๐Ÿง” Interview: Bearded Giant Games "Dark Blue Monkey Chats with Bearded Giant Games About Taking the Plunge into the Unknown" ๐Ÿง” #GameDev @DarkBlueMonkey

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Dark Blue Monkey chats with Constantine Bacioiu (aka Zapakitul) of Bearded Giant Games about taking the plunge into the unknown.
Tell us as little about yourself.
I’m Zapa, I grew up in Buzau and started making my own games in 2006.  I moved to Iasi in 2013 to follow work, and right now, I’m living in partly in Bucharest, and partly in Iaศ™i on either side of Romania.  I recently moved to Bucharest to take some contracts. I fly back and forth between my clients and contracts during the week, and my girlfriend in Iaศ™i at the weekends.

So, I have to ask, why the handle Zapakitul?
It’s Romanian for “Weird Dude”, and that’s how I got my nickname.  I always just wanted to make games non-stop in high school, and all my friends were calling me a weird dude because I didn’t want to play football or basketball.

So, how did you get into the games industry?
When I started developing, I started a blog too and uploaded a bunch of the games I was working on with links and stuff.  A lot of them were GameJam demos and prototypes with bad graphics and stuff, but you can still find them, they’re finished projects.  But most of my visible work is after 2010.

So what was your ‘big break’?
I joined Gameloft as a QA tester in 2009.  I tried to join them as a game designer, but positions weren’t available at the time.  I really wanted to get into the industry, so I applied for a QA role. After about four months doing QA, I heard there might be an opening in the development area I went over to the HR office with a load of printed screenshots of games I was developing, my CV and some images of Gameboys and Nintendo DSes with my game prototypes running. I said “I’m a designer, but I know how to code! You’re getting the best deal! Hire Me!”.

I stayed with Gameloft for a while then moved on to do some freelancing for Exosyphen Studios on their Hacker Evolution series.  After that I managed to make a few of my own games, and then worked for three or four years again in Iaศ™i, but this time at Disney.

What were you working on at Disney?
Frozen Freefall.  I worked so long on that, I love and hate that game with my entire passion.  When I go to sleep and close my eyes, I still see the tiles for the Match Free game.    When those projects ended, I did my own thing for a while with some home automation, and then decided to start work on Ebony Spire: Heresy.
Why did you recently have to take contracts?
When I was ‘growing up’ in the industry, [getting a game onto] Steam was the end goal.  I still have my emails from Steam way back when I was working with Berbece Nicolae of Those Awesome Guys who did Move Or Die, and we were trying to get our games onto Steam.

In 2012 I was also working on porting another game for a client to a newer engine, and that did end up getting onto Steam and had some great success.    Getting something onto Steam in 2012 produced a lot of exposure, and a lot of traffic, so I set my expectations based on that. Sadly, I ended up working for a few years in the Java mobile space with Disney, and I kinda lost touch with the desktop space. I knew that Steam wasn’t quite so good any more in those terms, but I wasn’t prepared for just how bad it became.

I placed my moderate expectation on about 700 sales, which seemed reasonable based on my previous experience of a few thousand copies sold in less than a week.   Then reality hit, and I realised I had to do something else to make money, I didn’t want to lose the apartment. I didn’t want to drop the game either, because I’d met so many awesome people in the community who really loved the game. I didn’t want to be one of those developers I hate that put a game on Steam and then drop it.

Were others having the same problem with Steam?
At the same time as me, there were a load of Indie developers who released their games on Steam, and suffered the same problems I did.  A lot of them took to twitter and voiced their opinions saying things like “Don’t quit your day job”, and it was like an entire Twitter thread happening there.  I thought to myself “I don’t want people to make the same mistakes that I made”, as I came extremely close to losing the apartment, and I wished that someone had warned me before I’d done this, so I wrote a GamaSutra article about quitting your job and trying to shift a lot of low-cost games on Steam.

So, you had to go back to having a ‘day job’?
After Ebony Spire released, sales were really slow to pick up, and I also had a few bad things happen with my apartment etcetera, so I had to get some more money.  I wanted to stay in the games industry so got involved in a few indie projects, working freelance as a contractor. I’m also having some success consulting for game businesses.

