The world of video gaming is as diverse as it’s ever been, and that’s part of the reason why a game like Lost Ember can be made. Adventurous in its premise, it takes inspiration from games like Journey to create something where the setting plays a major role and where the main characters are all animals, who you control to explore your surroundings and uncover the secrets that the environment is holding.
The game, developed by independent studio Mooneye, is in the early stages of development, and the company is planning a Kickstarter campaign in the near future to allow them to work more closely on it to make it as good as it can be. I spoke to the team, made up of CEO Tobias Graff and his colleagues Maximilian Jasionowski, Pascal Müller, Matthias Oberprieler, and Florens Huhn, about how they’re finding the development process and their inspirations for the game, among many other things.
ONLSYP: Hi guys. Could I begin by asking how you all got started in the gaming industry, and whether you are all video game fans?
Tobias Graff: We all have different backgrounds. My first steps were at Goodgame Studios in mobile and browser game development. I studied media/computer science, basically programming with design mixed in to it. It wasn’t really game focused, but I kind of made it game focused by turning all my projects into games. So I started pretty early with school and university, then started to work for Goodgame in 2012.
ONLYSP: So, was that something you always wanted to go in to after university?
Graff: Yeah, definitely. I had programming in school and always planned to open my own studio one day. Then two years ago that dream came true.
ONLYSP: Is that the same for all of you?
Maximilian Jasionowski: I’m the designer and, actually, I only started working on games two years ago. We studied together and everything got started here. All my projects before were always games related, though, whether they were concept art or design. But this is the first actual game we’re working on apart from two little ones before.
ONLYSP: How did Mooneye get started? How did you all get together?
Graff: We met each other studying for Master’s degrees at university. We studied game development, and the point of that study is to make a small game in three semesters and to form a team to make it. For us that game was Lost Ember and pretty soon we found out that we worked really well together, and then we just founded a company, I think, three or four months in.
ONLYSP: What are all your respective roles in the company?
Graff: Pascal and I are programmers. I do a little technical art as well. Maximilian is our concept artist and art director, and Matthias our 3D artist. Then a friend of ours, Florens, writes the story and dialogue; he’s the narrative designer. So we have pretty clear roles.
ONLYSP: When you got started did you have a clear idea of what sort of games you wanted to do?
Graff: I wouldn’t really say clear. It changed a lot over the first couple of months when we just worked on concepts and ideas, and tried some stuff out, and after that it became pretty clear. We changed a lot of things recently, but the general idea was maybe set after half a year or so. We had our game and our basic mechanics set up, and we all wanted to make a different kind of game, not a standard or classic one with lots of combat or points or high scores and stuff like that, but a rather relaxed game and a cool experience. That’s the basis of Lost Ember.
ONLYSP: When you did the smaller games was the aim always to work up to making Lost Ember?
Graff: The smaller games were just mobile games, and with the first one we basically just wanted to actually finish a game and publish it to see how the whole experience was, how the market reacts and what’s behind that. We realized it’s pretty hard and with the second game it was similar. We had a partner for that who originally planned to work with us and to develop a platform for this game, but unfortunately they went bankrupt so it was pretty much dead from that moment on.
ONLYSP: Has the shift from mobile games to PC gaming been difficult?
Graff: We never really wanted to be a mobile developer; we were always more focused on PC and console games, and the mobile stuff were just experiments. We just wanted to see how that market works, but we always aimed at the PC and console market.
ONLYSP: Did you find the mobile market works in an easier way than the PC market?
Graff: Well it is easy to just get your game out there, but it’s definitely not that easy to get people to see your game so without actual marketing or a publisher; you’re just invisible.
ONLYSP: So can you explain a little bit about Lost Ember, where the idea came from and why you decided to do it?
Graff: Yeah, it was a long process. The first idea that we had was just that we wanted to do something with animals and walk around in a world and experience that world from a different perspective than our own. Using animals, you can see the world in a different way. We just tried a lot of stuff with different animals and pretty soon we had the idea of switching between all of them.
We got that idea from a game nothing like Lost Ember: a racing game called Driver 3, where you can switch in to other cars. Around the time that we first came up with Lost Ember I played that game and then we kind of mixed that mechanic of switching in to other animals or people in to the game. The idea was born to control different animals and to have all these different perspectives in the world. Then we just needed a story and a world for it. That took a long time; a few months ago we changed everything again and now it’s a completely different story and a mostly different world, so it has been a long road to get to the point that we are now.
ONLYSP: Is that because the previous story didn’t work with the mechanic or did you just think it needed changing to work better?
