In today’s “Series Spotlight,” we take a look at the 4th game in the Awakening series, Awakening: The Skyward Castle. I was able to speak at length with Awakening developer “Ran” Si Yuan Wong to talk about the artistic & creative process behind this fantastic series of games. Also, make sure to keep an eye out for Awakening: The Skyward Castle when it comes out later this August!
Please introduce your development team to our readers…
Hi! The A4 dev team is comprised of an extremely diverse group of talented developers: from as far away as Russia, all the way down past the Philippines to the sunny tropical countries of Indonesia and Singapore. Heading the art team is Greg Martinus, followed by his gaggle of artists Bless Tambolero, Rudy Sumarso, Setiawan Lie, Nathan Arches, Jeffrey Sanjaya, and the migrant art/animation herd of Ben Wong, Edwin Sablaya, Myls Bunagan, and others. Bringing technical expertise and a good old dose of Russian pragmatism to the table is our programmer, Helene Barashkova, backed up by Gener Gabasa. Finally, filling in the design team is ‘Ran’ Wong and Samantha Racho, working hard to bring the game to you on time!
What made you want to be a game developer?
I loved playing games and always wanted to make my own. So I decided to take it up in my studies. I took up various art and technical courses in university, and attended various game design courses and initiatives (including the Singapore-MIT Gambit initiative at MIT). It turns out playing and developing games are two very different universes altogether!
How do you get inspiration for a game?
Two words: “What if…”. A game is a portal into doing the impossible in real life, so wild and amazing ideas are always welcome! Quite often an idea is seeded by a commonplace occurrence in real life. The simple act of observing the way a child interacts with their environment, perhaps, or an adult trying to solve a particularly tricky piece of spatial interaction (read: packing a suitcase or multitasking with daily life) can lead to a ‘What if…’ moment, which is then pared down to a core idea, then integrated into our projects in the form of a mini-game or mechanic. Here’s how the idea for the Awakening series began: This was the brainchild of Luna and Chris, who, having looked at the current state of the market, wanted to do a fantasy-setting game that wasn’t dark, ominous, or foreboding. But they didn’t want it Disney-cute, either. Instead, we went for bright and beautiful. This is a theme successive teams have been proud to do their best to build upon, keeping all games in the Awakening series bright and beautiful. The impetus that Awakening was based off was, of course, the magical Sleeping Beauty. But in a twist, Luna wondered: “What if instead of everyone having magic, our heroine was the only one WITHOUT it? How would she cope?” Working to keep the world logical, yet powered by magic, has always been a challenge, and while it poses its problems, it also opens up avenues for many unusual ideas, such as the Goblin tinkerer Leodici who tries to fuse magic and science together, or finding prosaic and mundane means through a magical puzzle. It is a world we love and hope to continue being able to share with our audience!
How long does it take for you to design a game from start to finish?
From a cold start, easily eight months. For most games in the Awakening franchise, ideas for the sequel coalesce as early as halfway into development of the current installment, so the ‘actual’ time for a game is easily a year or more. Ideas often include characters who will play an important role in future games (or who played an important role in a previous game, such as Xim from Awakening: The Goblin Kingdom) or places, which we try to allude to in the current project. Naturally, we have to make sure the context for each game can stand on its own legs, as our audience may not have played previous games. But for those who have, it forms a nice little link between stories.
What are the biggest technical challenges when you develop a game?
One of the hardest challenges in any successful franchise is figuring out what made the last one so successful, and then reading the feedback the audience had on it and trying to improve on it. Quite often this translates to: “More of the same, but bigger, better, and prettier.” It sounds simple, but it’s really difficult! Adapting existing mechanics to provide more rewarding experiences, innovating on new and existing ideas, and providing more story and positive feedback are all things we are constantly striving to add more regularly and with more efficiency.
What is your favorite game at the moment, and why?
It’s probably Terraria… I haven’t caught my breath long enough to play any new games in a while!!
Any advice for new developers?
Like everything, practice makes perfect. Your word is only as good as your completed projects. It doesn’t matter if nine out of ten projects you complete are rubbish; as long as you keep developing games, that one out of ten is probably going to catch someone’s eye…
What does your development team do that’s different?
In a virtual studio where we often can’t see the other person face to face, open communication and ideas are vital. Nobody’s afraid to give ideas and tell anyone else that he/she/they’re wrong, so long as it’s backed up by reasoning. Honest feedback is the best way to make a good game.
As a developer, after shipping a game, do you enjoy playing it just as much as you enjoyed making it? Or when it’s shipped do you take a sigh of relief and forget about it, knowing you don’t need to worry about it anymore?
Honest answer? We play-test the game so many times during development that we’re effectively numb to it. But taking a step back and looking at things, making the game often IS the game, where coming up with creative solutions to implementing and debugging an idea becomes a puzzle in itself. And the experience of actually finishing it to an exacting standard and shipping it on time gives the team a high equal to any game we play.
However, we sometimes give ourselves a few months to let the numbness wear off, and play it again. It’s actually quite rewarding when that happens; we can view it with fresh eyes and see what works and what didn’t, hopefully giving us more insight into developing our next project.
Have you ever had to sacrifice a feature you really didn’t want to give up to keep a game in budget or meet a deadline?
Yes. The unfortunate fact is deadlines tend to be pretty solid when money and professionalism is involved. Don’t worry – a lot of cut features tend to get a new lease of life in the sequel or other similar projects!
How many ideas have you had to abandon or drastically change because someone beat you to the punch?
A: We don’t abandon our ideas when we see someone do it before us; we analyze their idea, see what worked and what didn’t, and then re-iterate on that idea to evolve our own. Often it’s an enriching experience, and helps grow the design for the game in general.
If you could remove one cliché from the Video Game industry, what would it be?
That there’s a divide between ‘hard core’ and ‘casual’ players. I’ve seen ‘casual’ players who would put self-professed ‘hard core’ players to shame…
What do you find is the best approach for starting a new project? Do you think about the story (or characters or style etc.) you want to get across or do you worry about mechanics and gameplay first?
A bit of both. We generally come up with solid ideas of who our characters are and how the world around them works, in order to come up with challenges worthy of them (and our players). The mechanics and game play are then molded around those criteria. Often one gets changed when ideas for the other crop up, so it’s hard to pin down a single ‘best approach.’
What do devs think about the people who get mad about a particular aspect of a game, whether it be story, customization, gameplay, etc. Do they take it personally or ignore it?
The most productive and difficult thing to do is read between the lines of the complaints and figuring out the core of the issue they’re having with the game, as opposed to the language they use to describe it. Often enough, most ideas will have some merit, and enough feedback often helps us form/triangulate a clearer idea of what the customers want.
Of course, if the players get abusive and personal about it, it makes it hard for the developer to approach the complaints objectively.
Do developers ever realize that the game they’re making needs a major overhaul? If so, is there a process to improving a game in the latter stages of development?
We tend to take a more cautious approach and systematically build the game in manageable chunks – if a problem is spotted early in the development process, the damage is mostly limited and can be fixed. But yes, sometimes we do realize the need, and it hurts (in more ways than one) to push the deadline back if it means producing a better quality product.
I’d like to shout out to our wonderful audience for reading all this, and the Awakening team would like to thank you as well for playing the Awakening series and giving them a chance to prove themselves. With your continued support, we hope to keep making amazing games and bringing you more quality experience in the future!