Building Adult Swim's Most Insane Video Games: Q&A With Vincent LaCava, Co-Founder Of This Is Pop
This Is Pop know a thing or two about fun. Since 2000, the small NYC studio has been quietly cranking out games like Hemp Tycoon, Bible Fight, and My Lil’ Bastard for Adult Swim, with scads of other games scattered across the interwebs. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve played one of them. And if you haven’t, you should go do that. I mean, how easy could it be? They’re linked, like… two sentences ago.
Needless to say, I was excited when This Is Pop co-founder Vincent LaCava agreed to meet up and share some of his history as a game-maker, as well as some of his thoughts on the finer points of fun.
The Creators Project: How are ya?
I was just watching Real Housewives, and now that they’re in their second and third generation, they’re sort of a parody of themselves, acting the part of acting the part. So I caught a preview for an episode of Real Housewives of New Jersey, and I couldn’t believe how compelling it was. I couldn’t wait to watch the episode! The scenes are just… so genius. They almost look fake because they’re so perfect. It’s fake on top of fake. So anyway, now I’ve got this aftertaste, this hangover from the show, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
This Is Pop’s My Lil’ Bastard
Cool, so let’s rapidly change the subject! How did Bible Fight come about?
It was our first original game. What happened was we were working with Cartoon Network and we’d built about 100 games for them before they built the Adult Swim brand, and they’d called on us to build their first website, so we were tapped to build their first games. We made some really successful games for shows like Inuyasha, Full Metal Alchemist, Harvey Birdman—it was fun work. We were working on a Venture Brothers game and they hired a new VP, [Mike] Lazzo, and he had this great vision: no more branded games, the website’s going to mirror the on-air, and have original content. So we pitched a few ideas, and Bible Fight was one of them.
And you’ve been working with Adult Swim ever since?
Yeah, and we’ve loved working with them. If I had to complain about anything it would be that it’s gotten kind of safe, which is fine, because as their audience grows they need to account for that. Bible Fight got so much hate mail—it was kind of encouraging, and some of the hate mail wasn’t really hate mail. It was love mail. Religious blogs picked it up, and kids who were super hardcore Christians were like, “No, this is a game for us!” We couldn’t believe we were walking this fine line between making people angry and making people happy.
Yeah, certainly a fine line! Was there anything you just couldn’t put in the game?
There are only two things that were cut. One was, we had an attack where Mary unfurled the Baby Jesus and then brought him back in. Evidently, you can’t use the Baby Jesus as a weapon. The other thing was this great win sequence where Jesus wins, and then a cross pops up from the ground and he’s crucified and then he goes “PSHHHW” and he breaks the cross. It’s so beautiful. It’s this thing of beauty.
Jesus victory pose one
Jesus victory pose two
Amazing. How did you guys go about pitching that game?
It was this really simple, concise idea. They liked it, they laughed. We wrote a second proposal, and what happened was they wanted to make it good versus evil, and we were like, we can’t really see this, and we had this really intense call, and we went away and came back and said we can’t do this. We don’t see the humor in it, etc…
And they eventually backed down?
Yeah. The good versus evil thing just didn’t resonate. And the game was very successful, so then we sort of felt like we had a really long leash to do whatever we wanted.
Any plans for a sequel?
We sent an idea for a follow-up to Bible Fight, and we’re still gonna make this, Kickstart it, maybe. It’s called Hasten the Rapture. It’s the spiritual successor to Bible Fight. So that might still happen…
So, Bible Fight flew, Hasten the Rapture may be coming. How big is the stable of ideas you just can’t release?
We have this doc we’ve been working on for about ten years. It’s called the “Big Unmade Games Doc." There are a lot of ideas in there that are just maybe… not appropriate. Nobody would fund these games. So, for example… Despot Tennis, naked zero gravity kitchen… Short Bus Inferno… they may still come to life some day. There are some bad ones in there, too, don’t get me wrong.
