] the game because that's the [main] thing we're missing right now. The design is set up. We know how the game is design-wise but we need more content because we want to make [it an experience of a certain length]. [We've] set out to be at a price point of like ten or fifteen bucks and we feel like we need enough content that would fill up this amount of worth.
AG: Yeah, that would justify it. It's worth pointing out that this is neither of our full-time or even close to part-time jobs. We're not dependent on it getting out the door by a certain date. We're probably feeling better about moving our release date. We're feeling pretty good about doing that just [because] it's not going to break the bank if we don't have it out by such-and-such a time. We're not gonna soil a relationship with a publisher or anything like that. [We'll release it when it's done.]
FS: We don't have [to] rush because we [don't need the money] the game might make. But also we do want to finish it.
AG: Oh yeah, it's not like we're gonna be working on it until it's like a perfect work of art and it's 100% everything as our dreams. We're not rushing it either is what we're trying to say.
TR: I don't know if you would be or wouldn't be surprised that that's relatively common [in indie gaming]. It's probably better to push back the release date to when you feel comfortable putting it out [rather] than try to meet some arbitrary date. It's relatively common from what I've seen.
AG: There was a time when we were considering what we could or would have to do to put at least one of us on this full time and it we've long discarded that idea. I think we're both a lot happier for it. It was really stressful just thinking, "[How much money] do we need at this point so that we can do exclusively this? How many hours are we gonna put in to justify that money? What's gonna happen to everything else we do in our lives?" Etcetera etcetera.
FS: And if we do, we're much more dependent on the success of the game in the end. It's a lot more stressful.
AG: It's super less stressful doing it like this and I'm really happy we chose the path we did.
TR: What platforms are you guys aiming to [get Awkward Date] out on?
FS: Surely Steam is [the] main platform and we definitely want to have [Awkward Date] release on all main OSes. Mac, Linux, and Windows. That should be a simple task for us to achieve since we're using Unity. We started tallking to people at Microsoft and Sony but this is a long process. It takes a lot of our time. We would love for it to be released on XBox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U or whatever new system Nintendo comes up with.
AG: That'd be the NX.
FS: If they do by the time [we] release the game. We're definitely looking forward to it and we're definitely gonna put [more] effort [into it] later when we have [more of a] closer picture of what the end game is gonna be like. We would love to have it on those platforms. At some point we even talked about releasing for Android TV - the devices that actually controls - because we don't envision this game as being played on mobile.
AG: Yeah, but the jury's out on that one. It might not be hard but we have to see what kind of effort it would be and if would be worth the effort.
TR: How many levels are you aiming to get into the final product?
FS: Currently our goal is to have at least 100 levels. I do most of the level design - I would say 90% of it. It mostly depends on me. Our levels are designed to be overall like.... if you finish the level successfully it would take you a few seconds, but it would take you a couple minutes to try stuff, experiment, get the hang of it, and actually beat it. So in the end I feel like I want to get 100 levels out with some sort of collectibles. [Some like] hidden treasures to look for. [And we want to] see how long does it take a new player to get into the game and how long does it take for him to be happy, if that's enough. If it takes a couple hours. If it takes him like ten hours overall, and see if that's enough and if we're happy with that. And if we are happy with 100 levels and it takes less time than we envisioned to actually finish it then we will drop our price point we're [thinking about]. We're shooting for 100-ish I would say.
TR: I played it a little bit at [a Playcrafting Expo]. Was that with you Abe or did I play with another bystander? I don't recall.
AG: Search me, that was [a while] ago.
TR: [laughs] Yeah, okay. Well, I at least played it [to some degree]. I remember going through the levels and if you mess up you have to start over. [Is that] gonna be the essence of the failure state - if you have to screw up you have to start over again? Are there gonna be lives? Can you try again forever? Is there gonna be a continue system? What's the failure kind of situation gonna be?
FS: So our philosophy for the failure is [very] similar to Super Meat Boy. You don't have checkpoints. The levels are usually made to be short. So like failing doesn't take you back that much. As I said, levels are made [so] that when you actually finish them correctly it would take you just a few seconds overall maybe. No level is probably gonna take [more than that]. You're gonna have infinite lives; you can try as many times as you want. No continues, no [lives] you lose. But we do have this sort of joke like depending on how many times you lose the game gives you relationship advice at the end. So maybe like if you do really well it tells you like, "Oh, maybe you guys are the perfect couple. You should try dating!" Or if you do really badly, "Oh, maybe you should look for new people to start a relationship with."
