Jakke Elonen, Ozhan Sen and Yoshifumi Ishii from Fruitbat Factory talk with TPG about their (localized) upcoming medieval Japanese lore inspired title, 99 Spirits.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of 99 Spirits.
Jakke: Hello and thanks for having us. I’m Jakke Elonen, co-founder and project lead for Fruitbat Factory. As for my role in the development, I edit all the content from raw translation to what you see in game and do most of the initial playtesting and debugging. And generally try to keep things together somehow. I’ll be answering the questions together with Ozhan.
Ozhan: Hi, I’m Ozhan Sen, co-founder, graphics and marketing lead. I edit graphics into English and produce all art assets for a variety of purposes. With the latest 99 Spirits IndieGoGo campaign I got also put in charge of producing the physical goods since I had previous experience in arts and crafts. While it seems I am also handling our general marketing and public relations, we actually do that together as partners. As a three person company, we do everything by ourselves, so each of us are testers as well as probably a dozen other things.
Jakke: Together with Yoshifumi Ishii, our translator and Japanese relations coordinator, we are Fruitbat Factory, an independent localization team focused on bringing interesting Japanese PC games to English-speaking players worldwide.
How did you get started in developing PC games?
Ozhan: We are avid gamers, and as particular fans of Japanese games we eventually ended up doing freelance localization work. We met each other during those projects and after working together long enough, one day we just decided to strike it out on our own.
Where did the idea to localize 99 Spirits come from?
Jakke: When our first release, War of the Human Tanks, was approaching the finishing line, we were looking for the next title to work on, and happened to see the Japanese trailer for 99 Spirits. Frankly, we couldn’t really tell what the game is about from the trailer, but it looked interestingly “different” and the art was really pretty, so we looked into it more closely.
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing 99 Spirits?
Jakke: Our own, really. We’ve been doing our own thing by trial and error mostly, I’d say. It’s been a learning experience.
Ozhan: We keep learning tons of new things everyday, not just while working on 99 Spirits or Human Tanks, but while interacting with other developers, distributors, gamers and minding our day to day company business. We learned so much in this last year that you could write a book about it. Funny thing is, they are mostly things that you hear about but don’t realize the importance of until you run into the situation yourself.
In its current form, how close is 99 Spirits to your initial vision?
Jakke: I’d say we’ve managed to meet the initial vision well in most regards, and it’s gone somewhat beyond that – we’ve added lots of small features you might not even pay attention to but that will make the game better to play, and initially we didn’t even consider something like adding dual audio to the game. We’ve had the benefit of seeing a lot of comments regarding what people want, especially on Steam Greenlight and IndieGoGo – some features are obviously going to be impossible, but when we see a new question/request/feedback our first thought is “can we do that, and should we?”
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 99 Spirits and if you faced a similar challenge.
Jakke: The main challenge in setting the difficulty level in 99 Spirits is the fact it revolves around word puzzles. When that’s your starting point, there are always going to be people for whom it’s simply not suited, but we’ve tried to keep the puzzles as accessible as we could think of. We’ve changed the hint systems in the game around a lot as the code has been changed to balance out various factors.
We’re pretty happy with their current status, which is somewhat harder (but fairer) than in an earlier version – there’s a mechanism in place to protect against getting several of the same hint in a row which would be frustrating, but as we ended up balancing the number of hints their total number decreased and this mechanism became too powerful so we had to tone it down. There are a lot of moving parts. Otherwise, the game itself has a difficulty setting which I confess takes away some pressure from balance worries.
Were there any challenges you faced in ensuring 99 Spirits would run on the various PC system configurations?
Jakke: 99 Spirits was already released in Japan last Autumn, so it’s had time to get rid of the rough edges. Our specific challenge has been making the game run under English OS environment – which like most Japanese PC games, it by default doesn’t do. That’s been a lengthy process but we have enough experience with it to more or less know what to expect when we started.
Resources for testing are always a challenge. We don’t have a dedicated computer lab with dozens of different setups to run the game on, so we do what we can but the final stress test will unavoidably be left to the general public – the demo has been out for a while now and we haven’t seen anyone having any technical issues, so I should think we’re doing OK.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for 99 Spirits.
