From Flash to Switch, how My Friend Pedro evolved from the chaos of youth
© DeadToast Entertainment/Devolver Digital
My Friend Pedro's creator Victor Ågren talks to us about his hit indie game, from its Flash birth over 10 years ago to the impact of cult game site Newgrounds and breaking out on Switch.
In a world where we've seen games with playable pieces of bread, jousting phalluses and simulator games of various degrees of bonkers, a sentient, talking banana is not the most outlandish or ridiculous thing we've seen. In fact, what's more outlandish is that My Friend Pedro has been over a decade in the making and its slo-mo flips and spins are a throwback to a simpler time, where Flash games ruled your lunch break and every game was trying their spin on The Matrix's trademark bullet time.
That's intentional. Victor Ågren, the one-man band behind DeadToast Entertainment and 2019's indie bullet ballet shooter, explains to us that the basis of the game kicked-off over 10 years ago, when Newgrounds was spawning breakout cult hits before modern viral fame was a thing.
To get to today's version of My Friend Pedro, we have to step back in time a little bit, as Ågren explains.
"So, we have to go quite far back," Ågren says. "Basically, I've been making games since I was around seven-years-old, maybe even earlier. I started making paper computers and pretending they were video games, and then I found a program called Klik & Play, so I started making games in that for myself and friends. After that, I still wanted to keep making games, but the tools were quite outdated at the time. Then, I stumbled on Flash.
"I'd been doing some animations and things in Flash for a while and I was a bit more into filmmaking or animation, but then I started teaching myself how to do scripting in Flash. Then, I was like, 'Oh cool, I can make games again'. That's how I got into making Flash games.
"I was 14-years-old when I started making games in Flash and then I started learning more and more. When I was in college, so between the age of 16 and 19, I was going to do a final project. That's when I started working on the original Flash version of My Friend Pedro."
If My Friend Pedro – with its plethora of guns, slo-mo flips, motorbike chases, weaponised skateboards and underworld setting complete with crashing through glass windows – feels like the byproduct of a teenager's imagination. That's because in a sense, it was. But while the modern version wouldn't even be started until years later, long after Ågren was a teen, the original Flash version also took its time to be released.
"Then, I didn't finish that game," Ågren explains. "It was sort of just sitting on a hard drive for like six or seven years, because as I finished my studies I got a job at Media Molecule."
The very same Media Molecule behind games like Little Big Planet. Here, Ågren found himself as a level designer for the first two LBP titles, as well as the PlayStation Vita's Tearaway. The years spent there would see My Friend Pedro lay dormant – all while Ågren himself picked-up a number of skills that would later come in useful for the modern incarnation of the game. He also realised that the chaotic nature of his teenage brain would come in handy for My Friend Pedro.
It's interesting to take this sort of looseness, of just experimenting in my youth, where it was more about just the fun of creation.
"At Media Molecule, I was a level designer primarily and I was just learning around the people there. Everyone there's a genius and being able to absorb how they look at things, it was super valuable. I learned more of structure, principles to follow," Ågren adds. "For example, in level design or game design, I think the modern My Friend Pedro is an interesting design, because I probably wouldn't think of the core design today on my own as I think I've trained my brain.
"It's got a bit more structured and I'm thinking a little bit more rigidly, but it's interesting to take this sort of looseness, of just experimenting in my youth, where it was more about the fun of creation. It's just more about thinking about the emotion, rather than what's the cleanest design, or what makes sense gameplay-wise. It's a funny mix, this new version of My Friend Pedro."
For anyone who's watched The Matrix, or classic John Woo movies such as The Killer, that style over substance resonates throughout My Friend Pedro, whether that was the original Flash incarnation (which even had Matrix-esque leathers on the main character), or the modern version, which takes plenty of cues from the likes of Max Payne and its sequels.
It wasn't until Ågren left Media Molecule in 2013 that he picked up Flash again. "That's what I knew and I sort of just want to make a few quick games. I released one game called Nunchuck Charlie: A Love Story and then I tried to do a one-man game jam after that, where I tried to make like nine little games in nine days. I ended up taking a little bit longer," he recalls.
"After doing that, I wasn't sure what to do. Then, I remembered I had the original Flash version of My Friend Pedro pretty much finished. I just needed to put a wrapper on it and get it out. That's sort of when the whole thing was born and it got its name, everything like that, but the main game and graphics was made a long time now. Like 10 or 11 years. I finished-off the Flash game and released that on platforms like Newgrounds."
While Adobe Flash might be all but dead, the original My Friend Pedro released on Newgrounds in 2014 is still playable and much like with many other game makers on the site cutting their teeth into the industry, Ågren credits Newgrounds with getting him where he is today.
"I'm super grateful for Newgrounds. I probably wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for that site. For me, at that time, it was just so cool to be able to make something and suddenly have millions of people playing something you put out there," he says. "It was so much fun and it was so very relaxed. People had no expectations of those games, they could be anything. There was this whole freedom and it just felt really encouraging.