You’re helping out other games companies?
Yeah, helping  with business stuff.  it’s not about the money aspects of their business, it’s helping them to realise when they’re being ripped off.  Let’s say they’re trying to use a cheap $50 plug-in, but [the vendor] is charging them several thousand to get it to work.  I’m on call to help them with stuff like that. I still work on Ebony Spire [in spare time].

How can you carry on doing your game dev while living and working in two cities?
I do my development all over the place.   Right now, I’m extremely happy that Chromebook has Linux support.  It’s a wonderful device with 12 hours of battery life, and I can code on the go.  I can set-up on planes, or in coffee shops. I have a build server set up, so I can fix bugs using the phone.   Whenever I get a chance to work on my games, I’ve got to use it. That’s also why I went with Lua as the main development platform for my engine.  With Lua, you don’t need to develop on native apps, you can do it on any device that can connect to a screen.

Do you ever have time to sleep?
[laughs] I go to bed at about 2 or 3am in the morning, and get back up at seven or eight, I’ve never needed a lot of sleep.
When did you start work on ES:H?
When I was at Disney actually.  I was working with some wonderful artists and programmers but they were only making games for their clients and never on their own thing.  I wanted to show them that it’s possible for a single dev to make their own thing without a huge budget, so I bugged the management to let me do a GameJam.  It took a while, but then a nice coincidence happened; Disney’s mobility game branch in Iasi had an anniversary, and decided to have a month-long GameJam anyway. They said “Go do your thing, have fun!”, and that was how I got started working on the engine that would eventually become Ebony Spire.  I wanted to combine ADOM with Cardinal Quest in first person.   I worked on it more and more, then quit and started working on it full time.

ES:H is designed as a grid-based RPG, are you a big fan of that genre?
That came a little later on in life.  I’m more used to traditional CRPGS, you know, like the Bioware ones.  In 2012, Jan Willem from Vlambeer and Fernando Ramallo set up a GameJam called “F*** this Jam” where you’re supposed to make a game in a genre you don’t like.  At the time there was all this talk about “Roguelikes”, and I did all this research and I just couldn’t get it. There were so many with horrible interfaces, horrible graphics, and I thought “I’ll try to make a graphical Roguelike”, which turned into “pimps vs. vampires”.   When I was working on it, I started getting a feel for the roguelike genre, and then a few months later I stumbled upon ADOM, which resulted in me staring at a computer screen for many years playing that game.
What would you say are your favourite games?
If I had to pick, I’d say Dragon Age: Origins. It’s the perfect combination of voice acting, decent-looking graphics, and an amazing story and characters.  But, at the same time I’m still picking up my Nintendo DS, and my Gameboy Advanced, and playing Advanced Wars: Dual Strike. But I still play ADOM any chance I get. I play it on an old machine on DOS.

So, what made you want to design ES:H to be a “coffee-time” game?
Well, that’s kind of my trade mark.  I know my limitations, and usually try to work within them in order to finish my project and deliver something with a quality to it..  I know I can make a good game mechanic that’s fun, but I know that it probably wouldn’t be so fun if it was stretched out. So, I mostly focus on games you can play while other games are loading, or you’re queueing for an online match.

So you designed Ebony Spire to be the kind of game you prefer to play?
Yeah, my life is usually extremely hectic, and that’s why I also usually make things which are turn based.  I’ve got two cats, and when I was at Disney, I also had my parents, my mother wasn’t well, so I had to take care of them, their dog, and I had client projects to do. I really couldn’t find the time to game, so I decided that if I was going to make a game, I wanted it so that I could just drop it and come back to it later, and that it doesn’t have to keep me engaged.

You described the early disappointment of Ebony Spuire’s sales, but it has suddenly seen a huge upsurge in interest.  Would you ascribe that to good marketing, community management etc?
[laughs] I’m really not that smart.  Strangely, a couple of things came together, including the game actually being pirated, which resulted in an uptick in sales. Paradoxically, that gained it more interest than the initial Steam exposure which was a surprise, and somehow the game started picking up pace the more I worked on it.
At the same time there were blog posts about it here and there, a few favourable review articles, some bundles and the winter sales really helped. I think somehow all came together, and at least stopped the game from losing traction, and  things improved. I expected to sell maybe 2000 copies in its entire lifetime which would be enough for me, and [yet] it’s already up to over 6,000. It’s exceeded all my expectations.