TR: [laughs] As for the levels themselves in terms of [unlocking], are you gonna be able to access any level at any time or do you want players to go through it sequentially?
FS: Our idea is to make a story arc out of the game. As you play the levels you have this little story going on as you're trying to get to the end of the date. As we have [it] set up now each set of three levels [connects] in some sort of way. Each level has its own little story, [like] maybe you're going to get some coffee. And after that you gotta go to the bathroom because you have a full bladder. As three levels they connect in some sense. Sometimes it's more [clear] how they connect and sometimes there's a little bit of artistic choice. Our idea was at the end to have maybe a super hard level that when you get to the end you actually see an ending and this arc of you going on a date has an actual ending. Maybe who knows, maybe multiple endings if you have multiple paths as you choose to go along. Another idea we have is that [we] want everyone to be able to enjoy this game and we know we can make super-hard levels but we want people to have [a] choice. Maybe they don't want to take on the hard levels, maybe they want to just enjoy the game and see how it ends so just trying [something] easier and not actually go [through] this super-hardcore thing that this game can actually be.
TR: The test copy I played... you were talking about the themes of levels. [The levels] seem like relatively standard platforming fare. [Are you going to design them] so they look more like locations and themes? I imagine what you have now is just a prototype, then.
AG: From an aesthetic standpoint I do think we're going to add a lot more character to each particular area. When [Fernando] was talking about threading together three sets of levels he meant in the sense that every level has its own unique goal. It's just a little special graphic, sometimes a little quirk to the level. Each set of three levels he was speaking of the goals align. So like he was saying: get coffee, go to the bathroom, get the coffee taste out of your mouth with mouthwash. Just in sequence, presented as a unit of three levels.
TR: [I think] the end goal you had was [a portal] so what you're saying is you'd replace the portal with a cup of coffee or something like that and make the level look like a coffee shop? [Is that the general idea?]
AG: There was already distinct goals in each level but they're not very attention grabbing. [It's] probably something we need to address on the art side. From the setting standpoint I don't know if we're ever going to fully leave "abstract platformer land" but there's certainly going to be more touches that at least... I wouldn't say ground it... for example, in the coffee one there'll be a coffee store. There will be maybe some other stores next to it to frame it a little. But it will still probably be all floating in abstract platformer land.
TR: Are you guys gonna shoot for including anything like a level editor or something like that or is it just gonna be a pure vanilla, "Here [are] the levels we designed" experience?
FS: We would definitely [enjoy giving] people the ability to build their own levels. But before we actually do that... that's something we discussed. If we ever do that [it would be after release]. All of our levels are done in just the Unity scene editor so we don't need an actual level editor for ourselves to build levels on. But we would love if there are people that actually love this game and want to build their own stuff [and we had the time and the energy to build] a level editor for them.
TR: [So if you wanted] there to be a level editor you would have to build it.
TR: [Awkward Date] is obviously intended to be a co-op experience. It's a game that necessitates two players. Is there going to be A.I. in the game at all? If you're forever alone and by yourself and have a computer player? Or is going to be strictly like, "You need two people to play this."?
FS: I'm currently doing research because I'm a PhD student. We're evaluating whether we can build an interesting A.I. around this game. Our main concern is [if playing with the A.I. is any fun]. This whole idea of this game is interacting with this other person. Will interacting with an A.I. be [as interesting]? We are [doing] some research on [how] interesting A.I. would be. [We've] had some discussion like, "Maybe our A.I. could have some sort of personality. Maybe there is an A.I. that would like to follow you around - it pretends like you're the leader. Or maybe there's an A.I. that just takes [the lead] and you gotta run after it." And maybe having those different scenarios [would make] a more interesting interaction. We do want to have a one-player mode experience because we know not everyone has the ability of having another person playing with them. One thing that we do - and [this] is how I suually test my levels - is I play both characters with the same controller. And that is something that's already implemented and is probably gonna be on the final version. So when you have a controller like [the] PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One that has two sticks you use each one to control a different character and you [use] the shoulder buttons to jump. [That's] all the controls we need for the game. It's a whole different way of taking the actual game, it's a whole different experience. It's super-hard but it's doable. I made sure that every level is beatable like this because that's usually how I test those levels.