"The Flash game era was really nice. If you released your game on a couple of sites, it automatically spread to thousands of sites all over the Internet. It was like the game was its own marketing in a way, so it found an audience quite easily and quickly. I released the original Flash version of My Friend Pedro and then it got quite popular and was played many millions of times. Then people kept asking for more, so I started making this new incarnation soon after that, because it felt like it was there was something that could be expanded upon."
The modern incarnation of the game, out now on PC and Nintendo Switch, doesn't look like a Flash game at all. It's built with the modern game engine Unity, an engine that Ågren had to learn by himself to make the 2019 version of the game.
"A lot of friends were talking about Unity and it seemed to be the thing to use, so I gave it a shot and I had to learn Unity and a new scripting language. It's like scripting in 3D, whereas in Flash it'd just been 2D. That took some time to learn. Then, I'd never used 3D modelling software before, so I had to learn Blender. It was a lot of learning.
"It was quite a journey. I think the first year was a lot of just trying to figure it out. When I started this new version of My Friend Pedro, I wasn't even sure if I was going do the game or not. It took a few months, because I was moving country and I still hadn't found a place to actually live for a while and my whole life was a little bit up in the air at that point.
"However, I wanted to keep busy and keep learning 3D development, so for the first few months I was just making little 3D assets in Blender, like chairs and tables. I thought, 'even if I don't make this version of My Friend Pedro at least I'll have a library of 3D assets I could use for something else'."
I've no idea how I'm going to do this, but I'm going to do it and not going to give up until I've done it
As a one-man indie band, that meant Ågren had to wear all sorts of different hats to get his game done. While that meant that he didn't have anyone else to rely on, that did also mean he could keep his own creative vision intact and make things exactly how he wanted to – even if he couldn't quite master every single job needed.
"I enjoy doing multiple disciplines, because when I get a bit fed-up of one thing, I can always jump onto something else," he says. "It's fun, because it's like playing and figuring out as you go. It's quite organic and things grow when you surprise yourself.
“It's quite refreshing and I think the reason I can manage to do it is because going through all the different disciplines keeps it fresh. It's a lot of work and like most of these things, I don't feel like I have a lot of mastery of a lot of things, but it's just a case of adopting the mentality of 'I've no idea how I'm going to do this, but I'm going to do it and not give up until I've done it'."
Ågren admits that with sound design and many other disciplines, he wasn’t entirely sure what anything was actually called. To learn the tools he needed to get the job done, Ågren did what anyone might do when trying to learn new skills: he checked on YouTube.
"I think in the very start there was a question of, 'How do I make an object move', or 'How to change the position of something'," he explains. "It starts with that and quite quickly you get the general structure of things. Then, later, it's using the more creative part of your brain, like, 'I know that I can do this, so I can do that and with that I can make this happen'."
Once he got used to creating visual assets and putting them together in Unity, to help save time, Ågren would repeat a lot of what he had, so while some levels would be created from many of the same building blocks, the way he lit a scene or changed the colours let different areas feel incredibly different.
"Having black and white textures allowed me to repeat quite a lot of assets throughout the themes, but still make them feel like feel like you're in a new area," he says. "Then, changing the colours of the post-processing and things like that again helps segment the game and show that you're in a different area, without remaking a ton of assets."
Creating the levels and filling them with objects and enemies was one part of making the game, but another iconic part is the split aiming, where you can aim in two directions when dual-wielding pistols. While that might seem like something simple to add, Ågren explains that the controls for that were something he thought he'd remedy at a later date.
"When I moved over from Flash to Unity, the first thing I was very excited about was that I could use the right mouse button – you can't do that in Flash," he recalls. "The obvious thing I thought to use the right mouse button for was some sort of split aim thing. Initially, it started as a PC game, so I was focusing on walking with the keyboard and aiming with the mouse. The first thing I tried was that you'd hold down the right mouse and just lock on to where you were aiming. I thought that was one of the things that would be a placeholde and I'd try something later, but then it just seemed to really work."
Four-and-a-half years later, Ågren finished the game. It's like night and day compared to the previous Flash version. It still retains much of its teenage spirit, but it feels much more refined and its high-score antics, easy controls, GIF-ability and slo-mo action feel right at home in 2019. It will give many gamers a nostalgic feeling for those lunch hours spent playing Flash games in the library.
The new PC release is also joined by a Nintendo Switch version, which was ported with the of a third-party called 22nd Century Toys. With previous generations, Nintendo always seemed to have a more kid-friendly ethos with its third-party titles, but with the Switch, the likes of Wolfenstein and Doom have graced the hybrid console and indie titles have also thrived, so publishers Devolver Digital saw it could be a great fit for My Friend Pedro.
"I think it was a bit later in the development, after partnering up with Devolver, how the port happened," Ågren explains. "They have good contacts with Nintendo and I think Nintendo were very keen to bring it to Switch. It seemed to be a very good place to put it, because indies are doing very well on Switch. It took some work to bring it over, but it was still fairly lightweight and I had help with the Switch port."
Despite its launch on Nintendo Switch, Ågren is keeping tight-lipped on a potential release on other platforms, but with lots of work to get the gamepad controls feeling just right, we can see it catching up with the hordes of gamers who've graduated from their Newgrounds PCs to other platforms.