Interview with Pepper Grinder Designer Riv Hester

As with most of the designers I talk to on this site, I first discovered Riv Hester through Twitter. More specifically, through a gif of his gnarly game Pepper Grinder which was retweeted onto my timeline (I forget by who, but clearly someone with good taste).

Described on the game’s site as “an action platformer about a treasure hunter named Pepper and her drill, Grinder” it’s a game with a premise and a hook (or rather a drill) that has me ready to dive in.

Hester says Pepper Grinder was inspired by Namco’s arcade platformer Dig-Dug, but paired with the character movement of Sega’s Ecco the Dolphin.

“It just sort of grew from there as I fleshed it out,” Hester told me, “drawing on more stuff like Donkey Kong Country, Tank Girl and Gurren Lagann.” After watching the game’s reveal trailer these inspirations 100% check out.

I was instantly interested in this little platformer- and I wasn’t alone. Players everywhere showered Pepper Grinder in love on Reddit and Twitter, accumulating thousands of likes and upvotes as well as over 60,000 trailer views as of this writing. Pepper Grinder also won the 2017 Intel Level Up Contest for Best Platformer and Best Use of Game Physics.

Hester is hoping to have Pepper Grinder finished sometime in 2019. “One thing I’ve learned is never to assume your current pace is at all indicative of what it will be next month. Everything always takes longer than expected, no matter how many times you’ve done it before.”

I asked whether he’s found a publisher (and whether this is another game Devolver Digital will snatch up, which I accurately predicted with My Friend Pedro). “The rest I can’t talk about yet,” is all Hester would tell me, “besides saying that it’ll come to PC and Switch!” Same two platforms as six of Devolver’s other 2019 releases 🤔 that’s besides the point.

But Hester had been designing games a long time before Pepper Grinder blew up. I wanted to know more about his path into indie game development and his design process.

The Unplugged Controller… Classic

Hester’s earliest memory with videogames goes back to the NES. “I think it was playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with one of my brothers when I was around 4 years old,” Hester told me. “Though looking back I’m not sure my controller was plugged in, so ‘playing’ could be the wrong word.”

It would be several more years before Hester became interested in designing games of his own.

“I was 13 and a friend introduced me to RPG Maker on the PS One of all things,” Hester recalls.

“Just realizing that you could make games on your own even in such a limited capacity was really eye-opening. I got my own copy and tried to demake Jet Set Radio with it. That didn’t pan out so well, but it was a start anyway.”

Hester would continue to bounce around different game development tools and software over the next few years, but never felt like he could achieve a career in games.

“I didn’t have an aptitude for programming or even scripting, and my math skills were abysmal,” Hester told me. “So I went to school for art and animation instead. Everything I’ve learned about gamedev since then has been mostly self-taught, with occasional dips into help threads on forums. I sort of side-stepped my programming barrier with the advent of visual scripting solutions in modern game engines.”

One of those visual scripting solutions is an engine called Construct, developed by Scirra. Hester uses Construct 2 to build his games, including Pepper Grinder. “It was the first game engine I found that just made sense to me right from the beginning,” says Hester. “The interface, the way the visual scripting works, it all just clicked.”

Hester was working at the California College District when he started developing Pepper Grinder but wasn’t able to devote as much time to the game as he wanted. “[The job] kept me funded long enough to pitch the project and find a publishing partner, though,” Hester explained, “and I’ve been a full-time gamedev for the last year and a half!”

Solo Indie Life

In his Twitter bio, Hester describes himself as a “digital illustrator / bad game designer” which made me wonder whether he’s not confident in his design ability or he’s extra confident in his illustrating ability.

“That’s more of a joke than anything. I try not to take myself too seriously!” Hester reassured me. “But also yes to both, a little.”

I asked whether this self-deprecating joke hinted at some imposter syndrome.

“I think everyone feels that at least a little bit,” Hester told me. “We like to share our successes a lot more than our failures, so there just aren’t as many outwardly visible examples of people struggling to compare your own experience with.”

