Years of wandering and personal struggle led creator Michael Todd from depression to indie success.
Making sure blocks stop the lasers is one of many bug fixes left on his to-do list, but in contrast to what's come before, lasers are an easy fix. All that's left is cosmetic — a nip and tuck here and there. The heavy lifting is over.
The 26-year-old Canadian game designer narrowly escaped poverty through odd jobs and possibly illegal living arrangements, struggled with depression for almost a decade and almost died from heat stroke on a foreign mountain pass. There were broken families, broken relationships and a lot of pain in between.
But there were always video games. Simultaneously a source of frustration and hope, games provided long nights and endless days of coding, testing, playing. Through his highs and lows, Todd's games morphed with him, from their mood to their mechanics. The dark and dreary Broken Brothers mirrored the chaos of his depression; the soothing landscapes of Little Gardens, the calm of his recovery.
The pixel platformer Electronic Super Joy is Todd at his most creative and most productive. He speaks of the game in fits and starts and words rush out in fast-forward in an effort keep up with his excitement. It's the game he's waited his whole life to make, and it's almost done.
Tomorrow, he might be signing contracts with portals to sell his game or talking with potential publishers with six-figure offers, but today he's just worrying about lasers.
A map of Todd's life spread out before you would look like a mutated spider. Dozens of spindly legs would stretch across the world but eventually return to one fixed point — the eastern Canadian provinces.
After moving from Toronto to the Northwest Territories and then Europe, his family settled in to Halifax, Nova Scotia in the late '90s. There, at age 10, Todd developed an interest in computer games, which was forbidden under his father's strict Anglican upbringing.
"I had been drawing these pictures of monsters and creatures and this whole world," Todd says. He speaks in memories by explaining past experiences and reliving their conversations. "This is the everlasting tower, and this is the infinite pit, and this is the city of something or other."
His friend Zachary suggested turning his drawings into a video game. It was an abysmal failure, but that brief exposure sparked curiosity. Todd began exploring video games in secret. "I wasn't allowed to have a computer or play video games, which made them taboo, which made me really want to do it," he says.
With some persuasion, Todd eventually built his own computer, and when he was 13, paid for his own internet. He would often sneak to the computer at night and wrap a towel around his 56K modem so his parents wouldn't hear him dialing up.
Grasping game design was trial-and-error, and simple programming successes punctuated Todd's childhood, even something as simple as opening and closing doors. "I remember one time pedaling my bike the 12 minutes over to Zachary's house," Todd says. "I'm pedaling as a fast as I could and then banging on his door ... I brought him to the door and said, 'I figured out how doors work.'"
Then Todd met Elliot Snow-Kropla in the homeschool community in Nova Scotia. It wasn't until he moved an hour away to Wolfville that they started making games together. Two years Todd's junior, Snow-Kropla would take a bus up NS-101, and they'd make games all weekend, like a modern-day game jam.
Their tools were bulky, beige box computers with electronic guts pulled from other family towers and monitors. "They were all Frankenstein monsters built from scratch," Snow-Kropla says. "We'd swap the graphics card out of a family computer or take half the RAM out or something like that. They're not going to notice that the video card is missing."
When Todd was 18, his parents returned to Toronto. He instead moved into a small studio apartment near downtown Dartmouth. "It was $400 a month and there was an alcoholic on one side of me and a divorced dad on the other side who kept crying in the middle of the night," Todd says.
That year, he and Snow-Kropla were unhealthy, unhygienic and almost fanatic in their pursuit for video game knowledge. But in a way it was Todd's own annus mirabilis, a wonderful year that sometimes graces creative minds. It was a year of programming discoveries that would provide the technical know-how for his future endeavors.
"There was just one project after another not really working. I had to have some kind of plan."
Still tethered to a desktop, Todd often stuck his tower in a small suitcase with wheels, and walked to Snow-Kropla's house. Together they learned multiplayer prediction code and pathfinding, built puzzle games, RTSes, first-person shooters, a side-scroller engine and map editors. "That was when I crossed the hump," Todd says. "After that point, it was a question of how do I want to make something, not can I make something."
But knowledge doesn't mean success. The release of his first commercial game, a side project named Puzzle Wizard, was a financial disaster. Soon Snow-Kropla would enter Dalhousie University in Halifax to study physics and would leave game design behind. "There was just one project after another not really working," Snow-Kropla says. "I had to have some kind of plan."