OK, I mean, for other companies, like big studios, 6,000 copies at $6.99 is nothing, right? They wouldn’t be able to keep their doors open.  But I’m the lucky case where living here in Romania is pretty affordable, so I’m really happy.

Now that the game’s picking up, you’ve decided to release an update!

It features mouse support, which wasn’t in the original!
Yeah, I had a lot of feedback from gamers saying they wanted mouse support. I never intended it to, though. I love the idea of being able to play it fast, and when I was doing some playthroughs with the new UI with mouse support I found that it’s way slower, and feels more cumbersome to me.  But [mouse support] is the most requested feature, and also spawning when not facing a wall! Seriously, those are the two most requested features in the game [laughs].

I demoed the game in Cluj at the Clujatronics arts and games festival.  The computers were all just set up with keyboard and mouse.  People would come up to the game and be like “Hey, this looks just like Wolfenstein”, and go for the mouse, and nothing would happen.  They’d be unable to click on anything. So, I thought that the next thing they’d do wouild be to go for the keyboard, you know, the arrow keys, or WASD, but they actually started touching the screen instead, which shocked me a lot, and I wrote an article on Gamasutra about it. So I added the mouse support.

Is the change more to draw in the casual crowd who aren’t into more retro gaming?
Well, I know my game wasn’t for that audience specifically, it is more for the roguelike players who, even when they buy a laptop, they make sure there are numpad keys, you know?

So although mouse is the default, you can still play with the keyboard.  The same key combinations work as before, and if you want to, you go into the options and turn off the mouse support and play it normally.   I still think the best way to play it is the ‘classical’ way with the keys.

But, it was really requested by the current players, and I owe them a lot, so I’m happy to give them what they want.
How much of the game’s graphical content do you do yourself?
Some of the sprites are from Antony Luna aka Lucky Cassette, via Lucky’s Bestiary on itch.io, and they really got me started with a few characters, but all of the rest of graphics I drew myself.

And there’s possibly a sequel?
Yeah!  Ebony Spire has made more money than I expected, so I’m thinking I can add more things to it that I couldn’t in the first game due to a short development time.  I’d make it a bit better, bigger and maybe add a quest system. A lot of people were talking about a quest system, and I really want to make the ADOM/Cardinal game that I wanted to make, but put my own spin on it.  So, that’d mean more than being in just a single tower [like ES:H], but also being able to move around in an overworld similar to Dragon Ball Z: Legend of Goku II, where you get random encounters with procedurally generated forests and towns.  Otherwise, I think a sequel will be more stuff, like extra content that wraps around the game [similar to ES:H], but it gives me the opportunity to try more and weird mechanics, like perhaps chatting with the NPCs.

Do you take your games to the big gaming shows?
No, it’s not really something I can afford to do just now.  I’ve been to some shows in eastern Europe, and there’s a real industry here that’s starting to grow. But rather than try to emulate the “hey I’ve made a mobile game and made a million dollars”, like some, I want to promote the indie –retro scene and show that it’s possible to make good, old retro-style games, and have fun doing it. There can never be too many retro games, right?
Having pulled through the dark times, what advice would you give others looking to follow in your footsteps?
Think about how much money you need, and multiply that by ten, then go for it.   I had a pretty solid plan that lasted five months, but with all the bad stuff that happened, it ended up lasting me only a month and a half.   Always have a wide margin of error, and make sure you have backup plans. Especially, don’t burn any bridges with your previous company and make sure it doesn’t close after you leave!   If you do, you’ve also lost all your old co-workers who might be the first to buy your game. Also, don’t expect a miracle.

Do you have any other messages for people out there?
I just want to say thank you to everyone who’s engaged me in conversation, and given feedback or supported me.  It because of all the great supporters that are the reason the game has sold as well as it has, and it makes me happy knowing I can continue to make this sort of game.  Now that it’s actually made some money, I can put all that extra money into the anniversary update, with all the things you guys asked for, and will perhaps make it into the next game.  So, thank you all, you made a bearded guy happy.

Thank you for your time, Zapa.
No, thank you!

Bearded Giant Games is located in Iasi, Romania.  You can find out more about them on their website, or by subscribing to their mailing list.  They keep a dev blog where you can get insights into the development process’ highs and lows, and have a Discord server if you’d like to chat about their games, request features, or just chat to the developers.  Ebony Spire: Heresy is available on Steam for Windows, Mac, and Linux, with their next update coming out some time this month.

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