Derek Yu

Video game artist

Derek Yu (born July 2, 1982) is an American independent game designer, game artist, and blogger.

The best games come out of a mutual respect between the creator and the player. [...] A personal creative vision cannot bloom without the freedom afforded by that trust.



Make Games (2010–2016)


"Finishing a Game"

  • I've found that there are three types of games that pique my interest: games I want to make, games I want to have made, and games I'm good at making. [...] The ideas with the most potential (to be finished, at least) fall into all three categories and also satisfy the requirement "I have the time and resources to actually make this".
  • Feeling stuck? Push forward. Start working on the next level, the next enemy, the next whatever. Not only is it helpful for motivational purposes, but you want to get a sense for how your whole game will play out. Just like writing— you don't want to go through it sentence by sentence, making sure every sentence is perfect before you move on. Get an outline down.

"Making It in Indie Games"

  • The most important thing to know about video game development and schooling is that no one, whether it's an indie studio or big company, cares about degrees. How could it, when some of its most prominent members are drop-outs or never-beens?
  • A degree is a piece of paper that says you can do something in theory— game developers want to know that you have enough passion to do real work, regardless of whether you're being graded on it. And if you're thinking of going indie, it won't matter what other people think— you'll simply need that passion to succeed or else you won't.

"The Full Spelunky" (2011)

  • The key to making a challenging game that's not frustrating is to give the player all of the tools that they need to overcome the challenge— and never make it the game's fault that they lost. [...] Roguelikes give you lots of those tools, so even though they're really tough, it's always fun.

GDC interview (2012)

  • I think my word is "flow" for game design, because I think you want your game to flow, and I think you want your game development process to flow. To me, that means everything starting from a central idea, and then layering on top of that to have a very coherent experience. I think if you develop games that way, [it'll come across] to the players, and they'll have a similar experience that's really smooth.

State of Play interview (2012)

  • That's a type of game that I really like, is one that grows on you a lot over time, and your understanding of it feels like it's on an exponential curve. I just hope that enough people are willing to give [Spelunky] a chance, [who may] not be used to that.

Destructoid interview (2012)

  • When it comes down to it, I feel like art should never be compromised for any reason— especially not to satisfy a certain group of people. [...] There was no compromise for Spelunky.
  • That's how you make [a] game feel truly alive: you cut out the mundane stuff! [...] I think this pursuit of "realism" to make games feel more immersive— it's kind of a dead end.

"Devs Make Mario" (2015)

  • I like that in general: just having a little bit of unpredictability in each level. And I really like dense level design with a lot going on. I think for this level, the message that I want to convey is "Find peace through hell". And that's kind of my design philosophy in general.

Spelunky (2016)

