Sunday, September 17, 2017

Talking to the Stuck in Attic team

Taking advantage of meeting the Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure team at Dev.Play 2017, I had a long talk with them after the conference, about their game, their attic studio, streaming, Kickstarter and more. Stuck in Attic is formed by Liviu Boar, project lead, writer, designer, artist, animator, composer - and job titles collector apparently, Camelia Cuibus, artist, animator, composer and Nicu Campeanu, programmer - with the other two hoarding all the jobs, no wonder he was left only with one title. A delightful trio of people, working with some very high standards of quality and a lot of love for the game they're making.

Gibbous: A Cthulhu Adventure
RoGa: Liviu, in a few words, what is the game about?
SiA: The game is a point and click adventure, it revolves around this evil book, the Necronomicon, which has the power to alter reality. When it is opened by mistake, it turns Kitteh from a regular, happy with its life cat, into a talking cat. There are three playable characters working to solve the mystery around the book. Detective Don R. Ketype wants to find out what's going on, Kitteh just wants to go back to its previous life and Buzz Kerwan, librarian and the cat's owner, is just happy to be along for the ride.

Lovecraft and Lucas Arts type of humor actually work well together

RoGa: When and how did this crazy idea of making a Cthulhu inspired point and click adventure game came about?
SiA: When you finally get a chance to make something of your own choosing, aside from the initial panic of not knowing what to do, the most natural thing is to take the things you love and put them together, see if they stick. For me [ed. note - Liviu] those things were Lovecraft, adventure games and cats. The overall theme of the game is dark but warm and that can be seen in the visuals, the mood and the music. While the small moments in the game make it feel cute and funny, the overall ark is a bit darker, sort of an existential horror, talking about how people are like ants to Cthulhu, whatever they do makes no difference in the end. So this isn't a horror with jump scares, it's mostly psychological. And surprisingly Lovecraft and Lucas Arts type of humor actually work well together.

RoGa: So are all three of you passionate about Lovecraft and adventure games?
SiA: More or less. Liviu and Cami [Camelia], we're fans of H.P. Lovecraft. Nicu likes adventure games and games focused on narrative in general and he learns about Lovecraft as we make the game. And Liviu is passionate about both.

RoGa: The voice acting in the game is really good, how did you manage to find such talented people to work with and not go bankrupt?
SiA: Well, we're friends with the voice actors that have the most lines in the game. They were very understanding and we try to help each other. We contacted Don, the voice behind our two male protagonists, we showed him what we do and he loved it. He really wanted to be in the game, so he and his girlfriend came to visit us last year and we recorded a lot of his lines. And his girlfriend ended up being the voice of Kitteh. We became good friends and we're sorry they're so far away. We still have more to record, but that experience, of people going the extra mile to work with us, was a confirmation that we're making something people appreciate.

This isn't a jump scares horror [but] sort of an existential horror.
RoGa: When do you plan to release the game and on what platforms?
SiA: The part of the game that falls directly on our shoulders we think we can finish before the holidays, but there are many things that we have less control over, like localization and QA. We hadn't had the time to step out of our daily routine and do some testing on the game, this [Dev.Play 2017] is the first time people are playing our game, aside from the original demo. So we might do a beta testing session with the backers, or something else, we still need to figure this part out. The game will be released on Steam, for PC, Mac and Linux, maybe on GOG. Sometimes later we'll look into porting it to other platforms as well, maybe mobile.

RoGa: What are your plans in terms of marketing the game?
SiA: I guess we're going to go guerrilla style. We don't know what kind of marketing budget we'll have. We're on Twitch all the time, we try to have a constant online presence, be on social media, let the people find out about Gibbous organically, through word of mouth. Maybe we'll do something crazy, I'll [Liviu joking] cut my hair one inch at a time. We'll try to make some noise. There are a lot of good indie games out there that don't sell well. So we need to do our homework, we've been busy making the game. Don, who is this go getter type of guy, inspires us a lot, especially since we're from the Ardeal region, where everyone is so calm and slow. We also don't know yet if we're going to have a publisher or work with an indie PR agency. We'll see, for now we focus on streaming so we can reach as many people organically.

Stuck in Attic
RoGa: How did the team form? Where did you meet each other?
SiA: We're colleagues in the same software company. Liviu and Cami worked together in the same small animation studio, while Nicu is a coder in the company. But we hadn't yet met, all three of us, until one day when a neighbor hit two cars: mine [Liviu's] and Nicu's. That's how we started talking, we realized that we'd love to make games. And our very open-minded boss helped us out. We started making a mobile game, our first experience with gamedev. We learned that a game needs to have a clear vision, which is why on Gibbous Liviu is in charge of that.

