Francisco VillaseƱor

Kim Swift on leaving Valve, creating Quantum Conundrum, and designing games for families

Kim Swift on leaving Valve, creating Quantum Conundrum, and designing games for families

“I fell in love with games when I played Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past when I was a kid. When you’re a kid you want to be a fireman, you want to be an astronaut, but I said I wanted to make games,” Kim Swift told me over the phone during a recent conversation. “I didn’t realize it wasn’t something I could actually do and make a career out of until high school, and I decided I really wanted to do it and went to DigiPen and got a [Real-time Interactive Simulation] degree from there.” It’s an interesting answer to the question of how someone got into gaming. It’s one of my favorite ways to get into an interview, but most game designers who say Zelda are talking about the NES version. Of course, most game designers don’t decide to do it for a living the same way others decide to become accountants, only to be hired at Valve on the strength of a student project that later turned into Portal, only to leave to see what else is out in the great world of video games. “Do I feel young?” she responded when I asked about her age relative to others in her position. “Sure? I don’t really think about my age all that much. I’m told that I’m young. I’m not 30 yet, so people say that I’m super young. But I’m cool with it. It works for me. I don’t know that I feel young or old. I don’t particularly think about it.”

Shaking things up, and then doing it again

I had watched a speech Swift gave at GDC back in 2007, about the genesis of Portal. The game began as a student project at DigiPen, called Narbacular Drop. The team behind the game presented it to Valve, and was brought onboard to bring the game to the Source engine, and the rest is history. During the speech she was explicit about the advantages of student projects: You don’t have to worry about money, demographics, or a potential audience. You just create something to show your skills. Would Narbacular Drop have been possible in the studio system?“I don’t know, honestly,” she said. “I’ve been told, and I don’t know if I buy into this, that Narbacular Drop and Portal have come about at a time in the industry where there wasn’t a lot different going on. A lot of the games were very similar to everything else that was coming out, and it was supposedly refreshing, because it was something that was different. And it made people look at games a different way. Like I said, I don’t know if I buy into that. But I do think in the last few years, games are growing, and becoming more interesting and different, and I think that it’s something that probably could have come about outside of that student environment, there are all sorts of interesting and great games out there right now.” So the answer is…? “I don’t know when it would have. But I’m sure it would at some point,” she said finally. Swift left Valve in 2009 after working on games like Portal and the Left 4 Dead series. It’s a hard move to grasp, since being recruited by Valve right out of college already seems like a dream. But then to leave that position, a job most in the industry would kill for? It seems insane, but Swift was serene when I asked for details. “You know, I don’t really worry about other people’s perceptions about my career, because it’s my career. I was excited. I felt that working at Valve gave me a great foundation and I knew I could do a good job and make something fun and interesting, and I wanted to branch out on my own and see what I could do. Just try something a little bit different. I haven’t regretted the decision at all since.”

Quantum Conundrum

Swift joined Airtight Games, and presented Quantum Conundrum as a one-page treatment, alongside many other treatments for possible games. The team then voted on which game they would create. Quantum Conundrum won the vote. A year later, the game has been released on PC (a console version is coming later), and Swift stated that there was very little crunch time during development, which is a testament to the planning that went into the title. “We were completely and utterly aware of our constraints. We knew we were 16 people, we knew we had a year, and we knew we had X amount of money to make this game.” Quantum Conundrum might share some similarities with Portal—both games feature a somewhat all-knowing and all-seeing voice talking to you, as well as puzzles set up like chambers inside a larger structure—but once you play the game you see how different Conundrum feels in practice. The game features four dimensions that you can switch between at will, and each one changes the characteristics of items inside it. The fluffy dimension makes every light and pillowy. The heavy dimension makes things metal and dense, and so on. By manipulating each dimension and objects inside those dimensions, you solve the puzzles. In short, it’s a delightful game, more welcoming than Portal, while being a little more intricate in terms of mechanics.“It was something that was really scalable, if we wanted a bigger game we could add more dimensions, if we wanted something smaller we could keep it to just a few. The ability to create permutations of these dimensions interacting with each other as well as the game objects gave us a lot of flexibility,” Swift explained. They stuck to four dimensions and, while many more ideas were brainstormed, they prototyped fluffy, heavy, slow motion, and reverse gravity dimensions inside a gray box level very quickly. They all worked together well. “We could see there was a lot of potential for fun, and discoverability. We said okay, good, we’ve made the right choice, and kept barreling forward.” The framing device, the story and aesthetic that hold the game together, were essential. Swift discovered that players would get bored within 30 minutes of playing the early versions of Portal without stories, characters, or an external reason to keep going. The puzzles were fun, but people will spend more time with the game if there is a reason to move forward that’s more than just “see the next level.” Making sure the puzzles made sense was also a concern. Unlike a shooter, it’s not simple to adjust the difficulty on a puzzle game; you can’t just make the enemies tougher or greater in number. “We were testing the game with all different types of people, hard-core first-person players, developers’ wives, their kids, random people we grabbed from GameStop, just running the gamut of people to play the game, and noticing patterns,” she said. “If every single one of those types of people are failing at a particular spot, they’re getting frustrated, not seeing an object, then it’s something we’re doing wrong as designers. So we have to go in and try to fix it.” They would tweak levels, remove sections of puzzles, and then run players through again to see if the problem was resolved. There was also the point were people began “thrashing,” a term the team used to describe when a player stops actively thinking about a puzzle and begins to run around wildly to try to solve it. Sometimes players explore just to have fun, but when a player gets too frustrated they begin to do the same things over and over, and perhaps they begin to try to luck into the solution. “You can tell they’re not really processing things anymore, there is a certain level of frustration we can see in their face,” Swift said. “They’re not trying to find a solution, they’re just hoping that if they bumble around they’ll see something they haven’t really seen before, but they’re not taking the game in and processing it.” When a player began to thrash, the team knew something had to be changed. I can say that I did very little thrashing while playing the game, and I enjoyed the idea of a puzzle game I could play with my kids. During my E3 demo another writer actually put down his controller to join me and we discussed the puzzles, trying to figure out what to do next. It’s easy to play, but the puzzles are tricky. It’s a game that could interest many different types of gamers, while alienating very few. “I really believe that we need to have a genre of games that fits in that section. I think that games can really bring people together,” Swift said. While the market will decide whether the game is a hit, it already looks like she made the game she set out to make. “One of my favorite playtests that I ended up watching was this dad and his daughter playing, and his daughter was 11 or 12, and they were doing the exact same thing I would do when I was a kid with my dad,” Swift remembered. “They would fight in a good natured way, they would say you have to go over there, they would take the controller from each other, and try to help each other through the puzzles. It was very rewarding to see that, and it made me super happy.”