Rémy Devaux is one of the most active and famous PICO-8 developers right now. The French game maker works on his games and other projects on a daily basis, but he also loves to help beginners and interested people with realizing their own ideas. He talked with us about his preference of PICO-8 over other game engines, the special aesthetic that comes with it, the positive effects of restrictions and why he dropped out of school for game development.
Sebastian: You are fascinated with PICO-8. Why do you use it so much?
Rémy: It is simply the tool that is most adapted to my workflow! I like to try out lots of new ideas and PICO-8 lets me do that easily and efficiently – especially now that I know it so well after working with it for more than a year. The restrictions like the low pixel resolution (128×128) and the color palette, that is limited to sixteen colors, actually help me by literally controlling the size of my experiments and also add personality to them. But the most important thing for me is that it never gets in my way, which is the problem I have with other engines.
Sebastian: “It never gets in my way” – what do you mean by that?
Rémy: Let us say I want to make a tiny program just to try out a small effect in Unity. It forces me to create a new project, to work in a ‘scene’, then, if I want to use any code at all, I have to create a ‘game object’ and add a ‘script component’ to it, afterwards I have to open up the script in a text editor and then I can start coding. And if I want to use a function I do not know very well, I will have to fish it out in the huge, overwhelming Unity documentation. And whenever I want to see my actual coding progress, I have to sit through a minute of compilation. Or if I want to add any asset at all, I have to make it in another program and then import it in Unity, which is also a process that goes on for few minutes.
But in PICO-8 I just boot the engine, then I type “save tinyproject”, switch to the text editor and start coding. Whenever I want to see how my program is doing, I hit CTRL + R and there it is. And if I want to add any asset I can just switch to the graphic and sound editor inside PICO-8 and create it there.
Sebastian: But the PICO-8 documentation will surely grow, too? I mean it is not completely finished by now, is it?
Rémy: It is actually the Alpha version, yes, but I think it is the intention of Joseph White – the creator of PICO-8 – to keep the documentation short and beginner-friendly. New versions generally add just a few lines to the manual. I do not think there is much left to add now.
Sebastian: That is a good point, because in that case the already addressed restrictions would not change too much. Do you like them?
Rémy: Yes, actually I do like them a lot! I am a huge fan of the low resolution graphic style in games in general. Also, having a predefined palette saves a lot of time. There are also the memory and CPU limitations, but even these can be fun to work with and I think they encourage elegant code design.
Sebastian: The restrictions definitely lead to some kind of PICO-8 aesthetics, just like there are RPG Maker aesthetics in my opinion. Are you scared that this could be a negative phenomenon? Many people I know do not really like to try out RPG Maker games anymore, because they all look the same in their eyes – regardless of different gameplay elements, new stories et cetera. Could something like this happen to PICO-8 games?
Rémy: There is still a lot of freedom in PICO-8. Most people use only their personal eight favorite colors of the palette instead of the all sixteen. The pixel art styles are also impressively diverse. And there is a lot of freedom when it comes to the gameplay, since you make all of it. While the engine will effectively add an arcade-like feel, you can do pretty much any type of 2D game you want to make; even 3D games, although that is a different level! So, no, I do not think people will get bored of the PICO-8 aesthetics any time soon, because it is so rich and so diverse. In fact, if you take any two of my own games, you will probably find that they have a very different mood, if not even a completely different art style.
Sebastian: Yes, you try out different things, but still you have a big affection for explosions and screenshakes and ‘game juice’. I cannot really imagine you making some kind of ‘calm’ game. Would that be something that you would like to try?
Rémy: What? I did do that! Check out “Your Personal Archipel” for example! Okay, okay, it was more of a toy than a game… But even if I did make a more complete, calmer game with actual gameplay value, it would still be juicy because of the way I approach games. I think that video games should be fun. They can be sad, funny, they can make you think, they can be stupid, but they should be fun anyway, at least for their interactivity. To me that is what makes games more interesting than other media. One fundamental element for this is input feedback. So yes, I probably will do a calmer, more serious video game eventually, but it will still have that ‘juicy’ feeling and it will still be fun!
Sebastian: I suppose your favorite games are fun ones as well? Could you name some?
