Black Forest Games, the team behind the visually stunning Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, spoke to TPG about many aspects of PC gaming development. Read on as you learn about Kickstarter funding, the development difficulties from a technical standpoint and how Giana sprouted from the mind of a child growing up in the USSR.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams.
Vladimir Ignatov: Hi, my name is Vladimir Ignatov and I’m the Senior Producer for Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams. In this role I oversee the whole development process and make sure that we finish the game on time and within budget.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Vladimir Ignatov: That was a dream of mine I had since I was a kid, growing up in the USSR. Back then PC were a rare commodity, but with my dad being a programmer I was able to hang out at his work and mess around with C++ Builder. From then on I played a lot, trying to figure the gist of what captivating gameplay was. I studied systems engineering and worked as a programmer. I also attended stage and director courses at the art academy.
Finally I left Belarus for Germany to finish my studies, and get a chance to work as a game developer there. I identified several game developers here that I would like to work with and Spellbound Entertainment back then gave me a chance.
Where did the idea for Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams come from?
Vladimir Ignatov: GSTD originates from the 25-year-old classic, “The Great Giana Sisters.” Back then, our original studio founder, Armin Gessert, was the programmer of that game, together with Chris Huelsbeck and Manfred Trenz. It was Armin who reanimated the brand with Giana Sisters DS in 2009. And it was Jean-Marc who last year thought about not only to remake the original game, but transport it into the future.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams?
Vladimir Ignatov: Our first success was when we figured out that morphing the world back and forth worked, not only from a technical standpoint, but for a long time we feared that the morphing mechanic would get annoying. As it turns out, it wasn’t, which was a huge success! On the flipside, we had a hard time finding the appropriate gameplay to go with the morphing mechanic. It took quite some time to find the right tone regarding pacing and level of challenge, unfortunately, once we found the right path, it was too late and Spellbound ran out of money. However, when we realized it was finally coming together as a real, fun game, we decided to create Black Forest Games in order to finish it, with the help of Kickstarter and the overall enthusiasm of the players!
In its current form, how close is Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams to your initial vision?
Vladimir Ignatov: The core gameplay is very close to what we envisioned, and the visuals in the end completely surpassed our expectations. Not all features made it in this time around, and we are dying to see them make it into the sequels.
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 Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams and if you faced a similar challenge.
Vladimir Ignatov: That’s something that always happens when you work on something over a long period of time. It happened to us, too. But on the other hand we really want the “tough as nails” reputation for Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, because we want to appeal to the kind of gamer that played the original, and bring in hardcore retro platformer fans.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams would run on the various PC system configurations?
Vladimir Ignatov: These days there are not that many hardware specs differences as there were a few years ago. Hardware is becoming closer to being unified, convergent and mostly compatible, the standard in DX10/11 world. This helped us quite a bit. Though we did take precautions, and we’ve added DX9 version support to ensure the game runs on the older machines. We also use XMA optimizations for math on DX9 machines. Our DX9 is almost as fast as DX10/11 versions.
Still, there are some challenges that we had to overcome. Like, we did a much faster skinning on GPU on newer D3d11 systems, which is still be done by the CPU on older systems. Or having to manage 3 levels of shader quality for slower machines, and time to test them. Implementing direct input to be able to handle any gamepads, as at the very beginning we were using just the XInput/360 compatible ones. And we’ve tackled miscellaneous Windows XP specific glitches and supported it in full.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams.
Jean-Marc Haessig: Once we decided to go for the twist between the two dream worlds, it became clear that everything, from art, to gameplay, to music and level-design would have to reflect that twist. That was the first rule for the team. And while the idea was relatively easy to formulate, the execution proved far more difficult. And we weren’t sure that it would be as fun in reality as was in our heads. But that fear vanished quickly once we had our first prototype.
So without going into much detail, because that would completely go beyond the scope of an interview, everything in the game revolves around the morphing aspect. It determines the art work and object animation – going from generous and opulent princess landscapes to a gritty and dry nightmare world. Each object’s counterpart had to make some sense. For example, we had the idea of a typical lover’s bench, made from a trunk with some engraved hearts and suchlike. It took quite a while to find the idea of a coffin, with the back of the bench morphing into the coffin lid which tilts during the transformation. It also determines the puzzles and level-design, because we wanted the morphing not only as eye candy, but also to influence puzzles, battles and how the game is played overall.
And then there was the music. We were very happy when Chris joined us, combining his tunes with a metal interpretation of Machinae Supremacy. We hoped it would work out. But hearing the real thing, it was so much better.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Vladimir Ignatov: For us, self-marketing and Kickstarter were our most difficult areas. It was something we hadn’t done before, and we just had to figure it out along the way in order to effectively communicate with the community. Visibility was our biggest issue, splitting resources between the dev team and the external PR team was a bit chaotic.
How did you go about funding Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams via Kickstarter and what did you learn from that particular experience?
