Interview with Kim Swift, developer of Portal, Quantum Conundrum
Kim Swift is probably best known as one of the Digipen student developers behind Narbacular Drop, the project which later became Portal. She’s also worked on Left 4 Dead one and two, so you could say she’s accomplished quite a bit in only a little over five years in the game development world. I sat down with her at a Square-Enix event that happened in May to have a little chat, and maybe prod a few key answers out of her regarding that super secret Valve game (totally didn’t work). I also asked her about Airtight Games’ latest, Quantum Conundrum, while trying to avoid asking questions she’s heard a billion times (she’s not fond of those questions, but who would be?).
Me: So, do you still have a relationship with Valve?
Kim: Yeah, I know everyone that I used to work with. One of my best friends who’s worked on Portal 2…and he’s off doing some stuff right now that I can’t talk about (stuttered laugh), but yeah, yeah totally.
Me: Half Life 3.
Kim: Some stuff I can’t talk about.
Me: Okay. (she laughs)
(At this point I move on to talking about Narbacular Drop and her days at Digipen)
Me: Primarily I hear about Digipen being related to Nintendo (they often recruit from there), and so, did Nintendo express any interest in what you were doing?
Kim: So, uhh, I don’t think we ever really talked to them actually. You know, we had Valve come by and take a look at it, and they gave us an offer within a couple of weeks of them seeing the game. So, we didn’t really shop it around. In fact, at the time we weren’t really even thinking of it as more than just something on our resumes that makes us look good to potential employers.
Me: So, I noticed that the game (Quantum Conundrum) takes quite a bit of skill in the jumping. Like, I had to go back to my Half Life days and pull those skills out. So, are there any worries about players not being able to perform the jumps properly?
Kim: I think we do a pretty good job of adjusting you, like, I do realize that jumping in first person is a challenge–I’m not going to lie about that–but I think we do a good job of ramping you up to be able to be comfortable about it, and be able to estimate, and how far you can jump, and what your trajectory is.
Me: So, Quantum Conundrum is completed at this point, right?
Kim: Yeah, we’re pretty much in the can at this point. Just waiting to see what happens.
Me: You seem to be doing puzzle games a lot. Do you think you’ll be in that genre for awhile?
Kim: You know, I don’t know. Honestly I haven’t given it a whole lot of thought, uhh, I don’t think very far into the future (laughs). This probably sounds really bad, but I don’t know, I just kind of
Me: You never know what’s going to happen.
Kim: Yeah, I just kind of have a whim at the time, and if something happens it happens. I kind of want to make a music game one day, but who knows.
Me: What about video games, like, how did you get into them in the first place?
Kim: I started playing games with my dad when I was a kid, and it was kind of like our bonding time as a father and daughter, and so we would sit down in front of our Super Nintendo and pass the controller back and forth to each other and bicker (laughs). And it was a lot of fun. I just kind of fell in love with games as a medium, and when I was in high school I decided I wanted to make them as a career.
Me: Are there any particular games that you enjoyed when you were younger?
Kim: So, Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is my all-time favorite game, and
Me: I can agree with that.
Kim: Yeah, and It was the game that made me realize that I wanted to make games.
Me: Have you followed the Zelda series in general?
Kim: I haven’t followed it so much when it went to the Wii, but I definitely played N64, and I played the iterations that came out on the DS…
Me: Did you play the one on Gameboy (Link’s Awakening)?
Kim: Uh, a little bit of it.
Me: I think it’s pretty awesome. You should check it out.
Me: Do you perhaps have a favorite gaming moment?
Kim: Favorite gaming moment? Oh man, that’s tough. I dunno, I guess for me, like, going back to The Legend of Zelda, like the first time you go to the dark world–that was a cool moment for me.
Me: Do you remember the music?
Kim: I do, actually, and I’m not gonna’ sing it for you! (laughs)
(I start singing it)
Me: I believe that’s the music. (I laugh)
Me: Okay, so were there any problems you ran into during the development of Quantum Conundrum?
Kim: Yes, I mean there’s always problems. Of course, yeah, I mean there’s always problems. You know, anything from worrying about middleware development solutions and paying those guys to…
Me: Physics, I’m assuming, maybe (reference to Havok)?
Kim: So we use Unreal Engine as our base engine. We use Wwise as our sound engine. We use Enlighten for our lighting solution, and there’s always problems.
Me: Like financial problems, or…?
Kim: Just more like interacting with a developer on a different middleware solution. It’s more like a communication thing, but I mean, it’s nothing that was a super big problem. Actually, the Enlighten guys were amazing to us as far as helping us out with bugs that we came up with when we were working on our game.
And then…problems with players being able to walk on, like, really thin surfaces–on a railing for instance. You could jump up on a one-inch wide railing and walk around and figuring out, well okay, how are we gonna’ get it so players can’t completely bypass the puzzle by walking on a railing.
Me: They’re like, “Your puzzle’s way too difficult”. I’m gonna’ do it this way.
Kim: So, I mean, yeah, to me, making a good design in a good game is all about solving problems, and working within your constraints to make a good product.
Me: If you could work with any development studio in any point in history, which would it be?
Kim: Well, I mean, mainly because I’m like a Nintendo nerd, like, I mean, working at Nintendo during the Super Nintendo era would be fantastically amazing, but that would require a time machine (laughs).
Me: Well, thanks to your game, maybe someday you’ll inspire somebody to create one.
Kim: Maybe. Who knows (laughs).
(At this point I ask her about what it was like working at Valve, and I make a reference to that odd Valve “Handbook For New Employees”. Kim responds that she hasn’t seen the book, but she’s heard about it. She doesn’t think it’s 100% true that they don’t have a structure. They have a board of directors, project leads, a CEO. However, the developers at Valve have a lot more freedom than a lot of other places.)
Me: Would you consider working with one of the portable systems, or maybe even iOS?
Kim: Honestly, I’m open to anything. I love exploring new platforms, and new genres, and I just kind of wanna’ see what opportunities come up.
Me: I see. How do you feel about the freemium model?
Kim: I don’t know, um, I think it definitely has it’s good points and it’s bad points, just like any other particular type of model. I think there’s a lot of really fun games for it. Uh, I started playing To-Fu the other day. That games a lot of fun. I don’t know if you’ve played it.
(she goes on to explain it)
(getting back to Quantum Conundrum)
Me: Is this game, is it kind of just like a fun thing, or is there a message at the end of it?
Kim: You know, I think messages tend to be an emergent thing, rather than something necessarily planned, at least with me. Like, apparently there was some sort of message to Portal. It wasn’t necessarily a planned thing. It just kind of came about organically. And as far as Quantum Conundrum goes, like, I guess, for me, I just want players to have a good time, and a lot of fun, and laugh, and smile.
And they will, Kim, if my experience with the game is any indication.
Quantum Conundrum is being developed by Airtight Games and is scheduled to be released sometime in Summer 2012 on PC (Steam), PS3, and Xbox 360. Square-Enix is performing publishing duties on the title.