In this interview, I talked with Max Krieger, the indie developer behind CROSSNIQ+, the nineties-inspired, grid-based puzzle game. We talked about his inspirations growing up, how giving yourself a break from bigger projects can lead to something new, and his Kickstarter.
Raised on Anime
AD: Starting from the beginning, what kinds of games did you grow up on?
MK: My parents were really highly invested in the whole “video game moral panic” of the 1990s. So my introduction to the gaming world-proper was a little bit delayed. My very first home console was actually a Game Cube. It took quite some time. But I loved it so much that I went, and with my own money, got an NES, a Super NES, an N64 and a PS One over time and just gradually went back and played everything in reverse order. I really got into the weird Japanese stuff, because that was also the peak of the American anime boom and Anime was the coolest thing. There were JRPGs for one thing but also weird stuff like Jet Set Radio and Space Channel 5 and all that alternative Japanese content from back then. I started getting into that stuff. The thing that stuck with me the most were Japanese games from that era. Out of all the video game influences on what I make they’re probably the strongest. That’s carried through and is a big part of what’s flavored Crossniq aesthetically.
AD: So while your parents sort of had a lock on video games, were you just playing whatever you could at friends’ houses?
MK: Yep, that’s what I was doing. I was snapping it up where ever I could get it.
AD: So when your parents finally got you the Game Cube, was that sort of their acceptance of video games?
MK: Yeah, they were dipping their toes in the shallow end of the pool. The Game Cube stayed at my grandparents house and I was only allowed to play it their. Then gradually it came to my house and it went from there.
AD: I think Nintendo is a pretty safe place to start. So that aesthetic that you were drawn to, was that because of what your friends were playing?
MK: I was just drawn to them naturally. I think it had a lot to do with the media I consumed and what was popular at the time. They all kind of fit into the design paradigm, called now, Y2K. That was something I grew up with directly. It was really only popular from about 1997 to 2002, so it was a short window but it was everywhere. Those were really formative years for my life as far as media consumption and habits went. So I think that kind of just naturally drew me to games like that.
AD: I saw a thread on twitter that you had done about the Y2K aesthetic and that was something that I was exposed to but maybe not conscious of.
MK: The funny thing is for a while I kind of forgot about it as I grew up. There’s this specific Tumblr called the Y2K Aesthetic Institute that was really the first blog to really get the ball rolling on rediscovering and archiving content from that era and after I saw it, it all came back to me. From then on I really started getting back into and created stuff from it.
AD: Did you have any game developer-adjacent hobbies growing up, like drawing or writing?
MK: I did. I wrote and drew a lot. The very first story I ever wrote, I was probably like 4 or 5, and my mom had this Sharp calculator/business PDA and Tiny Max paced around the room and dictated this story to my mom. I don’t know if we still have it. It might be at my parents house somewhere.
AD: Do you remember what sort of early stuff you would have been writing about?
MK: It was just really heavily influenced by what I was watching on TV at the time. I watched Toonami from like the very first year. I was far too young to be watching some of the content at that time but I didn’t care. I thought it was the coolest thing. That was really what influenced stuff like that. I got into things like Gundam and Dragonball and all that stuff that a lot of kids grew up with but I got into it at a very formative age so it flavored all the creative goings-on in Young Max’s head.
AD: Around when were you first starting to think “okay, game development is something I can do?”
MK: My history with game development is a little unorthodox. I always loved video games. I was always was interested in making them. I had a hard time with math growing up, which is not exactly typical of what you hear from game developers. I struggled a lot and so I initially started pivoting towards the art and media side of things. I really wanted to get into art school. I really worked at it. I actually was accepted into the Cleveland Institute of Art but I burned myself out in the process of pushing myself to do that. So I ended up going to DePaul University in Chicago. Going to DePaul was really cool because the Midwest isn’t exactly known for being a hub for game development but if there was any one city in the Midwest that is it’s Chicago. They have all these different developers out there and also a lot of famous indies actually went to the school I went to. There’s a group called Young Horses that went on to make Octodad. Bit Bash is a really popular Indie festival in Chicago. I went initially to DePaul because they had a programming track and a design track and I wanted to try to get my feet wet with programming. I wasn’t ready to fully commit it to it, so I started in the design track and then I pivoted over to programming in college. I hadn’t written a line of code until my freshman year of college, which is not typical, so I had to work double time to get to catch up to everyone else. It was a couple twists and turns and hurdles but that’s how I ended up in game development. It was something I always did want to do I just didn’t know how to go about it and I kind of figured it out as I went along.
AD: Originally you were going to major in art, so was this more of a heel turn than a gradual transition?