In 2006 at age 19, everything Todd had worked toward was falling apart, so he left town. He left Canada. He left the Western Hemisphere. He needed to find out what the hell he was doing with his life.
The city of something or other
Michael Todd was dying, at least he was pretty sure he was. He was on a mountain pass leading into Lesotho, a country near the southern tip of Africa. Later that evening while resting at a lodge, he tried to figure out what had happened to him.
"On this diary page I wrote, 'I think my brain is melting,'" Todd says. He flipped through his survivalist handbook and discovered that he'd suffered a heat stroke.
It had been three months since Todd left Canada in January 2007. Three months of no game design, no coding and no level building. The spontaneous trip was in part due to the failure of his first game and a personal crisis of faith.
"I stayed at some Christian monasteries and nunneries," Todd says, reflecting on the trip. "I slept in a slum ... I did a bunch of walking across South Africa. I snuck into Zimbabwe a bit. I went up as far north as Ethiopia, and at one point, I owned a horse and I sold it to a farmer."
After recovering in a nearby hotel, Todd realized he was out of money and soon returned to his native Canada.
By then, Snow-Kropla had already left for college, so Todd began to make games alone. He got a part-time job at a local All Saints shelter in a bad part of Toronto, but the danger pay meant he could mop floors at $16 an hour. He worked enough to get by and spent the rest of his time making games.
Success finally came in 2008 with Engine of War, a dark, sci-fi shoot-'em-up. All said he made CA$80,000, enough to finally take the leap to full-time indie.
Once again, Todd began traveling, only this time to learn game design from developers themselves. "I figured it was the equivalent of a university education," Todd says. "There was no one teaching indies. There were no books. The only way to learn was to go to the people who figured it out and ask them."
He journeyed to Sweden to meet Petri Purho (Frozenbyte) and Jonatan "Cactus" Soderstrom (now co-creator of Hotline Miami). He traveled to Phoenix, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Cambridge, U.K., learning from developers and working on his own games.
"I developed an art style. I developed a game design style. I developed a work pipeline and a press presence," Todd says. "I was actually able to sit down and start making games."
But he still had one problem, one he'd been fighting against his entire adult life: Todd often wished he were dead.
The infinite pit
"Someone described depression to me a really smart way a few years ago," Todd says. He speaks in a somber tone. "A really deep, dark undercurrent under your personality like a black raging river."
When he was 17, Todd began having suicidal thoughts. Years later he would eventually be diagnosed with general depression disorder with severe episodes. Depression isn't something that's easily compartmentalized. It inevitably seeped into his games.
"The biggest way depression affected my work was finishing stuff," Todd says. "The first time you get discouraged on a game and hit a depression, it's nearly impossible to stick to the game because it looks like the worst piece of shit ever. So you start a new one."
The half-finished games and prototypes started to pile up like a digital graveyard. Todd knew his depression wasn't going to go away, so he decided to adapt.
Inspired by his trip to Sweden, Todd adopted a quick game-making philosophy and started designing small projects, then posting the prototypes for free on his own website.
When creating the strategy game Broken Brothers, a small weeklong project in August 2009, his parents' marriage fell apart. "[Broken Brothers] was going to be really happy and set around electronic music," Todd says. "It ended up being incredibly depressed, using lilting piano music and being all about a family of brothers murdering each other."
He describes developers' relationships with their games as making a million choices. "It's all based on how stressed you are. How happy you are. What your preferences are that day."
Despite this tempest in his personal life, Broken Brothers was an artistic success for Todd, with many seeing beauty in its simplicity. It eventually caught the attention of Valve, a developer known for its Steam online store. It wanted Todd to expand the game and then sell it on Steam. For months he tried, and worked, and coded, but eventually gave up. He couldn't keep going.
Todd saw how depression affected others in the Toronto gaming community and decided to explore the problem at the Game Developers Conference in 2011. The talk was titled "Turning Depression into Inspiration" and focused on Todd's personal experience with depression and being a game maker. He offered advice, not as a medical professional, but as a fellow indie. After his talk he received a few hundred email responses. When conference organizers posted the video online, he received even more. "I got a lot of hate, a lot of people saying depression is fake," Todd says. "But I also got an amazing amount of 'I'm depressed but I can't tell anyone at work or they'll fire me,' ... or 'What you described is exactly what I've gone through,' and that's kind of amazing."