Graff: At first our idea was to cut the story in to four or five smaller episodes to make it less work and more manageable for a small team like us — divide the work up so that you can have a full game earlier. We made a story for that so it had cliffhangers for different episodes but then we realized that it’s not that easy, and making multiple episodes, even if they are way smaller, is still a lot more work. It’s a lot more to organize and difficult to think of everything that happens in every episode.
After that, we changed the format and immediately felt much organized and just more comfortable handling only one game instead of five. But of course, it meant that we had to change the whole story because it was designed for different episodes and was pretty complex. We couldn’t tell that story in one five hour game so we cut and changed a lot of stuff to make it work in the new format.
ONLYSP: From what I’ve seen, the game seems pretty open world…
Graff: Well we don’t really have complete open world; there are just open segments and then there are linear segments that lead to open segments again where you can fly around as a bird or as other animals, but it’s not one big whole open world.
ONLYSP: What appealed to you about Lost Ember as a story?
Graff: I don’t know, actually. We had one big meeting where we discussed different ideas and different setups. It was a whole day that we just brainstormed about that and then somehow, I don’t remember how exactly, but we landed on lost old cultures that you can get to know and we invented the whole flashback, memory mechanic. I’m not sure how we came to it, but it was one of the ideas that we liked most.
Jasionowski: It came from the idea that we only have animals and there are no humans left, so this was one starting point. We had different ideas and finally landed on the Inca culture.
ONLYSP: So that’s been a different process entirely to the making of the game — more research. Was that fun to transfer in to the game?
Graff: Yeah definitely. It was really interesting to just learn about the old cultures for one thing, because it was really interesting to see how they actually lived and what they did, but also to try to think like they did […], to get in to this mindset of an old culture and think of stuff that we can put in to our game from our culture.
ONLYSP: When is the game set?
Graff: The time of the current world is not set to any date, really, but the memories that you have are from a long, long time ago.
ONLYSP: So when you came up with the stuff from a long time ago, what did you use as your reference point or did you just come up with something that would look good?
Graff: Mostly our narrative designer read loads of different stuff about different old cultures from our world, like the Inca and Maya, but also every old culture there is, basically. So we mixed a lot of stuff together, took parts from different cultures, and tried to find something that looks natural as it would look in these old cultures, despite it being a fictional world with a fictional culture.
ONLYSP: So under all the greenery is the ruins of an old civilization?
Jasionowski: Yeah, everything is really beautiful, but underneath it there is a story about the old civilization and how people lived. It’s actually apocalyptic scenery, I guess, but in a beautiful way.
Graff: It looks like paradise, but there’s actually a fallen culture underneath it.
ONLYSP: Was that the catalyst for your mechanic where you go back in time?
Graff: Both things came at the same time; we had this idea about old cultures, and how we can include that idea in the game without actually just including an old culture that you play as all the time.
ONLYSP: Are your animal characters learning about the old cultures or is it just the player learning?
Graff: Well the wolf learns it, too. The wolf is the main character all the time, and the wolf is the one that finds out all the stuff.
ONLYSP: Since your main character is a wolf, I was intrigued by how you tell the story. Is it told in language or is it more visual?
Graff: Both, actually. Lots of stuff we just tell through paintings and things like that, but other parts are told with a narrator. Actually you have a companion with you that guides you through the world and he is the one that shows you the memories. He is basically the last soul of the old world and witnessed the fall of this world. If you find artifacts, ruins or other key elements, you can see his memories and he tells you what he saw or what happened. That way you get to know the last years before the fall of this civilization through the eyes of this one person.
ONLYSP: How did you make the environment interesting to look at but also one that pushes the story forward?
Graff: We just think about key themes and visualize the different scenes, thinking about what a particular scene can tell you and how it can do so in the most natural and understandable way. We go scene to scene, basically. We set up these different scenes and we know what you will see in each of them and what moment of the story it can tell you about.
Jasionowski: We also are really playing a lot with colors and lighting, using contrast to bring out different emotions. For example, if you want to express something dark, we’d use something like a cave where everything is bluish and cold.
ONLYSP: So would you say that the major aspect is exploration?
Graff: Yeah definitely. You are moving through the world with different animals, whether that’s on the ground or in the water; there are many ways you can move around. You really have to use those to find certain things and to find the story elements so exploration and playing around with the possibilities you have are definitely the key elements.
ONLYSP: And is there any combat at all?
Graff: Not much really, no. We’ll have scenes where there is a little more action where you have to do something, but no direct combat system.
ONLYSP: The mechanics stay the same for the whole game, is that right?
