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DigiPen Game Team Members Reunite for Throwback 3D Platformer Poi

Though DigiPen graduates Paul Ewers and Ben Gable, founders of PolyKid games, just celebrated the successful launch of the studio’s first game, a 3D Platformer called Poi, it’s not actually the first time they’ve shipped a game together.
 
At DigiPen, they worked together on the junior game project Kabloom before graduating from the Bachelor of Science in Computer Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation program and moving on to jobs in San Francisco with Zynga. Ironically, though they were both at Zynga for four years, they didn’t work together there at all.

“I don’t think I worked with another DigiPen student ever,” Ben says, “which is strange because there were a bunch of guys there [from DigiPen].”

They did, however, live together when they first moved to the Bay Area, which is how their current collaboration was born.

“Both of us had wanted to try and make our own game,” Ben says. “Paul made a mobile game, Star Thief, on his own time. I’d messed around with stuff and we just started talking after a few years at Zynga. We felt like we wanted to try something new and we said, ‘Let’s try to make our own game studio.’”

Thus, PolyKid was born. They settled on the 3D platformer format for their first game, they say, after watching the resurgence of 2D pixel art games and wondering if they could find a similar niche.

“You’ve got to really put yourself out there. We did cold emails. We talked to streamers. We threw out keys to a lot of people. You’ve really got to market the game.”

“We saw all these people online saying, ‘Where are all the 3D platformers?’” Ben says, noting that he and Paul were both big fans of the genre. “We thought, ‘Well, if we’re going to go after Kickstarter we should pick something that has a better chance of standing out, so let’s do a 3D platformer.’”

That they did, joining other games like A Hat in Time and the upcoming Yooka Laylee in ushering in a 3D platformer renaissance. Poi, which as an acronym stands for “point of interest,” is a nod to their original plan to create an open-world game. Though they ended up creating a more traditional level-based game, they liked the sound of the acronym. It is not, as some might guess, a reference to the popular Hawaiian taro root mash.

In Poi, you play as a boy or girl explorer-in-training, tasked with collecting the Master Explorer’s lost “Explorer Medallions.” Getting the medallions usually requires a mix of exploration and traditional platformer puzzle solving, although some must be earned via boss fights. The game does feature enemies, which was something Paul and Ben weren’t originally planning to include.

“We felt that we needed some more tools to tell a better story to craft the feeling of the world,” Ben says. “So enemies, other characters, and bosses, those are good tools to put in to help tell a story.”

The world also just felt a little empty without them, they say.

“It’s like a rock band without the base player,” Paul jokes. “You notice it when they’re not there!”

This being a 3D platformer, there are definitely coins to collect as well. In Poi, those coins can be exchanged for various tools, like a camera that allows you to document your journey and win achievements or a shovel to dig up treasure.

“You can find and collect fossils, kind of like from Animal Crossing,” Ben says. “You can take pictures of different creatures, so maybe some Pokemon Snap in there. Little seasonings of different games. Elements that we thought meshed well with the explorer vibe.”

“One of the best things you can do is have released and put a stamp on as many games as you can, even if they’re small.”

The game is in many ways an homage to Super Mario 64, one of the most beloved 3D platformers of all time, but Paul and Ben also cite Banjo Kazooie, Spyro the Dragon, and Super Mario Sunshine as influences. It’s certainly got all of the core elements game players will remember from the classic Nintendo 64 launch title — dodging traps, stomping on enemies, and collecting hard-to-reach treasures — but they’ve made plenty of improvements.

“We’re using Unity, and it’s been a great platform to build this on,” says Ben. “As far as what’s different, we’ve got some graphical effects that you didn’t really see on the Nintendo 64. More graphical polish.”

So far, people seem to be enjoying the experience, as the game’s reception has been overwhelmingly positive. That said, the experience of making the game was no cakewalk, and it involved a bit of risk. In order to achieve their vision for the game, Paul and Ben made the decision to leave their full-time jobs and work exclusively on making Poi. The team’s original plan was to develop a big enough slice of the game to present on Kickstarter.

“We had just been saving our pennies for a while and we said, ‘Okay, we’ve got six months to go to Kickstarter,’” says Ben.

Paul (left) and Ben on launch day!

While they did make it to Kickstarter, their campaign didn’t reach its funding goal, but even that didn’t deter them. They decided to release their first few levels on Steam Early Access, which helped generate a larger fan base. Those fans, in turn, provided crucial feedback.

“I think they like that we listen to their feedback on the forums,” Paul says of the game’s community. “We have a couple hundred threads on there where people report bugs or make suggestions, and we’ve been updating it. We were in Early Access for a full year until this month, so we’ve had a lot of time to iterate and add content and pretty much improve every aspect of the game. I think people really like it.”

Their time on Early Access also got them a couple very serious inquiries from publishers. They were also lucky enough to be included in a monthly Humble Bundle package, which got their game in front of even more people.

Beyond that, they managed to get some great media coverage from outlets like Rock, Paper, Shotgun; Indie Obscura; and even Newsday. The YouTube gaming community was kind to them as well. Popular UK game streamer DanTDM, whose channel has over 14 million subscribers, decided to do a spotlight on Poi out of the blue. His spirited gameplay video, in which he called Poi a “beautiful casual explorer game,” has over 1.4 million views.

What advice do Paul and Ben have for aspiring indie developers? Pay close attention, they say, to marketing.

“Paul and I being DigiPen grads,” Ben says, “we are super confident in our ability to port to any system or tackle the hardest technical problems. But if you can do all that and you make an awesome game and nobody knows about it, does your game exist? You’ve got to really put yourself out there. We did cold emails. We talked to streamers. We threw out keys to a lot of people. You’ve really got to market the game.”

The other crucial thing, they say, is simply having a game to market in the first place.

On that note, Paul praised DigiPen’s project-based academic model, saying his experience on game teams at DigiPen really helped him follow through on Poi. Noting that DigiPen students finish four whole games by the time they graduate, he says, “One of the best things you can do is have released and put a stamp on as many games as you can, even if they’re small. That way, the next game you make, you have less of an ego, it’s less of your baby, and it’s more about, ‘How do I make this particular game better?’”

“Do we want to ship the game, or do we want to work on a game for five years and not ship it?”

Indeed, they admit that their initial vision for Poi far outstripped what they were able to ship, but even so, they say, that’s not exactly a bad thing.

“When we first started out, we had these super grand visions of this giant design,” Ben says. “It still sounds awesome to me, but we had to take a good hard look at it and be like, ‘We’ll be working on this thing for five years. We can’t do it with just the two of us. We don’t have the resources. Do we want to ship the game, or do we want to work on a game for five years and not ship it?’”

With Poi officially launched, what’s next for the PolyKid team? For now, they’re still focused on supporting it, but they’re also hatching plans to expand into the broader console market.

“We haven’t announced anything publicly, but we do have relations with Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo,” Ben says, adding that they’re toying with the idea of porting the game to Nintendo’s latest console. “We’re looking at Switch and seeing if Poi would run and do well on the Switch, and then we’ll kind of go from there.”