The difference, as near as Jamie Fristrom can tell, was the weight.
Several years ago, when he was the technical director and designer for Spider-Man 2 at Treyarch, he managed something that few — if any — games had done before: He developed a swinging mechanic for Marvel's mobile superhero that worked remarkably well. He credits his success with two kinds of weight.
Spider-Man 2 bore the load of a franchise in dire need of a boost after a series of games failed to recreate the basic feeling of the wise-cracking superhero effortlessly swinging from building to building in 3D. You can boil those failures down to a sense of weight, too, he told Polygon in a recent interview.
"I think by making it more of a physical simulation of what it's like to jump off a building hanging from a rope really made it visceral," Fristrom said. "You can almost feel it in your gut when you're playing the game and you're swinging around a building or catching yourself right before you hit the street."
"You can almost feel it in your gut"
Fristrom is no longer at Treyarch. He left after Spider-Man 2 to go indie at his development studio Happion Laboratories. Last year, he decided to return to his webbed roots with a game called Energy Hook, which is built upon the mechanic — a blend of freeform movement and AI-assisted "swing points" to choose from — that made him famous. The game is set in a future where athletes use the titular device to swing around a city. He launched the campaign a few weeks ago months later than he expected and with a $1 funding goal.
In an email to Polygon at the time, he said he was "basically using Kickstarter as a pre-order campaign." Polygon spoke with him recently about the delay, his unique take on Kickstarter and how he's still fixated on weight after nearly a decade.
The plan was to launch the Energy Hook Kickstarter campaign last December. He'd released a trailer that contained some early gameplay in anticipation of the impending crowdfunding effort. He showed that to his developer friends who'd had some recent success on Kickstarter with Planetary Annihilation and Consortium. When they saw the rudimentary artwork and a game running at 15-20 frames per second, they balked. Energy Hook was officially on hold.
"After that, I was like, 'Okay. You know what? If I'm going to wait, the next logical step, the next logical place to launch a Kickstarter would be after I've got a playable demo I can show people."
For the next several months, Fristrom concentrated on building that playable demo, enlisting help from his friends to help with a new trailer and artwork.
Then came the question of what the new Kickstarter campaign was going to look like. When you're creating a Kickstarter project, the company advises people to set the goal as low as possible to maximize the chances of successful funding. That, in turn, make him confront the question of what Energy Hook was worth. That's when he realized a surprising truth: He was going to make the game, no matter what happened.
"I thought about it and I was like, at this point, I'd come so far," he said. "I've got a viable game here. It's small, but I think it's worth about $10. So I said the lowest I'd make this game for was really $1. At this point, even if only one person out there wants it, I might as well finish it and put it in that one person's hands."
That's where the idea of a $1 Kickstarter for a nearly finished product came from. The game he was making would be done in a couple of months, he said, but Kickstarter success beyond the modest goal also presented new opportunities. Crowdfunding didn't have to make Energy Hook into a game, but it could expand the scope beyond what minimum viable product he envisioned. Depending on the funds he raises, the game will include leaderboards, Oculus Rift support, additional levels and more.
"It is pretty much the same game," he said. "The stretch goals add breadth. They add more stuff, but I don't think they fundamentally change what the game is. It's still fundamentally a game about swinging around stylishly and doing various sorts of — I used to call it parkour, but then really parkour aficionados were like, 'That's not parkour.' So you know, like wall running and stuff like that."
For all the advantages of being indie — not least of which is the freedom to bring your own vision to life, rather than that of your employer's — there's a downside that developers like Fristrom struggle with every day. Not having a job means not having a paycheck. Every day that he delayed the Energy Hook Kickstarter and every day he made a game that he'd sell for $1 if nothing else was another day he spent burning through his savings. Before too long, if he didn't get some income, the money he'd made from Treyarch and Spider-Man 2 would run out. And now he has to balance the desire to make the game he feels he needs to make with the prudence to protect his family's future.
"It is my retirement money that I'm burning through — or my family's retirement," he said. "I haven't touched my daughters' college fund yet. I know guys who have. I know indies who go right down to the wire. I'm not quite at the wire yet. I actually have tons of respect for the indies who do sort of spend their last dime on their games. That's really incredible. I'm not quite there. I think I'll definitely quit being indie and go back to being a corporate game developer before I have to touch [the] college fund."
So for now — and he hopes for a long time — Jamie Fristrom is fulfilling the dream he's had since fourth grade. He's making the games he dreams up. Inspired to go indie by the swinging mechanic he created for Spider-Man 2 and comfortable for now with the ever-increasing weight of his family's future on his shoulder, he's living his dream.
"I'm doing what I love," he said. "I'm home with my family most of the time. So it's a pretty sweet deal. I'm lucky to make any money at all doing this."
You can check out the Energy Hook Kickstarter, which has earned over $28,000 in pledges from more than 1,100 backers with nearly two weeks to go, here.