Graff: That’s correct. The mechanics stay the same but you have different animals to choose from. When you are in the jungle there are birds and when you are in the mountains for example there are different animals, and fish in the water. Different areas of the world give you different possibilities. The basic mechanic that you can switch in to any animal stays the same, but the animals that you can switch in to change during the game.
Pascal Müller: Basically the mechanics always support the story. We have a story and we then talk about what kind of mechanic would support it and not the other way around. It’s not a generic shooter game that thinks about the mechanics first and the story later, so the mechanics support what’s going on.
ONLYSP: Have there been any games that have inspired you?
Graff: For the general gameplay the most inspiring game was probably Journey. Just the way the game is, it lets you explore the world at your own pace and you don’t have to fight or collect coins or anything like that, you just have to walk your way through the world and get to know the story and then you find some extra stuff that tells you more about the world.
Müller: Dear Esther and Shadow of the Colossus are also inspirations.
ONLYSP: Expansive environments and a slow pace then. Does it play with as slow a pace as Journey does?
Graff: At times, definitely. There are really times where you just move around slowly and have time to explore everything. There are also faster scenes that push you forward a little but in general I’d say it’s similar to the pace of Journey.
ONLYSP: So when you first started making it what would you say the main challenges were for you?
Graff: Well the main challenge for the company as probably for most companies was just getting the money to actually work on the game […]. We had to do lots of contract work and side jobs and stuff like that to be able to work on Lost Ember a couple of days a week and to finally afford this office that we are in now.
The second problem was just probably to plan that far ahead, we’ve never worked on such a big game before so it was difficult to estimate how long we would need to develop it. Our first deadlines went out of the window very quickly, we didn’t know anything that we were doing and to actually get a feeling for how long this stuff takes took us a while.
Gohardani: As you’ve gone through the process have there been new challenges every step of the way?
Jasionowski: There was always stuff that cost a lot of money that we didn’t plan and then we had to deal with that and struggled to just keep the company afloat.
Gohardani: Did you have external help to work on things like music?
Graff: Our music is produced by Solid Audioworks, who worked on all the Grand Theft Auto games for example. They came pretty soon to the team, we were just working for a few months on Lost Ember and just had some early concepts and very early videos, but they both were immediately hooked and from that pretty early moment on the sound and music was handled by them.
Jasionowski: It was really unbelievable for us when they wrote us the email after coming from Rockstar. We didn’t really believe them.
Graff: Until we visited them in Scotland and we finally believed they really were the guys they said they were.
ONLYSP: Did it come out of nowhere or did you approach them?
Graff: No actually they approached us. Pretty early when we got the concept we were featured in IndieGame magazine. They ran a competition on Twitter where they asked different developers to submit their games and then they would choose games to write about for a year. We wrote them and they chose us and then the first article they published in the series was apparently read by Will and Craig from Solid Audioworks. They liked what they read and they just wrote us an email out of nowhere and it was amazing.
ONLYSP: Would you say the music and the sound effects are big aspects of the game?
Graff: I think in most games sound and music is a really big aspect but it’s often underrated. It definitely is very important in Lost Ember because we try to make the player feel certain things and have different emotions at different parts of the story. Those emotions are best emphasised through music and through sound so it’s really important to have the right music at different parts of the game in order to ensure that you feel the right things.
ONLYSP: So from a graphical sensibility I’ve looked at a lot of the pictures and they are very pretty and I was wondering how long that took you to create and whether it was a process that you talked about and deliberated on for a long time.
Jasionowski: Yeah it was. We have different styles and we tried different things, working for a few months until we landed at the style we have now. I think it took about four or five months to get to the fully rendered style that we wanted. Before that, we wanted to use a 2D-like style that looked a bit like it was painted, but then we changed it after three or four months because we thought it would work better. It was easier for us to do and it put the nature in the foreground.
Graff: It’s a vivid world and we thought it worked best with a more realistic but still stylised aesthetic.
ONLYSP: Did the style evolve over the course of a few months?
Jasionowski: Yeah. We couldn’t plan it really because we didn’t have two months beforehand to just do the concept art.
Graff: We went and started to develop something and then everything, from the game itself to the concept and the style just evolved over time through just working on it.
ONLYSP: I read on your blog that recently you’ve had a few funding problems.
Graff: Yeah we had different stuff from just legal advisers that didn’t advise us that well, as it turned out. Different taxes and fees you have to pay as a company that we didn’t fully know about and stuff like that, but that’s all resolved, finally.
Müller: We could still use a little bit more money but we’re safe now.
Jasionowski: The biggest problem is that we have our sidejobs and we are there for half of the week and we just have two and a half or maybe three days a week to work on the game so it’s been a long process.