Andreas Speer: After Tim Schafers Kickstarter success probably every game studio in the Western world started to think about to crowd fund their projects. Money is always an issue if you are an indie developer. You may bristle with ideas for games, but you simply lack the money to realize them. In the past, publishers not only took over distribution and marketing – they also financed promising projects. But that came with a price. Not only did you give up a significant part of the revenue, you’d also risk the loss of your brand and intellectual property. By turning to platforms like Kickstarter Indies get the opportunity to get the necessary funds and promotion for your game and still maintain your independence. Digital distribution platforms help selling the game.
Of course there are certain things that still can go wrong. Your funding campaign can fail – and there were several days in our campaign when we severely doubted that we’d make it. You are on edge constantly, thinking about how to activate the community, how to bring in new supporters, how to approach the press, how to deal with no feedback at all and how to avoid harassing all these people. What we did learn is this: Kickstarter is a good way to raise money. But you have to plan it thoroughly and execute it well. If you do it right, on top of the funding, you’ve had a whole lot of promotion once the Kickstarter is over.
Tell us about the process of submitting Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Adrian Goersch: Where to begin? The difficulties arise when you have to talk to the many various players in this field, and balancing all their different needs. Without a publisher, for example, you’ve had no easy way to get your game on Steam. Luckily they implemented their new Greenlight program which is open to everyone and which we enlisted for. So in the end after weeks of promoting our project on Kickstarter, we had to do the same all over again to convince the community to vote for Giana on Steam. Though it was easier compared to the Kickstarter campaign we learned a lot about marketing and self-promotion in these weeks.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Adrian Goersch: Sure, that’s one thing you do to determine a price. At the end of the day, however, it’s important to balance the price between what is attractive to buyers what you feel is the adequate compensation for the work you put into.
Can you tell us why you decided to release a demo for Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams?
Vladimir Ignatov: It was part of our promise to our backers on Kickstarter. For one thing we wanted to demonstrate that we really had a game in production. Secondly, we wanted people to make their own opinion about the game.
How important is it to get instant feedback about Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Vladimir Ignatov: We live off our community, everything we do we involves our supporters. Releasing the game was not just a goal of ours, but we felt that the fans of the original deserved to see it released. We patrol forums for suggestions and comments, we even had data-mining features in demo builds, asking permission to get stats from the playthroughs and optimize and polish levels further. Many choices that we do are based on the community.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams professionally?
Vladimir Ignatov: We are very much interested in how others review our games. In the end that, too, gives us an outside perspective to our games. It lets us see where we did a good job, and where we screwed up. A good review always reflects the opinion of the writer towards a game, but for good or bad, if that opinion is justified, it’s okay.
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?
Andreas Speer: We think it’s a good thing. From a gamer’s perspective it gives a tremendous value for their money, and a chance to give something to charity. From a developer’s perspective it’s a good addition to your value chain. It’s nothing we would consider as a day one release, but as a second utilization, why not?
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Andreas Speer: As gamers we don’t like anything that digs too deep into our PCs, more so if they enforce an always online policy – and some strict DRMs do that unfortunately. As a developer who makes a living out of selling games, however, we can understand that piracy has to be prevented. But we think that this battle shouldn’t be carried out on the backs of the honest gamers that buy the games.
File sharing puts independent developers like us in an even more difficult position. Unfortunately we don’t have a safety net to fall into if our games aren’t bought. But on the other hand we don’t want to harass our fans with intrusive DRM because that hurts the honest players more than the ones who simply download it illegally.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams?
Adrian Goersch: We enjoy it. After all they do it because they like the game or an aspect of the game. That’s why we have never turned anyone down who asked us for permission to do a Let’s Play Video or a video review or anything. Take for example this guy, omgarret, on YouTube. This guy constantly challenges our company’s best player, Borries, with his speed runs in our forum. He even managed to teach us a few tricks about the game. Can you believe that?
Please talk about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry.
Andreas Speer: It depends. If it’s used as an added value to a game, to add more content to keep a game alive, we think it’s a good thing. See, if you buy a game and feel that it was worth the money, a DLC can add to that by prolonging your experience with that game. For that, we think, paying money for a DLC is a good thing. But we also note a tendency to use DLC as means to secretly increase the price tag on a game or to minimize the possibility to resale a game. Used in this context, we certainly understand that gamers feel like they have been ripped off. And we also see that this experience easily is translated to the whole domain of DLCs.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams?
Vladimir Ignatov: We have a huge respect to the modding community in general. They truly love the games they mod, and by that help to keep games alive. Just look at Modnation Racers and Little Big Planet for example. They’re just a prime example of what a modding community can do for a game. For Giana in particular, current licenses restrict us from releasing a level editor. But it’s a very real option for the sequel.
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Andreas Speer: Don’t mess with your customers. They are the ones who’ll pay your rent. Love your work, do it as well as you possibly can do it, but charge a fair price – fair for your customers and fair towards you. Don’t be cheap and people will buy your creations.