Last year, the Milwaukee-based game studio Sirenum Digital launched a Kickstarter for their game the Lost Pisces. This re-imagining of the Little Mermaid touted rich imagery in a post-apocalyptic setting. The gameplay featured compatibility with the Kinect for XBox One.
Unfortunately, the Kickstarter failed to reach its ambitious goal of $204,000. In my interview with studio founder Daniel Rutkowski, he described running the Kickstarter campaign as “interesting” and the Kinect compatibility as a “double-edged sword.”
Everyone involved with indie game development knows all too well they’re in a “learn as you go” industry. Obstacles can range from poor feedback on Reddit to losing out on coveted conference booths. If you persevere and learn, you game has at least a shot at gaining some recognition. If you take every setback to heart, you might as well forget it.
Sirenum Digital is of the former: the team is coming back this spring with another crowdfunding campaign, this time on IndieGoGo. In my interview with Daniel, we discussed the lessons learned from the Kickstarter campaign, updates to the Lost Pisces, and their preparation for their next campaign.
GETTING “KICKED” BY KINECT
Daniel feels the Lost Pisces originally caught the attention of Microsoft specifically for it’s potential for compatibility with the Kinect. “While we were able to get the ear of Microsoft – they had hooked us up and got us into their Xbox One development group – to some extent, it was because of the Kinect, I imagine.”
Indeed, the need for solid games was apparent from the Kinect’s initial release. “I think they fully believe in that technology, and so they’re still trying to push it, and that’s kind of what attracted them to the Lost Pisces. So it was good from that standpoint, getting us into that program, because there were a lot of people clamoring on Twitter and whatnot and on our website to do something besides just have it for PC. Xbox and Microsoft were the ones that kind of reach out to us and it was because of [Kinect].”
Ultimately, the Lost Pisces’ connection to Kinect turned out to be a liability. “People had a massive issue when it came to the Kinect,” Daniel said. “We were like ‘holy crap, people really can’t get past the whole Kinect thing.’ There were actually plenty of people that would write to us and say ‘I love your idea, I think it’s really cool, but I don’t own a Kinect and I’m not going to buy a Kinect, and so where does that leave me? Where does that leave the game? Is it that integral of an experience?’”
The reaction to the Kinect overshadowed the rest of the work Daniel and the team put into the Lost Pisces. “To us, while we always loved the idea of the Kinect and what it could do in these really nice subtle ways for a video game and the experience, it wasn’t everything to us. We certainly had spent a lot of time creating everything else that went into the game – the parts of the story that existed at that point, the characters and everything else like that. While [the Kinect] was important to us, it wasn’t the be all end all either.”
After just a couple days of backlash against the Kinect, the team set out to clarify that Kinect was by no means required. Nevertheless, the damage was done. The Lost Pisces was viewed by the gaming community as a Kinect game. Gamers wouldn’t have it.
Despite the failed campaign, Sirenum Digital learned a lot and received some genuine feedback. “There were these redeeming moments when you talk to people who were just really into… the art and the story, and then there were people who absolutely hated it because of the Kinect and everything,” Daniel said.
One example of genuine feedback came from a game composer. “There was a woman … we ended up meeting up with her at E3 last year… she had supported [our] Kickstarter as well. She was just in love with the story and the characters too and the artwork, but she’s a composer. I think she did Gears of War 2 and 3 and all sorts of stuff.”
Despite these positive comments, the team understood that they didn’t do a good job communicating what kind of game the Lost Pisces was. “It’s certainly our fault as well for not illustrating what we thought the gameplay was. It was a fair comment from most people out there, that they thought that they liked something about the game but … didn’t really get what the game was or how it played out. You know, we look back at all the footage that we kind of took … and we were like ‘yeah.’ I guess [we’re] familiar with it but only because we worked on it.”
The team also learned about publisher’s expectations when they express interest in an indie game. “Ultimately,” Dan said, “they wanted a demo.”
I’ve talked to indie game developers, and I’ve worked with indie game studios. What all these people have in common is a sense of passion and love for their projects that can’t be deterred. Daniel was no different. He described working on the Lost Pisces as “therapeutic,” something he could come home and work on in the evenings. He considers the game “a piece of art” that he always comes back to. There was no way in hell Daniel was going to give up because of Kickstarter.