ONLYSP: Are you starting the Kickstarter to speed up the process or is it just for more funding?
Graff: At the moment we all have side jobs and do contract work and stuff like that and that of course slows the development down and doesn’t give us any security and planning for what can happen in a year or so. With Kickstarter we hope to get the money to actually work on Lost Ember full time and to just have a few months that we can totally focus and totally plan time in for Lost Ember and not have to think about contracts we need to do. Just give us a free head and speed up the development.
ONLYSP: When would you start the Kickstarter?
Graff: We don’t have an exact date, yet, and still need to prepare some things, but we think we can start in a few weeks around early October.
ONLYSP: Do you have a rough idea of the sort of goal you want to go for?
Graff: Yeah we still have to plan a lot of stuff, like what our stretch goals are and what we can offer as perks for the pledges. We have rough ideas but nothing more.
ONLYSP: Have you been to many conventions and conferences with the game?
Graff: We’ve been to some, we went to Gamesweek Berlin with Amaze festival. We showed Lost Ember and a small VR demo that we made for it too. We were thinking about maybe playing around with VR and make some kind of VR mode but we’re not sure if it works. The first demo of that we showcased at Amaze and feedback was really cool, apparently everyone loved it. Someone from Epic Games actually played it and just two weeks after that we had a HTC Vive in our office because they just wanted us to keep trying and working on that VR mode.
We also showed a short pre-alpha demo at Gamescom very recently.
ONLYSP: What sort of feedback did you get? Have you had much feedback in general?
Graff: Even though it’s not nearly finished, there were times where we had huge queues and big crowds watching people play the game. We even had a few people tell us that our booth was their favorite at the whole thing!
We’ve also had great feedback for the videos and the screenshots that we’ve put out, it’s been really overwhelming. Our new teaser that we released just a few days ago is already at 70,000 views and still counting.
Jasionowski: It’s a great feeling that we have this newsletter and subscription button on our website and currently the phone is ringing every couple of minutes which is unbelievable, with people wanting to get news about the game.
ONLYSP: You mentioned that you were dabbling with the idea of VR. Would there be much that you would have to change about the game in order to make that possible?
Graff: Probably. We still have to try lots of stuff but it’s a third person exploration game with different perspectives and that makes it difficult to move to VR, where you have to be in first person ideally. Maybe we’d have to change the whole camera system but we still haven’t really tried it a lot so we’ll experiment more. Maybe it’ll work but we’ll see.
ONLYSP: So you’re not thinking about that at the moment?
Graff: Not as a main goal no. We’re thinking that maybe we can do it if it works and if people respond to it but it’s not the main goal that we have with Lost Ember.
ONLYSP: How much of the game is ready so far?
Graff: It’s not that easy to tell because as soon as the mechanics are done the rest won’t be that much more work, but I’d say around 30%.
ONLYSP: So you’re still in the early stages then.
Graff: Definitely. We hope to release hopefully in late 2017 or early 2018, so it’s some time away.
ONLYSP: Would you be looking for a publisher next year or would you put it out yourselves?
Graff: It would be great to put it out ourselves. We are already talking to some publishers but at the moment we hope to be able to get funding from Kickstarter to keep creative control and really make the game we want to make without the pressure that comes with a publisher. But we also already talked to publishers who seemed very open minded, so maybe there are ways in which we both can profit from one another.
ONLYSP: Is that going to be part of the Kickstarter campaign, to try and release it yourselves?
Graff: Yes. If we get more than we ask for then we’ll try to put that in to marketing and distribution and maybe do it without the classic publishing deals but just with a PR partner or something.
ONLYSP: Will the game just be released on PC or are you going to consoles as well?
Graff: We’re aiming for PC, PS4 and Xbox and maybe even the new Nintendo whatever that will be but definitely consoles as well.
ONLYSP: Is that whole process difficult, will transferring it be hard for you as a team?
Graff: I hope not, we’re working with the Unreal Engine 4 so most parts of the game theoretically can be transferred to different platforms but there is some stuff still to do to get it to the PlayStation store and implement all the PlayStation and Xbox hooks and whatnot. But I think that’s manageable compared to the whole game.
Mooneye Studios are announcing a Kickstarter campaign this fall during which they will tour across Europe. However, they won’t start the campaign until they have 5000 subscribers for their newsletter. To make the campaign more interesting, the person who can recruit the most subsscribers that back the Kickstarter campaign will win a special $300 Lost Ember set on release. You can get a little more info at http://www.mooneyestudios.com/blog/50-lost-ember-kickstarter-challenge