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Interview: Tommy Refenes (Goo!)

APRIL 21, 2008

An interview with Tommy Refenes, founder of the company PillowFort which is based in Hendersonville, North Carolina. One might also recognize his name credited as the developer of Goo!, a finalist for IGF's Technical Excellence award. (download the demo)

Hi Tommy, can you introduce yourself for the benefit of our readers? And do you prefer to be addressed as Tom or Tommy?

I'm Tommy Refenes. Programmer, designer... uhh, everything-er of PillowFort, creator of Goo!. Tommy works (Tom's my dad). I'll stick with Tommy forever until I eventually change my name to a symbol.

I literally spend all my time either programming, or reading up on programming or just thinking about programming. I think I've built an immunity to sitting and staring at the computer. I've been doing it professionally since I was 18, and for fun since I was 11. I worked out of my house for this company and had like 4 servers in the house, 4 monitors looking at different computers, and terminal services all over the place. I sold that house to do games.

I had a great house in Charlotte NC. Had a bad ass sports car, living it up... and one day was like "I wanna do games", then this company offered me a job and I sold it all, put it in storage and moved out to that company. I'd say what company it was, but they were total dicks and I don't want to be associated with them in any way. So they can just be "a game company".

Can you explain to us what Goo! is all about?

Goo! is basically a fast-paced action game where you control a big glob of Goo. Goos can represent anything from crowds of bees to Siafu ants to mercury reflecting your image from a webcam... goos are basically anything. There are two modes right now, with at least one more to come before launch. In Survival Mode you control a glob of Goo that is constantly decaying and you fight against a Paint Goo that is constantly growing. It's basically a very pointless battle as the Paint Goo will eventually eat you but you feel better about yourself because you have tons of points. In Versus Mode you can fight against the AI (well... not NOW, but at launch) or you can play against your friends. In Versus mode when you consume your opponent you get bigger and they get smaller.

The new game modes, I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to do. I'm probably going to do a capture the flag mode with some obstacles in the stage for you to avoid, etc... but that's still kinda up in the air.

In another interview, you've mentioned that Goo! will have online multiplayer features.

Ah yes. The plan is cooperative Survival Mode and Versus Mode. Super Smash Bros. dipped in barbeque sauce is what I'm aiming for with Versus Mode. Cooperative Survival Mode should be a fun one... basically you and probably only one other person will control separate Goos and fight off the Paint Goo.

Versus Mode will support up to 4 players. More than four and it gets stupidly hectic. Four is pretty nuts, we were playing it in the Hotel room at GDC. I hooked it up two nights before the IGF Pavilion... I hadn't had versus mode working since right around July before that. That's why GDC was the first time I ever... EVER played four player. The multiplayer is in the current build, it'll support up to 4 players in versus mode. Survival Mode is still one player.

How long have you worked on Goo!, and how many hours do you work it on everyday?

I average probably 14 hours a day on it, and I've been developing it since May of 06, coming up on 2 years now. It's gone through TONS of revisions and code redos. This last engine will be the final break down start over for the game.

I assume development progress on the game is going smoothly then. How much of Goo! would you say is completed? And is there a reason why there hasn't been any updates in regards to the game on the official site?

Well I'm in the process of redoing the entire engine. The first engine was basically a sort of proof of concept engine. The new engine is much faster and supports OpenGL and DirectX. Right now my energy is focused on that, I've been pretty heavy on it ever since I got back from GDC. Once it's ported to the new engine, which should be by the end of this month I'll go back to completing the game modes. I'd probably say that the overall gameplay is probably 60 to 70% complete. I am going to be adding networking support and add particle effects and polish to finish it up.

The reason there's been no updates is I've been working on the new engine and have been somewhat distracted by other dealings going on with the future of Goo!. Basically I've been buried in lots and lots of work. :)

Are talks on the publishing deal still ongoing? Or have you found a publisher?

I have found one that I want to go with, and they seem very interested, but I'm still working out the details. As far as the publishing goes, nothing is ever a sure thing until you sign the papers so HOPEFULLY I'll be able to announce something here real soon.

Does that technically mean you're not supposed to reveal too much about the project then?

At this time, I can reveal whatever I want about the project and the direction, but as far as the publisher specifics I probably shouldn't just yet. Both for professional and jinx reasons.

Let's say that you're under a publishing deal right now, and can't reveal too much information about the project. What platforms do you envision seeing Goo! on?

I'd always aimed for Xbox 360 because I have prior experience with 360 programming but... due to the kinda change in climate over in XBLA land, I'm sorta shying away from that and leaning towards PSN and PC distribution. I'd love to put it on the Wii, but I don't have an office so I can't get a Wii devkit.

The PS3 can definitely handle the work load, and PC + Steam = Good. Plus with the new threading model the game will run on a single core machine... not quickly, but it will still run.

Any specifics on your negative feelings towards having Goo! on the Xbox 360 console?

Well... if I'm being honest, Microsoft doesn't return my emails after over a year of talking with them, and I'm kinda tired of sending emails and not getting any response. It's almost like when their royalty rates changed they stopped returning emails.