"I started working on Little Gardens as a refusal to lie down and mope."
In early 2012 a failed relationship sent him crashing into another fit of extreme depression. It was bad enough that he began taking medication, something he'd been avoiding since he was diagnosed years before. It's a time he doesn't like talking about.
"There's a reason why people call it rock bottom," he says.
Todd decided to create a game about gardens. It was a small Tetris-style puzzle game where you order and rearrange pieces to create a simple landscape. It was something different and much more relaxing than the dark and bloody Broken Brothers or the strangely eerie and somber Silent Skies. It was something new, and that's exactly what he was going for.
"I started working on Little Gardens as a refusal to lie down and mope," Todd says. "It was simple and it was happy, and it was calming ... I felt like I was saying I wasn't that person anymore, and I wasn't, and it felt really good."
As his game design changed, so did his lifestyle. He lost 120 pounds. He starting working out, building muscle and making new friends. He stopped making small free games. He wanted to make something bigger than he'd ever made before, a pixel platformer named Electronic Super Joy.
But this wasn't a normal weeklong prototype or a small game to post for free. This was going to be much bigger, and he needed a team behind him.
The music of EnV
David Goodsell describes his music through its restrictions, more specifically places where his beats are best left on mute. "Nursing homes," Goodsell says. "I can't be responsible for any heart attacks."
Goodsell is a 22-year-old musician from Stratham, New Hampshire. On his arm, a simple tattoo says "dzwiek," which is Polish for sound, something that's defined one-third of his life. For seven years, Goodsell has made music, and his approach is, as he says, "pretty straightforward."
"I really only do two things," he says. "Create a melody, then finish the rest of the song."
You know, simple. But the two-step formula works for Goodsell, whose work has appeared in The Impossible Game and now Michael Todd's Electronic Super Joy.
"For me, I need to work with a melody. I need something so when I'm not listening to the song at that particular moment I can still recall it in my head," Goodsell says. "I think people need something to hum along to, in order to connect themselves to the music ... even the softest classical music can get your whole body moving with it."
It would be hard to describe Goodsell's music as a soundtrack, as if it were created within the confines of a video game. Instead, it's the other way around — the music came first, the game second. Of course, he loves the idea. "Our society is so built around music as it is now, that it's almost expected to have a great soundtrack in every movie and game," Goodsell says. "If you can have a great game accompanied by a great soundtrack, I think it's only reasonable to expect a great soundtrack accompanied by a great game."
However, making music for games was never an avenue Goodsell considered until working with Todd. "I'll have to thank him for that," he says.
The everlasting tower
In September 2012, Cassie Chui was working at Staples. It wasn't the job she had in mind when applying to a local Toronto game design school years earlier.
"The thing is, all the schools in the Toronto area, as far as I know, very few of them teach anything outside of 3D modeling," Chui says. "There's a couple really big studios. Ubisoft is definitely one of them ... but can you imagine 200 new graduates coming out of these game design schools all around Toronto every six months all vying for the same two jobs?"
Discouraged from pursuing a triple-A career, Chui focused on indie and mobile publishers. She interned with Ryan Creighton at Untold Entertainment, a small Toronto-based game developer. Creighton was close friends with one particular local indie, one well known throughout the community but who mostly worked alone on small projects. Some called him MT Hammer or sometimes more affectionately Ham. Sometimes Ham would visit Creighton at work.
This was how Chui first met Michael Todd. About six months later, when he would be looking for a pixel artist and level designer for his new game, Electronic Super Joy, Chui's name would come to mind.
She remembers the moment well: "One day Michael said to me, 'I'm working on this game, and it's bigger than what I'm used to when I make games by myself. I will pay you more than Staples pays you to work full time for me.'"
Her response, in summary, was "Hell yes."
For a while, they worked in an office in Toronto's Koreatown. The project was still in its infancy. "It was basically a prototype at that point," Chui says. "When I came in, Mike basically had a tech demo, the main character, some blocks and single enemy."
Chui learned the ins and outs of Unity, the game engine behind Electronic Super Joy, and started creating pixelated NPCs and monsters, and along the way, she learned more about the game itself. Originally a shelved prototype named Techno Ninja, Electronic Super Joy was a story of simplicity driven by a short preamble:
"You lost an arm, in the Disco Wars of 1515,
You lost an eye, in the War of Rock 'n Roll,
You lost both legs, defeating DJ Deadly Skillz,
And you lost your ENTIRE Butt, to an Evil Wizard."
