Conducted By Adam Ames
TPG speaks to Anders Ekermo and Juha Kangas, creators of Backworlds. You will read about game development, life as an indie dev, their take on the PC gaming industry and much more. Here is a piece of the pie:
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Backworlds?
Anders: Oh, I hope someone will. We are going to release a public level editor and personally I am hoping we can work out a way to release all of the source code at some point as well. I would say that some of the most successful PC games in history started out as mods, but honestly I do not see any difference between modders and other game developers.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Backworlds.
Anders: My name is Anders, I am a programmer by trade and I make and maintain the game engine for Backworlds. I have also done some of the art and designed the occasional level.
Juha: My name is Juha and I have worked for some game companies but I am trying out this indie thing now. I have been doing a bit of everything except for programming. So graphics, level design, scripting, music, quality assurance and more recently some marketing and business related things. We have overlap in a lot of these areas, where we collaborate and build something up together as both of us like working on a lot of different areas.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Anders: I originally started programming Turbo Pascal when I was 14, I think, and for a few years I tinkered on my own with whatever information I could find on games programming. Later on I got into the game development program at Gotland University in Sweden, after I had graduated I got a job at a game development studio.
Juha: I started out making levels for Counter-Strike and then Warcraft 3. After that I just tried lots of different things within game development like 3D-modelling, programming and level design. Eventually I got my first job in-game development as a gameplay scripter.
Where did the idea for Backworlds come from?
Anders: Back in the end of 2009, the Independent Gaming Source hosted a competition called “Assemblee” – the idea was that the forum community would first create a bunch of generic art and sound assets and people would then create games using only those assets. Juha found a set of sketches that he really liked and suggested that we make a game inspired by this style, a game where the player could sketch to hide elements of the level. We started discussing how this would work, made a proof-of-concept over a weekend and when it worked we started coming up with ideas for how it could be used for gameplay.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Backworlds?
Anders: There were lots of small things about what people expect from a game, and seems like no matter how many times you have done it you always underestimate the amount of details you need to fix for a big release. Most importantly, however, I think the development have taught me to keep things simple. Planning ahead and writing reusable code is preached in academia but by making sure you have just enough to do what you need you can work a lot faster. Sure, occasionally something will need to be scrapped and replaced with something more advanced but since the code is not too complex it usually takes less time than writing a generic system in the first place.
Juha: One successful aspect in terms of game-play is that people tend to solve the puzzles in different ways and that our game mechanics support that. I think initially that wasn’t really in our minds but I find now that this is one of the most interesting things about it.
One of the most glaring failures for me is the story part. No one I have talked to who played it has really understood or cared about the voice-over bits that we have. Even though we early on decided that the narrative should take a backseat to game-play, I still want to explore this more and make the little story that we have a bit more comprehendable and contextualized better.
In its current form, how close is Backworlds to your initial vision?
Juha: It is quite close, I think the main thing that has changed is that it is more focused on puzzle solving. In our prototype there were a lot of platforming challenges, but I think the platforming was not the strength of the game. It probably could have been if we tried to refine it, but it made sense to focus on our unique mechanics rather than the general ones. At least to me and I think I pushed this aspect on Anders a bit.
Anders: The thing to remember here is that our initial vision was more or less the core mechanic of painting and when we saw that it actually worked we started getting ideas of how it could be used to create gameplay. It really captures the imagination and we are still getting ideas, it is more of an evolution than striving to capture a holistic vision that has been there from the start. For a while this made the game really unfocused so Juha realized that we needed to focus on one aspect of the gameplay to get a more coherent experience.
(Pictured above: Juha Kangas)
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 Backworlds and if you faced a similar challenge.
Juha: This was definitely a challenge and it all just came down to gameplay testing. I thought one particularly hard thing was that those being observed would get stressed by me being present and that they would get some sort of performance anxiety. This is bad in a game where you are supposed to take it easy and experiment to find the solution. Anders made a great feature that records play sessions and lets us replay them in-game. I thought I could notice that they were less stressed when I had some of these e-mailed to me, but I cannot be sure of course. But either way, I still think the benefits of watching someone play directly outweighs the problems.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Backworlds would run on the various PC system configurations?