If Goo! is to be published for the PC, will it support anything other than an Xbox 360 controller? A combination of keyboard and mouse perhaps.

If it were to come out on PC, I'd support the mouse in some way though I'd push people to using a joystick. Right now you can use the 360 Joystick or any DirectInput compatible controller.

Is the latest build available for download the new engine or the old one?

Actually when I got back from GDC I redid the threading model in anticipation of the Intel Threaded Game contest. So that's really the only thing different, the new threading model runs the game much faster, but I haven't released it yet because I'm focused on getting the new engine ready to go. The demo up on the website is what I showed at GDC with a few improvements to the controls.

Will we see another build uploaded before the game gets published?

I think so. Depending on how fast the publisher moves. I dunno if they'll make me take it down or not, but I'll squeeze something out there for everyone. The response is great from people and I feel I owe it to them to give them at least something before they have to purchase the game.

Goo! was previously a team effort, and now you're working on it single-handed. Will this remain the same until the game launches, or are you planning to get some help on the project?

It'll definitely stay solo for programming and design mainly with some help in the art and sound department. I'm actually relying on user feedback to help tweak and design the game. I found that a ton of problems presented itself just while watching people play the game at GDC and the ideas and way people want to play the game seems to carry from person to person. I'm so used to playing the game that I don't see these little problems. Having said that I have a HUGE list of changes and tweaks from watching people play at the IGF pavilion.

Do you have a schedule for the development of Goo!? A specific month in which you plan to complete the project?

Well it's mainly dependent on the publisher and that schedule at this point. I'd love to have it out for Christmas and I'll probably kill myself to get it there but we'll just have to see.

Will Goo! be PillowFort's first published game then?

Yea, first but by far not the last. The next is cooking. I WANT to submit the next one for IGF 09...buuuuttttt we'll see.

The next game will greatly depend on how the publishing deal works out and how I feel and how much I can get done. The new engine is perfect for powerful rapid prototyping. And I'm a tech guy, so whatever game I do will push the tech limit.

Was it your first time at GDC?

Yes it was. I've always wanted to go to E3, but GDC was absolutely amazing. By far the best week of my life in the last five years.

What were some of the best feedbacks or comments you've received for Goo! at GDC?

There were sooo many at GDC. The most flattering was when I wasn't at my booth really.

Some guys from the Intel booth came up, saw Goo! and said to Adam (Saltsman, artist on Owl Country - he was watching my booth) "Did you make this", he goes "no... Tommy did but he's not here." And they go "Does he know about the Intel Threaded Game contest...cause he should enter it, this will win."

I had a bunch of Sony guys come up and bombard me and complement the game, that was really cool. Jenova Chen said the game looked cool and we talked a little bit about Sun Tzu and RTS games.

Did you prepare an acceptance speech for the awards ceremony? And what was it?

Haha actually I did. And I was sooooo hurt when I didn't win. Basically I was going to thank mom and dad and tell Brandon McCartin that he owed me one night of hot sex. There probably would have been a "Holy fucking shit I won" in there. But alas... I was robbed.

Any ill feelings towards Kyle and Ron from 2D Boy then?

Nah those guys are awesome. Kyle and Ron are good guys and I told them that World of Goo looks like a Nintendo game... which I think is an awesome compliment. Nintendo is like the holy grail of game development and they're on it.

What do you think of the coincidence in the name of 2D Boy's and Pillowfort's debut games?

Haha 2D Boy ripped me off!

Best games you've seen at GDC?

World of Goo was awesome and that's actually the only one I really played and saw for the first time at GDC. I didn't see too much of anything else.

Did Edmund comment about the Gish skin you've made for Goo!?

Yes, a long time ago I had a site called and Edmund and I were affiliates. we just linked each others' sites really. We talk every once in a while about stuff, wanted to collaborate on a game eventually... stuff like that.

What other skins do you plan to add to Goo!?

I'm basically going to improve on the skins that are there, do a final art pass on them to make them look really nice. I'm going to add a lava one, a nicer looking oil one, improve the camera / liquid metal one, and I'm going to release the skin compiler with the game so people can make and use their own skins.

Will the Gish skin be included?

I think so, depends on the publisher really. Edmund seems cool with it. I mean, Edmund is cool with it being in there, I hit him up before I made it. Asked if I could show it at GDC, etc. But publishers are funny about stuff like that.

Let's just say you could have any skins you like in the game, what would be your picks?

I'd definitely do the camera one, and a much better liquid one that refracts the background. I've always wanted to do one where it was like space ships over a cool space scene.

Played any good indie games lately?

The best indie game I played recently was Noitu Love 2. It just came out today and I've been meaning to buy it.

Since your next project is still some ways from a publishing deal, is there any info on it that you can share with us?

My favorite types of games are games with a bad ass story that sucks you in (like Final Fantasy) and fast-paced skill games like Geometry Wars. Obviously, being a one man show outsourcing art, I can't do my epic story game (which I've already written the script for... that game is a LONG ways off), so I'm going to do a fast-paced skill game. I love racing games also and I love going FAST.

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