MK: At a certain point in college, I decided to do the heel turn for a variety of reasons. The game development major was kind of in flux at the time in DePaul and so the programming track seemed to be the most stable, which was part of it, but also because I really wanted to be able to support myself and at least, not be the best programmer, but at least be competent enough to do my own projects. I was okay with Photoshop. I was a decent writer. My dad’s an audiophile so I was raised around like the basic tenants of audio editing and sound design and things like that. The only thing I was really missing was a programming background and I thought if I can at least get that and be able to create projects on my own, even if they’re not the best, I’ll have the flexibility and the foundation I’ll need to specialize later. So it was really kind of “you’re going in to your sophomore year of college you have three more years to do this. What’s going to lead you to the best outcome and potential with the most doors open for the future?” So that’s why I shifted to programming. But you’re right, I am a visual thinker and I never gave that up. I always try to keep that in my life. CROSSNIQ is actually is the most in-game graphics I’ve ever done myself. I’ve always worked with my best friend, and former college roommate, Alice Marrow. She did the illustration for Monitan, the CROSSNIQ mascot, so I always worked with Alice. Alice always did the art and I always did the back end. But I wanted to push myself and really try to get back in to visual and graphic design with this project and I’m really glad I did.
AD: Before we talk about CROSSNIQ, what were some of your first game ideas?
MK: Oh man, game ideas? I’ve probably had gamed and tossed, and gamed and tossed, probably close to 50 in my life so far. It was a compulsive thing. Even as a kid in middle school whenever I had like toys or Legos laying around I would just start prototyping things. It just kind of happened.
AD: Where did CROSSNIQ come from?
MK: CROSSNIQ came to me while I was working on my last project, Train. Train was a narrative kind of art game that I started in college. Things kind of derailed and I had to finish it after college. But Train was this big narrative-heavy, dialogue-heavy, project with a bunch of different mechanic sets. Really unorthodox dialogue system and it was huge. It was way too big. I saw it through to completion, which I’m glad I did but my brain kind of conceived CROSSNIQ in the mean time. I think as a way of telling me, “Max, you’ve been working on this big “narrative Hydra” for about two years now. Here’s a simple set of mechanics, here’s a nice elegant game-loop, and I want you to focus on making this really polished and nice, and to be kind to yourself and to not overwork yourself anymore.
AD: It sounds like CROSSNIQ was a sort of an oasis from your other project.
MK: Yes. It was everything Train wasn’t. I played a lot of puzzle games to unwind while I was working on Train. I always loved puzzle games growing up, but I really started to dive into the broader canon of puzzle games. I got into some really cool ones. I found Tetris: The Grand Master one day and I was playing a ton of that game. Like, every day for a year and a half in college. And I’m still garbage at it. That’s how hard that game is. Playing a lot of TGM and just seeing the mechanics of puzzle games, TGM in particular, I was like, “I really love how snappy and fast this feels, and how speed oriented it is.” And then I thought, “if I want to do a puzzle game like that, Tetris is based on rows, how could I expand upon rows?” And it occurred to me, “row meets column which makes a cross.” And from there on Crossniq kind of just formed in whole. I don’t usually get ideas like that. They take a little bit of iteration but with Crossniq, the base mechanics came to me pack and parcel.
AD: Where did the aesthetic meet the mechanics? Did that come right away too?
MK: It did not. I tossed around several aesthetics with CROSSNIQ and I didn’t really know what to do with it. I knew the mechanics but I didn’t know what I wanted it to feel like. I finished Train in March last year so probably around November of 2016 is when I found the Y2K Aesthetics Blog. That’s when I remembered it all and I was like, “okay this is what I’m doing for my next project.” The mechanics of CROSSNIQ were sitting in cold storage and then I found the perfect thing to make them look nice.
AD: You talked about how Tetris inspired the core conceit. When I played CROSSNIQ and got into the flow of it, the response to getting “crosses” feels as satisfying as getting a “Tetris.” Is that purposeful nod?
MK: In Tetris: The Grand Master in particular, it has this kind of snappy satisfying sensation of breaking blocks once you make that line and I wanted that audio/visual feedback to be really satisfying to the sense and would encourage you to play it more. TGM was probably the biggest inspiration in that regard. There’s nothing like playing TGM at a million miles an hour and pulling of a “Tetris.”
AD: You have a character [Monitan] that acts as a guide through the tutorial. Was having a character always a part of the development process?