TR: I have the feeling [that] if you made a level that you thought was unbeatable in that situation there's some crazy guy who does perfect runs of [I Wanna Be The Guy that could do it.]
AG: There's a lot of Super Meat Boy influence on the levels and overall game design. We're hoping that [a] handful of the people [who] like that come over here and just pull off that insane crap in our game, too.
FS: When we were actually designing levels we tried to make sure it feels good to try and speedrun the level. You don't have to stop and wait for stuff to happen. You can just keep going and keep plowing [ahead] if you want to. And if you have the ability to, you can. As we went along long we had this little bug that players could actually jump on each other's head which was something we didn't [plan on]. But as this thing was there and this was actually a bug that we found out as we were playing the game [we found it] was so much fun as this sort of little interaction [we could] do. We made the game [so that] you don't need that to finish any levels but if you do [you can] actually get some weird shortcuts that are really fun to discover. It's a really fun interaction to do.
TR: [You've pretty much answered my next question but I'll ask it anyway for the sake of clarity.] I only played probably the first five or six levels and the paths seemed to be pretty straightforward. Are levels - or at least some levels - gonna have different paths [and shortcuts] or is it going to be relatively linear in overcoming the challenges?
AG: I think it will be mostly linear with the occasional shortcut or risky faster path or the risky way that takes you towards one of the aforementioned collectibles.
FS: We [are working] on having some levels that look a little bit more like a puzzle. So like the first thing you think of might be the hardest thing to do to beat the level. We do observe people. [I'll say,] "Oh, this is how when I developed the level I intended this to [be completed]" but people are trying this other way that is maybe the most obvious one. And it's still doable but it's a lot harder than doing [it] the way I intended them to do [it] and only a few people actually figure, "Oh, maybe I should do it like this." [We've had] really good feedback from [the more "puzzle-ish"] kind of level so we definitely want to work more on those as well.
TR: [It's] the platforming equivalent of a Chinese finger trap. The one thing you would try to do - pull your fingers out - that's the one thing that doesn't work.
AG: Exactly. Although... I've watched people pull for upwards of five, ten minutes before. Might need a little bit more feedback on that...
TR: As for the co-op, are you guys going to be including online multiplayer or is only going to be local multiplayer? I usually bring this up as a standard question but this is kind of a two-part question. [There's been] some talk in some circles online about how local-only co-op tends to hurt co-op games. Like for example, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is a two-person co-op game. Videos have been done by a lot of YouTubers. Some very popular ones. It looks like a fun game, it is relatively fun. But according to Steam Spy it's only moved anywhere between 29,000 and 37,000 units [at this present time]. Are you gonna be shooting for online multiplayer and how important do you think it is for a co-op game to have [online] multiplayer in light of the numbers I just told you?
FS: Well, it's definitely something that we've been discussing since [we decided] that we're gonna try to release this game. We know a game that has online multiplayer has a much larger audience and we would love to get as many people as we could to play our game. This is something that we were actually discussing today. Our idea at first is to implement online multiplayer, yes, if we don't find it too much of hassle and it actually works well and the game is actually fun and playable. [Awkward Date is] overall, more than anything, [about] this co-operation between the two players. We feel like communication is a big part. So at first our idea is to probably release an online mode where people can play with their friends and maybe not initially have the possibility of matchmaking with somebody you don't know. So you can actually work with someone that you can talk to and you can figure stuff out and [you] can actually feel this connection with somebody that you're comfortable with. Although we did at some point have the discussion, "Oh, if we do have random matchmaking, [how do we do it] in a game [where we] feel like communication [is] so important if [you were to be matched with] someone that doesn't speak my language? Can we develop this sort of second-level communication inside the game where people can actually try to understand each other and figure out what they wanna do and how they want to do it?
AG: The number of things he just said [that we'd] have to test should give you some idea [of] where we stand on it. Long story short - we know it would help a lot. We're definitely interested in it. But it remains to be seen if it'll upset the dynamic of the game.
