Conducted By Adam Ames
The boys from Santa Ragione, developers of the great indie title, FOTONICA, took some time to answer a few question via e-mail for us. You will read about how FOTONICA came to see the light of day, the successes and failures in doing so, and their view on topics around the PC gaming industry.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Fotonica.
Santa Ragione, as of today, is two people team programmers free (so if you are one drop us a mail!!). My long time friend Pietro is currently finishing his PhD studies in design at Politecnico Milano and I’m writing my thesis for the BA at Art Academy in Verona, previously I studied eastern languages at CàFoscari in Venice while I worked for some year as a sail maker.
I know, that does not speak much about games, but truth is me and Pietro shared a big passion for gaming, we were spending time discussing mechanics and how we would have done things differently, so one day we decided to give it a go and here we are after a year and a half, more or less.
Talking about FOTONICA I spent the most of my time on game graphics, 3D models, hands animation and, most importantly, game design in general. Pietro worked mainly on game and interface design, and coded a big part of the game.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
FOTONICA started as a TIGsource competition, it was called “A Game by Its Cover” and the goal was making a real game out of a fake NES cartridge from the Japanese art show “FAMICASE”. We have no preferred platform, PC in this case was just a natural choice for us. We are actually looking into making a iOS version of the game in the near future. The game we did before FOTONICA was a board game called “Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space” (www.eftaios.com), nominated at the DianaJones Award this very year. As you can see we like games, PC it’s just one of the many platforms you can use to make them.
Where did the idea for Fotonica come from?
As I was telling you FOTONICA started as a TIGsource competition entry, it was called “Tales of Unspoken World”, as that’s the name of the cartridge we chose. It was one of our first attempt to create a videogame so we decided to keep it simple, so one button, and to build up a game on that single constraint. The general aesthetic of the game came out pretty early in the development process, and I think that our shared passion for geometric abstraction as well as old vector machines like Vectrex played a role here. They often say that Fotonica is a mix of REZ and Mirror’s Edge: these are probably our favorite games, so I guess it makes sense.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Fotonica?
Wow, it’s hard to tell you everything, because we really learned a lot from FOTONICA. From the concept to development and to the whole communication process it was and it still is a blast. One thing we really understood is the importance of genuine playtesting, a rare thing to get if you go indie, especially because you just can’t trust your close friends’ opinions. We learned how little, invisible changes make a game polished, and how timing is important in the marketing process. I tell you, we failed a lot, but didn’t give up. I guess the biggest change we made during development was the timing of the controls. The game runs so fast that we have to check collisions “in the past” to counter delay in players’ perception. When you jump in Fotonica there is a discrepancy of 40 in-game meters between the player perceived body and the actual collision.
In its current form, how close is Fotonica to your initial vision?
I’d say 75%, we had this idea of making all music dependent, with real-time colors and generative assets growing based on the music, but we also wanted to release it and start working on something new, so we chose to cut some features, due to time and our knowledge of Unity 3D.
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 Fotonica and if you faced a similar challenge.
It is true, the more you work on something the deeper you go, but at the same time you start to lose grip with the game as a whole. As I explained before, the problem we faced in FOTONICA was getting the collision between the player and the platforms just right, and that is not were you think it should be, due to a series of perceptions problems. We were able to fix the difficulty in timing jumps after the feedback we got from the Kongregate alpha demo. Another thing is that the first level we made is the most difficult level (apparently this happens all the time) so the rest of the level design was us trying to teach players how to beat the final level. Especially the first level, the easier one, it’s designed to give confidence to the player. Difficulty settings are a completely different thing: in Fotonica they just influence the game speed, we deigned the game to be as accessible as possible and so we wanted to give the opportunity to people with slower reflexes to still enjoy the game. I think we failed in this, as the game is still too fast and slowing it down further would have made it less meaningful.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Fotonica would run on the various PC system configurations?
As an indie dev we didn’t have a chance to test the game on many different platforms, but we did our best to ensure the game was running on as many configurations as possible. The game also has an option to disable all post processing effects so it will run on older machines, although it’s quite “flat”!
8. Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Fotonica.
Wow, what a question! As stated, Fotonica art style was inspired by the AGBIC competition cover “Tales of Unspoken World”, so we started toying with the contour tracing/vector/tessellation effect. We wanted it wo be two things: SHARP and DIRTY. This concept of dirty (and ugly) is really our “art statement” and what we’ll be pursuing with our next projects. We actually fought about this, the level of sharpness: if you download the first demo you’ll se a much smoother look, more dream-like. Other than that the focus was on making the game physical: as you probably noticed not much is happening in the game, but we wanted it to feel the opposite, we wanted to give a real sense of vertigo, and speed, and ecstasy: this why we designed the gold-mode and the cinetic particles. About the level design: it was really a matter of making the controls meaningful. We had this “inverted” one button platforming controls that we really liked and we wanted to experiment with, it welt like riding a wave so that’s what the level design tries to encapsulate, extra-cinetic diving and rising in a very static (with the exception of level 2, Cavour, which is also the only abstract level), almost frozen environment to give the player a sense of liberating escape that typical of dreams and imagination. Finally the music: for this project we felt that it was impossible for us to ask sound designers for a specific style of music, so instead we went to two fantastic musicians and asked them to express how they felt about the game. So this is a question you should ask to Michael Manning and Nicolò Sala.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
I’d say marketing and communication, I didn’t know anything about this and suddenly you realize it is sucking up a big part of you time, and you are there checking websites all day for news and assuring your work is available and visible in the big mess that is Internet. Before you know, you’re not designing games all day anymore! Don’t get me wrong, there are good and bad moments in every aspect of the work, talking with players about your game is fun and can teach you a lot, at the same time having to deal with the problem of raising some money to fund the next project it’s not an easy task.