We try to be as honest and transparent as we can.
RoGa: So, Liviu and Cami, you two made animations together?
SiA: Yes, we worked in a bigger team and then in a very small team, just the two of us and we made an animated videoclip in just two months. We liked working in a small team more, we could organize ourselves better and we had good work chemistry. We wanted to make games, but two artists aren't enough for that, so we're very happy we met Nicu. We used to be in a band together, Liviu and I [Cami] and that's when we realized how important chemistry is, two good artists don't necessarily make good music together unless they click.

RoGa: Liviu, being in charge of a project can be challenging and sometimes your team members might disagree with your calls. How do you handle that?
SiA: [Cami] Actually, as we said before, we made that mobile game together that made us realize how important it is to have someone in charge. So we trust Liviu completely, he is a super creative guy, he always gets things done when he sets his mind to something, we really have nothing to complain about. We're always asking for his opinion. And we know that each of us does his job well, we trust each other because we each found our area that we're good at and comfortable with. [Liviu] If there are sometimes small conflicts, they're good for streaming because it helps the people watching understand how we reach common ground, we try to be as honest and transparent as we can.

RoGa: You wrote a big article on Gamasutra about your Kickstarter campaign and how you approached it, but can you tell us what you think is the most important thing to do before even starting the campaign?
SiA: [Liviu] That article was just part one, I have the other two parts but I need to finish editing them. The reason I wrote them is because all that info is still fresh in my mind and I know how difficult it was for us to gather it before we started, so if I can help the next guy by sharing it, why not? It's a little effort on my side for a potentially big help to someone else. As for something really important before you start a Kickstarter campaign, you need to know your target audience and be part of their community. For us it was a good fit because I was already a two years member on a big forum for adventure gamers, I liked being part of that crowd, so, when I announced the campaign there, it worked really well. Same with Lovecraft, I was in contact with someone who ran a community of fans and he was happy to share our campaign on it. And you need to know what crowdfunding is all about. I was always on Kickstarter, learning what works and what doesn't. So you can say I did my research for about two and a half years prior to launching the campaign, it was part work and part fun. You also need to take all the auxiliary stuff seriously, like how you set up the page, the graphics, the animations, the video. It took us about a month and a half to prepare all the materials.

RoGa: Did you identify any mistakes regarding your campaign on Kickstarter?
SiA: I think one of the mistakes we made was that we didn't prepare our updates in advance. We also should have streamed more. And, like I said, you need to work things out before, you can't just throw your game on Kickstarter and hope to be surprised. Even with all our preparation, we still didn't know what to expect, but then we had around 4000 Euro in the first day, which was mind blowing.

You need to know your target audience and be part of their community.
RoGa: How many of your backers would you say are locals? Did the Romanian gamedev community get involved and supported you?
SiA: The Romanian community was very supportive. On Kickstarter you can see the top cities from where the backers came from and Bucharest is on first place, ahead of London. As for countries, the first is the US and then Romania. And the main reason for our success here was RGDA, because they helped us spread the news. People were like "why didn't we hear of you before?", to be honest we didn't know much about the Romanian indie scene, that there is this big supportive community here.

RoGa: Did the Kickstarter money cover the development costs?
SiA: Theoretically yes. We have a business manager though and he handles our budget, it's not something we concern about too much. We just set our salaries as low as possible to survive and to stretch the money as much as we can. We work around 10-12 hours a day, in weekends too. We pretty much let go of any social life, so we invest as much as we can in the game, each day and each month. It also helps that the costs of living in our home town, Targu Mures, are smaller compared to other places.

RoGa: For you next games, do you think you'll go the Kickstarter way again?
SiA: Ideally, we won't need to, if Gibbous sells well enough. But if necessary, then yes, sure, we think it could work again. We had a very positive experience the first time.

Online presence
RoGa: You mentioned that, looking back, you should have streamed more during the Kickstarter campaign. But, at the same time, I saw that you really embraced the streaming life during development. Is that something you'd recommend to any indie developer or are there some caveats to it?
SiA: Basically, yes, we do recommend it, but it's important that it also fits you in terms of your personality. For example, I [Cami] am somewhat introverted, I was afraid I'd say something stupid, but I found out that nobody is judging you, so I opened up and I'm more confident now. And streaming also helped me better communicate in person, for example now at Dev.Play. [Nicu] It's like a shrink for free. And the people watching us learn what gamedev is about and how difficult it is. They start appreciating things that they wouldn't have before, like the character shadows. Other people won't even notice them, some people think these things just materialize out of thin air. [Liviu] It gets you closer to people, we met with some of our followers and you could see they were excited and nervous even. We don't have huge marketing leverage to rely on, so we went straight to the people and showed them what we do and how we make this game. And people know that we're being honest.