Mystery, surprise, tension, challenge, and a real sense of accomplishment always come at the cost of feeling uncomfortable.
  • My worry is that as players we've grown too comfortable with being comfortable. We revel in being consumers of products, rather than contributors to a rapidly-evolving art form. [...] We've gone from asking "How does this game play?" to asking, "Does this game play the way I want it to play?"
  • We can't know what to expect and also be surprised. We can't be free from frustration and also be challenged. We can't go unchallenged and also feel satisfied with our accomplishments. Mystery, surprise, tension, challenge, and a real sense of accomplishment always come at the cost of feeling uncomfortable. Given the opportunity, many of us would rather take the easier road, but that's usually the less rewarding one.
  • The best games come out of a mutual respect between the creator and the player. The player does not demand a certain experience from the creator because they trust in the creator's expertise and because they want to be surprised. A personal creative vision cannot bloom without the freedom afforded by that trust. At the same time, creators must trust in the curiosity and abilities of their players. Continuously interrupting play to steer players with direct text messages and other obvious hints not only infantilizes them, but it also reveals the creator's insecurity in their ability to design games.
  • The "joy of discovery" is one of the fundamental joys of play itself. Not just the joy of discovering secrets within the game, but also the joy of uncovering the creator's vision. It's that "Aha!" moment where it all makes sense, and behind the world the player can feel the touch of another creative mind. In order for it to be truly joyful, however, it must remain hidden from plain view— not carved as commandments into stone tablets but revealed, piece by piece, through the player's exploration of the game's rules.
  • I often compare the process of finding and working with teammates to dating. In any big project, you're not just looking for a set of artistic and technical skills to fit your own, you're also looking for someone who shares your creative vision, who communicates well, and who will be as passionate and dedicated about the project as you are in the long run. [...] Ultimately, if you're planning on releasing a commercial video game, you are looking for "marriage material"— a committed, stable partner you can get along with for a long time.
  • I'm obsessed with finishing as a skill. Over the years, I've realized that so many of the good things that have come my way are because I was able to finish what I started. [...] Irrespective of how big the project was, each one I finished gave something back to me, whether it was new fans, a new benchmark for what I could accomplish, or new friends [whom] I could work with and learn from.
  • The more I play and create games, the less convinced I am that the difficulty of games should be thought of in terms of a linear or exponential ramp upwards where, as the player gets stronger, you need to make the opposition increase proportionally in strength. [...] While some form of escalation certainly feels good in a challenging game, [there's] something futile and perhaps nihilistic about endlessly cranking a single knob that goes from easy to hard. Rather, I believe it makes more sense to think about difficulty in terms of the game's overall pacing. Difficulty should ebb and flow, and make room for other aspects of play.
  • Now that Spelunky is done, what I feel most of all is a sense that I'm part of an even bigger puzzle that includes the people [who] influenced me, the players who play Spelunky, and whomever Spelunky has influenced in turn. [...] In the end, isn't that why we create things? Not just for the power of putting something into existence, but to connect with people and be part of the conversation that is human history. To have something that speaks for us when we're not speaking and even after we're gone.

Noclip documentaries (2017)

I tend to think about my life in terms of games. [...] I learned a lot with Aquaria, and I'm super proud of that game, but Spelunky was where I feel like I hit my stride.

"Rediscovering the Mystery of Video Games"

  • To make a world feel really real and immersive, you have to take a step back. And you have to try not to guide the player so much — and show them everything — because that is the fun part about games— discovering things on [your] own, making [your] own mistakes. That's what gives the games meaning. When I feel like someone has their hand on my shoulder, and they're just pushing me around, I feel like I'm losing a lot of the meaning of games, which is that joy of discovery.
  • One of the most fun things about games is learning. It's learning the game and getting that knowledge for yourself about this little world. The only way you can really do that is by figuring it out yourself. If the game tells me something before I get a chance to learn it myself: 1) that's really annoying, but 2) it robs [me] of that experience.

"The Making of Spelunky"

  • Everything in Spelunky was designed with a similar sensibility, where we're trying to draw out the personality of each area, of each monster, from very simple actions and things that they do. And when they all come together, you get this complexity that's very interesting, and that makes every time you play in this randomized environment fun— because you start to see — over time — all the different patterns that can arise. [...] That's the emergent gameplay that comes out of it.
  • I tend to think about my life in terms of games. "This is the Aquaria point of my life." "This is the Spelunky point of my life." As to what [Spelunky] actually represents — what does that time mean to me — I think: coming more into my own, as a game developer, and figuring out how it was I want to work exactly. I feel like I learned a lot with Aquaria, and I'm super proud of that game, but Spelunky was where I feel like I hit my stride.

The Spelunky Showlike (2018–2020)

It's not a final judgment of you, as a person and an artist, when you release a game.

"Making Spelunky 2"

  • As game designers, we naturally gravitate towards order, because we create rules, and we create systems, and we create structure. And those are all things that belong to this idea of order. [...] And so, I think it makes complete sense that as game designers, we would embrace order, and we would be very attracted to things like "balance", things like "elegance" in game design. [But] more recently — and maybe a big part of this is my experience with Spelunky — I've started to rethink that a little bit. And I've started to think more about chaos as the defining trait of game design. Or at least that's something that really appeals to me right now— this idea that we're not creating these ordered systems, but we're creating chaos for the player to find order in.