Anders: Definitely – we are doing some unorthodox things with rendering, for instance drawing to persistent buffers. Different hardware manufacturers deal with undocumented behavior in different ways and some of the things we have tried have worked fine on our own machines but not on friends’ computers. I think this is one of the big drawbacks of being independent – we do not have access to a compatibility test lab. There are still issues with compatibility and I am hoping we can solve most of them before release, or at least have good, public information about what hardware you will need to run the game.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Backworlds.
Anders: Neither Juha or I have worked as artists before so it was important for us to find a style that did not demand realism and that we felt could do the game justice with our limited skills. We threw around some ideas, then I happened to catch the animated movie ”The Secret of Kells”. It is a visual marvel of traditional animation mixed with old Celtic and Christian iconography, using weird perspectives and interesting shapes to give character to people and places. I tried to emulate the style on a level and we were both happy with the results so we started to look into the film’s influences and tried to create a style of our own with some added influence from Norse mythology. The art is partly created by the game itself directly in the level editor in order to speed up the creation of levels and ensure some level of consistency.
The gameplay has dictated some of the artistic choices as well – the style is very flat and therefore well suited for 2D game environments. In addition, we have had to have high contrast between the different layers and in some cases had to tone down the details as it became hard to tell where you had painted when the levels were too busy.
Juha: A lot of the level design in the demo is fairly simple and that is because it is basically a tutorial. We had limited time, so we figured that we should try to present the basic concepts of the game first and then throw in a surprising one, the inverse gravity, to show that there is more to it. Then finally the bonus levels try to show some more depth as well.
We iterated the boss level quite a lot, probably 10 different variations with variations within themselves but unfortunately we did not figure out anything in time that worked well. The one in the demo is just the boss being passive, because players just got stressed out when it was more of a threat. However, we want to figure out something that works where bosses are a more active part of the puzzle and we have some lessons learned from the iterations we made.
For the music we had some general idea that I should be celtic styled atmospheric music. I tried to stay to celtic instruments but in the end it just became whatever sounded good to me. I have to admit there was relatively little time put into the music and it was really challenging for me since I have not really done music before. But hopefully there will be more time for that later or perhaps we could hire someone.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Juha: Recently it definitely has been about the money for me. At this point, I need to get myself some kind of job to continue developing this game unless we get enough funding from our campaign. I will continue working on it regardless, but obviously it will take longer and I will not be able to create as much content if I have a job somewhere else at the same time.
Anders: Considering that I also work as a software engineer, one of the toughest things for me has been to find the energy to work on my own projects after spending nine or ten hours programming at work. You are more invested in your own projects, but sometimes there are boring things that you just have to overcome – luckily I have Juha to tell me when he needs something so it is only a matter of discipline.
How did you go about funding Backworlds and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Anders: I actually work as a software engineer in the “mainstream” games industry and develop Backworlds on my free time, so money is not really an issue for me. I do appreciate how my friends and family respect that I want to spend so much time doing this on my free time though, not to mention the company I work for allowing me to do it.
Juha: Basically it has been my fiancée providing for me the last few months while developing the demo. Although, we had the reverse situation a while before that so I had some “leverage” there. But she has definitely supported me emotionally, as have the rest of my family and my friends.
(Pictured above: Anders Ekermo)
For the most part, big budget studios no longer release PC demos while almost every indie developer does. Why do you think this trend is occurring? Tell us why released a demo for Backworlds and the difficulties in doing so.
Anders: I do not know, I honestly had not noticed. I would guess that a lot of the time the console version is prioritized, the PC version being a quick port and not given enough resources but that is just speculation. As for Backworlds, we felt that since the game is gameplay-centric we could not adequately communicate what it was about without a demo. Seeing as this was a public release a lot of things that we had not yet worked on – UI, compatibility, installers etc. – had to be taken care of, and a number of minor bugs had to be fixed. It took a lot of time (and, frankly, was rather boring) but it was mostly things we needed to do sooner or later anyway.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Backworlds from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Juha: It is useful to get an initial feel for what people think about the game and you can see if there is a pattern of people liking or disliking a certain element. But I would not do anything drastic based on a single opinion that I received that way…it is more of a window of the crowds thing.
