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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Epic Expectations and Epic Games Store: Storm in a Teacup on Creating Close to the Sun — Exclusive Interview
Storm in a Teacup’s Close to the Sun released a month ago, but much remains for fans to learn about the project. Though the inspired game has plenty of clear influences, its differences from what came before are what make Close to the Sun a standout title in its genre.
In OnlySP’s interview with Storm in a Teacup’s creative director and CEO Carlo Ivo Alimo Bianchi below, Bianchi talks about his influences, the studio’s future, Bioshock, and Epic Games’s contribution to the project.
OnlySP’s Amy Campbell gave Close to the Sun an impressive High Distinction, thus adding the horror title to a list filled with some of the best games available.
OnlySP: We see this happen all the time where indie games will get a lot of attention simply for the premise alone. Some are watching Close to the Sun for this very reason. What is that sudden pressure like and what is Storm in a Teacup doing to make sure expectations are met?
Bianchi: We’re incredibly humbled by all of the hype we’ve seen around Close to the Sun, we’ve been working hard with a small team to make sure we met the bar for a title like this, and the last six months have been spent polishing the title to make the experience what it is today.
OnlySP: Obviously, a lot of people are comparing BioShock and System Shock to Close to the Sun. What makes Close to the Sun similar but different when compared to those games?
Bianchi: It’s a flattering comparison which we feel comes mostly from the design language within the game—when you see Art Deco in a video game BioShock is by far the biggest point of reference for gamers, for us though, it’s more about what was visually right to bring to the game. In our version of history science has accelerated the progression of society—bringing 1930s styling to the end of the 19th century, it’s also a suitably opulent aesthetic for our Tesla who sees himself as a modern-day Prometheus.
When you look at the gameplay itself, it’s really very different—Close to the Sun is more like SOMA or Outlast. To be honest we tried to stay away a little from the BioShock comparison not because it isn’t an incredible game, (it is a masterpiece) but because we wanted to align the expectations of consumers for Close to the Sun—it’s not an FPS.
OnlySP: What are some of the game’s that got you, not only into gaming, but into making games? What games are you looking toward for inspiration when developing Close to the Sun?
Bianchi: The first games I ever played were on Commodore 64 and, as every guy coming from that era knows, just launching games at the time took some experience. It was fascinating for me at the point that I started writing my first code in Basic for fun. After that consoles came out and things got much easier, just buy a NES game, blow inside the cartridge like there is no tomorrow. Games became just something to play with, not something to think over. Even by my 18th birthday games were just something fun to play—I could never imagine I would end up developing games.
The first game that made me think was Resident Evil, it was an action game with interesting puzzles, a good story and a horror mark that executed splendidly (for the times) all of its aspects. It taught me that games could be more than just a shooter OR a puzzle solver, they could be both if executed well. The second game that comes to my mind is for sure Final Fantasy VII, still today my favourite game of all time. That game taught me that story telling could be way deeper than what I was used to. I loved the combat system and still think it’s the best turn-based system ever, but the lore in that game together with characters’ depth was something else. Another game I want to mention is Tomb Raider, that has been the first 3D game where I really felt depth! I felt so immersed in its environments that sometimes I dived from higher grounds to certain death just to enjoy the amazing vertical depth of the game. Tomb Raider was the first game that made me think: what if I could create something like this? There are many more games I could mention but these three are for sure the most important for my life as a developer.
When we started our design work on Close to the Sun we had three key pillars we wanted to use to create the game, these were: we wanted to create a suspense filled horror game, we wanted it to be on a boat (it’s the perfect setting to convey vulnerability and isolation to the player) and we wanted to include Tesla as a historical figure (and personal hero of mine). When it comes to the titles that inspired the team for Close to the Sun, we loved SOMA, Layers of Fear, Firewatch—these are all incredible titles.
OnlySP: So, the Epic Games Store controversy has gotten the entire PC gaming market riled up. A recent press release not only doubled down on the fact that Close to the Sun will launch first on the Epic Games Store, but that the partnership with Epic actually “accelerated development.” Could you elaborate on some of the ways the partnership sped things up?
Bianchi: Epic have been pivotal in the creation of Close to the Sun—they’ve been behind the project from an early stage and even provided a development grant for the game early on with no obligation. With the support they had given us and the project it felt completely natural and right to bring the game to the Epic Games Store.
On a technical development level I think it’s really easy to underestimate the value of the tools they provide—creating a horror game requires a lot of testing to see the reaction you want from the player, our team spent a lot of time using Unreal to create rapid prototypes for the final version of the game, something stuck, some things didn’t, but what was left perfectly fulfilled what we wanted to achieve and with the visual fidelity the Unreal Engine provides.
OnlySP: What do you have to say to those who are bad-mouthing the game simply because of the exclusivity period?
Bianchi: We understand fully why players feel so passionately about their launchers, but we felt the Epic Games Store was the right fit for the game, for the reasons already outlined already but also for visibility. The game will come to other storefronts in time, but right now we’re working on the console release so we can make the game available to even more players.
OnlySP: How much time can players expect to sink into the game’s story mode on the first go around? Does the game’s story offer anything for players who dive back in for a second playthrough?
Bianchi: Your first play through on Close to the Sun will take between 4 and 7 hours depending on the type of player you are. The game is rich in environmental storytelling and collectables and if you want to find and understand all these it may even take you longer. As for replay value there are some environmental elements that you’ll only truly understand once you finish the game, these are great to look out for the second time around.
OnlySP: Where does Storm in a Teacup go from here?
Bianchi: We have some ideas; we’d love to go on to create another game in this same universe but for now our focus is on the console versions of the game that will launch later in 2019.
OnlySP: Forgive me, but I’ve got to ask: Do you have any updates for Switch owners who want to play Close to the Sun on that platform? The ‘accelerated development’ comment discussed earlier definitely had me wondering.
Bianchi: We’re always open to looking at new platforms but we don’t have any news to share on this at the moment.
OnlySP: Why should people who may not already be interested in your game look into Close to the Sun?
Bianchi: Close to the Sun offers a unique experience—looking at the ideas and inventions of Tesla and what he might have gone on to achieve if he hadn’t been outmaneuvered during his years in industry. Tesla died near penniless in a hotel in New York but the world could have been so different—in 2019 we’re still barely scratching the surface of his ideas.
OnlySP: Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
Bianchi: Thank you for reading and a special thanks to anyone who goes out to buy the game.
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