"Quarantine Arcade"

  • This is a straight-up religious problem: the idea of the player and the developer. Because I think [for] some developers, creating a game, it's a little universe— they don't want to be a part of that universe. They want the player to play and just experience the universe as created, and not be involved. And then, I think there are other developers [who] do want you to know "Hey— I designed this! My fingerprints are all over this." And then, there are players [who] I think want to play games basically as the "atheists" of that game world— where they want to just experience the world as-is, with all of its flaws and all of its ugly warts. And then, there are players who play, and because they know that there is a designer behind all of it, they want to basically pray to that deity of the universe to change it for them! [...] I think it has to do with fundamental differences in the way different designers want their game to be experienced, and also fundamental differences between different players and how they want to treat that relationship between the player of the game world and the designer.
  • The business model of arcades— I don't know how it will be replicated ever again, but it created such an interesting category of games, just based on the unique features of it. And I think it's one of the few places where the business model of the arcades really forced this type of design that was— I call it "lean and explosive". [I say] "lean" because you have to push players along to the interesting parts of the game as quickly as possible. And you just don't see that in modern gaming and modern game development. [...] And I say "explosive" because they don't save anything for the end. The experiences are quite short: to play through an arcade game, it's 30 minutes to an hour, tops, for the longer arcade games. And you don't want to save anything for the end because players are renting the game a quarter at a time. And so, starting with Stage 1, you've got to put it all out on the table, while still — in the later parts of the game — giving people something to look forward to. And I think that has been very influential on Spelunky 1 and 2, and it's just a type of design I really enjoy.

"Spelunky 2"

  • There's a certain glee [among game developers like Bennett and me] from players feeling frustrated and disappointed. And it's not because we dislike players. It's actually because we really care about players, and these are emotions that you need to feel to have a well-rounded human experience in a video game.
  • That might be the core of game design to me— making connections from every part of the game to every other part of the game. [...] I think it's been really fun to be able to do Spelunky Classic, Spelunky HD, and now, Spelunky 2. And it really feels to me like seeing the evolution of a lot of our favorite childhood franchises and seeing how they've grown up, and being inspired by that.
  • I've started to think of myself, personally, as a "work in progress" that will never reach completion— but in order to keep progressing, I have to release games. [...] You're releasing a game, but you yourself are not "done". And so, I think that takes some of the pressure off for me— to think about things that way. And in general— to think about art and life as this cyclic thing, because you're going to keep going and make more things, so just put out what you've got and do the best you can. It's not a final judgment of you, as a person and an artist, when you release a game.

Make Games with Derek (2019–)


"Death Loops"

  • The best metric for scoping a project is not technical skill, but the scope of the previous games you've finished!
  • This won't be your only chance to say something through your art. It's not even your only chance to relay this exact idea— after all, finishing a game doesn't mean you [can't] remake it later (or put out a sequel)! My advice is to abandon the goal of making an objectively great game. Instead, focus on making the best game you can at the time and find joy in your personal growth.

Noclip podcast (2020)


"Spelunky 2"

  • I want people to play around with [Spelunky 2] and not focus so much on "beating" it. I think it's a difficult concept for people to wrap their head[s] around. [...] It is a hard game, but the challenge is really just a backdrop for people to play and experiment.
  • A lot of design decisions that end up having a big effect on the gameplay start as thematic decisions. [...] It's like in chess, how the knight is the only piece that jumps, and that just makes sense-- you're on a horse, and the horse can leap. Those kinds of links-- they're things that game developers think about a lot, and it's not just a bunch of abstract rules. It matters what the game is about story-wise, character-wise, et cetera.

Eggplant podcast (2020—)

The instant kill is like an exclamation point on the end of a run.