Short Bus Inferno?
Well, you always felt bad about the short bus anyway… and it’s on fire! So you’re saving special needs kids. What could be more motivating?
Maybe if you had the tunnel monster from Men In Black II chasing it?
Ooooh, we’d go to hell for that.
Umm… Bible Fight?
Hey, all the attacks are pulled straight from the living word. We didn’t make any of that up, it’s all right from the Bible.
So how did you get into gaming?
I kinda grew up on Atari—I’m that old. I had Atari, and Intellivision. I was in love from day one, and then sort of found my way into design, worked for Disney, worked in the film industry, worked designing title sequences, and then broadcast design, and finally I ended up at R/GA in ‘93, and they were making games. They were making games in ‘93! We made this huge game show for Microsoft. We didn’t have a deliverable a year, we just had this blank check. It was a lot of fun. So I had a lot of exposure to gaming early on. My second project there, I was redesigning multiplayer Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy for Sony. This was ’95, ’96. It was this great place to be if you were into technology. If you were a designer, maybe for a minute the best place in the world to be.
And it just blossomed from there?
When I was at R/GA, we spent 80% of our time playing games. But we were talented enough to get all our work done in 20% of the time, and that’s what you want. You want people who can just get it done. Why would you want someone to labor over something when they can hit it out of the park? We played a lot of Warcraft 2, Starcraft, of course. Half Life… was Half Life out? Quake.
Now be honest. How did you stack up?
I actually played in a [Quake] tournament that was sponsored by mPlayer or something back in the day. The hotshot of the moment was this guy LGD-Thresh, and I played in that tournament, and I’ve never been so humbled. But it was also a thing of beauty. They were rocket launching themselves in the air and hitting me with their lightning rods.
So when did you know you needed to leave and make a game like Bible Fight?
I might have been spoiled at R/GA with the types of projects I had. My last two projects: First, I was the creative director for the Prada beauty line kiosks. Prada sent us to Italy and we helped them launch, which was awesome. And then the last project was some site for Toilet Duck, and then I was out of there. When Kelly [Galligan, This is Pop cofounder] and I left, we sort of jumped right into it. Minute one in 2000 we were booked for six months solid with game projects. Right out of the gate we were making games for Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Sony. We had big projects from minute one, people wanting to buy us from minute one, and this is before we even had a space.
Was it tough to turn down offers to buy a company before having to build anything?
Yeah, it was tough. But I think I really wanted to work. I just want to make great stuff, and the idea of working for someone else… That’s why I left.
It was funny: at first, we’d have meetings with clients explaining why they should make games. You had to have a pitch. By 2002 there was a reversal where the clients were coming to me, and they would tell us why they wanted to make a game, so we’d just sit back and listen. Of course, it’s changed again now where everybody makes games.
How do you like the balance of building branded games for clients alongside the Adult Swim original content?
We really love working with clients. We love the interaction, and having some parameters. The team does too, it’s not just me. We just finished two games for the History Channel based on the properties Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars, and we had a lot of fun with those projects. The great thing about those kinds of projects is that there’s a deadline, and someone’s not trying to make the greatest game ever. When you’re making original content, there’s usually a producer on the other side whose reputation is on the line. They can love it too much. So sometimes when you make original content, on the other end, there’s too much love. So after the time is expired, you run out of money, but there are still 12 more ideas—there are always 12 more ideas! And you can’t just work on something til the end of time.
This Is Pop’s You Got Pawned
So how can you guard against that when building a game?
I was on a call once where a guy from a film studio said something great that stuck in my mind. He said, “We want to make a small game, we want to succeed fast, fail fast." We made 26 games for Nickelodeon in 2009 for Spongebob‘s 25th anniversary, doing a game every two weeks, two at a time. And you know, the idea that we could just make it and see how it does, we loved that. That’s the way to make a [casual] game. And overall they’ve been played 100 million times — they’ve been very successful.
