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GDC 09: The Four-Hour Game Design

7:00 PM on 03.23.2009 // Anthony Burch

Jonatan “Cactus” Soderstrom can make a game in the time it takes you to read this sentence. He's known for creating huge amounts of (mostly quite good) games in fantastically short spans of time, which was probably why he was given his own talk at the 2009 Indie Game Summit entitled “Four Hour Game Design.”

Where most lecturers used a powerpoint presentation to exhibit their points, cactus showed an animation made in his own inimitable pixel style interspersed with weirdass Internet images and playable game examples. Each of which he spent no more than fifteen seconds on.

Hit the jump for a scattershot summary of his schizophrenic, rapid-fire, mixed-media presentation.

“I AM INTERNET,” a bobble-headed character exclaims to another equally freakish character. “COMPUTER,” he yells as one explodes into existence, followed by “YOU WILL MAKE GAME! A GAME IN FOUR HOURS!” The other, childish looking character asks how and after a few vague words of encouragement, he hits the computer over and over as a clock winds forward in time. Finally, after four hour hand rotations, a large pile of pixelated shit comes out the other end. “YOUR GAME STINKS,” the larger character says. “BECAUSE YOU STINK.”


Cactus draws a comparison to how making a game is like making a baby. “The first part is really good, actually...,” he says as “CONCEPTION” appears on the screen accompanied by an image of two statues making out.

First, you get an idea, Cactus says; then, you have high expectations, then you realize this is harder than you think it'll be. “You'll run into unexpected problems like getting fat,” he says. “So you get tired of it.|” Then your friends stop respecting you, and you're slowly getting fatter, and they don't realize you're actually putting a lot of hard work into it.

Then, a picture of a woman giving birth, with the caption “GETTING IT OUT THERE.” Then, a hideous baby: “NOT WHAT YOU EXPECTED.” But sometimes “you get lucky,” Cactus says, and you hit the jackpot (illustrated by a not-freakish baby).

Part two is creativity. Cactus' methods of being creative: experiment a lot, dare to be serious, renew your concept, it doesn't need to be fun, create an atmosphere. “More people should make games that are not for children but for adults and, like, mature people.” Cactus' heavily accented, quiet mumbling contrasts sharply from his colorful, animated slides, making the jokes funnier but him a little hard to pay attention to in the face of them.

Cactus shows a game he made (one that as of yet is not available, I believe) to show his efforts to be unique: a little skeleton runs across a black and white screen surrounded by birds and mines which, when shot, turn into explosions that can then be jumped on like platforms.

“How to make games if you don't feel like being creative,” the next “slide” exclaims within a 3D world of cacophonic sounds and epilepsy-inducing visuals. The next captions suggest mimicking an existing game and changing its internals sufficiently that it is a competitor to the original game. Two characters approach one another: one shaped like a man, the other like an amorphous blob. The blob turns into the man and they argue. “Add something that will make players prefer your version to the original,” a caption says. The blob-turned-man suddenly grows gigantic breasts. The audience laughs.


Part three is graphics. A list suggests doodling or messing around just to form a starting point. Cactus cycles through a doodle to a slightly animated doodle to a walking animation of that doodle, to a colored version of the doodle that walks around the screen at his command. It's cheesy and simplistic, but it does look like an actual game sprite and could be made very quickly – not too bad considering it came from a doodle. Then he shows a bunch of disassembled parts which, while simple in their own, are assembled in the next slide into a real character. The heads and bodies change, illustrating the ability the artist has to switch out pieces in these easily assemble-able characters.

Then he does the drawing-animation cycle with a tiny pixel sprite which then turns into a hundred near-identical sprites of different color and size, which all look surprisingly cool in large numbers and sufficiently different from one another.

Cactus warns against saturating your player with too many bright colors, illustrating the difference by showing a bunch of too-colorful blocks, then desaturating them, then rotating them for no reason than to be interesting, then making them flicker, then adding “atmosphere” in the form of darkening the outside of the screen, then, for even less of a reason, a rain effect that streams down the screen. Then he colors the raindrops blue. He has a distinct purpose in showing all these changes -- they're things you can do very quickly and easily to make your game more visually interesting -- but he runs through them so quickly and indifferently that every single new slide elicits a bout of laughter from the audience.

A static, “shitty,” according to Cactus, MSPaint image of a man's face. When animated by breaking the parts of the image apart and moving them around in order to convey the illusion of emotion and movement, it looks slightly less bad apart from the huge breaks in the drawing.

TRY TO BE ORIGINAL WHEN MAKING AN ORIGINAL GAME, an oversized alien head suddenly commands of the audience a millisecond after appearing without warning. “That's actually the hardest part...”, Soderstrom mumbles.

Part four: graphics. Which is kind of different from art, evidently. A game appears on screen, controlled by cactus: a little white box shoots yellow boxes at gray boxes, which explode. Suddenly, we switch to a seizure-inducing platformer made up of constantly shifting lines where a headless protagonist jumps on turtles ten times before they split in half and die.

Cactus shows a graphically updated version of the –

DON”T WORK TOO HARD OR YOU'LL GET TIRED,” the random-tip alien head shouts.

The box-shooty game with more colorful and vibrant explosions. It looks unquestionably better.

Part five: preparations.

A slide suggests, "go to the bathroom": “You have to go to the bathroom before you start. It's really hard to try and make a game when you have to shit. It really ruins the mood.”

"Eat and drink": “You lose creativity when you're hungry.”

"But not too much": A picture of a baby between two slices of bread. Seriously.

"Have an idea ready": “I don't count the conception of the idea” as part of the actual game development time, he says.

"The right tools": “You need to find something you're comfortable working in.”

Use shortcuts, the next remarkably not-insane-looking slide conveys through a simple image of a desktop shortcut.


GAMES MADE OF ROCK DON'T ALWAYS ROCK. The audience chuckles nervously, not really knowing what this means.

Part six: audio. “A game with bad music and bad audio is a lot worse than a game with good audio and good music," Soderstrom says. The audience again laughs, because, what?

SFXR is the best program Cactus has “ever, ever downloaded for sound effects,” citing its ease of use and that “everyone should have it."

Cactus suggests using online musicians, admitting “I don't usually contact online musicians...I just steal their tunes and hope they don't get angry.” He makes the statement almost totally without emotion, which makes it even funnier.


The lecture abruptly ends with a “Game Over, please try again” sign after this final random comment. I actually regret typing as much as I have been because I missed the first half of the random comments.

Cactus says the audience can choose between asking questions of him or seeing some games he likes but did not make. The audience overwhelmingly prefers to see the games.

He shows a mouse-controlled, good-graphics version of Snake called String Deluxe. He shows Up A Lazy Ocean, citing Daniel Benmergui's I Wish I Were the Moon as a possible influence to a smattering of applause (some of it from myself). I Was in the War, which he loses so quickly on his first playthrough the audience erupts into laughter (helped along by the goofy music). Throughout his entire presentation, Soderstrom's voice has not once changed in pitch or intensity. He plays I Was in the War for a while and the audience chuckles and laughs everytime a new enemy is introduced. He shows an arena shooter called Radian with “VHS-style graphics” that he calls “really good.” After taking six consecutive hits from the enemy without landing a single one of his own, he admits: “Yeah, I suck at it.” After a few seconds, he switches it out for Psycho, which he says “also has really nice graphics,” made up of stark reds, blacks and whites.

After mumbling “I think that's all the time we have,” Cactus' lecture ends as quickly as it started. By the time I realized he had nothing more to say, I was positive of two things: one, that this was the most entertaining lecture I had ever seen in my life, and two, that I was not even remotely closer to understanding just how Cactus keeps making games in four hours that almost reliably do not suck.

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