Conducted By Adam Ames
Tom Grochowiak head developer from MoaCube gives TPG a behind-the-scenes look at his RPG-ish visual novel, Cinders. You will read about how Cinders came to be, his time with CDProjekt RED, going on his own and the life of an indie plus much more.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Cinders.
Hi, my name is Tom Grochowiak. I’m the head of a small indie studio MoaCube and the main developer behind Cinders. I produced and coded the game, as well as designed its storyline.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I started as a hobbyist. I was making small games since I was a kid. Eventually, seven years ago, I released my first commercial title Magi. It was my gateway to the games industry and indie gaming in particular. I worked a bit for CDProjekt RED on The Witcher, then moved to make casual games at Codeminion, and finally set up my own small studio with my artist friend Gracjana Zielinska.
Where did the idea for Cinders come from?
From traffic jams. Me and Gracjana used to come back together when we worked at Codeminion. We spent a lot of time stuck in the traffic, talking about many things. After playing some other indie visual novels, we started entertaining the idea of making our own, but with higher production values. Gracjana suggested it should be a re-telling of a classic fairytale, like Cinderella. I really liked it, as I had a nice idea for a feminist spin of it. When Codeminion closed its office later, and we decided to go indie, this seemed like the natural choice for our first project.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Cinders?
Oh, man. This is a material for a whole essay. In fact, we plan to publish a full postmortem at some point. The main thing we learned was humility – no matter how experienced you think you are, you can still make some stupid mistakes. We planned Cinders development to take less than half a year. It took a year and a half! We also learned a lot about team management, but that’s an even broader subject.
In its current form, how close is Cinders to your initial vision?
Surprisingly close. Of course, some things are a bit different and stories tend to evolve in time, but the message and overall look and feel of the game is pretty much as we initially imagined it to be.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Cinders would run on the various PC system configurations?
Not that many. Our main concern was that we wanted the game to run even on low-end netbooks, which required some consideration regarding video memory and screen resolution. But if you plan such things from the very start, they are not too hard to do.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Cinders.
That’s another subject for a whole essay. Gracjana did all the art. She pretty much had total freedom when it comes to the style and look of the game. We understand each other very well, so she intuitively knew how it should look, and I knew I can trust her in that regard.
Music was composed by Rob Westwood. We go a long way back. We worked on so many projects together that we also have this level of mutual understanding where we need only a few words to work out what we need. We focused on developing a cool and fitting main theme / lead motif first, and the rest just fell into place by itself.
The game is a visual novel, so it doesn’t really have ‘level’ design per se, but I designed all the game systems, most of the storyline, branches, and what happens when. It wasn’t too hard, just time-consuming.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Money. I know it’s trivial. But it’s the truth. When you are working on your first bigger game as a new studio, you have to live off your savings. And projects tend to take longer than expected. Also, one game is usually not enough to make a proper living (unless it’s a hit), so you have to soldier on till the next release. It’s can be very stressful. And if you happen to have a family or a mortgage, you are basically screwed.
How did you go about funding Cinders and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
We used our own savings to make the game. By the end, we also got a minor financial help from the family, which helped us see through the pre-release period. Of course, we got a plenty of emotional support from our friends and family too. They believed in our idea and our goal of becoming full-time indies. Their support meant a lot. Especially when the delay and tough financial situation started to get on our nerves.
Tell us about the process of submitting Cinders to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
We haven’t submitted the game to Steam yet, but we plan to do so soon. We got contacted by most of the casual portals, though. They know us back from Codeminion and a 5-star review at GameZebo picked their interest. It’s funny, as casual portals’ philosophy of selling a ton of a samey mass-market games for cheap is the exact opposite of our idea of making a quality, niche game, and sell it directly to the fans for a reasonable price.
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?
On our own website, we have all the control. The price of the game was suggested by another VN developer. It’s $3 more than the average to mark the higher quality we’re aiming for. Most casual portals have set prices. Steam is usually a bit more flexible in that regard.
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 Cinders and the difficulties in doing so.
No difficulties at all. We did it because we believe anyone should be able to try the game before they buy it. Especially as this is the PC where something may simply refuse to work. We also ask for a higher than average price, so we would be jerks if we didn’t allow the players to check if they are going to get their money’s worth first.
As for the big studios, they don’t do it because it doesn’t matter as much for them and it can be costly to make a demo. When you have a team of over 100 well-paid people, even a month of additional work is actually a big investment. AAA games sell mostly on hype and franchise recognition, so they just don’t care.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Cinders from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Very. We’re indies, so direct connection with our players is very important to us. We’re dealing with a niche — a small bunch of people playing a certain type of games. Getting to know them and their opinions is crucial for our improvement and growth as a developer. We also know it’s our first visual novel, so we’re fully prepared to learn that we did some beginner mistakes. Direct contact with the players allows us to quickly fix most of them.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Cinders professionally?
It really depends. I treat reviews mostly as personal opinions. It’s a story-based game, so its interpretation, and if you like it or not, is heavily personal. I do pay attention to recurring things though. If many reviewers liked or disliked some particular feature or plot point, it’s often a valuable piece of information.
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?
Not sure what to think about them. I think there’s too many now. Like, everyone and their dog’s vet starts one. I also think they do create this impression that indie games are a cheap commodity. Why pay when you can simply wait for it to appear in some bundle? On the other hand, bundles are very cool from customer’s perspective (I own a lot of games through them myself), and they often bring some serious money to the people involved.
Would we accept if we were offered to be in a bundle ourselves? Hard to say. Depends on the scale, time since the release, and the exact deal offered.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
We really hate DRM. It’s one of the reasons why I do most of my AAA gaming on the consoles. At least I don’t have to worry about long CD-keys, staying online all the time, or having a limited number of installations. I remember how pissed I was when my copy of Mass Effect told me I installed it too many times and have to contact EA now. What?!
I know I’m beating a dead horse here, and publishers don’t care either way, but I see no point in punishing legitimate customers, while the pirates just strip the DRM anyway. Our games don’t feature any DRM, you own them forever, you can copy them to as many PCs as you want. We think that people who want us to release more games in the future will still pay for them, and pirates are going to pirate regardless if it has DRM or not.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Cinders?
It’s cool. There was this one video where a guy was giving his reasons why he thinks Cinders is going to be the best visual novel of 2012. I was almost teary-eyed when I watched it.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
DLC is another broad subject. Can be cool, can be incredibly stupid, or a plain cash-in. A good DLC is a win-win situation. Players get more of their favorite game, developers get more money for lesser costs. Borderlands did it really well. But stuff like locking integral parts of the game unless someone pays for a “DLC” (I’m looking at you, Mass Effect 3) — that’s just pure greed.
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 Cinders?
I like the modding scene. I think it’s one of the major advantages of the PC gaming. I myself had more fun with The Elder Scrolls Editor than I had with the actual games, and some stuff people make is simply amazing. Cinders isn’t really a kind of game that can be modded, though.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
I would tell them to not listen to any advice from some guy on the internet, and just make some games. Nothing beats your own experience.
We would like to thank Tom for his detailed and informative answers. You can pick up or play the demo for Cinders on the official site.
Follow Tom on Twitter.