An Interview with Sleep Tight's Maxx Burman

This past PAX East was loaded for bear with a massive overload of new IP to gawk at. One title that caught my eye was what appeared to be a colorful top-down shooter, but on closer inspection turned out to me much more. I had an opportunity to chat with Maxx Burman, game designer and co-founder of We Are Fuzzy games. I’ll let him give you the pitch for Sleep Tight.

You play as a kid, defending your bedroom from monsters that emerge every night. During the day, its a base-builder strategy game, where you spend your “suns” building pillow forts, upgrading your dart guns, and unlocking new powerups/skills. Once you’ve spent all your suns, night comes, and you need to survive a 1-minute twin-stick shooting round.

It’s an arcade game, with fast action and a lot of strategy built in. The art style is reminiscent of Pixar movies, and every part of the game is meant to invoke childhood nostalgia.

Now, we’ve all heard the “it looks like I’m playing a Pixar” movie spiel before (I’m pretty sure it’s in the mission statement for the marketing team behind the Ratchet and Clank series), but We Are Fuzzy is packing some heat to back that claim up. Namely, an art team comprised of the sorts of people who know how to make Pixar-like visuals. Names like Dylan Ekren (Wreck It Ralph, Big Hero 6) Matt Kohr (Gigantic, Despicable Me) and Nicholas Kole (Maleficent, Shardbound) join veteran game artists like Oscar Mar (Far Cry 3, Rainbow 6). Along with Maxx Burman, producer Banks Boutté and engineer Jed Jackoway, the alliteratively named creative force behind the game’s hybridization of top-down shooting and strategic base management, round out the team.

After 10 years working on movies like Iron Man 3 (and Portal: No Escape, if you recall that gem from 2011) and big games like Titanfall, Maxx decided he wanted to strike out on his own, and after spending time helping to deliver the gritty gritness of grit that is Game of Thrones, he was up for something new. “After working on other people's projects for the last decade, I really wanted to create something of my own, and creating the fun and colorful world of Sleep Tight was a really nice challenge.”

The concept for the game comes from one of those feel-good stories you sometimes see in movies.

The original gameplay inspiration came from a school project created by one of my oldest friends, Jed Jackoway. He created this base builder/twin stick shooter hybrid game, and sent it over to me. I got so hooked on that prototype, and always wanted to make it into a full-blown game.

But they weren’t quite ready yet, and needed a musical montage to round out their skills. Then:

[y]ears later, after we were both well in to our careers, I found that old prototype and started playing it again. I thought, how special would it be, now that we had the skill sets to make it come to life, to fulfill a childhood dream of ours, and make a game together. That’s where the inspiration for the world came, if we were going to make a game, it should be all about childhood, and the dreams we had as kids.

Jed Jackoway and Maxx wanted to take that prototype to the next level. “We wanted to create something that gave the player a sense of progress but still kept in some fast-paced action.” Usually people do that by making numbers pop out of enemies when you shoot them. Jed and Maxx took inspiration from games like Call of Duty, Rollercoaster Tycoon and Sim City instead. In doing so, their hope was to create a game that’s simple to pick up and play, but with enough strategic depth to keep people interested.

A tall order, and that sort of ambition needs a blend of dedication and thoughtfulness to pull off. During our interview, Maxx shared a story that illustrated both:

We originally planned on releasing the game in September of 2017. Banks Boutté [The game’s producer – GD] and I were walking into E3, with a Switch in hand, loaded up with Sleep Tight when we both got news announcements on our phones. Nintendo had just announced Mario Rabbids and Pokkén Tournament on the week before and after when we had planned to release Sleep Tight. We were 3 steps in the convention, and just turned around and walked right out. We sat at a coffee shop across the street figuring out if we could push the release date and what we’d use the extra time for. We ended up pushing almost a year, adding 12 playable characters, 5 new game modes, and competitive leaderboards with the extra time. The extra time was actually an amazing gift that made the game so much better. Luckily we were able to shift our team around to other projects, but it just shows how quickly everything can change.

Since that fateful E3, they’ve been showing the game at PAX South and East, GDC and E3. It turns out, that work payed off. “[T]he support we’ve gotten from gamers and press outlets is overwhelming. We’re very grateful for the response.”

The product of that ambition piled onto other ambition is coming out on Steam and the Nintendo Switch. It runs on the Unreal Engine, which you may have heard doesn’t play well with Nintendo’s hardware, and the fact that Switch developers are under NDA complicates things further, since nobody can talk about how they solved common problems. They weren’t completely adrift, though. “[T]he team at Epic Games and Nintendo have been incredibly supportive of our small team and helped us work through every hurdle.”

Sleep Tight releases on July 26, 2018 on Steam and Nintendo Switch. I, for one, am looking forward to dusting off those Nerf guns and defending my couch-cushion fort from the onslaught of bogeymen from under the bed.

Comments

Interesting game. I am not sure I like the art style, I bet it is one of those that looks better in motion than in screenshots. For the $15 release price I'll keep an eye out to check it out after launch.

Looks neat, and I like the alternating play styles idea.

I suspect I’ll have more to say about this in about nine days.