I feel this especially in my day to day. We get a very tailored highlight reel of each other’s lives on social media. We don’t often see the struggles others go through and begin to feel alone with our issues. This is especially true in the indie game scene, where we see amazing gifs and art and demos but don’t see the hours of failures and redos behind them.

Inspiration and Style

Hester says his games are inspired by all kinds of things, and it’s different for each one.

Pepper Grinder was the drilling mechanic first, and everything else has come up around that idea,” he told me. “My other games have been story or world first or were prompted by gamejam themes.”

Game jams like the Winter Wizard Jam for which Hester made a game called Happy Happy Krampusnacht you can play online right now. Or the most recent Global Game Jam, whose theme was Home and so obviously Hester made a game called Home is Where Your Giant Pig Is you can also play online.

From these two game jam games and Pepper Grinder it became very clear to me that Hester has a consistent visual approach to his games.

“I just have a particular style in pixel art that is largely informed by trying to hit a sweet spot between expressiveness and ease of production,” Hester told me. “Being a mostly solo game developer means I have to be really careful about setting myself up for a realistically manageable workload. I still usually fail at that at first and have to cut things back as I go.”

The Other Game

Hester has another game in the works called Reliquary, a top-down action game where players navigate “procedurally generated stages riddled with derelict spacecraft and bizarre creatures” and “die a lonely, ungraceful death and decide to maybe not do that next time.”

At the heart of this roguelike is a mystery deep within the asteroid field called the Reliquary. I love roguelikes, I love sci-fi and I love the sound of this game. Hester told me that “the setting of being stranded in space largely came from the song Even Though by Morcheeba.”

“Just one of those things where you listen to a song over and over and keep extrapolating ideas from it. Gameplay-wise, it’s a more cautious and methodical Nuclear Throne with RPG elements.”

After two years of developing Reliquary, Hester started to burn out and decided to stop. He didn’t want that burnout to set in so he switched gears and started prototyping Pepper Grinder.

“I shared a couple gifs of [Pepper Grinder] and they blew up like nothing I’d ever done before so I was like, shit, I guess I’m working on this now,” said Hester. “I want to get back to Reliquary when Pepper Grinder wraps, but I think it’ll be a substantially different game when that happens.”

A Few More Pearls

I like to ask every developer I talk to what’s the one thing they wish they knew before they got into game design. For Hester, it was the value of wiping the board clean.

“It’s okay to throw your work away and start over,” Hester told me. “The earliest work on any project is almost always the worst because you don’t fully know what the game is or what it needs to be yet. It’s easy to be so attached to what you’ve done already that you just want to keep building on a bad foundation.”

This is something I’ve heard many times. That’s why you start with ugly blocks and placeholder art to see if it feels good before you sink time into anything that would become too hard to throw away. My game design professor in my first year often talked about his hundreds of game prototypes. He’d say that “You have lots of bad games in you, it’s best to get them out so you can get to the good ones.”

“Sometimes it’s best to feel it out that way to start and then rebuild from scratch while keeping everything you learned in mind,” Hester continued. “Or even scrap it entirely and do something else. And keep it small!”

My biggest takeaway from Hester and his development process is that game development, especially with small teams or by yourself, is truly becoming more possible than ever before.

“I think a lot of people on the outside see this industry as a big walled garden that requires a degree and references and a ton of luck on top of that to break into,” Hester said. “Really you just have to start making stuff anyway you can, share it, and talk to people. Nobody cares where you went to school, they just care about what you can actually do.”

“Make stuff! Have fun!”

Thanks for reading! A huge thank you to Riv Hester for taking time from making games to talk to me. If you’re interested in Hester’s work and keeping up with Pepper Grinder‘s development or any other games he’s working on you should follow him on Twitter @Ahr_Ech.

If you liked this interview you can catch me on Twitter @StephanReilly and check some of my other interviews including one with IGF award winner Mattias “D!TTØ” Dittrich or my interview with RunGunJumpGun designer Jordan Bloemen.

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

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