How did you create funding for the development of Fotonica and did you receive emotional support from your family and friends during this time?
FOTONICA is what we call a 0$ budget game, built in the scraps of time. It’s basically what we did on weekends for a year, the rest of the time we worked and studied at our respective universities. We did have the support of our parents: very positive reviews! as for our friends they were subdued to play the game day and night! that’s what friends are for right?…right?
Tell us about the process of submitting Fotonica to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Overall it’s been a very easy task, we either contacted or got called and in a quick email exchange the game was up and running on the specific service, from Desura to the MacApp Store. The only “down” we had is that Steam does not seem to love us, but we love them so we are here, waiting: If you want Fotonica on Steam let them know!
How important is it to get instant feedback about Fotonica from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
That is important, as you I was telling before. Users’ feedback is one of those key aspects of the design process, helps you get the right flow in the game and discover issues that are sometimes invisible to those who see and experience the game from the inside. We learned that even if we are afraid to share an unfinished work, we need to put it “out there” anyway, sharing is the key of the whole indie movement, and one of the qualities of the so-called “Internet generation” we need to trust and defend. Aside from improving to the design, feedback is also important to keep the morale up: seeing that people are interested, that they understand what you are doing, that they put some of their time in the game, to play it and even to give feedback, is one of the best feelings in the world.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Fotonica professionally?
That’s another aspects of the communication process that is somehow frightening but necessary. Feedback from journalists with long experience in gaming made us discover connections to our work that even we were not aware of, as well as flaws that we thought were not that much of a problem. Again, sharing your work can be hard, but it’s necessary to grow stronger.
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?
We believe the “pay what you want” methodology is part of that sharing culture I was talking before, and sure the HumbleIndieBundle as well as IndieRoyale and others understood that. We’d definitely love to be part of a bundle. Also, look at the IGF Pirate Kart! it’s a great way to bring this idea of a sharing movement to a higher level. It’s not a cheap way to get to the IGF but it’s a way of saying this is what we really are, we are a group and as a group we can shine.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I’ll try to be as clear as possible on this even if it would require a whole conversation on this sole topic to be understandable. I don’t think that suddenly Internet unleashed the thief inside us all. I think that software is different from material products and this difference, although it might no be clear to many, is somehow perceived by everyone. The fact is simple, software can infinitely reproduce itself at almost no cost after the development investment, a different thing is designing a chair and produce copies of it, you’ll always need the same amount of materials and human work to do a new one. We need to find a new way to raise money with the software, and that way is not DRM or any form of control on the end-user. Platforms like Steam and similar are on the right way on this because they not only offer software at a fair price, they also offer a service and a community that is so strong and well-organized that we feel it’s right to pay for it. It’s a ethic solution we need to find here more that a system of laws and constraints on the end users.
The Steam downside it’s that it still owns a form of DRM, that’s why many indie dev both offer the possibility to get the DRM-free version of the game from their website. Sometimes, “buying” digital products feels more like “renting” to me, today. You know, if you go buy a CD you can even choose to use it to cut butter if you want, that because it is yours and you are free to do whatever you want with it, that’s what you call “possession”, if I can move a file from a computer to another only 7 times, that content is not mine.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
I’m not a big fan of DLC, especially when it’s like 2$ for a different 3D model for my avatar. I can see others paying for such a thing, but it’s a cheap trick to raise some cash. Different is when we get serious DLC, that involve gameplay, I could pay for that, as I could pay for episodic content…a hat for my avatar? no thank you. We also have mixed feelings about free-to-play, maybe we can discuss this in the next interview, more time needed!
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 Fotonica?
I have to tell you I’ve never followed the modding community much, but I played some really good mods, and the process of modding is cool and an excellent way of learning level design. We have no editors or modding tools for FOTONICA right now, there’s no source out yet, but we might release it in the future, I’d love to see what other people can do with it.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
I want someone to give me advice, please!! Haha, really, I don’t know! The only thing I feel to say is get close to a community of indies like TIGsource or similar and do stuff, whatever you feel to. Most importantly, never hide, never be afraid of sharing your prototypes because you’re only going to learn new things with the help of others. -End
We would like to thank the good gents from Santa Ragione for answering in such a detailed fashion. You can check out the demo for FOTONICA via Kongregate and then head over to official site for the full version which is pay what you want.