RoGa: You also made a documentary a few months ago. Are you planning on making a new one, maybe before release, or will you just stick to streaming?
SiA: It was a nice experience, but also very tiring. Especially for Liviu on the editing side. We filmed it using a Go Pro, so we didn't know how good the framing was until after we saw the videos. But it was ok in the end, it was more of a gift to our backers. I don't know if anyone in Romania made a documentary like this before, we just tried to be as transparent and as close to our fans as possible. And people liked it, they empathized with us.

RoGa: Ok, what is up with all the cats?
SiA: [Laughing] Yeah, there's a cat in the documentary at every three minutes. We just love animals. Our game doesn't have any agenda, except maybe that we should be nicer to animals. We didn't plan to have that many cats in the documentary, but we put in it what we love, cats. Even in Gibbous people like Kitteh best, no matter what she does or says, they still think she's cute and she really stands out as a character.

RoGa: How was it to showcase your game at Dev.Play? Especially considering you've just recently been to Gamescom and that's a beast by comparison.
SiA: What impressed us most was the solidarity. Dev.Play is mostly for game developers, so people understand what we do, they want to support us and help us with no hidden interest. For an adventure game, I don't know if Gamescom is the best fit. You know, it's harder to show the game, to immerse the player with all that noise and all those other games. People get tired with all that information competing for their interest at the same time. At Dev.Play there were fewer people, but they had time to look at all the games, to play and understand them. Before Gamescom, we went to a party for adventure games, developers and players. And it was great, because those people love the genre, they get it. There's a huge community for adventure games in Germany. But, in the end, all events are good, because we're kind of isolated here, in Romania and especially in our town. Nothing compares to meeting face to face, to watch the physical reaction of someone playing your game.

Nothing compares to meeting face to face
RoGa: You pitched your game both in the Speed Pitching session and the Nordic Game Discovery Contest, how did it go?
SiA: It was the first time pitching a game for us. I prefer talking about it one on one, but the experience was still pretty cool. My attitude [Liviu's] was that I have no idea how to do this, so I'm going to talk about the game and show the passion we have for it. Even if it's a niche game, doesn't really have the potential to sell millions of units, I thought there was an interest in it. The conclusion for us was that we're definitely lacking in experience when it comes to pitches, especially on the business side of things, but we learned a lot. It's inevitable to bump your head on this stuff at some point, we sort of floated above it because of Kickstarter. Although some of the judges were slightly brutal in their feedback, we appreciated their honesty and we learned from what they said. Sometimes you need this kind of brutal feedback to learn the hard way.

RoGa: Did you get some useful feedback while at Dev.Play or was it just people telling you how much they like your game?
SiA: Absolutely, since there were mostly developers there, they had a lot of good advice for us, especially on the UI side. And even if there were a lot of small things, they still help the game become better. Dan Dimitrescu had a very good suggestion to make right clicking show the most common interactions. Like we said, it's the first time we show the game live, so all these tips are definitely helpful. Sure, there was some strange feedback too, but it's fine, because people give you feedback with good intentions, even if some of it doesn't make sense for the game.

Closing thoughts
RoGa: You're working really hard on Gibbous, sometimes, or most times, in the detriment of having a personal life. How long of a vacation will you take after releasing the game?
SiA: Not that long, really! Maybe a week to get some sleep. Making a game is a different type of satisfaction, even with sacrificing social life, even when you don't make money out of it. We're just doing our best to put a good game out there. I guess we do it out of a blend of responsibility and perfectionism.

We love games because we can make use of all our skills.
RoGa: Liviu and Cami, you two worked in animation before, is that somewhere you could return to, or are you forever hooked on game development?
SiA: We could go back to animations, but our priority now is to make games. Because it gives us a chance to work on everything we like. And to make animations at a professional level, you need a bigger team and you have to specialize in only one area. We love games because we can make use of all our skills.

RoGa: What's in plan after the release? Any DLC, straight to Gibbous 2 or do you have something else in mind?
SiA: We want to make Gibbous 2. [Liviu] It's already in my head, I know the story and what needs to happen. But there's this small technicality first. We need to make some money with the first game.

RoGa: A short message for your fans?
SiA: Come watch us on Twitch and see how we work on the game. Keep playing adventure games, even if they're not as fashionable as they were, they're still pretty cool games and they deserve more visibility. Oh, and buy our game!