This Is Pop’s Spongebob game
Have you ever had a total flop?
Yeah, it’s par for the course. There’s a certain number of games that just aren’t gonna hit. I’ll take credit for one. We made a game called Waterslide Inferno. I love this idea of two opposites that, when put together, create this incredible tension. Bible Fight was like that. Some our most successful games are this confrontation of opposites. So Waterslide Inferno was, in my mind, the best idea we ever had, and I thought we were gonna make it as a first person iPhone game. It never made it to iPhone because it flopped online, because it kind of sucked in a browser.
And of course you can’t give someone 100 choices [and expect 100 hits]. It’s the same thinking as in retail. We don’t want a million choices: “Curate this, because I don’t have time.” Time is more precious now, attention is such a valuable commodity, and you really have to cut through the clutter, so how do you do that?
So how do you do that? What makes a game fun?
Can I just ramble?
Well first off, I think that there needs to be no barrier to entry. You have to get someone’s attention first, and so there has to be something intuitive about it that draws people in. I think a game has to sell itself right away, and often really great games that are deep and replayable forget that initial moment where someone is overwhelmed by seeing something new, and I think this is also why we see games like mah jongg. Familiar games bubble to the top of these portals. People don’t always want something new, they want something familiar with a twist. Robot Unicorn is a good example. The concept is really strong and there’s that confrontation of opposites: “Unicorns can’t be robotic, they’re magical. They fell from heaven or whatever.”
But then it turns out they poop rainbows that destroy cities.
Exactly! So you’re sold from the beginning, the barrier of entry is really low. Part of our approach to game design is to say, easy but deep. You have to have fun in the shallow end before you can really get into and enjoy a game that meets you as your skill set grows. As your skill grows, the challenge grows. So that’s really the first part of fun—getting someone’s attention and getting them into the game.
Beyond that, I think there needs to be a sort of emergent quality where you’re able to experiment in the game space. I’m attracted to games that have that kind of emerging complexity, where there’s always an alternate competing strategy. There’s never one path to success.
What’s the biggest challenge facing a casual game developer?
Well, nothing hurts a game like underfunding. But I think the biggest challenge is the casual gamer. Everyone is looking to capture their attention, and a lot of publishers are failing because there’s a tendency in the publishing world that the value of a game concept is based on how heavy the GDD (game design document) is. But look at Tetris—it’s a simple idea. And I think it’s harder to make something concise and simple, and most of the time people who are funding games aren’t treating game design as an art. Instead, there’s a scientific approach to it. So the idea is that if we check all these boxes, and we add all these features, that somehow it will add up to something good, and I think games are more musical than anything else. If we sat down and wrote a document about the “Macarena,” you could never describe it. Now I could do a lot of things with my hands, and I might be able to get you excited enough to fund that project, but when it comes down to it, we have to do game design. We have to make the “Macarena.” No amount of words on paper are gonna make the “Macarena.”
And that’s what Angry Birds is—it’s the “Macarena” of game design.
Any words for aspiring game designers out there?
I think the training of game design is getting a little silly. Because first off, if you go to school to be a movie director, and then you come out of film school and you go and work for a big company like Sony, you’re not a director. You didn’t study how to go be a director. You’re getting coffee, you have a lot to learn, and that’s a team sport, right? Everything has to work. But you can study game design, and then you come out of school and forget that it’s a team sport. So students are coming out and maybe missing the opportunity to be really collaborative, to work with visual designers, sound designers, art directors, creative directors, and senior game designers. And you see it more and more, anybody and everybody with “I’m a game designer” on their business cards, and it can be dangerous to have that title. It promotes the American Idol model that if we all get on stage, one of us is bound to win, and it doesn’t have to work that way.
What can we expect from This Is Pop in the next year?
We’re actually building some educational games! We’ve done our part selling sugary breakfast cereals, but it’s a really nice feeling when you can use your powers of game design for good.