Jonathan Xikis shows us the ropes as he discusses his upcoming steampunk, dark-fantasy visual novel, Icebound.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your role with the development of Icebound.
I’m the lead developer/writer of Icebound. I wrote the entire story and directed the creation of the art as well. I also designed and programmed the UI and the story scenes. And, now I’m also doing most of the marketing (though I’ve proven to be not quite as good at that).
How did you get started in developing PC games?
I’ve been a fan of video games ever since I was young, and I was always a good writer. My favorite types of games were ones with an interesting plot, and I was never one to skip any dialogue. I came to enjoy art as well, and I enjoyed tinkering with programs like RPG Maker to try to make my own games back in high school, though they never got very far.
In 2010, I decided to try to create an RPG that I could profit from commercially, with a comedic plot about an evil minion who rebels against his Sauron-esque dark overlord. However, the project fell through due to lack of a budget and doubts about the viability of a typical RPG Maker game, and I couldn’t wrap my head around more advanced programming, so I decided to switch to a format where I could show my strengths, writing and creative direction. I’d love to make an RPG, but I feel like they’re incredibly difficult to develop, and hard to catch people’s attention with on an indie budget where the graphics have to be rather simple, or… *gasp* retro.
I could always choose to be a novelist or screenwriter, but I like the interaction of story with visuals that visual novels provide, while being able to do all kinds of insane fantasy things that would be hard to pull off in a film without a big budget or some serious VFX knowledge.
Where did the idea for Icebound come from?
Icebound was supposed to be one of my first visual novel projects and was intended to be a small collaboration. Though that fell through early on, I decided I liked the world I created for Icebound so much that I wanted to continue to expand the world and make the game commercial. I’m not entirely sure where the original concept came from – I’m a fan of edgy -punk settings like steampunk and dieselpunk, and I wanted to give it a bit of a sci-fi feeling to differentiate it from most typical fantasy settings. It was originally only a couple of planets, but, since then, I’ve made a detailed map. Despite this, if there are more Icebound games, they will probably be in singular locations within the human Empire – the budget’s too limited to go globetrotting (lol).
What are some of the successes and failures you learned from in developing Icebound?
The first failure was probably not having a clear outline of the story. I shunned the creation of an outline and decided to just jump right into writing, but I wasn’t used to writing such a long story and I was forced to discard months of work. I think it’s 100% necessary to have an outline for any type of novel, digital or not.
The next failure was the reliance on a collaboration instead of investing money into the game. Ultimately, the artists who helped me with the game were unable to devote much time into it and were forced to leave, and most of their art went to waste. I spent a number of months with progress at a standstill, so always make sure you have enough money to fund the game before you start.
Another failure was the problems with working alone and how it led to procrastination and being burned out from writing the game. Due to the lack of outline, it turned out far longer than I had anticipated and I began to lose my motivation for writing it. This means it took a lot longer than it would have otherwise.
However, you could say a success was learning the tricks of the trade in developing indie games and managing to create a game that was impressive in story, art and concept to those who played it. I still like the Icebound world and want to write more stories within it.
In its current form, how close is Icebound to your initial vision?
Not close at all. I was forced to discard my original vision, and start afresh with a new story. The scope of the old version was simply too large – I overestimated what I could fit in a single game. Plus, it was quite a bit more boring.
Please talk about developing the art style, level design and music for Icebound.
The art style for Icebound was originally more realistic and done in a painted style. However, I decided to give it a more anime flair since it’s a bit of a lighthearted story, and anime art is more eye catching and enjoyable to a wider audience. To my eyes, it just plain looked better. However, it still has a semi-realistic style due to its nature as dark fantasy.
The locations were all outlined by me – I love worldbuilding and creating environments within the world that are linked somehow. The music was created in a western fantasy style, to make it more atmospheric than your typical video game or visual novel.
Outside of creating the game itself, what is the toughest aspect of being an indie developer?
Mainly that it’s hard to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, just like trying to start any business. I’m still keeping my options open – as much as I would love to helm a game studio, the path to getting there is rather uncertain. Also, being an indie developer means you are a bit isolated from the rest of the world. Not to mention, all the sitting down is pretty unhealthy.
What made you decide to use Kickstarter as a form of funding?
I wanted to improve Icebound, but I have a limited budget. Instead of releasing the game as-is, I decided to use Kickstarter as a platform to get the game out there while raising the money to be able to add improvements to the game. I’d also love the excuse to create some Icebound swag.
Tell us about the process of submitting Icebound to the various digital distribution platforms and if you encountered resistance in doing so.
Amazon has been accommodating, and I do plan to release on their indie games store. I like getting feedback about Icebound, and I think having a strong community is the most important thing for an indie game developer. Although Icebound has a Steam Greenlight, it’s hard to garner enough support to make the top games when you’re such a small indie developer who has actual development tasks on his plate as well as marketing. Greenlight means that small games that might have otherwise gotten onto Steam and became a phenomenon are given the boot in favor of ones with a large fanbase already.
How much value do you place on the opinions of those who review Icebound professionally?
I would definitely listen to the reviewer’s opinion. That said, I probably already know most of the story’s strengths and weaknesses before they’re mentioned. But, I can’t revise a story or game forever, so the next one will have to take those into account. And, of course, there are some things that are personal preference and not everyone will like, and I’m not going to change my style completely if a reviewer thinks that the ferans should look more like dark elves.
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?
I feel that such things are a great idea – but only when the interest around your game has died down. I will probably not put Icebound in a bundle in the near future, since I really do need the money to keep making games.
What are your thoughts on how the PC gaming industry as a whole are dealing with the problem of intrusive DRM and piracy?
I like the idea of Steam, which gives you more than you get from pirating a game ( e.g. achievements, trading cards, friends…). That said, there needs to be a platform that offers that, but has a more efficient way to get your game up even if it has niche rather than mass market appeal. You could say Desura is an alternative, but it’s not nearly as popular. Also, there are just some types of DRM that destroy an otherwise good game. I’m lookin’ at you, uPlay and GFWL. Even worse if they are combined with Steam for 2 layers of unnecessary DRM.
How do you feel about individuals posting videos and receiving and monetization of Icebound and your other games?
In my opinion, it benefits me a lot more than it would potentially hurt me. I don’t mind at all if they spread the word about my games to their fans. The idea of a company shutting down potentially positive reviews of their game because the reviewer has ads is ridiculous.
How do you feel about DLC and its current implementation in the PC gaming industry?
DLC should be big, meaty, and increase the content of the game. It should be something that was obviously not possible to create during development. I’m not a fan of microtransactions, though they’re a bit more of a problem in the mobile arena.
How do you feel about the online modding community in general and specifically if mods were created for Icebound?
As a story heavy game, modding Icebound would be impossible. But, I wouldn’t mind if people made supportive fan-works about it!
What advice would you give up-and-coming indie PC developers who are trying to break into the business?
Make and release small, polished free games before trying to go big – it will prove that you can create quality games. Some very small yet high-quality games have made a ton of money from fans wanting to see more. Don’t expect to strike it big unless you’ve put in the effort to build a large community and market your game (and people like it).