TR: Right. [To clarify], when I say "online multiplayer" I'm not even necessarily saying [the inclusion of things] like lobbies and matchmaking. I'm just talking like, at the very least, bare bones, on Steam, invite a friend to come play with me. [I'm an adult -] if I want to get my friends together I got one friend who lives across town 40 minutes in one direction, another friend who lives across town 40 minutes in another direction, but if we're getting together to play a game? You know, we have Internet connections. We don't have to deal with New Jersey traffic. We'll just get online and play the game. So I think that's the big focus as opposed to the whole random [matchmaking] thing. That's mainly what I'm shooting for. No concerns really about server browsers or [anything like that] - just straight-up online play, invite a friend to play with me over the Internet.
FS: I definitely feel for you. Not being an American, when I usually play with my friends back home we have to do [it] online. We're in different countries. Not every games supports the distance [between us]. It's definitely something that I really want to work on. Our idea is yes if we can make it work properly - and I think we can - is to have this online mode where you can invite your friends on Steam, set up an audio channel, and just talk and play along. And then you can have this much easier situation where you can play with so many more people and not having to actually schedule to be together. It's something that we used to do a lot during [the] Nintendo 64 era. Get people together in the house and have four people playing stuff. But I don't think that's as common as it is today although it's my favorite way of playing games.
TR: Is there anything else you guys would like to say?
FS: I would say we're super happy working on this game. Personally it's been a dream of mine to release an actual commercial game. We don't know where this game's gonna go. [The one thing] we're sure [of] is that when we release it's gonna be a product [that we're happy with]. Whether it sells or not is a different question. Maybe the money from this game can [enable] us make another game, I don't know. Making other games is something that I will not stop doing. I've been doing games since I was little. [I've] never managed to actually commercially release anything. It's been something like when I have a school project [and I can do a game for it] I will. So this is personally [a] life achievement of mine. I want to [make] this game and I want to work with games for the rest of my life hopefully. I'm already doing that with research on my PhD. I hope to get this game out. Hopefully it will get people interested. We're [excited] about developing new stuff but we're even more [excited] about finishing [Awkward Date].
AG: I'm in many of the same boats as he just described. I've also worked on a number of projects - none of which I'm going to show anybody because they're all terrible. [laughs] It's really a different experience to... it doesn't feel like we're anchored to this but it's definitely something that you just know you have to work on it. Even when you're working on the parts you don't like as much. Even when you're stuck up against some stupid bug that turns out to [exist because] you put a period in the wrong place a week ago. No matter how frustrated you get it's a completely different experience knowing that "Okay, but I can't put this down." It's harder when you can't do that but it's definitely more rewarding I think. Of all the projects I've worked on by myself or with small teams this has gotten the furthest. I hope it gets much further and I'm very much looking forward to pushing it along all the way while cursing at missing periods and whatnot.
TR: Okay, that's great! I actually thought of one more question. Abe, you said something way at the beginning that I can't let slide. How the hell are you gonna be dating somebody and not know you're dating somebody, man? You gotta explain this. Come on.
AG: I didn't want to turn that into a story, but...
TR: Nope, too late! You brought it up!
AG: Okay, in my defense, she brought a friend to the first one. I brought a friend to the second because I thought that's what she was doing. And then there were a couple of other meetings and then we were at her place and it was late and... uh... I was gonna go, and...
TR: You didn't?
AG: Yeah. Let's leave it there.
TR: This person who dealt with your incredibly obtuse self... [laughs] are you still dating now?
AG: Oh yeah, it's been three years.
TR: Oh, it's been three years! So she's been suffering for that long.
AG: Oh yeah. Completely suffering. She's still really annoyed at my obliviousness.
Author's Note: The interviewee insisted that I mention that he has now been together with his girlfriend for 4 1/2 years now.
I'd like to again extend my thanks to Abe Gellis and Fernando DeSilva for talking with me about their game Awkward Date. Be sure to check out the game's Facebook page, Twitter, and YouTube channel. It's not yet known when the game will come out, but I can say with some confidence that I am personally looking forward to it. If only I had someone to play it with...
What do you think of the concept of Awkward Date? Do you think it's important for the game to offer different choices of characters so that the players can better identify with themselves? What other cooperative platformers do you enjoy? Let us know in the comments below!