A Conversation with Theory Cycle

Theory Cycle is an independent game development collective based in Bothell, WA.  It is comprised of Sam Schumacher (Team Lead and Game Designer), Daniel Potter (Game Architect), and Jonathan Lampel (Artist and UX Designer).  Their new project, Pixl, is an arcade style mobile game that hearkens to a retro aesthetic while channeling contemporary platformers such as Flappy Bird and The Impossible Game.

I recently got to talk with the guys of Theory Cycle to get some behind the scenes insight on Pixl.  Read the interview below.


EJ: How did you all meet, and what brought you to the decision to develop games together?

Sam: We’ve all been friends since our Boy Scout days. We all went to the same school for a while (Daniel was a grade ahead of Jonathan and I). Ever since I started learning the art of game making, I had a dream of getting a group of friends to develop games together.

I got the idea for Pixl during a game programming camp at DigiPen. For the next few years, I developed the game on and off until I hit a technical wall – there were just too many bugs that I couldn’t fix – so I scrapped the project. I still really wanted to finish the game, so I decided to ask Daniel and Jonathan if they would be willing to jump on board with the project. We founded Theory Cycle in February 2015 and now here we are.

EJ: What are some of your favorite video games?

Sam: I’m a PC gamer, and I really like those games that put a new twist on something or are just a lot of fun to play with my friends and family. My favorite game is easily the Star Wars Battlefront series (including the new one). The Portal series is also really great. For mobile games, I really enjoy Nova Bacon (as awesome as it sounds – it’s game about aliens stealing pigs from Earth to sell at their restaurant).

Jonathan: I don’t play video games regularly, but I enjoy the Battlefield, Fallout, and Arkham Batman games.

Daniel: If I have a lot of time to spare, I like to play a creative game like Space Engineers, Minecraft, or Little Big Planet.  Recently, I haven’t had a lot of time to play games so I’ve been catching up on old favorites from Rare Replay: the Banjo Kazooie’s and Kameo: Elements of Power.  Of course, there is also the old standby Halo.

EJ: Why the name “Theory Cycle”?

Daniel: Our first meeting after we decided to work together, we spent about an hour just brainstorming our name.  Whatever name we chose, it had to satisfy some criteria.  Our name had to be simple and original yet still be interesting, have clean search results, and have an unclaimed domain name.

Sam: We wanted to have a name that was serious but still slightly quirky at the same time. I think we nailed it.

EJ: Who would you say has the hardest job on the team?

Jonathan: Daniel, because he does all the programming heavy lifting.

Sam: I think we all have the hardest job. Just the fact that we are still “all in” on the project is a testament to how strongly we work together as a team and believe in this game. And a lot of the time, that’s the hardest job of all!

Daniel: All three of us have hard jobs, there isn’t a lot of overlap, and that’s why we work well together.

EJ: What were your biggest individual challenges in putting together and releasing your first game, Pixl?

Daniel: One of the first challenges to overcome was the level generation.  We needed to generate a new level every time you started a game.  My solution was to define multiple types of structures and build them as needed.

This spawned other challenges like how to ensure the level didn’t place these structures in a way that would be impossible to traverse.  This solution involved categorizing each structure and prohibiting things like gaps from generating too close together.  I think this has worked pretty well so far.

Another challenge, there used to be a huge problem with Floppy getting stuck on individual blocks.  My solution to this was to generate a single collision mesh for each chunk of continuous blocks.

Sam: My biggest challenge was (and still is) being team focused. I’m still so used to working on my own, setting my own deadlines and whatnot, that making the move to working as a team has been a little bit of a challenge for me.

Jonathan: As the only art person on the team, it was challenging to put every individual piece together in a way that works as a whole, from creating custom font characters to figuring out how to give a tiny square relatable emotions.

EJ: On an average day, what does it look like when you’re working together on a project?

Daniel: We started using Jira for our task tracking for the first release of Pixl, but, in last few weeks, we started using Trello instead.

For a while we did our brain storming and sprint planning in person.  Recently, however, due to our increasingly busying schedules, we’ve had to meet over Skype.  These meetings tend to last anywhere from an hour to 2 hours and, sometimes, even as long as 3 hours if we really have a lot of ideas to sort through.

EJ: What are some of your longer-term goals and dreams for developing games?

Jonathan: I can help out other companies by creating 3D assets, but I would love to get more involved in the user experience design as well so I can become an art director.

Daniel: Personally, I would love to make a multiplayer RPG with quests, skills, and a virtual economy.  I used to play a lot of World of Warcraft, and that game has left me inspired.

EJ: What can we expect from Theory Cycle in the near future?

Sam: We will continue to add new features to Pixl, and we just rolled out our first update. You can get the latest updates on Twitter (@TheoryCycle) or on our website at www.theorycycle.com.

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