MOVING AHEAD WITH INDIEGOGO
With new lessons learned, Sirenum Digital is ready to try crowdfunding again this spring with an IndieGoGo campaign. “What we’re really looking for is some money basically to finish off a demo, like a beta, to take the publishers and events like IndieCade,” Dan said. The demo will include a complete level so everyone get easily grasp the gameplay and storyline.
The decision to raise money exclusively for a demo significantly changed their campaign’s goals. “So the IndieGoGo campaign is really going to be for a much smaller amount of money,” Daniel said. “We’re really just looking to finish off the bits and pieces that we… can’t do ourselves.” These include purchased assets, music, and voice actors, he explained.
The studio set the IndieGoGo launch date for May 11th with a goal of $40,000.
Preparations for the campaign include a mix of Kickstarter initiatives and news ones based on feedback and community expectations. Included this time around, for example, will be a video featuring the studio’s team. “When it comes to crowdfunding campaigns, it’s sometimes just as much about team story as it is the final product,” Dan said. “People have to really get behind not only your message but the people that are building it.”
The team also put together a tiered rewards system similar to what they did with Kickstarter. This time, however, they’ve placed special attention to character figurines, including some exclusive to IndieGoGo. “If the IndieGoGo campaign is another failure, at least we’ve got a couple little prototypes that we’ll have around the studio,” Dan joked.
Daniel and the team also took a hard look at what the Lost Pisces was at the time of Kickstarter and what could be improved. “We didn’t start at Ground Zero obviously… but we did gut it for a lack of a better term,” Daniel said. For example, the Kinect capabilities went to the back burner, though “not forever.”
The game’s aesthetic also underwent a change. Though the Lost Pisces was always set in a dystopian-type world. This message is brought out more so in the revised artwork that the team has been releasing images via the Lost Pisces’ Twitter account.
Daniel explained that he drew some inspiration for the game’s updated style from the Vanishing of Ethan Carter. “I think I was reading this article about the [game], which is an absolutely gorgeous game… they went out and took scans of all sorts of stuff in nature and what not and crypts and lots of different props and that sort of thing, and it really made their game. It added the sense of – not sense of realism necessarily, but definitely this level of detail, and it’s one thing that we wanted to upgrade.
Despite the aesthetic changes, the game still centers around the Little Mermaid as its core concept.
REWORKING THE GAME
Aesthetic changes aside, the team couldn’t ignore that players were uncertain about the game’s play style. “‘I really like it but is it an RPG or third person shooter or what is it?’ were some of the comments the team received through the website,” Daniel explained. “We knew that this was a huge issue.”
He can now describe the Lost Pisces as Shadow of the Colossus meets Tower Defense.
“The general idea is…basically there’s 11 gods that you’re going against,” San explained. These Gods correspond to those of the Zodiac, with the exception of Pisces. [They are] very large robots…simply put, they’re always trying to get from point A to point B. Point B would be, you know, your base essentially. And they’ve got little minions too that follow [the bosses] and move much faster than them.”
Players have the ability to go out into the broken terrain and salvage weaponry. They can find vehicles, weapons and barriers. Barriers and weapons can be set up along the paths of the Gods. “You’re commandeering all these different things to basically stop these massive gods before they get to your base in each one of the levels,” Dan said. “It’s kind of mayhem, lots of big explosions. We didn’t have a lot of explosions in the first [version] and I think that made people sad.”
Several members from the Kickstarter days are still around, though the team continues to grow. “Overall, the Sirenum Digital team has grown without much effort toward actively searching for new members,” Daniel explained. “[We’ve] just been working with people in the area who had similar interests.”
Among those new collaborators is the team from Voyage Virtual Media, a Milwaukee-based startup that works exclusively with VR solutions. Daniel describes the guys from Voyage as “really cool,” and have helped out with incorporating some VR ideas into the Lost Pisces. The aforementioned composer from E3 has also contributed to the Lost Pisces. “We’ll be using a couple of her songs,” Daniel explained. “She was kind enough to offer free of charge the use of a couple of her songs.”