"Into the Depths: Spelunky 2"

  • I think about making art, in general, as a dialogue. That's what it is, in the end— you're expressing yourself, and your audience gets their chance to express themselves. And especially with video games — it being interactive and it being software — it really is a continuing conversation— very directly now, and very literally. [...] In this moment, it is a conversation, as well as being this long-running conversation throughout history.
  • No matter how built up you are [in any Spelunky game] and how powerful you are, there is always that slight chance that it could all be over. It's exciting. It's not done enough in games— especially in modern games. [...] Real life is a huge inspiration for me, in terms of how real life works. We're trying to move towards "realism" in terms of graphics and things like that, but it's stuff like instant deaths that I think are more connected to real life from an interactive standpoint, which is what games are all about.
  • The instant kill is like an exclamation point on the end of a run.
  • The instant death— it's like a punchline to this joke, where the joke is really just the tension of being in this dangerous situation. [...] The fact that when [a run] ends, it's instantaneous, I think is very humorous. And it's this nice release, in some sense. It's frustrating, but it's also a release— and it creates this pregnant pause afterwards, where you can really think about what happened.

"Getting Feedback"

  • Ultimately, that's what makes the most interesting game that we can make— if it's not just what players are expecting or what players want the game to be. [...] I would like people to feel strongly about it. I think that's the most important thing for me— whether it's love it, or not like it, or have conflicting feelings about certain parts of the game. I want the game to have its own personality, and that personality is the personality of the team making it.
  • Video games are an artform that's so limitless. In making a game, a big part of the process is putting these limiters on the game itself, so you can actually finish. And I think feedback is a great way to figure out what those limiters should be. It's a way to scope and rescope your game.

"Into the Depths: Super Mario World"

  • Miyamoto and Tezuka, at least when they were designing the early Mario games— I've seen interviews where they describe the genre that Mario is in — and that they're working in — not as platformers but as "athletic games". [...] When I read that, that really changed the way I saw these games— and I feel like it captures the spirit of them much better than "platformer". Even the platformers that Mario has inspired afterwards don't feel as much like "athletic games" [as] the Mario series itself. And one of the iconic Mario songs by Koji Kondo is called "Athletic Theme", which plays into that.
  • Mario made more sense to me, thinking about it as an "athletic game". Even little details like Charging Chuck— there are just random sports characters that are in the Mario universe. And the fact that — at the end of a Super Mario World level — there's that bar that goes up and down, and you're trying to hit it— it kind of feels like hurdles. The fact that there is a timer in the game. [...] It all comes together to make each Mario level feel almost like a race where you can also explore.

"One More Run" (2021)

  • Spiky games are often thought of as "punishing", but the difficulty — while it's an important part of the design ethos — is in service of the goal, rather than the goal itself. The real goal is to put the player in a state of focus about the game— and to really care about what they're doing at any given moment. [...] Winning or finishing the game is not the main goal of a spiky game, even if that's ultimately what [the player is] working toward.
  • Unsurprisingly, not everybody likes spiky games! [They're] like bitter or spicy food— [they're] an acquired taste that you have to build up. [...] It can be hard for people who don't like spicy food to understand why spicy-food fans love it so much. If you're just starting out on your spicy-food journey, you can't taste the flavor— just the heat and the pain. Similarly, spiky games generate a lot of enthusiasm from their fans, but for people who aren't there yet, they can just seem hard.
  • Not that there's anything wrong with wanting challenge for the sake of challenge, but it does make things that much more confusing when people are trying to evaluate spiky games. Again: the difficulty is only one part of the equation— it's the "heat" part of spicy food. I don't eat spicy food to feel pain, but the pain wakes me up— and it's the gateway to interesting flavors that you can't find anywhere else. The flavor is what makes spicy food good, and it gets easier and easier to withstand the heat the more you experience it.
  • I focus as much on the process of making games as the games themselves, because I have the experience now to know how hard game-making is at any level. I don't just make a game because I want to make the game; I make it because it's also the right time to make it and the right people are around to help me make it. I never assume that a game is going to get made out of sheer will. A lot of the decisions that you make in the conceptual phase will either help you or haunt you, once the development starts.
Wikipedia has an article about: