Interview With “kuso” Developer Fred Wood

I’m not a rage-quitter. Part of that is because I generally play games that fall a bit lower on the difficulty scale, but also, in a well-designed game, there’s really no one to blame a loss on but yourself. That’s what drew me to games like Super Meat Boy, incredibly challenging platformers that are so finely crafted you can’t see the seams. Simple mechanics coupled with tight controls and geniously designed levels equal a game that will make you struggle for a victory, but a victory that will feel incredibly earned.

That’s also why I love kuso. Developed by Mokuzai Studio (specifically by indie game designer Fred Wood), kuso is the most fun I’ve had on a 2D plane since the aforementioned Meat Boy. While this isn’t a full-on review of the game, I can say that I haven’t been this pleasantly surprised by an indie game in a long time. And like other challenging games, every victory feels earned, every loss feels fair, and every death feels like a valuable lesson. A simple-looking game on the surface, in kuso you control a small humanoid figure as he/she/it runs through a deadly world of traps and pits. Each level is complex, but short enough that you can drop in for a quick level or two on your commute — at least if you have the Switch version, which just released within the last month for $4.99. The most novel mechanic is the checkpoint system. In kuso, you create your own respawn points. Just bested a particularly tricky jump? Drop a checkpoint so you don’t have to do it again. It’s a perfect example of a way a game can be hard without being mean.

I was super enamored with the game, so I reached out to Fred Wood to ask him some questions about its development. Our interview follows.

How did you get started in game development?

I’ve loved video games since Alex Kidd in Miracle World, and have always wanted to make them myself. My first foray was making custom levels for Duke Nukem 3D and making fan games in The Games Factory and Click N Create — mostly involving Sonic the Hedgehog.

What goes into designing a game like kuso? How do you manage the balance of difficulty and fairness?

kuso is an incredibly simple game with a limited rule set. The player can move left and right, they can jump, and they can set a checkpoint to mitigate the loss of progress on death. Every object in the game that is interactive can really only do one of two things: help or hurt you. I also know that the visible space is 240 by 136 pixels, so I can take into account exactly what the player is going to see based on where they’re standing. So every hazard that’s in the game is placed very deliberately to avoid cheating the player out of a life. As long as I follow my own rules during design, no matter how hard I might make something, it’s going to be fair.

What was the origin of the self-creating checkpoint mechanic?

I wish I could say it was some stroke of genius, but it’s actually the product of ineptitude. When I was prototyping the game for the first time, I was making a very simple platformer. People would get to the end of a stage, die, and be angry with me for not including a checkpoint. The honest truth is I didn’t know how to set up a checkpoint in the stage, because I was not a very smart programmer. But I did know how to move an object, and move one object to another, making a kind of mobile checkpoint. This ended up being the backbone of the game.

How has your experience been as an independent developer? What sorts of complications have you run into on various platforms?

Independent development is hard. I know people say that all the time, but it’s true. And the landscape has changed so dramatically since I released LOVE in 2014. Back then it was hard to get a game on Steam, so if you did, you could expect a reasonable amount of success, which LOVE saw some of. But in 2018? You’re not guaranteed a dime of return.

kuso first released on Steam in November of 2017 to critical success, but it was a financial failure. While really amazing people like Yoko Taro (the creator of my favorite game of 2017, NieR Automata) tweeted the game out, it didn’t do much of anything to bolster sales. With the release on the Switch I was hoping to do a bit of a re-launch, but it again launched to a flooded market at a busy release time. When you’re handling the development of the game as well as all the press for the game, it’s very hard to figure out what to do to get noticed.

The last thing I want to note was how incredibly difficult it was as an independent developer without much notoriety to get approved for development on the Switch. I had originally gotten approved to port LOVE to the Wii U (which didn’t happen because by the time the game was running on it the system was in its death throes), and when the Switch was announced, I contacted all of my folks at Nintendo and got the same response: “We’re not talking to independent developers right now.” Which I know was partially true, but if you were a big Indie Dev, you were getting called. Fortunately for me, enough perseverance (a year and a half of pitches and begging) and a lucky introduction finally opened the door to releasing on Nintendo’s new system.

Indie development is hard, and success stories are rare. But the personal reward is monumental. I can’t imagine going back in time and telling six year old Fred that his game came out on Nintendo.

Actually I can. He’d look sad and say, “not Sega?”

Your previous game is called LOVE. Can you tell me a bit about it, and how you built on that foundation for kuso?

LOVE was a game I started in 2008 in my free time that eventually saw a retail release on Steam in 2014. kuso is a straight sequel to LOVE that incorporates everything I learned while making the first game and supporting it with updates for years.

What do the titles LOVE and kuso mean? I’ve been curious for awhile.

LOVE‘s title comes from a couple of ideas. Initially there was a storyline that resulted in a number of different endings depending on your performance in the game. Your relationship with the game was to inform the ending — but I ended up scrapping that entirely. It was to be like a platforming dating sim, but what a terrible idea that was. So really, the idea is that the game was exactly what I love about video games, and specifically platforming. Like a labor of love.

kuso‘s name is a bit different, and more direct. If you google the word kuso you’ll probably get a direct translation to “shit,” which is kinda inaccurate. “kuso” (くそ) is the Japanese expletive for frustration, like you might shout when you miss a jump or get smashed into some spikes. And since the game is designed to be as fair as possible, the only person you can get frustrated with is yourself.

As a brief aside — the name came from a fun encounter with my friend Satoshi in Japan. I had been talking with him about trying to come up with a name for my new game, and was trying to find something a little more SEO-friendly than “LOVE”. We had been talking about “Yarigai” which doesn’t have a direct translation either, but means something along the lines of “worth doing.” I was hunting for some fun import game finds, and found a copy of Takeshi’s Challenge for the Famicom. When I showed it to Satoshi, he said, “Oh, that’s legendary kusoge.” I asked him what that meant, and he explained that it was like a very hard, very shitty video game. So the name was decided. Read more about it at http://kuso.ge

What are your plans for the future? More ports? Sequel?

My immediate plans are to release a port of LOVE for the Switch as well. While all the levels from LOVE have been totally and lovingly remade in kuso, there’s a charm to the original that people still love, so I’m making it available. After that? I have some ideas, but nothing firm. I invested a fair bit into the ability to develop for the Switch, so I’ll probably be sticking with that a bit longer. I’d like to do ports to the other big systems, but I can’t speak to those quite yet.