Conducted By Adam Ames
“Girl with a Heart of” is a new interactive point-and-click adventure game created by Alexei Andreev. TPG got the chance to speak with Alexei about life as an indie developer, the successes and failures he has experienced, as well as his thoughts on the PC gaming industry.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of “Girl with a Heart of.”
My name is Alexei Andreev. I’ve been designing and developing games since I was 13, but, of course, back then they weren’t very good. I’ve liked programming ever since I learned about it, and I particularly enjoyed creating visual and interactive elements. That naturally led me to creating games.
I designed “Girl with a Heart of,” did all the programming, and wrote all the dialog. I funded the game and found artists, dialog editors, and other people to help me make necessary assets for the game.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I was 13 years old when I got my first programming book. It was for QBasic. I read it cover to cover, and soon I could make things appear on screen: simple lines, circles, and shapes. I could animate them and even add some interactivity, which resulted in the most primitive type of game. Since then I kept pursuing that hobby, until I realized I wanted to do it professionally. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, but most of what I learned was on my own: through books, online tutorials, and trial and error.
Where did the idea for “Girl with a Heart of” come from?
In 2010 I discovered lesswrong.com, a community blog devoted to understanding human biases, being more rational, and discussing interesting topics centered around singularity. I’ve read all the core posts, called The Sequences.
Enlightened and inspirited, I’ve decided to make games that use and explain the ideas of rationality and transhumansim that LessWrong discusses. “Girl with a Heart of” was the first such attempt. The core idea behind the game comes from the concept of recursive self-improvement, most notably used to explain and understand artificial intelligence and singularity.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing “Girl with a Heart of”?
There were a lot, and I’m actually going to make a series of blog posts about it. The first one is already up. The biggest success was actually finishing the game: staying within budget, pushing myself to work every day, managing a team, and polishing the game. The biggest failure may have been not communicating the idea that I set out to communicate – or, rather, not communicating it in an entirely different and new way, like I hoped.
In its current form, how close is “Girl with a Heart of” to your initial vision?
From game design standpoint, it’s pretty much exactly as I envisioned it. I wrote up the whole game story before I even started writing the dialog, and the final result is very close to the original. Some small details changed, and the characters came across somewhat different than I envisioned, but it was all for the best.
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 “Girl with a Heart of” and if you faced a similar challenge.
From the start I knew that I wanted to make the game as easy as possible. It’s an interactive narrative, after all, so people play it for the story, not the challenge. There is a little bit of combat, but if you die, it becomes easier the next time. Everyone who played the game so far didn’t have any trouble with it.
I did, however, overestimate how easy it would be for players to figure out the final puzzle in the game. Everyone needed more hints than were available. This is what beta-testing is for, though, so I’m glad I caught that mistake.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring “Girl with a Heart of” would run on the various PC system configurations?
I used Unity3D engine to make the game, and I’m glad I did, because it took care of pretty much all PC issues that other developers would run up against. In this respect, the game was a breeze.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Finding the money to fund your game. Or the time. Without either, you’ll never make a game. There is also the problem of pushing yourself to work on your game. When you are self-employed, if you don’t show up for work, nobody will scold you. You need to have the discipline to wake up every day and work on your game. Having a solid schedule and a “to do” list is a must.
In terms of game design, the toughest thing to do is to realize when your game design is not fulfilling its purpose. As a designer, you have certain expectations from the game, and you should always keep those in mind. Check every feature against the game’s purpose, and if it doesn’t help it, then throw it out.
How did you create funding for the development of “Girl with a Heart of” and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?
I’ve saved up enough money after working for two years at Budcat Creations to fund the game myself. When the company was closed down by Activision, instead of looking for another job, I decided to work on my own game. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and this was the perfect opportunity.
This game was, for the most part, driven and fueled entirely by my own desire to make my own game. Yes, my family was supportive, but in the general sense. My friends, on the other hand, were very excited about the game, and they helped me play test and polish it.
How do you feel about the digital distribution platform as a whole?
I love it. Without it I would not have even attempted to make this game, since I wouldn’t be able to sell it. One thing that bothers me is the high percentage of profit that most digital distributors take.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for “Girl with a Heart of.”
From the start, I knew I wanted to have a very unique art style. In the game, your character is part of the Dark race. These people live in darkness, and so they see things differently. To us, absence of light makes everything look pitch black. To them, absence of darkness makes everything look pitch white. To us, when a light source is blocked, it creates a black shadow. To them, when a darkness source is blocked, it creates a white shadow. So, in the game everything looks reversed, but it’s not a simple color inversion. If you think of the HSL (Hue/Saturation/Lightness) color model, only the Lightness component is inversed. In other words, red looks red to both races, just the tint is different.
There isn’t much to say about level design. It’s very simple and straightforward. All places and most buildings you see in the game are there because they are important. In that sense, it’s very minimalistic. The levels provide the necessary atmosphere for the game, to make the player feel like they are in a different world.
In the city, I wanted the music to express the overall feeling that the player was experiencing in the story. In the tunnel, I wanted the music to resemble an ocean and emptiness. Again, the music’s goal was to create and reinforce the atmosphere.
Are there plans to release a demo of “Girl with a Heart of”?
No. If you like stories, if you like interesting characters, if you like rationality, if you like difficult choices, if you like unique fantasy worlds, then you’ll like this game, and you should just buy it. 🙂
How important is it to get instant feedback about “Girl with a Heart of” from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
I don’t know. I kept the game under wraps during the development, which was probably not the best idea. Next time I’ll try to involve the players a lot sooner.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review “Girl with a Heart of” professionally?
The value is measured by the strength of the argument they make. If the argument makes sense, then I’ll listen to it. But if the argument is based on purely personal reasons, I’ll be more likely to discount it. Basically, I try to estimate how representative the argument is. Will a lot of other players agree with it?
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?
From a player perspective, I think it’s pretty nice. From a business perspective, I would have to run the numbers. After an indie bundle, how many people now have my game? How much did they pay on average? How does it compare with my normal price? How much promotion did the game get? After considering all of that, I can make a more informed decision, but it’s something I would definitely try a few times.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Everyone is dealing with it in their own way. Some are coming up with better and stronger DRM, and some just abandon it altogether. Steam is an interesting middle path, since it has DRM, but it offers the players a lot of value for it. It’s an interesting trade off. Indie developers should be very concerned about how the players perceive them, so they should be more willing to take the zero-DRM path. AAA studios, on the other hand, have a lot more leeway when it comes to this. They can afford to have some players who hate them, as long as they get more money in the end.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Even though we’ve had DLC for a while, I think it’s still a new feature. Most companies don’t know what to do with it. Should we add it? Should we not add it? How much? I think of DLC as a tool. If you have a problem, and DLC can solve it, then it’s the right tool for the job, but you shouldn’t use it just because you have it.
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 “Girl with a Heart of”?
I don’t think “Girl with a Heart of” is a good candidate for modding. How many adventure game mods are there, anyway? But, personally, I love mods. If you bought the game, you are free to do whatever you want with it. Modding only adds value to the game.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Make games. Don’t make game engines, use an existing one. Start very small. If you don’t have the money, then design the game with that in mind. Work in very small teams. Don’t remake games, try to be original. Learn from your mistakes. Give out your first games for free, to build publicity and gather feedback. If you can get a job in the game industry, do so. It will give you a lot of experience and insight. -End
We would like to thank Alexei for his detailed answers and wish him continued success. You can check out the trailer for “Girl with a Heart of” here and will be available for PC and Mac on November 17th.
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