Bennu Creator Interview

Ricardo from Once A Bird, creator of the great indie title, Bennu offers his insight on the PC gaming industry, DRM, piracy, life as an indie dev and much more.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Bennu.

My name is Ricardo Moura, by day I work as a software developer for a broker and at night and weekends I develop indie games.

I came up with Bennu’s concept and did all the programming and the initial art. My brothers (I’m the youngest) and my cousin also worked in the game. My middle brother revamped the art to make the game look consistent as a whole and also playtested the game. My older brother and his wife, who are also programmers, gave a lot of advice and they too playtested the game. My cousin Jo and Olivia, of the Guilty Ones band, did the soundtrack and also playtested.

How did you get started in developing PC games?

I started programming when I went to college. My first video-game, which was never completed, was a strategy game inspired by Master of Orion. I was using C++ and OpenGL but I lost motivation as development progressed. A big factor in this was the complexity of C++, which, specially as a noob programmer, made me spend too much time trying to include libraries in the correct order, disposing of memory correctly, etc, instead of working on the game’s mechanics. Several years later I came across the XNA framework which made it much easier to prototype and develop games upon.

Where did the idea for Bennu come from?

I wanted to do an original and accessible game, something like Puzzle Bobble, which is both addictive and very easy to get into. Of course, that’s easier said than done… I did several prototypes before I came around Bennu’s basic concept. My first prototype was a mixture of Puzzle Bubble and Breakout: the player had a paddle and a ball, and the ball kept changing colour. There were blocks above the paddle, like in breakout, but the player had to hit the blocks when the ball was the same color as them. The paddle could be rotated to aim at the blocks, but ultimately it was too complicated for the player to keep the ball inside the playing field and aim at the correct blocks at the same time. I tried to make it so the ball was attracted to the paddle but the game became pointless.

So eventually, I thought it would be fun if the blocks were destroyed with a ball-and-chain, like the wrecking balls used to demolish buildings. I did a quick prototype where the ball changed color every 5 seconds and the player had to destroy a 5×5 multi-colored block square. It convinced me it was the way to go. Here’s a video.


What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Bennu?

I think the greatest success was that the final game is something I loved to play and still do today. The co-op mode is especially satisfying and features some mechanics I’ve yet to see in any other game. I also love the soundtrack. Placing in the top 20 of the DreamBuildPlay contest (in 2008) was very satisfying.

As for the failures, which are much more important, the main one was to only playtest the game too late in development, as many people found the controls too hard to grasp. Also, I first released the game on the Xbox Live Indie Games channel (back then it was called the Community Games channel) but on hindsight it was a better match for the PC market, as I think PC users are used to higher-difficulty games. And generally better-looking. 😉 Also, this was the first game I completed and I was over-ambitious with it. Every time I thought of something cool I could add, I did. I ended up spending 2 years developing what was to be a simple game.

In its current form, how close is Bennu to your initial vision?

While the main gameplay element is basically the same (swinging a ball to destroy same-colored blocks) all the extra gameplay elements, the setting, the story, etc, were all decided after the initial prototype was done, so the game as it is now is something that was built, rebuilt and expanded upon.  I only had a vision of the core gameplay.

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 Bennu and if you faced a similar challenge.

I committed the same mistake, with the added problem that most of Bennu’s difficulty was tied to its controls, and I never could find a satisfying alternative to them. Originally the game had no difficulty levels, they were added after playtesting with people unused to the game. What is now the “hard” mode is how Bennu was originally. I had to redesign levels, revise the time players had to complete each level, etc.

Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Bennu would run on the various PC system configurations?

Absolutely none, because XNA isolates that aspect from the developer.

Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?

I would say it’s mustering the motivation to bring the project from start to finish, since you’re on your own.

How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?

Digital distribution is a very interesting opportunity for indie game developers to get your game out there without the costs associated to physical distribution. Platforms like Steam enable you to distribute your game in a unified platform where marketing is taken care of in your stead. I wish I could say the same of the Indie Games on the Xbox 360, but currently Microsoft is doing very little to promote the games there. It’s symptomatic that games like “Cthulu Saves the World” and “Breath of Death VII” made more money in the first two weeks they were available on Steam than during the months they were available on the Xbox.

Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Bennu.

The first art I did for Bennu was very retro looking and some of it very uneven. 🙂 My brother improved and uniformed the art when the game was in the later development stages. He is an architect and we both had no previous experience in doing art for games.

My cousin, who is the lead guitarist for a band called the Guilty Ones, played the game and liked it so much he offered to do the music for it. He did all the songs with guitar loops and digital beats. The exception is the menu song, which was done by Olivia Slania, also of the Guilty ones, with piano only. The music had amazing reviews and it was universally praised so far.

Tell us about any difficulties you faced when developing the Co-Op portion of Bennu.

Bennu used a physics engine called Farseer. It made co-op development relatively simple since it handled all the interactions between players. The greatest difficulty I had was the performance loss, since having two Bennus meant doubling the moving objects and the particle effects.

How important is it to get instant feedback about Bennu from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?

Honestly, so far I haven’t gotten much feedback through social networks or message boards. Most feedback I got after the game was finished was through reviews.

How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Bennu professionally?

Some, but not too much. In the end of the day it’s more important that you create something that you love. Of course, I would have loved that Bennu made enough money that I could do indie game development for a living, but…

How do you feel about promotions like the Humble Indie Bundle and Pay What You Want Pricing?

I think both, especially the Pay What You Want model, are more useful as marketing tools than at generating revenue. They garner media attention and create word of mouth so I think they’re more important for developers who aren’t established yet or who have already promoted their games in more traditional ways.

What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?

I don’t think anyone but game publishers likes DRM and anyone who ever wondered how easily it is to download a pirated game knows how ineffectual it is. However, I also understand their desperation, since a game that doesn’t sell can result in massive layoffs for its developers. I think so far piracy is a problem without a clear solution, but digital distribution and lower prices seem to contribute to lesser piracy.

How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?

I’m all for DLC as long as it isn’t an excuse to make people pay for parts of the game that should have been there from the start… Also, in multiplayer games, it can fragment the audience, as some people play with content others don’t have access to.

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 if mods were created for Bennu?

The modding community has a passion for the games they mod. In my opinion they are a great tool for developers because they create interesting prototypes  and gameplay variations from which important lessons can be learned and then used to improve the original game (or even create new games, like it happened with Portal).

I’d be honoured if someone modded Bennu and I’d happily release the source code to anyone interested.

What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?

First, love the game you do and love it from very early on, otherwise you will almost certainly give up. Second, playtest as early as you can. Third, don’t become too attached to feature A or B even if took weeks to develop: anything that doesn’t service the core gameplay should be excluded.

Thanks to Ricardo for the detailed and well thought out answers.  You can pick up Bennu from the official site.

-Conducted by Adam Ames

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