Jonathan Mercier took time out of his day to speak about the development of the great game, Aztaka. He also give his opinion on DRM, life as an indie dev, piracy, digital distribution and much more.
1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Aztaka.
I’m the founder of Citeremis inc. I produced and programmed Aztaka.
2. How did you get started in developing PC games?
I started in the demoscene around 1995. It wasn’t that much popular here in Canada so the natural extension was the game industry. I had my first “game” company around the age of 19. It didn’t last long and the game I was working on ends up being a good personal project. This project helps me get my first job in the game industry.
3. Where did the idea for Aztaka come from?
My brother is the one behind the main idea. We both didn’t have a job at that time, so we decided to take a plunge and make a small game. He was doing research on Huitzilopochtli while I was writing some simple 2D sprite engine. We found this whole Aztec mythology very fascinating so we used the story of Huitzilopochtli as a basis for Aztaka.
4. What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Aztaka?
Let start with the easiest one: Marketing was and still is a total failure. During and after the development I wasn’t able to find someone who could take care of public relation, press, listening to fans, going to GDC, updating the website with new content, etc. And I was too busy with the business and programming to do it myself properly.
The project was also too big for a small team like us (around 5 people). We should have downsize it a bit and polish more the gameplay. I should had a closer look at the production too, which got a bit out of control. The fact that we decided to do a frame by frame animation system was also a mistake in the end. We should have gone for full 3D.
Aztaka’s universe is huge and delivering it as an independent studio’s first project is, in a way, a huge success for us. I had literally no money when I started and was able to pile up few hundred thousand dollars from friends, family and some public funds. I still own lots of money to lots of people, but we learned a lot through this first game.
Aztaka’s universe, the backdrops and the musics are probably our strongest points in the game. We successfully gave birth to something unique and very appealing while being accurate to the mythology.
5. In its current form, how close is Aztaka to your initial vision?
Aztaka is far far far away from our original vision. The universe was pretty much the same, but the gameplay changed a lot(too much). At first Huitzilo was throwing different kind of arrows using a “magical form” of his spear. There was also more moves and combos that he was able to do. You could play the game using only the controller and we were trying to aim to be in the first batch of XBLA games.
6. Some indie devs admitted their games were too hard upon release because they became experts as they developed the game. Talk about setting the difficulty levels for Aztaka and if you faced a similar challenge.
Yes, we also had this difficulty. My brother is also a bit stubborn, and he really wants the game to be difficult, so that we remember to “old-school” game. But today’s game aren’t the same… so we did kept some of the “impossible” parts and try to make other easier and accessible.
7. Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Aztaka would run on the various PC system configurations?
No, not really. Well, actually one challenge was to kept the memory footprint as low as possible. Some of the backdrops and animation are so huge that I had to develop some kind of compression when loading the level.
8. Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
For us. Marketing. But I could add staying focus on our goals. It’s easy to change your mind when no one is there to kept you on track! Getting the game completed was also difficult at the end. The bank account was depleted and no one was able to keep working without getting paid.
9. How did making Aztaka available via Steam and other digital distribution platforms come about?
The process of getting the game on different distribution platform was usually simple and straightforward. Steam was the hardest to “convince” but once you are working with them, you feel part of a big team.
10. How much pull do you have when setting sale and regular pricing through digital distribution channels? Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
We did some research, and setting up the launch price was really up to us. Of course all the distribution platform want to have the lowest price, but at one point you have to stick with your idea of what your game is worth.
11. How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
Its wonderful! It’s probably one important reason why indie game developers can survive in this jungle.
12. Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Aztaka.
The art style was developed by Jason Godbout. The level design as well as the game design was done by my brother Samuel Mercier and the original music by my step father Marc O’Reilly. Everyone did a really good job. They all did their research pretty well too. We even recorded a small choir singing in Nahualt. It was funny since pretty much no one talks this language these days. Same idea with the first background, its based on the actual ruins of Tenochtitlan which is now Mexico. My brother also add some “cliché” from Zelda II, Metroid and Castlevania.
13. You released a PC demo for Aztaka in an age where demos are becoming scare. What made you release a demo and was it difficult to develop one?
Releasing the demo increases Aztaka visibility and it also gives people a chance to try the game. The difficulty with the demo was to reduce the size of the executable.
14. How important is it to get instant feedback about Aztaka from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
I’m not a big fan of social network; but getting feedback from users and peers is always welcome(instant or not). I’m planning to integrate the gamers as soon as possible in our next project.
15. How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Aztaka professionally?
When you work on a product for more than a year or two, I think you lose track of subtle details that can make the game a perfect game or just another game. Having feedback from professional or friends or family is always important.
16. How do you feel about the Humble Indie Bundle and “Pay What You Want Pricing”? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
Definitively, the only thing right now preventing us to submit our game to it is the fact that Aztaka is only available on Windows. I’m looking for programmers to help me doing the port. We need the game to be cross-platform before submitting it. The pay what you want is an interesting model.
17. What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I personally don’t like the idea of adding a DRM in our game. If you buy something you should be able to use it without “asking” permission. As for piracy… that’s part of the game I guess.
18. How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
It’s nice for some game. Might not be a good idea for other. I don’t think I have much to say about this 🙂
19. Recently, there has been a lot of talk about modding of PC games and the relationship developers have with modders. How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically mods created for Aztaka?
I wrote Aztaka to be completely modded; but never had time to release the mod “kit”. My kid love sand boxes, so having more complex and powerful tools to creates our own castle is always good 🙂
20. What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Get someone who can do the public relation with your gamers/fans/publishers/etc. and that knows the jungle out there, or make sure you budget some time and money to do it yourself. Make sure you focus on one innovative and fun aspect of your game. Plan for a tinny game so that the final product become a small manageable game. Do everything you can to finish it as soon as possible so that you can iterate over it. Plan. Don’t forget to have a life. Don’t be afraid. Talk to other indie. Make sure you have fun crafting and playing your game from scratch to the end 🙂
-Conducted by Adam Ames