Jakke: 99 Spirits has a distinct and unique look – not the usual “moe” or super deformed style you see in many Japanese games. If you don’t watch anime you can ignore this following comment, but my first thought was that it reminds me of the anime Katanagatari, which also had an unusual art style, and when I told that to Tomo Hoshino (TORaIKI’s project lead and artist) she said she’s actually a big fan of Katanagatari’s artist, so maybe I wasn’t just seeing things.
Ozhan: We loved the medieval Asian feel of the game’s art and did our best to keep it on all our changes, including all the English texts, fonts, buttons, physical goods, everywhere.
Jakke: The music is very atmospheric. To meet the spirit of the era, TORaIKI wanted to mix in as many different traditional Japanese instruments as possible, such as the shakuhachi, shamisen, hichiriki, sho and koto.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Jakke: The ‘indie’ label itself is a broad one, but from the perspective of a markedly small indie developer it’s really difficult to get publicity. Getting mentioned in mainstream media is a lucky break, not a rule. We have to rely heavily on word of mouth, and as a freshly starting out team it can be quite hard to get the ball rolling. We’ve entered our first release War of the Human Tanks into several bundles just to ‘get it out there’ and it’s gradually bearing a little fruit, but I still daresay most gamers, even fans of Japanese games, haven’t ever even heard of us and our games.
How did you go about funding 99 Spirits and did you receive financial or emotional support from friends and family?
Jakke: We are essentially self-financing all our projects with other jobs, but for 99 Spirits we tried our hand at crowdfunding for the first time, with very promising results. The 99 Spirits campaign on IndieGoGo raised 252% of the goal we set out – still a modest sum, but I can say it’s helped us out hugely.
All of us are in a similar position in that our relatives don’t particularly understand any of what we’re doing, or see the point in it, but we have friends who are a great help. It’s always good to have people to talk to.
Tell us about the process of submitting 99 Spirits to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Jakke: We already ‘fought the good fight’ with War of the Human Tanks, so as this is our second release the process has been a lot easier. Our submission to GOG.com is still pending, but otherwise we’re OK’d or already set up with all the distributors we’ve approached (Ozhan: with the exception of Big Fish Games, where we submitted 99 Spirits, it being a puzzle-RPG, on the basis that they stock almost entirely puzzle games, and got a generic rejection mail almost instantly, saying the game appeals to a younger demographic than their current audience… Oh well.).
On the first time you need to go through more hoops, but for the second title it usually goes more like “we have this new game coming out, would you like to sell it too?” “Sure, just send us the assets”. We don’t just publish on one or two distributors and leave it at that, but are also happy to sell on smaller distributors that might have just started up, provided the process isn’t too distracting. It’s always good publicity even if we don’t get sales through them.
Ozhan: Then there’s Steam… both of our titles have Steam Greenlight entries and we are always working new angles to help improve our chances, but well, Greenlight is a hard playground.
Jakke: I’ll give a special mention to Desura and GamersGate as good places for new developers to approach, as they’re in our experience very welcoming towards indies.
Did you research similar titles when trying to come up with the launch price?
Jakke: Of course, but since this is a somewhat niche genre within which prices vary wildly, in the end our main price factors are the price of the game in Japan, and our previous experience in pricing.
Our regular version is priced at $15 now, which is a pretty neutral price for the game and we’re confident no one will at least call it overpriced. We made a Deluxe edition of our first game that includes the OST, and after seeing how popular it was we decided to do the same with 99 Spirits – and as a preorder bonus players will get the Deluxe edition for the price of the regular one until release.
Can you tell us why you chose to release a demo for 99 Spirits?
Jakke: A sage once told us that a demo for a good game can increase sales by a half. The only reason we can see not to release a demo is if you don’t want to give people the chance to see the game before they pay for it (I wonder if there’s any reason anyone would want that…?).
We love seeing player feedback for the games, and the response to the demo has been overwhelmingly positive so far.
How important is it to get instant feedback about 99 Spirits from users through online message boards and other social networking sites?
Jakke: It’s crucial. If there’s a critical problem with the game, the best time to learn about it is before we released the build, but the second best time is at the moment someone encounters it. Most suggestions for improvements are also from social media or message boards. So we’re keeping a close eye on them.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review 99 Spirits professionally?
Ozhan: We try not to take negative reviews too much to heart. Our company focuses on a small niche, Japanese games that require extensive translation work to be playable by English speaking audiences, and it’s normal for a journalist to be unfamiliar with these types of games or simply dislike them. If such an article goes into detail about what the journalist didn’t like in the game, it might still be valuable to us in the future with regard to making the games more approachable, but if the only reason for negativity is dislike for “anime-like” games, that’s not very useful to us.
One example we encountered earlier is that some journalist complained about War of the Human Tanks having a story. Not the length or the quality of it, but the mere existence of it. It wasn’t what they expected in a game, and that in turn was a surprise to us.
Jakke: When we get a review from someone who obviously liked the game and was enthusiastic about it, they are very heartwarming to read, and these are the reviews we especially want to remember. It’ll be interesting to see the reception for 99 Spirits – it’s a bit of a leap in the dark for us as there’s to my knowledge no other game like it on the market, gameplay wise.
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?
Jakke: We’re very pragmatic about bundles. If you’re not on Steam, there’s basically no way you can ever saturate your entire ‘potential customer base’, so you don’t really need to worry about “missed sales” when it comes to a bundle – most who get the bundles wouldn’t have gotten the game otherwise. It’s the same with pretty much all different pricing models – they’re an opportunity to reach new users. We’ve kept an open mind about all kinds of promotions.
We do have some worries though that in the grand scale of things, the bundles as a phenomenon are going to be pushing the prices (and profits) of PC games lower and lower. Bundles used to be the way for small and relatively unknown indie games to get visibility and sales, but you can already see AAA games in ‘bundles’ as well so now even in a bundle you have to “compete” with those. I do worry for the future.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
Jakke: It’s not something we actively think about. Even if 90% of people pirate the game, DRM won’t change that, if anything it will annoy the paying customers. I can see why big companies use them, though, because I know that delaying the release of a pirated version by even a day can increase their sales a lot. That’s why I’m not sure DRM will ever go away completely.
Our games are DRM free, unless the distributor uses a capsule type release system and adds DRM at their end.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos of 99 Spirits?
Ozhan: We love watching them. If anyone makes one or have any plans to do so, we encourage them to tell us about it too.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
Jakke: Neutral. DLCs are mostly annoying – you already bought the game, but you need to get this and that to get the ‘full experience’? It’s good if they give more content to a game the studio would otherwise brush aside as soon as it’s released though.
Ozhan: I like DLCs that are like the expansions of old times, an additional campaign to a game I loved, or a new chapter/sidequest in the story… But I don’t like DLCs that are just a weapon/costume/car…
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for 99 Spirits?
Ozhan: We would love to see what people might come up on that regard, there are fan made mods of some of the games I play that I consider a must, to be honest.
Jakke: Someone was asking us what we think about a fan translation to another language. I think that’s really cool and as long as such things aren’t just released as standalone ‘pirate’ copies, why would we have any objections?
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Jakke: I think the most important thing is to not get into the scene with unrealistic expectations. Have a plan – a good plan. Find ways to operate with low expenses. Don’t leave your day job before you have achieved results.
Ozhan: There are a lot of steps from the concept of a game to a game selling on various digital distributors, and I mean selling well. All of those steps require people with the right skills and experience. So you might need to hire people to do some of those tasks for you. It is going to take a lot of time, effort and patience. Having skilled friends is great and you shouldn’t hesitate to lean on them if need be. Try to meet and learn from others in the business at every opportunity, there is so much to learn and the clock is always ticking…
Jakke: On that subject, it’s also a good idea to keep a flexible schedule and not set any deadlines you’ll ‘easily make if everything goes exactly according to plan’ – it never does. – End
We would like to thank everyone at Fruitbat Factory and wish them nothing but success with 99 Spirits. You can pre-order now or download the demo via the official site. In addition, be sure to vote for 99 Spirits on Steam Greenlight.