Anders: I appreciate all kinds of feedback, I really do. Though articulated and specific feedback is always preferable to nonspecific hate or praise, even someone stating “THIS GAME SUXX0RZ!” gives you an idea of how the things you present are perceived. That being said, our current plans are to offer a more traditional offline experience rather than a persistent online game with minute-to-minute updates, so the feedback should rather be articulate than instant.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Backworlds professionally?
Juha: I don’t value professional opinions more than anyone else who also plays through the game. Reviewers do however often write more detailed and articulated opinions which I very much appreciate, but if I can get the same thing from a non-professional I value that just as much.
Anders: I do not place more value on a professional review on account of it being professional either, but there are certain reviewers I like and respect, Tom Chick of Quarter to Three for instance. Should any of them express their opinions about Backworlds, I would probably value it higher than those of most other people.
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?
Anders: Yeah, definitely. I think the numbers from these kinds of events have proven that it is a sound idea in terms of revenue, but more importantly it helps build long-term awareness. It is far more important to me that as many people as possible get to experience the game than that each one pays the full price for it – I am a sucker for attention like that.
Juha: Generally I think they are cool. There has been some backlash about them drastically decreasing the value of indie games in general and I can see how that could be an issue if the amount of bundles continue to increase in numbers and frequency.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Anders: I could write several pages about this, but since that would probably be outside the scope of this interview I would say that the current debate is far to heated to be productive – those leading the fight against piracy are using murky statistics and a lot of opponents seem more interested in demonizing any hint of DRM than to actually discuss the problem. As for Backworlds, it is far too early to discuss distribution but it is a matter of personal importance for me to provide a DRM-free alternative. Ron Carmel of 2DBoy have written good things on the subject; http://2dboy.com/2008/11/13/90/
Juha: I think it is ok to have DRM as long as it does not negatively affect the experience for legitimate buyer. This is crucial. Steam does some very interesting stuff in that regard, but I personally do not want that to be the one and only platform, because there needs to be some healthy competition.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Backworlds and what SOPA could do to your visibility?
Juha: I would be honoured every time someone did of course! I actually found someone posted himself playing the demo soon after we released it and just felt all warm and gooey inside.
Anders: Agreed, few things are as rewarding as to see someone enjoy something you made. As for SOPA I can see the reasoning behind it but I personally think there is an IP-lawsuit-scare in the games industry and it really does not need to get worse.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Juha: I think DLC is great as long as it is done for the right reasons. I do not know how often it happens that developers/publishers do DLC that could actually have been in the game, but just withhold it to make more money. I’m not a fan of that obviously.
Anders: So far, I have had mostly positive experiences being able to get more enjoyment out of the games I really liked. This being said, we are seeing more paid downloads that instead of giving you more content will give you ways to customize or skip existing content. I think this may create a problem as past a certain threshold, creating a better game is not the most profitable thing to do.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Juha: We haven’t really broken into our target business, indie business, quite yet. But for games in general my advice would simply be to make games. Stay away from “game designer” educations and instead learn to program and make games instead of theorising about them. In fact, with tools like Unity, Game Maker and UDK, sometimes you might not even need to learn programming.
Anders: Coming from a game development education myself I have to disagree on that point, but I agree in principle that the important part is to make games. No matter if you want to be an artist, a level designer, a programmer or something else – do a lot of work in your area. The really important part of this – besides getting better at your craft and building a portfolio – is that you learn a lot about yourself and what you are able to do for the joy of doing it, and not just because you want the results. Going to a game developer education puts you in touch with likeminded people and gives you opportunity to experiment with serious projects, that is important even if you do not believe the courses can teach you anything. – End
TPG thanks Anders and Juha for taking time out of the schedule to speak with us. You can help fund Backworlds by donating via IndieGoGo.
Follow Backworlds on Twitter.
Follow TruePCGaming on Twitter.