TPG caught up with Krystian Majewski, creator of the wonderful point-and-click title, TRAUMA. Krystian also talks about life as an indie dev, DRM, digital distribution, family support and more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of TRAUMA.
I’m a designer from Cologne. I am the creator of this game. I did almost everything about it, except for the sound design and the voice acting. Some people also helped me with the translation.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I’ve been developing since my childhood. I started out on an Atari 130XE. It was an 8-bit home computer that was fairly popular in Poland. I have been experimenting with computer technology ever since. And of course, the driving force behind all this was always the desire to make my own games.
Where did the idea for TRAUMA come from?
It started out as the final thesis for my design studies. But it became much more. The initial idea was a somewhat biographical point & click adventure inspired by Samorost. Over time, that idea changed a lot, obviously. I started doing research on Point & Click adventures. I started going into Photography, Architecture and Anthropology. TRAUMA is really the amalgamation of all that work.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing TRAUMA?
The big learning effect for me is the confirmation that you can go for some really risky ideas and still find your audience. A lot of people think that games are stagnating because the audience always demands more of the same. I was always suspecting that they were underestimating gamers. Now I have proof.
As for failures, there is only one, really. It’s the one every game developer is doomed to learn over and over and over again. It always takes more time, than you think. Even if you think you have accounted for that.
In its current form, how close is TRAUMA to your initial vision?
It’s hard to tell. The vision changed as I went along. The initial idea was never very specific anyway. The actual story is completely unrecognizable. Initially I really wanted to show scenes from my childhood. I spent a lot of time in hospitals. I emigrated from Poland to Germany with my mom. But I ditched that idea very soon. It was too difficult and too self-indulgent. However, I think the visual style and the overall mood is pretty much exactly what I was aiming for.
How did you create funding for the development of TRAUMA and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?
There was no funding for TRAUMA. I started it during my studies. Afterwards, I worked on this in my free time. The only thing I really had to pay for were the contractors I brought in. The sound designer, Martin Straka, and the two voice actors, Anja Jazeschann and Steve Hudson. I paid them from my own pocket. But it wasn’t that much anyway, they knew that this was an indie project.
Especially by the end I noticed that this is not a sustainable way of making games. I hope to make enough revenue with TRAUMA to be able to concentrate on my next projects full-time.
As for support, the person, who really deserves the most credit is my girlfriend. She was there to support me every step of the way. And I mean not only emotionally, she also actually helped me refine some aspects of the game.
Some 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 TRAUMA and if you faced a similar challenge.
TRAUMA has deliberately almost no challenge at all. You see, I observed that a lot of adventure games tend to create these great stories, environments and characters. But then they lock everything away behind some arbitrary puzzles. Have you ever played a point & click adventure game, where you didn’t get stuck? I find that incredibly frustrating. All I want is to see what happens next, but they force me to stack crates or do some crazy item combinations. So TRAUMA is an experiment in this regard – what happens when you just remove the puzzles? Do you really need them in the first place? Most of them don’t even tell anything anyway. It was surprising to see how unintuitive it was to design the game this way. My initial levels always ended up being to complicated.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring TRAUMA would run on the various PC system configurations?
Not really. I’m using Adobe Flash. Thankfully, It’s fairly reliable if know what you are doing.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
The biggest problem for me was the lack of time. I had to have a day job to pay the bills. And that would constantly undermine my ability to work at the game. It’s kinda ironic. Because it seems to me like indie game development is actually a very cost-effective and efficient way to develop games.
Tell us about the process of submitting TRAUMA to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
I had the huge advantage of being nominated at the IGF. So getting in contact with distribution platforms was easy. Actually, most of them contacted me. However, I noticed that all of the console platforms are still not prepared for negotiations with small developers. None of my inquiries ever resulted in anything useful. I hear similar stories from other developers as well.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price for TRAUMA?
Yes. I also did some surveys among my beta testers. I realized that there were huge fluctuations. It seems to me like it’s still difficult to assess the value of a game. That’s why I went with the tip jar model.
How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
I think it’s a blessing. Small games like TRAUMA just wouldn’t be possible in a physical copy environment. It’s easy to set up distribution and it’s almost infinitely scalable. The only problem becomes how to get exposure.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for TRAUMA.
I wanted to use photos from the very beginning. I think they are way too uncommon in games nowadays. Everybody uses 3D engines and ends up looking the same. The ironic thing is that they always try to go for photorealism anyway. Why not simply take a photo?
Level design got wonderfully crazy. Instead of designing a level and then building it, I had to find an already existing place to do the photos at and figure a way of how to reverse-engineer a level out of it. It was certainly a unique challenge for game design
As for the sound, it was an intense process of back and forth with Martin Straka. I think we both learned a lot during that time. I was amazed by his boundless patience and flexibility. But considering the result, it’s obvious that the extra effort payed off.
How did you go about developing the unique mouse movement system in TRAUMA?
I started out with the 3D engine for the photos. Once I had this, I was experimenting with different input methods. Gesture-based interfaces were pretty hot at that time. I was skeptical at first. But the light-painting visually really sealed the deal for me. Everything fell into place.
How important is it to get instant feedback about TRAUMA from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
In a project like TRAUMA, it’s almost the entire point. I certainly didn’t make the game to get rich. I want people to play it and see what they think about it. In a way, I re-discover my own game by learning what they think about it.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review TRAUMA professionally?
Actually, I was surprised. I was expecting a lot more negative reviews. But there were hardly any. Most people respected the game for what it was trying to do. And then there were the few reviewers, who really blew me away. They weren’t reviews anymore, it was actual critique. I’m really happy to see games journalism approaching that level of discourse.
How do you feel about the various indie bundle promotions and the “Pay What You Want” pricing methodology? Would you be interested in contributing to a project like that in the future?
Absolutely! I think it’s a great idea. As previously mentioned, I think the biggest problem in digital distribution is how to get exposure. It seems to me like bundles are an ideal solution to this challenge.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
To be frank, I think it’s just bullcrap. There are numerous examples and studies that clearly show piracy is actually not a the malicious force it is always portrayed as, on the contrary. I’m fed up with customers having to endure so much trouble for flimsy excuses. I get rage blackouts every time I see an unskipable anti-piracy clip at the beginning of a DVD. The people, who make them don’t deserve their customers.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
There is no such thing as a good DLC implementation. It’s an oxymoron. When you need to force people to buy your product in order to stay profitable, you failed as a game developer. Sadly, the big companies seem to think otherwise. I dread a future where we don’t really own products anymore. In many ways, that future is already here.
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 TRAUMA?
TRAUMA wasn’t specifically developed for being modded. However, it just so happens to be highly customizable by accident. Curious individuals will find that all game assets are freely accessible and all level data is stored in fairly readable XML files. So theoretically, it’s entirely possible to do change large portions of the game. I’m planning to write some documentation on this in the future. I can’t wait to see what people will come up with!
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
At this point in time don’t even think about doing the following: MMO, FPS, tower defense and retro platformer. Try something that will give you attention. And make sure it’s actually meaningful… or at least funny. – End
We would like to thank Krystian once again for allowing us a look into the life of a promising new indie developer. You can pick up TRAUMA via Steam.