Wednesday, February 25, 2015

SPC Interviews: Jaywalkers Interactive (Kick & Fennick)

The team at Jaywalkers Interactive isn't a big bunch. In fact, it's just two people, yet they do the work of 10-20 people. That includes doing interviews to places such as SuperPhillip Central. Fresh off of the release of Kick & Fennick, currently a PlayStation Vita exclusive (also available for free for PS+ subscribers), both members of this two-man team took the time out of their hectic work schedules to answer a series of questions by yours truly. From how the studio came into fruition to the process of making Kick & Fennick a PS+ game, this interview ought to give you some more insight into the minds of indie developers.

Since this is an extended interview, check it out after the break.



- For those unaware, how did Jaywalkers Interactive come to be? Where did the team start in the industry before Jaywalkers was founded?

Laurens: We both started out as artists almost 10 years ago, in a small company called Coded Illusions. Most of us were still in school and very green, we had the opportunity to work on a big console game. It was a dream come true, and we learned a lot, not only on making games, but also about our biggest passions in gaming, which for Vincent is animation and for me is game design. When the plug was pulled on the big project we were working on and we were facing bankruptcy, we developed some very cool prototypes on which I was one of the game designers while Vincent moved to a lead animator position. Vincent and I became good friends because our ideas about why we love games were well aligned, and we both love animation. Unfortunately, while we had a lot of hope we were on the right path and a lot of faith in the concepts, it all came too late. We’d been burning money on the big game and when the economy crashed, our private investors couldn’t keep the company afloat any longer.

We moved to Playlogic who were well on their way with their game Fairytale Fights and about a year away from releasing it on PS3 and X360. A great company with lots of great people, but a déjà vu in many ways, as it was a fairly inexperienced team trying to tackle a big project again. Vincent was lead animator, while I moved from level designer to lead level designer. Many long nights were had, but we managed to release the game. Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, the game was met with less than stellar reviews. Shortly after, Vincent’s life turned upside down due to some personal issues, so that motivated him to go for broke and be an independent developer.

I didn’t dare to take that step yet and stayed at Playlogic where we developed quite a cool DLC for Fairytale Fights, while working with Vincent in the evenings to come up with ideas he could develop during the day. The DLC was turning out pretty well, but sales of the main game disappointed so it got canned (when we were pretty much done with it). Again, just like at Coded, we started developing some very cool, small concepts for XBL and PSN for which I was one of the game designers again. Unfortunately though, it was too late again and Playlogic filed for bankruptcy.

That burned me out quite a bit. It’s awesome to work in games, but it’s hard work with many long hours, and when you aren’t really reaping the rewards, it’s a tough job! It was frustrating to say the least. After that, I had a small venture at yet another game company where I had the opportunity to design a series of fighting games after we finished the current project but… once we finished that, the fighting games were put on hold. Some cool small concepts were developed… yet again… but as you might expect by now, it was too late.

The opportunities in the Netherlands kind of ran out, so I had to choose whether to leave friends and family behind and find my luck abroad, or join Vincent on this adventure. The latter happened and now we’re here!

- What games did you play growing up that inspired you two to enter the industry?

Games have been a big part of our lives since our first memories. The better question would be what games we didn’t play!

Vincent: I have vague memories of a game that let me change from a jet airplane into a robot and although I forgot the name, it made a lasting impression. What really solidified my passion for games though, was Monkey Island. From that point on I was hooked and played everything I could get my hands on. Another pivotal game for me was the first Fallout, that game world still effects about everything I think up.

Laurens: It’s hard to name a specific game. I just love games and there are so many totally different but equally wonderful ones. Luckily, my mom is a bit of a technophile like me, so we’ve always had computers on which I could play games. My first gaming memories are Alley Cat and Captain Comic on those massive floppy disks of yore. I also remember loving Stunts and Wings of Fury and a bit later being awestruck by the first Need for Speed. But most importantly I think, when I was about 15 years old, I was absolutely addicted to playing Rogue Spear online and used to spend many a night climbing the ranks on Clanladder with my clanmates. Some of our older clan members used to make clan websites and modifications, so through them I got my hands on Photoshop and 3D programs which started my passion for not only playing games, but also creating them.

- How does Jaywalkers Interactive distinguish itself from other independent developers in the industry?

That’s a tough one… We hope that if you look at Kick & Fennick, it doesn’t come across as your typical indie game. We come from console development and our biggest passion lies with big, cinematic, highly polished game experiences. As just two guys, we obviously don’t have the resources to make a game with the scope we’re used to, but we tried to get as close as we can; 3d graphics, smooth animations, a cinematic camera system, lots of polish and a fair amount of content that we hope gives you a good bang for your buck!

We make games because we love playing games. Of course, we would like to make a bit of money with it so we can continue doing it, but we’re not looking at monetization strategies or trying to copy a successful game hoping we can take a bite out of that pie. If we have to look at excel sheets all day to figure out our DAU/MAU conversion metrics (or whatever) for our free­to­play match­3 game, that’s the day we’ll do something else. To be fair though, this last bit isn’t a typical indie thing, but it is one of the unfortunate realities of mobile gaming today. Many have questioned whether what we do is the smartest way to go about things and maybe it isn’t-- it certainly isn’t the easiest-- ­but we want to do things our way, which is also why we decided to call our company ‘Jaywalkers’.

- Where did the idea for Kick & Fennick becoming a PlayStation Vita exclusive come from?