MK: When I was first coming up with the mechanics and modes for CROSSNIQ, a lot of concepts that I reserved for CROSSNIQ+, the Kickstarter that I’m going to run, I came up with from the get-go. Then I thought, “what’s going to be the one game mode, the one game type, the one set of mechanics, that will best embody the whole concept.” And I settled on the infinite survival mode that we have now. There will be a Versus Mode with characters, kind of like Puyo Puyo Tetris. I was playing a lot of that over the summer and I loved how colorful the cast was and I thought it would be really cool if CROSSNIQ had characters like that. Monitan was actually a character that Alice had drawn up previously just doing doodles. Alice kind of kept her around and would make art of her once in a while. I asked Alice if she wanted to put Monitan in CROSSNIQ and she was like “yeah!” We just decided to throw her in for flavor. We wanted to do something with characters and we wanted to make that part of the initial offering.
AD: What are you hoping to accomplish with your Kickstarter?
MK: Right now for CROSSNIQ+ there’s a base goal of $10,000 for funding. There’s the infinite mode, of course, which is present right now. Also a Time Attack Mode, which rather than refilling the timer bar, you have a limited amount of time to get the highest score. A Versus Mode, which is really inspired by a lot of the versus puzzle games I’ve played that have things like item blocks, character powers and things like that. I felt like a Versus Mode would be a great way, not only expand CROSSNIQ from a single player to a multiplayer game, but to have things like power-ups and items that kind of play with how the grid works. Something like reversing controls, putting graffiti over the other person’s tile so they would have to move them around to see what color they were, and all of these fun, little, one-shot gimmicks to stretch the mechanics to see what’s possible with them. Also, a lot of people who demoed CROSSNIQ in the prototype and alpha phase said they really liked making crosses but the game was a bit too stressful. They didn’t want to be under the clock. So the fourth mode I debuted in the Kickstarter video is Chillout Mode. It’s a mode where you get to play around and make crosses. The game keeps track of the crosses but the UI is practically non existent. The other thing I did with the way Chillout Mode is going to stretch what I made in the base offering is that the code right now has the capability to not only put colors on the tiles but textures as well. I can put photo-textures on the tiles. So I thought a really cool thing to try in Chillout Mode would be to have a bunch of different skins, a bunch of different visual styles that people could choose from. In the proof-of-concept video it’s a beach and the tiles are wave-colored, or have coral or sand. That’s a mode really to stretch what you can do with a grid of tiles and a background, from a graphic design perspective.
All of those modes are about stretching the base idea as far as you can take it. Now of course I have a bunch of different stretch goals for a Story Mode and a Master Mode, inspired by Tetris: The Grand Master. A Challenge Mode, kind of like Puyo Fever, where you have to remove a certain amount of tiles in a certain amount of moves. The reason I chose those four base modes is that they’re the smallest amount of modes that I could call a complete game that were able to fully explore the mechanics as much as I wanted.
AD: Do you have an idea of what platforms you want to bring CROSSNIQ+ to?
MK: I’m not sure about marketplace just yet. That’s not something I’ve thought about. As for as platforms, PC, Mac, and Linux are a lock obviously. Um, I want to put this game on Switch. Now don’t tell Nintendo this, but tracking down a Nintendo rep that will hear out your pitch is kind of like finding a leprechaun. It’s really hard. I sent them an email and they sent me a generic message to buzz off. But I’m going to GDC. I know people who have published on Switch. I’m going to track down a Nintendo rep and I am going to show CROSSNIQ to them. I’m actually planning on getting a cheap Windows 10 tablet so I can demo it to them with touch controls. I’ve had people with Sufaces play the current version and it works beautifully. I created the mouse controls with “touch” in mind. I’m pretty confident that if I’m able show it to a Nintendo rep in person they’ll express interest. I can’t, of course, hard-commit to the Switch because getting on to the Switch is a lot harder than it was, for say, the Wii U or past Nintendo platforms. I am going to make a point of it and I am going to try through as many channels as I can to get CROSSNIQ+ onto the Switch.
AD: With the Kickstarter in motion, do you have ideas for a project after this?
MK: After CROSSNIQ+, I want to return to writing. I wrote a lot for Train and I grew a lot writing for Train. I miss writing. I wanted a vacation from it and I took it and I’m happy I did. I’ve been teasing around a lot of larger game concepts that I won’t be able to do on my own. So I was thinking of writing a bit to flesh out worlds, and characters, and story beats. As far as game projects, it’s really up in the air, depending on what happens with this Kickstarter. I really hope it gets funded. Part of the reason I’m going through the Kickstarter to begin with is that this is one of the first projects I feel confident enough in my own ability to support and deliver a satisfactory polished product. I really want to see this through. As far as other story ideas and concepts for games? I do have ideas. They are currently bubbling away in the deep, dark depths and are not ready to see the light of day yet. I can never really sit still creatively so I do have some next steps I’m teasing around.