Jay Pavlina: From Fan-Game to Professional Game Design

A game interview article by: William T. Carpenter Jr.

When Super Mario Crossover hit the web back in 2010, it came as a bit of a shock. It was shocking mostly due to the fact that it had taken so long for someone to throw all the heroes of everyone's favorite NES classics together into one rad crossover game, but also becaused they mixed so well! Apparently, all it took was one man's undying love for retro gaming. That man was Jay Pavlina, the one person team of Exploding Rabbit. Now he's back, but this time he brought friends.

Exploding Rabbit is now eight people strong, and their new game - Super Retro Squad - has accumulated five times their initial Kickstarter goal of $10,000. While the game is an all-new IP with content made from scratch, it still has a lot of the same design sensibilities of games like Super Mario Crossover and the classic NES games Pavlina reveres so much.

I reached out to Jay and had a chat with him about his game, his new team, and the success of his Kickstarter.


William Carpenter for Infinite Ammo: When exactly did you get your start with video games? Did you ever see yourself where you are now, running your own development team and making your own game?


Jay PavlinaI started with video games when I made Super Mario Crossover. I never had any experience or even knew how to make a game before that. I had no idea that I would pursue games as a career or lead a development team. I just made Super Mario Crossover as an experiment to see what making games was like.


IA: Your Kickstarter is drawing to a close. Are you happy with the results?J


Pavlina: Very happy. Because it's success, we really expanded our plans for the game and we're moving the majority of the development team to a single location. There's even going to be a documentary made about us making the game. It's awesome.


IA: What is it that draws you to these retro Platformers? What part of the games of yore do you hope to capture with your new game?


Pavlina: I guess I like that they are completely focused on gameplay. It's also the type of game that anyone can pick up and play. It's very fun and uncomplicated. I would like to capture that same fun that you got when you played games like Super Mario Bros. or Castlevania for the first time. And I want to combine those experiences into one game.


IA: Your previous two games were all a one-man show, but for this new game you have some help. Tell me a little bit about your team. What sort of background do they come from, and what made you decide to let them into your creative process?


Pavlina: Super Mario Crossover is the only game I've made, and for the last year I worked together with a graphics artist. I decided to recruit a team because I was frustrated with how long it took me to update it. Also, it's always been my dream to start my own studio and work with a team of people. Originally, I wanted it for making movies (my background is in filmmaking), but I'm very happy to have a game development team. We won't exactly have a studio, but many of us will be working together face to face, so I'm very excited about that.

A lot of the people I chose have different backgrounds. I mainly look for passion and a good personality when I choose people. When I first started recruiting I was mostly just looking for whoever was interested, but now that the project got bigger I've been narrowing my criteria. It's a bit weird to have a project change while you're recruiting people, but I'm sure I'll figure out how to handle it.


IA: How was the transition from making a fan-game to an original product? How much did your work on Super Mario Crossover influence your design decisions on Super Retro Squad?


Pavlina: Well we haven't exactly transitioned yet. All we really have done are the graphics you've seen. I vastly prefer working on an original product because I don't have to follow any rules. I'm trying to take the parts that made SMBC fun and expand on them to make something bigger and better. Part of me just wants to abandon SMBC and work on Super Retro Squad, but I think there are still a lot of possibilities for SMBC so we'll continue to work on it.


IA: What sort of challenge does designing entirely original levels for multiple characters present?


Pavlina: It presents a lot of challenges because I want to make sure the levels are fun and challenging no matter who you choose. This also means our enemies will have to be designed in creative ways so that you can use different strategies against them depending on your character. Personally, I think bosses will be difficult to design for this reason. It should be fun though. I enjoy a challenge!


IA: It seems as though the reception to your new cast of characters is pretty positive. It wasn’t long before Mecha Boy got his very own fan art. Was this anticipated?


Pavlina: No, that was not anticipated at all, but we're very happy about it. I was hoping people would accept these characters as if they've been around for a while. It was exactly the reception I was going for, but at the same time I didn't expect it.


IA: The playable characters in Super Retro Squad are all based on beloved and iconic video game heroes, most of whom have stood the test of time and are still active today. Do you see your crew of new characters having that same lasting appeal?


Pavlina: I anticipate that our characters will have a cult following alongside the originals. Everyone will always love the originals, and our characters will be a tribute to them, and I think people will enjoy that. We'll be working very hard to make them feel both old and new at the same time.


IA: Was the decision to return to an 8-bit aesthetic, rather than the 16-bit look of Super Mario Crossover 2.0, based on necessity or choice?


Pavlina: We're doing both 8-bit and 16-bit versions of the game. This way, people will be able to choose the retro style they prefer.


IA: You plan on supporting a wide variety of platforms, but was there ever discussion of a console release? Considering how much money the Kickstarter has generated past its intended goal, I’m guessing the decision to skip consoles was deliberate rather than one based on finances.


Pavlina: I don't have any experience with developing for consoles, so I didn't plan for it. If our game is popular enough, I'm sure we'll explore options like that. We will be developing for OUYA since it's an open console. We're very excited about that.


IA: So, where does Exploding Rabbit go from here? Do you see yourself making a career out of making video games? If so, what sort of genres would you like to explore?


Pavlina: Yes, my team and I will be making a career out of making games. I expect Exploding Rabbit will be a successful and popular indie game studio within a few years. I have great confidence that we can create fun, quality games. Aside from platformers, I'm very interested in doing an RPG. My biggest interest in actually telling stories, so I'm very excited about integrating story and gameplay in a variety of genres.


IA: Before we wrap things up, is there any advice you’d like to give to aspiring game designers?


Pavlina: Start making games. If you make a quality game, people will notice, especially if it's a fan game. Just do it for fun and don't worry about money right away. Keep delivering quality content and you'll eventually be able to make a career out of it. And don't worry if it takes you a long time to make something cool. Just make anything and you'll keep getting better.


I want to give a big thanks to Jay Pavlina of Exploding Rabbit for taking the time to answer our questions. There's still time left to donate to their Kickstarter, so be sure to check it out and maybe even throw some cheddar their way!

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