Tuned Out is a hectic mashup that puts up to four people through the paces of 15 minigames. It presents these as different channels of a virtual TV, enabling players to flip through various little worlds, all with a ’90s aesthetic. It’s Shallow Games’s debut, and it’s slated for a PC release this summer with possible console launches to be determined.

The Shallow Games team met while they were all enrolled in the New York University game design MFA program. The three of them started working on Tuned Out as their thesis project, and after graduation, they were accepted into the NYU incubation program where they continued to build it out. Upon release, it will have 15 minigames, but they’re planning on adding five to 10 more after launch — and possibly even more if folks like it enough.

Tuned Out has been in development for about a year and three months, and so far the team has shown it at festivals such as A Maze in Johannesburg and the Leftfield Collection at London-based EGX Rezzed. It’s got a colorful, chaotic look to it that features paper cutouts, stop-motion figures, clay creatures, and a perpetual VCR static haze that makes the game look like it’s in constant flux. Its party game feel is frenzied — but systems designer and programmer Denver Coulson explains the method behind the madness.

Here is an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: Can you tell me more about yourself and the team?

Denver Coulson: The team is myself, Ben Sironko, and Missy Senteio. Me and Ben had hung out with each other for quite a long time. We’ve been working on games together for four or five years now. We went to undergrad together and did freelance in the same city for a while. Then we were just making games that we submitted to different festivals and events together. Then we both ended up going to [the New York University Game Center] at the same time.

Missy was one of our classmates. During that, we worked together a bit before our thesis came up, and then we all decided we wanted to work together on our thesis project. That’s when we came to develop Tuned Out. In terms of everyone’s role, Missy is visual and art direction. Ben does a decent amount of individual gameplay design. And I end up being a lot of systems, the bigger game, design and programming. But there’s a lot of intermixing of roles, because we’re small and don’t have much of a choice at times.

GamesBeat: Did you mostly work together in class? Or did you do game jams together and then decide to do the thesis together? 

Coulson: When Ben and I were working with Missy, we worked on a number of projects together in our first year at the Game Center. And that’s where we just kind of got the feeling—we had the same interests, and what we were all looking to work on—going into our thesis we knew we wanted to work on a lot of games. We were thinking a lot about doing a multiplayer—that eventually turned into this multiplayer collection you have right now with Tuned Out. We all vibed very well together.

A couple of the games inside the collection were their own individual projects that Ben and I had worked on over a couple of years, but never actually did anything with them. They were interesting in their own right, but they weren’t, I would say, something we would release commercially on their own.

GamesBeat: It seems like it’s challenging to basically make several games instead of just one game. What are the pros and cons of that? Was it a benefit to be able to jump from mechanic to mechanic?

Coulson: It can be very refreshing, because we get to do a lot more prototyping than the average game that’s in development. You spend the first few months prototyping, and then your prototyping stops with a set of features. But for us, we’re always prototyping new games every couple of months, guaranteed. Whenever we’re like, “What more should we add to the game,” it’s never a small thing. It’s more like, “What’s this new game we’re adding?”

But there’s a challenge in that, in terms of what the difference is between releasing each of these games individually versus releasing them as a collection. There’s more of an intertwining of rules in how we teach the player and how all these games interconnect that we constantly have to go back to. That’s a down side. I think we’re on game 12 or 13 right now that we’re working on, but we still have go back to game one and update the design and mechanics sometimes so that it properly works with game 12 or 13 or 14 or whatever else we add. We need to make sure that there’s cohesion in how we teach our rules, even though our rules are kind of all over the place.

GamesBeat: When there’s a rule that you introduce in game one, does that have to come back several times? How do you make sure they’re cohesive?

Coulson: A good example is, in a couple of games, they make use of—we explore different types of mechanics in different ways. In one game, there are bullets that you don’t control where they go. You control your body. You’re kind of the snake that bullets reflect off, and they can bounce back at other things. Which worked, and so when you shoot a bullet, you can never be hurt by your own bullet. But the problem we ran into, in another game we’re working on, it was this beat timing game.

It’s called Heart Attack. You’re this heart that turns on and off. It has the ability to reflect bullets as well if you time them right. In that game, we used to allow you to get killed by your own bullets. That caused — depending on which game people entered first — when they got to the next one they continued with the same rules on how bullets should operate, even though they weren’t the same.

We have to continuously go back and figure out what’s the ultimate core of a particular game, and then figure out, now that we know its core, what are the things we can’t change? What are the things we can interconnect with other games? Because the whole premise is you’re playing all these games at once. You only have about five seconds to learn a new game. The more we can make that new game make use of things you’ve already learned, the better.

GamesBeat: What do you mean by playing it all at once? Is each channel on a timer, so it cycles through the games?

Coulson: A bit, yeah. It’s kind of—this is something, while we were in Game Center, the incubator, we really developed out. But the way the game works is, it’s being played through what we call this weird pseudo ’90s TV. It’s a mixed media of channel surfing mixed with DVR mixed with video games.

When you start a game, everyone has three channel switches, and they can choose to use them at any time. Perhaps, up on the channel switcher switches up to the next game, but if someone were to switch the channel back down, they’d go back to the game they were playing. Whenever you do this, it puts the previous game on pause, wherever you left it. You have to remember, in this one I don’t die if I get hit by a bullet and in this one I need to respond quickly for that — there’s this whole having to keep up with what’s happening on screen.

GamesBeat: Is the end game to beat each of the games that you’re cycling through? 

Coulson: There’s a couple of different modes we’ve been building out. The most basic is, you have a set amount of time to score as many points as possible. One thing we also balance is the scoring in each game, so that your final score is your collected total of all points in all games. So long as you come out number one in a few of them, you’ll generally end up winning the entire game. That’s four-player competitive.

There’s a more cooperative mode we’re creating, a survival mode, where different bots are added into each mode and you’re having to jump from channel to channel to keep surviving and defeat as many enemies as possible.

GamesBeat: It sounds like it can get really chaotic, if any player can switch the channels. How do you manage that? I imagine you want some of that chaos, but you don’t want it to be just scattered.

Coulson: From the design side of things, the main aspect that we try to focus on is making sure that people who need channel switches actually have them. From a design point, making sure that not too many are out and about.

At the beginning of the game there are quite a few. Everyone starts with three, so with four people playing there are up to 12 switches that can happen. Theoretically you can fly, in 10 seconds, through 12 different games. But usually what ends up happening, and what we try to balance, is we want it to be more a tug of war between a subset of games. Usually if people are going to switch the channel, it’s to bring themselves back to a game they were doing well at or try to leave one that they’re doing poorly in.

The thing is, once these are exhausted, you have to earn them back. That’s based on getting a number of points per game, how well you’re doing or how bad you’re doing. I’m not sure we’ve found that sweet spot yet. Some games are still very chaotic, and others, people don’t switch the channel at all. It depends on how invested they are in a particular game they’re playing. There’s a very granular micro and macro play thing happening.

GamesBeat: Do you have a couple of different categories of games? These are rhythm games, these are bullet hell games?

Coulson: I would say most of them are brawlers, to some extent. That came about more for the balance of score than anything. But in terms of those types of games, it can range more from—in one of them you’re fish screaming at each other to push each other into the water, this sumo wrestling game with screaming. In another one you’re stomach acid, and you’re trying to stomp on everyone else inside this crazy organic stomach. Another game, you’re these characters that can shoot lightning, and you kind of have control over it.

The thing that ties these games all together is  they’re all trying to use randomness and a new mechanic that you usually wouldn’t see. In a lot of games, it’s almost entirely about the skill of, oh, how well did you aim? Or we’ll flip the game and make it about the timing or the space or the position you’re in to make that the skill. I think about four or five of them are bullet-based. Two or three are just bouncing around each other. A couple are platform-based. There are definitely some themes across them, but I wouldn’t say we’re restricted to any particular types of games.

GamesBeat: What was the inspiration for Tuned Out? I immediately thought of WarioWare and games like that. Can you talk about where you got the idea?

Coulson: It definitely has a lot of inspirations from WarioWare, Mario Party style games, almost an intermix of that. The channel-switching specifically came from a prototype I worked on over the course of a week. It was a very basic game where you’re just these squares and you’re trying to collect as many things as possible, but then the rules change as you’re playing. These things are worth 10 points, those are worth five points, and then sometimes things could be worth nothing. It was changing the rules repeatedly over the course of a minute, which was a lot of fun, but—it was all abstracted blocks.

I happened to, once we started our thesis, I started thinking about the fact that same idea could work across multiple games. More or less that’s what we’re doing. You’re playing one game where the rules and the visuals are always changing on you.

GamesBeat: It sounds like you came in with these previous inspirations and ideas from other projects. How has it evolved since you started working on it full time?

Coulson: I think the biggest thing that’s evolved on the project was, for quite a while it was just each of these games were being individually played, and we were thinking about how exactly we would intermix it. It took a really long time for us to get to the point of actually having all of these games play in the same system. We had an inkling of how that would work, but that alone took probably four, about four months to build that system out and then to actually see what it’s like to play four games at once. You can think about it, but you really don’t know until you try it.

GamesBeat: Was that the biggest challenge in development? Or was it more balancing the different games?

Coulson: I would say the two biggest challenges we deal with are the cohesion across all games, but then also the technical challenge across all games. We’ve had to write a pretty extensive API so that each of these games can be played individually and still be contained in memory while other games are being played. Maintaining all of these states without breaking and crashing other games—it took quite a while to get that framework set up.

And then in terms of just the cohesion across all games, that’s a never-ending design problem. We’ll be dealing with that until release, continue to figure out new ways of representing the games and teaching people how to play.

GamesBeat: Can we talk about the aesthetic? Because it has this really interesting video collage, Robot Chicken sensibility to it. How did you develop that? Is that something you discussed together?

Coulson: Honestly, in the beginning of the project, we really had no idea. We didn’t have much of a connection in our visuals. Over time we finally came to exactly what you said, this ’90s Robot Chicken messy aesthetic. Once we started honing in on the game as this way of channel surfing, bringing back this relic of the late ’90s, we wanted to kind of represent that as well through the visuals.

So a lot of the art is actually—a few of the games aren’t like this, but most of them are very physical, where it’s made up of actual paper that’s clipped out, or clay. We’ve scanned that and hand animated each of those pieces and then put it in the game afterward. And then there’s a lot of glitchiness we add in terms of—not cyber glitchy, but more like old VCR glitchy. And also making use of not actual scribble vision, but reminiscing on that type of aesthetic. Even when no player is moving, we want there to always be motion.

GamesBeat: What do you think was the most important thing you learned from the MFA program? 

Coulson: Oh, man. A lot. I’ve been, I guess, designing games since a few years before I came to the MFA. But one of the things that it definitely helped me start honing in on is that—I would say more like, one of the interests I always had was in systems design, but I didn’t necessarily have as much of a goal, a desired experience, a result I wanted to get out of those types of things. I think the Game Center has helped me to think much more about what the player experiences, what they’re actually going to get out of it, beyond just the rules of the game.

I don’t think Tuned Out would be what it is if it weren’t for—it would be a much more boring, but visually eclectic experience. One of the things the Game Center does really well is it teaches you the basics, and then gets very in depth on what makes up a game. That’s a lot of your first year. And then the second year is almost just, how do you break out of this, start questioning what games are, bringing in new experiences that haven’t otherwise been seen. For us, that was huge during our design process with Tuned Out. I don’t know if I would have ever considered using randomness to add a skill or a mechanic to learn before that, or the level of visceral experience we’re trying to do with this game, if it weren’t for that process.

IndieBeat is GamesBeat reporter Stephanie Chan’s weekly column on in-progress indie projects. If you’d like to pitch a project or just say hi, you can reach her at stephanie@venturebeat.com.