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Yankai’s Peak: When your hobby turns into your full-time job…and awards

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When Kenny Sun’s latest solo project, Yankai’s Peak, came out earlier this year, he never would have anticipated that the game would be selected to win the Best Sound award from the Intel Level Up Developer Contest for its crunchy sound effects and atmospheric music.

The announcement completely caught Sun off guard, as sound design is usually the last thing he adds to his games. And he didn’t think the audio in Yankai’s Peak was all that special.

“There’s one music track in Peak that my friends made, but the rest were just from freesound.org. … They just have a bunch of people who put up sound effects on the website,” he explained.

But it’s the way Sun altered those sounds (by tweaking their pitch) that makes them feel unique. They work well with Yankai’s Peak’s meditative gameplay, where you move around a series of pyramids in increasingly challenging levels. It’s sort of a spiritual successor to Sun’s previous puzzle game, Yankai’s Triangles, which also sports trippy visuals and a love for all things triangular. Shapes happen to be a common motif in his work.

“When I start thinking of designs for games, I usually constrain myself by using a specific shape. So my first game had squares, then there were circles, and then triangles. For Peak, I wanted to do something in 3D, and pyramids seemed like a cool thing to try out,” Sun said.

“I haven’t seen many games based on triangular grids. So I figured that’d be an interesting thing to explore. At the time, I’d been playing a lot of Stephen’s Sausage Roll, which is a cool puzzle game that uses pushing mechanics in interesting ways. And I thought maybe I could transfer that into this triangular kind of gameplay.”

Above: Yankai’s Peak has a simple but elegant aesthetic.

Finding a balance

When Sun graduated from New York University a few years ago, he wasn’t sure if he’d become a game developer. At first, the computer science major moved to California for a lucrative programming gig at a big company.

But that turned out to be a mistake. The money wasn’t worth dealing with what he described as an incredibly “unfulfilling job.” It was the worst four months of his life.

Fortunately, things have become much better since then. Sun left California and moved to Boston, where he works as a programmer at Rock Band studio Harmonix.

While the young developer likes puzzle games, he didn’t intentionally set out to make so many of them. Sun views his projects as a fun hobby, something to do in his free time. He first caught the development itch when he was in middle school creating Flash-based games for the web. But then he stopped for a while. Sun returned to games during his junior year at NYU (where he also took a few game design courses) to make a mobile title.

Nowadays, it takes him about six months to a year to finish each project. He likes keeping his scope small — he doesn’t want to expand his team to more than two people — so he can finish them relatively quickly. Since it’s hard to gauge the difficulty of puzzle games on his own, he usually has developer friends help with playtesting so he can receive some feedback.

“I just make games because I want to make games,” said Sun. “There’s no specific genre I want to work with or message I want to tell.”

At Harmonix, Sun also gets to experience the other side of game development, where he’s part of a bigger crew that has more resources. And he gets a “nice break” from that on the weekends when he tinkers with his indie games (he’s already hard at work on the next one).

“I’m definitely learning a lot at Harmonix. It’s nice having people around,” said Sun. “I feel like the worst part of being a full-time solo developer would be the solitude.”

It’s the best of both worlds.



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