THE POTENTIAL FOR VR
Though Daniel stated he’s considered the Lost Pisces as a potential contender for VR, he wants to first find what added value a VR experience would add to the game. “I’m still trying to figure out is this something that there’s value in,” Daniel said, “because most the time [VR features] a first person view that you’re going with…Of course, the issue with having an Oculus is then you are essentially saying you’re going to scrap all of these emotional cue things with the Kinect, and we don’t want to say that the Kinect is completely dead, but the minute you start introducing a headset to somebody’s face obviously you’ve kind of killed that whole concept.”
Daniel is aware of the challenges a third-person game poses for VR compatibility. While the player and character’s point of views are the same in first person games, the player acts like a “floating consciousness” over the character in third person games. Nevertheless, he believes there’s something there, and hopes to add some cool VR features into the Lost Pisces pretty soon.
Though the IndieGoGo campaign is still two months away, Daniel and the team already know what lies ahead. He hopes the money raised will not only finish the demo, but also act as seed money for next steps. “I’m sure there’ll be plenty of things where as soon as we finish the demo and put it in people’s hands, we’ll hear similar reactions to the demo as we did with the Kickstarter,” he explained. Even though the failure of Kickstarter is still fresh in his mind, Daniel remains optimistic.
“Hopefully, with a much more direct message, much more direct vision of what the gameplay is, and enhanced graphics and higher level of visual appeal, hopefully we’ll be able to pull [it] off.”
Let’s hope this time the perseverance pays off.
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198X Review — A Nostalgia Trip Without a Destination
Some short stories feel more like chapters—snipped out of a larger work—that struggle to make sense on their own. 198X represents a translation of that ethos to video game form. As a result, the game feels unfulfilling, though that does not detract from the overall quality on offer. Ultimately, the player’s appraisal of 198X will depend on whether they place more stock in story or gameplay because while the former leaves much to be desired, the latter will be a hit for anyone with fond memories of the 8- and 16-bit classics.
In the framing and overall structure, 198X is decidedly modern, but everything else pulses with a retro vibe. At its core, the game is a compilation, weaving together five distinct experiences under the auspice of a story of personal development. From the Double Dragon-infused ‘Beating Heart’ to the turn-based dungeon RPG ‘Kill Screen’, each title feels slick, if a little undercooked. Those old-school originals could only dream of being as smooth as these throwbacks. However, the two-button input methodology results in the games feeling just a touch too simple, though their brevity—each clocking in at a maximum of 15 minutes (depending on the player’s skill level and muscle memory)—makes that less of an issue than it might have been. If more depth is present, it is hidden well, as the game lacks any sort of tutorial to guide players. Nevertheless, the stellar presentation goes a long way towards papering over the cracks.
The pixel art aesthetic of 198X is staggering. Each of the worlds that players make their way through is pitched perfectly to fit the mood it evokes. From the grungy brawler of the first game to the more melancholic mood of the open-road racer, the screen is drenched in lavish colour and far more detail than one might expect from such a seemingly simple art style.
Easily a match for the visuals is the audio. The in-game sounds of a car engine or bone-crunching strike are low-key, which allows the music to come to the fore. Those tunes are all from the electronic genre, simple, yet layered with enough depth to not feel tedious or tiring. Easily overshadowing all the rest though is Maya Tuttle’s voice-over narration as The Kid. Her tone is one of pervasive resignation that works to reinforce the same mood within the script.
That melancholia will surely strike a chord with anyone who has grown up on the fringes. The Kid speaks of once loving and now hating the Suburbia of their childhood, where memories of happiness collide with a contemporary feeling of entrapment. The words and lines are powerfully evocative—made even more so by the connection between the gameworlds and the prevailing emotion at that point. The problem is that they amount to nothing. The story comprises of these snippets—these freestanding scenes of life lived lonely—that never coalesce into anything. The Kid may find an arcade and speak of finding some sort of home and a source of strength, but it goes nowhere. The game ends just as things start to get interesting. Setting up for a sequel is no sin. Plenty of other games and media products—from Dante’s Inferno to Harry Potter—have done just that. However, to be effective, such first parts need to offer a story in and of themselves, not just the promise of a story to come, and that is where 198X falls apart.
With each game in the compilation being a straightforward, one-and-done affair and the overarching narrative feeling like a prologue at best, 198X is wafer-thin. The presentation is simply remarkable, and the package has enough variety to be worth a look, but the unmistakable impression is that something is missing.
Reviewed on PC. Coming soon to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
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