Friday, November 25, 2011

Interview: James Daniello and Zach Zebrowski

Last week, I stumbled across a lovely-looking project called Moldering, an exploration platformer that promises a unique mouse-based ability system and a rich, organic atmosphere. The videos and demo have swayed me, and the determination of the developers to complete the game has won me over. This week, I got a chance to talk a little bit about this little gem with James Daniello and Zach Zebrowski, the two guys behind Moldering.

Is Moldering your first games project?
James: Actually, no. I made some small games when I was a teenager using The Games Factory and Multimedia Fusion, but they never really took off. Fair enough, since they weren’t very good. Haha.
Zack: I’ve made a couple growing up with RPG maker and later Game Maker as well, this is the first one that stuck as a long term project. Since we started it, I’ve also taken up a job in the games industry and have one full title under my belt.

How long has Moldering currently been in development?
James: It’s interesting that you would ask that. I think last week I went back and looked at my development log and the earliest entry was March, 2008. So, at least, what, three and a half years?
Zack: That is probably accurate. We have gone in and out of development periods as we were and still are developing in our free time. It used to be school bothering us, now sometimes it is work as well.
James: Yeah, we’ve taken many breaks from development from time to time.
Zack: Unfortunately, life gets in the way sometimes…

The current demo and gameplay videos give off a “Knytt” sort of vibe. Was that one of your inspirations for the project?
Haha, it was. I think it’s most apparent in the size of the character and the way the player moves from screen to screen. I think it’s grown to be a bit more in depth since the original inspiration.  The biggest thing I want to take from Knytt is the immersion and charm.
Zack: It was definitely something that James had always mentioned from the beginning, and that's when I first discovered Knytt as well. We like the overall relaxed feel of it and think it should be a focus in the main gameplay.
Combining a fireball with a rolling boulder will light the path ahead.

A couple areas in which Moldering strays from the typical indie exploration platformer are displayed in the most recent video showcase of the game. The first big difference is the weather system. Are you planning on making dynamic weather a big part of the game, or is it simply there to help boost the atmosphere?
James: That’s an idea I’ve been toying with in my head. One idea I had was to call a blizzard to ice over the world and affect the gameplay mechanics. Or, we might simply just have the weather come and go to add atmosphere. Some of my favorite video game moments were simple exploring in games while the game was going though rain storms and such. Not sure why, but I feel it added to the experience and I’d like to give that to players.
Zack: It’s something we are going to keep in the back of our heads while we are crafting the overall experience for the levels. It is always nice to have a new experience with the game on every play through, and this has potential to add to it. If we can work it into the core mechanics somehow, that would be what would sell us on the idea. Time will tell with that.
James: Good point, Zach, haha.

The second addition seems to be a bit more vital to the core gameplay mechanics. Could you talk a little bit about what role the ability ring will play in the final game?
James: Yeah, we spent a lot of time trying to come up with something that would make Moldering unique, and the more we toyed with the idea of using the mouse to control gameplay, the more we liked it. The “ability ring,” as we like to call it, will let you call up all sorts of abilities that the player can control with the mouse. Each one has its own unique mouse motions. Shaking the mouse will let the player control earthquakes, or pulling back like a slingshot will allow the player to fire off certain other abilities, like fireballs and such. It gives us a lot of opportunity to do all sorts of new and interesting things that conventional controls wouldn’t allow, each with it’s own feel and mechanics.
Zack: The original idea was gestures but that soon proved to be problematic for us and for potential players. It eventually evolved into what James spoke about. Overall, we want to try and bring a sandbox like experience into the game with the abilities we implement and allow players to get through the game in their own way, the way that is fun for them.

Are there any big features that you’ve been planning to put into the game, but haven’t yet?
James: Mold plays a big part in the game. The name is a sort of play on words with the idea that mold will be a central theme. It comes down on meteors and infects the world. What’s interesting about the mold - and we haven’t really shown this yet in the videos or on the blog - is that it will spread over time. So, the player may be easily able to trek across a certain area, but when they come back, depending on how long they’ve taken, the mold will have spread and may prevent travel. Only until later, when the player has a new ability, might they be able to make their way back across. It’ll be interesting to have a dynamic environmental hazard, something I don’t feel I’ve seen too often in many games.
Zack: Well spoken, hahaha! It is yet another thing we can use to have a unique experience, but still be able to tell a story without the player getting too far away.

A boulder rolling on a segment of ground drawn out by the player.
“The mold will spread over time.” Does this mean the game world will have its own sort of clock?
James: Yeah, the way we plan to implement it, we’ll map out the mold across the entire world and set certain “originator” mold. Each area will have it’s own clock and any time spent in that world will determine how much the mold has spread from the in that area, starting with the originator molds. Mold, or course, will be lethal and interactable, so the world will change as the player spends more time in it, giving a feeling that the world is, um, alive.
Zack: Or at least something else is alive on it ;) It is something that we will have to play with as the game develops.
James: Haha.

In the current demo and videos, there don’t seem to be any enemy characters. Are you planning on adding any, or is the central focus going to be on puzzle-solving and platforming?
James: Ah, good point. We want to get the core abilities down before we design any enemies. There will be plenty, and each will require a unique use, or combination, of the abilities to defeat. That, and some thought.
Zack: James is spot on. I am doing concept work for enemies though; what they will look like, at least. I’m trying to fit their overall look into the game's style right now, until we get all the abilities worked out. Then, as many know, form follows function (at least on earth) so there will most likely be adjustments in the long run.
James: An example that we may or may not implement would be a spiked wheel that attempts to ram you. By drawing a path with the earth equipped from the ground up (an ability we’ve already implemented), the player will be able to block the wheel, or divert them into a pit, providing safe passage to the next area. We’ll see though. We still have a lot of toying with ideas to do.

The ambition in this project is pretty evident. The game world in the videos and in the demo seems like a small taste of something much larger. How big are you planning to go with the world?
James: We’d like to stick to the classic “8 worlds,” that seemed to be a big theme in the 16-bit era, an era that I consider to be the golden age of video games. There will be a bit of smaller unique ares too that connect or break up the other areas. There’s a joke that goes around in software development: “Software can be three things: cheap, fast, or good. Pick two.” We’re going for cheap and good, so it’s going to take some time. ;)
Zack: Unless we both end up without jobs and have nothing else to focus on hahaha. The planned world is stuff that we are focusing on tieing together at the moment as well. What you see in the videos is just a taste of what we have in our minds, and that doesn’t include any transitions we are going to have to make from world to world.
James: Hahaha, good point. At this moment we have five of the worlds really solidified. I think there’s images of three of these areas floating around on the internet.

Are you planning on releasing this as freeware, or are you going to look for digital distribution options once the game reaches completion?
James: Ahhh, something we really haven’t settled on yet. Originally we intended the game as freeware, but it’s taken a looong time, and we’ve really put a lot of work into it. If the game turns out as well as we plan, we may end up on charging a small fee for the game. And, of course, having sales and maybe a few “free weekends,” where people will be able to pick up a copy for free. We haven’t really determined this yet. Personally, we’ve invested a bit of money on certain assets, so it would be nice to see a return for all of our labor and investments.
Zack: Definitely something we are up in the air about at the moment. Like James has said, we put a lot of our time into this so far and we both love what we are doing. If the indie scene keeps up as it is now, it opens up a lot of potential for us to continue making more games, if sales permit.
James: I guess in answer to your question, we are leaning towards a nominal fee for the game, with plenty of opportunities to pick it up for cheap, or even for free.

What’s been the biggest roadblock in development so far?
James: Hmm, good question. I guess life is the biggest thing that gets in the way. We all have our own lives to attend to and sometimes it just doesn’t permit development on a hobby project. This isn’t a paid gig, and we’re spending a lot of our free time on development, something our girlfriends aren’t always too happy about, haha.
Zack: Yea, sometimes that answer is personal and sometimes its just work (school or job oriented). Other than what James has mentioned, it doesn’t help that I’ve moved to Hungary last year.
James: Yeah, another thing is that we both live in different time zones at the moment. It sorta gets in the way of communication at times.
Zack: Developing 24/7, baby!

What have you learned during development of Moldering that you’ve been able to apply to the current build?
James: Wow, that’s a big question. I’ve learned a lot about programming in general. It’s one of the reasons I started making Moldering, was to beef up my programmings skills. I think what I’ve learned recently is that there’s two ways you can divide tackling a programming problem. Experimentation, or thinking it through first. The latter which always turns out much better results.
Zack: Oi, too many things for the time permitted in this interview. Never underestimate the amount of layers you might need in a 2D project, communication, the general way a game is put together in a team environment as opposed to yourself, team management (when we have volunteers helping us from time to time), level design, overall game design, how to market your game, this could go on for days maybe….
James: Yeah, marketing is a big deal. I think it’s important to keep people who are watching the game properly satiated.

Who is/are your biggest influence(s) in game making?
James: Personally, I like Nintendo as a whole. Their games are always particularly solid and their gameplay is always spot on. Some games they’ve released have taken turns that I haven’t agreed with, but as a whole they’re quality is something I strive to repeat. Remember the “Official Nintendo Seal of Quality?” I’ll never forget that.
Zack: It’s hard for me to pinpoint who are my biggest influences as far as making a game is concerned, as I’ve played so many spanning every genre. But I can say that there are a lot of Indie developers that influence me as a person and keep me going on day to day basis (regarding development that is). Ed McMullen, Andy Schatz, Notch (who knew?), etc. The guys whose stories give you a boost whenever you think about a bad bend in your development stage. I think, these guys came from nothing and kept at it. I should keep going too!
James: Yeah, the current indie game scene definitely boosts my moral as a developer, as well.

You’re stranded on a desert island, and you’re only allowed to take one thing. What do you take?
James: Besides my girlfriend? Haha. Probably my SNES with a small collection of my favorite games. Super Metriod, Link to the Past, Earthbound, and Yoshi’s Island. I’m assuming I don’t need to worry about food, haha.
Zack: Reddit.
James: Hahaha.

Alright guys, thanks a lot for taking the time out of your day to do this interview! It’s been great!
James: Thanks for having us. You really asked some good questions. I look forward to bookmarking and following your blog more closely. Thanks again.
Zack: Yeah, thanks a bunch for talking to us as well. We love talking about what we are doing and we hope to keep in touch throughout our development process.

You can find more about Moldering on James and Zack's blog, or on the project's devlog page on The Independent Gaming Source.

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