Sebastian: Some weeks ago you organized and ran the Tiny-TV Jam. Why did you choose such a topic?
Rémy: The way that jam was born was with one of my PICO-8 doodles, which are tiny programs I make regularly to try things out. That doodle in particular was a voxel television set on which you could play “Pong” with a television screen resolution of ten to eleven pixels. Someone saw it and suggested a game jam about making games for it. And yes, one week later I announced the jam! It was my first time organizing a jam and I am super happy that so many people, counting non-participants, were interested in the concept!
Sebastian: That is interesting, because nuprahtor stated that game jams are for the developers – the participants, so to say -, not for the players, which are sometimes participants, sometimes non-participants. You do not agree with that, I assume?
Rémy: It depends on the jam. For example, take the Ludum Dare: The games are generally rushed or proof of concepts. These games are definitely more interesting for Ludum Dare participants than other players, at least for checking how everyone managed to include the theme within the constraints.
But for jams that are less intense – and I am thinking about a lot of itch.io jams like the LOWREZJAM 2016, the One Button Jam, the FLATGAME Annual 2016 and also the Tiny-TV Jam -, those are more about getting something small but finished. A good entry for these jams is generally a tiny experience that makes good use of the constraints of the jam in a polished game. These jams can be interesting for everyone.
Sebastian: A good point! What was the greatest game jam experience you had so far?
Rémy: The Ludum Dare 32 was the first time I participated in a game jam and I had a blast! I made “TETRATOR”, a “Tetris” clone that is more than just a clone and I am still very proud of it. It was one of the most intense weekends of my life! It also turned out to get some really good scores, which was very encouraging!
Sebastian: I remember that one! I played it over and over again, but I also enjoy your newer PICO-8 games. By the way, how do you want to help the PICO-8 scene in the future?
Rémy: Mostly by shedding more light on it. I regularly have people telling me they bought PICO-8 after seeing the things I did with it and I am really happy about that. I also made a tutorial in the form of a big GIF file, where I showed different possible usages of color palette swapping. I will make more tutorials eventually, as they are pretty fun to do!
Sebastian: That’s a wonderful help for sure! So it is a desire for you to help people making games?
Rémy: Of course! One of my favorite things about the indie and amateur developer community is that it is so friendly and warm. I am happy to be a part of that. I think the best way to keep it this way is to offer help to beginners and to appear positive in general.
Sebastian: Yeah, you must definitely be a positive guy yourself. I mean, you dropped out of school to get fully into game development! That seemed to me like a pretty ‘optimistic’ move.
Rémy: First I want to say that the formation I had was my dream formation. It was a programming formation in a school specialized in video games and animation and I felt very lucky about it, but I had three major problems. The first one is that the school was very expensive and I had to live in Paris for it, which was even more expensive. The second is that I was creatively frustrated. We spent a lot of time on very technical stuff and when we made games, we had to stick to the plan that was given to us. There was not much room nor call for personal input. The third reason is that I have a problem with mentorship in general. I do not like having someone looking down on what I make or someone I am supposed to look up to.
I love learning from other people, especially from people that consider themselves on the same level as I am. But I was really motivated, and still am, to learn by myself! I felt fine about making mistakes and working every single day if that is what it was going to take, and it is. The formation was supposed to last two more years, and I figured that two more years was enough for me to turn my personal projects into something bigger and profitable.
Sebastian: Wait a minute. Do not take it as an insult, but you do not really think it is actually possible to make a big, profitable PICO-8 game right now, do you?
Rémy: No I don’t. I was not necessarily talking about PICO-8 games actually. GameMaker: Studio would be my first choice for such a game right now. But I was not even necessarily talking about games. I would be fine with taking contract work. I still know a bunch of coding languages and shaders and Unity and I am starting to get better at pixel art.
Sebastian: So you are a jack of all trades, eh? Do you have some idols or any other kind of inspiration for your projects?
Rémy: Yes! Jan Willem Nijman from Vlambeer and Jonatan Söderström from Dennaton Games would be my first inspirations because of their way of approaching game design and making. Although since then I actually started focusing more on what I want to be and make rather than who I would like to be like. I want to make colorful games that are focused on simple, but innovative mechanics or concepts, with a design that feels solid, compact and really fun.