"This is the story of the quest, to get revenge for your Butt."
Silhouetted, monkish NPCs, also known as boogie bros or the brotherhood of the beat, further the plot with witty and sarcastic commentary, and in the end the hero squares off against the Evil Wizard in a final battle.
Todd created the prototype, Techno Ninja, for the Xbox Live Indie Game platform, a platform that Todd says loves a challenge. But the game, like so many of Todd's earlier creations, was never more than a prototype. It wasn't until making Little Gardens that he'd return to his pixel platformer.
The new game's original name was Electronic Death Simulation, perhaps a more informative title considering the brutality of its gameplay. Todd warns you'll die a lot.
And Electronic Super Joy doesn't have a soundtrack. It has something much more. The game was built around music. Todd contacted Dave Goodsell, also known as EnV, an electronic artist he'd sampled on previous games.
"It got closer and closer to crunch time and things got slightly more tense."
"Normally, I get a private message asking if someone can use a song in their Flash game, and that's that," Goodsell says. "When Michael contacted me about it, I really wasn't expecting anything too different. Boy, was I wrong."
This time Todd wanted to go bigger, gather as much of EnV's music as possible, to create the skeleton of Electronic Super Joy. Rather than just sampling a song or two, Todd used EnV's music as the pulsing, electronic heartbeat behind the project. The game's landscapes, enemies and pacing all started from a song.
When Chui joined the team, Electronic Super Joy had a looming deadline. The goal was to finish the game, a short pixelated, music-driven experience with a couple of levels and nothing else. The deadline was Nov. 24. Past that day it would be too late to release for the holidays.
Three days before the deadline Todd made a decision.
"It got closer and closer to crunch time and things got slightly more tense," Chui recalls. "We decided looking at this game right now, we want more. We want it to be bigger and we want it to be better. I was there when it happened, and we deliberated a little bit, but it was Michael who ended up making the decision."
Amidst crushed cans of Red Bull and after a flurry of 20-hour workdays, Todd realized Electronic Super Joy was too good to stop short. The game grew into something he had never expected. "It just felt like we were just getting started with exploring the potential of it and it was expanding what we were able to do every day," Todd says.
He made the decision: "It'll be done when it's done."
So the deadline passed and the team moved forward, trying to make something bigger and better than before.
Killing the wizard is just the beginning
The team worked through the winter months and got the game ready for its first convention appearance at MAGFest in Maryland. On the morning of Jan. 3, Todd and Chui waited at their booth, one screen displaying the bright pink title screen.
"I hated the game at that point," Todd says. "I'd been working on it day and night for weeks, and I was just utterly disgusted by it. I thought everybody [was] going to hate me for this game."
His fears were quickly abated.
"I watched people play and how much fun they were having," Chui says. "You know, the little bits of rage but determination because they needed to beat the game ... I was like, 'Oh, my God. I can't believe that a game I'm working on is doing this to people.'" She takes a moment, trying to find the exact words to match the emotion. "I will never forget that feeling."
"I tossed and turned for six hours last night and had a couple different nightmares based around deadlines, money and debt."
Lines formed at the booth. People blew off talks and other developers left booths unattended to see what was going on. It was a reception that Todd could never have anticipated. "People love this game," he says, relieved.
Months later, the game is done. The levels are completed and the lasers fixed.
The night before Electronic Super Joy's beta goes live on Steam, Todd and Chui, along with three recently hired programmers, put on the finishing touches. Todd feels a mix of emotions, but one desire is more apparent: exhaustion. He just wants to sleep.
"I tossed and turned for six hours last night and had a couple different nightmares based around deadlines, money and debt," Todd says. "I want to sleep for a week."
Todd won't be leaving the Electronic Super Joy's techno-inspired world so quickly; he's currently working on downloadable content and possibly a sequel.
However, plans beyond Electronic Super Joy are subject to change. Todd's work style is self-described as "nomadic" or "hobo-ish." He's already built a game engine on his phone so he can make games anywhere at anytime. He could be making his next title on a friend's couch in Phoenix, an office in Toronto, a Starbucks down the street or in another country entirely.
It's impossible to say where he's going or what he's doing next, and Todd wants to keep it that way.
Images: Michael Todd
Editing: Matt Leone, Russ Pitts
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan