[INTERVIEW] How SA’s Twoplus Games just saved the world from 1.5 million zombies

Twoplus Games is a Joburg-based games developer which is currently riding high in the mobile games charts with its zombie escaping, hat swapping, survivor saving game that’s been critically acclaimed and has seen 1.5 million successful zombie slayings since its launch in September.

This is the kind of success that attracts us like flies to a reanimated corpse, so we couldn’t wait to catch up with Twoplus founder Steven Tu to discover how they made it on the international stage.

Hello Twoplus Games studio! We’re listening…

Twoplus means quite a bunch of things to me, and I always get a bit embarrassed saying them out loud (or typing them into reality). I always loved multiplayer games – harkening back to the days of the Super Nintendo when I was couchplaying my cousins, bombing the crap out of each other, coop gunning through Contra, elbowing each other and generally having a laugh. I miss that in a lot of modern gaming, so Twoplus is a nod to that.

I also really love to mash genres and cross-pollinate ideas, usually coming up with some bastard hybrid that’s super difficult to build/understand or play because they’re so unconventional. So Twoplus is a nod to that too. Also, my friends know me as Tu, so it’s Tu-plus-friends.

A MAZE 2014, Tu doing a game jam with the theme Shongololo. Evan Greenwood of Free Lives (standing), Loet Jansen Van Rensburg, Twoplus Games (sitting)
A MAZE 2014, Tu doing a game jam with the theme Shongololo. Evan Greenwood of Free Lives (standing), Loet Jansen Van Rensburg, Twoplus Games (sitting)

My favourite games growing up were from the Sierra and LucasArts stables. What did you grow up playing?

There’s no easy answer to this one! One of my very earliest memories when I was tiny was when I was around eight, and I was still in Taiwan, and a playground friend claimed that his dad made video games, so I “designed” a console (ballpoint drawing on scrap of paper) and gave it to him, fully expecting his dad to make it a reality for me. It was a handheld of some sort, that’s all I remember.

After I moved to South Africa, I spent a lot of time in Newcastle with my cousins, playing the SNES as mentioned above with friends was awesome. Super Mario Land, Ghouls and Goblins, Ganbare Goeman, Parodius… So many good games. Then one day, while we were playing – I think it was Ninja Turtles – my cousin’s dad walked in with a hockey stick, and smashed it to smithereens. We ran for our lives. I think we may have overdone it. After that I remember getting into a bunch of super obscure paper-based games.

I didn’t even know what they were. There was this giant maze and I had a piece of cardboard with a hole in it which represented the player, and you’d navigate the maze without being able to see everything. I also made my own games, a lot of it was based on the video games I played, so a Monopoly version of Ganbare Goeman. It was probably terrible but that wasn’t important when I was 10 or 12 or something.

A MAZE 2013, Tu playing with Sifteo cubes with Simon Bachelier of One Life Remains

Then the LAN era came and we I quickly graduated from not knowing how DOS worked (I would stick the floppy into the drive, and expect the game to start) to making maps and mods for Duke Nukem, Red Alert, Starcraft, Warcraft, the usual candidates. Klik & Play by Maxis came and went, and that was my first taste of making games. And emulators! Arcade fighters like King of Fighters (every year) was great, and I got into SNES classics again like Tetris Attack. Tetris Attack was the best versus game in the world ever. I played Magic for a bit but then got out in 1998, right after I cracked a Joburg regional top four. I think it was top four.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]“When I was around 8 and still in Taiwan, a playground friend claimed that his dad made video games, so I “designed” a console and gave it to him, fully expecting his dad to make it a reality for me. “ — Steven Tu, Tuplus Games [/su_pullquote]

After that games have just been part of my life regularly. I bought my very first console of my own, a PS3, with the sole intention of playing Tekken. Only. That didn’t quite work out as my collection is now, well, not small. Then I got into boardgames about three years ago. Netrunner for life! Boardgame design is another wonderful thing I also started to get into.

My more modern experiences are pretty typical – Humble Bundles, Steam and so on.

Who are your gaming heroes?

Richard Garfield, who designed Magic: The Gathering, Netrunner, King of Tokyo, Robo Rally, Vampire: The Eternal Struggle, is among the most incredible game designers out there, who is unlimited by what he has made before, and blazes new trails continuously.

Rami Ismail, one half of Vlambeer, needs no introduction with anyone who knows anything about indie gaming. He has not only made an incredible pile of games with just a team of two, he also continuously contributes time and energy into fostering the indie industry all around the world. And he’s WAY under 30, to boot.

Why are you passionate about the industry? 

This is an industry of love, passion and enjoyment. It’s about creating things that people love, and then setting them out into the world for people to love. It is about interaction, it is about engagement, It is about expression. It is so uniquely edgy yet it is all about accessibility. It incorporates so much of what I love to do anyway – art, interaction, social engagement, narrative, pushing digital boundaries, usability.
Tu giving a hypertalk on Mechanical Proto Juice at the first A MAZE game festival in Joburg (2012)
And probably most of all, it is built by people who are excited about making stuff and make that stuff with so much LOVE!

Game development is growing in South Africa with new courses popping up everyday. Where do you see this space heading locally?

Well, this question seems to encompass two aspects: Gaming as consumption, and game development as production.

As consumption, the potential for growth in SA is unquestionably massive. We all know that Africa stands at the cusp of the digital rise – there is an insatiable appetite for knowledge and entertainment, we are just growing at a pace that’s locked by our infrastructural and logistical challenges, which are on their way to being solved.

[su_pullquote align=”left”]“We all know that Africa stands at the cusp of the digital rise – there is an insatiable appetite for knowledge and entertainment…” — Steven Tu, Tuplus Games [/su_pullquote]

As production, the challenges are really the same – infrastructural and logistical. Red tape for game developers – indies and companies alike – is so thick that it’s often disheartening, and it’s affected us globally, as can be seen by Google not accepting South Africans for their Merchant Account, denying us of easy access to a very large slice of the international distribution potential. We had the Amazon refusing to ship to SA problem not so long ago.

These all add up to a more difficult than necessary terrain for us to traverse – but some of the most critically acclaimed titles coming from our shores speak for themselves. Desktop Dungeons, Broforce, Viscera Cleanup Detail are our spearheads. There are many more on the way, we just need to blaze that trail for more of us to be able to follow.

Dead Run is a hit on iOS. It’s tense… but we love it. How did you come up with the idea? 

Dead Run was an idea sparked off by a few things:
  1. We wanted to make something of as small a scope as possible.
  2. We were affected by all the hullabaloo about Flappy Bird.
  3. We wanted to make something that stirred people emotionally.
  4. So Loet (my partner in crime in Twoplus) and I threw experimented with various one-button ideas, built and prototyped the idea in one weekend. We showed the results to a few people, and it was met with quite a few “Ship it! Ship it now!”, so we put more work into it and brought it to what it is now.

Explain the game to readers who haven’t yet downloaded it (but will after this interview!)

Dead Run, is a game of rapid zombie profiling – it’s a tension-filled endless runner where your options are simple – strike, or don’t. You’ll run into zombies who will kill you if you don’t hit first, and fellow survivors who will end your run if you kill them. Different hats unlock different ways of playing.

Dead Run is simple, yet unlike any other game you’ve ever played, with an addictive learning curve that rewards, well, learning. Zombies are always a hit, and the polish we’ve put into the game really shows. It boils down to that “just one more try”, “I can beat my best” feeling that it’s able to deliver in a few short minutes at a time.

I’d love an Xbox One but it’s priced too high for my liking. Thankfully, there are some amazing games on mobile. Do you think pocket gaming is the way forward for game development?

Mobile is a tricky one. It’s certainly the easiest to get into – but being the easiest to get into, it is also insanely saturated. Dead Run was our experiment – we wanted to see how the mobile market worked, and what it took to bring a polished product to the world.

As for “the way forward”, I think it’s not definitively one platform. It’s building games that people want to play, and then delivering that onto as many platforms as that property can go on. If it fits, it should go there. Developing platform-exclusive stuff doesn’t seem to make the best sense in our super-interwoven landscape of technologies.

Dead Run is your first official release. What’s next for Twoplus Games? 

We are constantly prototyping and trying out ideas.
  • Beat Attack: It’s a versus puzzle game, it’s a music game, it’s one touch, and it’s going on mobile!
  • Krigsskibe/Codename: Warship: Tetris meets tower defence meets the Normandy landing.

  • No More Boxes: Toss, suck, magic, punch boxes at friends in this 4 player versus platformer physics-em-up arena, made for Ludum Dare 31.

  • Landshark Missile Attack: You are a landshark, firing missile barrages in bullet time to destroy hordes of enemies! Made for Ludum Dare 29.

Game dev is a painstaking process – even before a game goes into final production. You can help us by checking these out, and telling us which of these you want to see taken to the finish line!

You can find more information about Twoplus Games via their website, on twitter, or on their Facebook page.

[Main image – Steven Tu and Loet Jansen Van Rensburg at rAge 2014, all images supplied]


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