Kick & Fennick didn’t start out as a Vita game (and it won’t be a Vita exclusive forever) but when we first showed the game at Gamescom a few years ago, we got some great reactions from the people we showed it to and were invited to join Indigo, a small Indie game show in the Netherlands hosted by the Dutch Games Garden. This is where we met the guys from Greenhill who thought it would be a perfect fit for Vita and that’s how the ball started rolling. The whole process took quite a bit longer than we expected, but we’re very happy and quite proud seeing our game on the PlayStation Store and launching worldwide!

- Was it your team or Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) that came forward with the idea of Kick & Fennick becoming a PlayStation Plus freebie for this month? How does that process work?

Sony offered us a place in the PS+ lineup. The process was pretty straight forward-- ­although we had to crunch quite a bit to meet the deadline-- ­but it was a very tough call to go with PS+ and give our game away for free. We are compensated by Sony, but if it’s more or less than what we would have earned without it, no one knows.

However, there are more upsides to the PS+ deal than just the direct financial stuff. Going with PS+ gives us a ton of exposure. We’re just two guys, and we don’t have the means or the money to advertise our game a lot. Now it’s in the spotlight, we can do promotions, new deals, our studio is put on the map, you name it. Sure, we are cannibalizing our sales in the short term by giving it away for free, but on the other hand, all this ‘free’ exposure is worth a lot of money too! We’ll give away a lot of downloads with Plus but all the exposure might give us more sales over time than we would have had if we didn’t go with Plus and be buried by much bigger releases with lots of marketing dollars.

It was the toughest call we had to make, but we’re in this for the long run. We plan on making a lot more games. Kick & Fennick should be only the beginning, so it’s kind of our calling card as well. We want to get ourselves out there and make sure a lot of people know who we are and that we make fun, polished games on little to no budget that are worth the money. Maybe the next time you hear about a game by Jaywalkers Interactive, it will capture your attention a bit quicker or just buy it straight up because you trust our games will be fun. Or maybe some rich guy will come along and give us a fat stack of cash so we can make a bigger and better game. Press will also be more inclined to write about us, because they know who we are already. Maybe when someone asks about cool game to download in a few months, people will tell them to get Kick & Fennick!

For such a small time developer like us, step one is to get your name out there. It’s a highly competitive industry with new games coming out all the time, so you have to do something to stand out! But was it the smartest thing to do? We have no idea…

Whatever happens, a lot of people will play our game, and that’s a cool thing in and of itself!

- How is it working with SCE? Did you learn anything from working with them?

SCE has been a great partner. Towards the end, we’ve been working closely with the Plus Teams and the Blog teams, and they too have been absolutely great and very forthcoming. There are so many things to take care of before you can release a game on a platform like PS Vita, so we’ve learned a lot about that and will be better prepared next time. For most of the development though, we’ve mainly communicated with Sony through the guys at Greenhill (our publisher), so they could handle all the business stuff and we could focus on the development of Kick & Fennick.

- Where did the idea for Kick & Fennick come from—not just the cool recoil jumping mechanic, but also the characters and world?

The idea for Kick & Fennick started by thinking back to our childhood adventures, running around with pinecone grenades and big sticks acting as superguns. In our imagination, the guns were so big we could launch ourselves in the air with the massive recoil. That sparked an idea about a little boy with a very big gun using it to jump around with. Through lots of prototyping and trying out various ideas, we eventually came up with Kick & Fennick. The characters and the world came a lot later than the initial idea. We always try to approach things from a gameplay perspective first. The main character, Kick, is a representation of us as children and was visually inspired by Vincent's brother when he was little. His name was inspired by Laurens' nephew who’s actually called Kick, an old dutch name, which works out perfectly, since the main mechanic of our game is about the 'kick' from the gun. As for Fennick, his origin can be found directly in his name and was inspired by a fennec fox. Very cute animals with ears that look about 5 times too big for the size of their head.

- Were there many ideas for projects before your team came up with and decided to work on Kick & Fennick? What kind of ideas did you have before you settled on developing Kick & Fennick?

Kick and Fennick was actually the first project we started working on. Early on we did have a couple of brief flirtations with other prototypes, but we decided Kick & Fennick would be the first game to go into production as we thought it had the most potential. It was a tough call though, because you know you’re going to have to devote a lot of time to it and there are also a lot of totally different kinds of games we would love to make!

- How long did development for Kick & Fennick take? Were there any major roadblocks that had to be overcome during development?

The main production took about a year and a half and when we thought we we’re almost done with it and preparing for release, Sony came along with their offer to take it to PS Vita. Abstraction Games ­ who made the port to the PS Vita ­ created a unique system that converts our code to Sony’s PhyreEngine which is a hell of an achievement. It did turn out to be a much bigger challenge than any of us anticipated and took another year and a half to complete. That was pretty tough on all of us, but it did give us the opportunity to add a few extra levels to the last chapter and give it a fair bit of polish.

- What engine did your team use to develop Kick & Fennick?

We developed the game in Unity, but when we started with the Vita port, Unity wasn't yet able to export to Vita. It's there now, but it's not really optimized and doesn't work as well as exports to other platforms, so that’s why we chose to convert it to the PhyreEngine for PS Vita.

- What are you most proud of regarding Kick & Fennick?

We're both perfectionists and as such it's hard to feel proud. Nothing is ever finished and you only see the things that aren't as good as you would like them to be. If we have to pick something, then the motion and feel of the gameplay would be the thing we’re most proud of. Apart from that, the fact that our first game was picked up by Sony and with their support is (going to be) released around the globe, is definitely cool and something we never expected when we started development. Every time we turn on our PS4 and check the PlayStation Store, we can’t help but be a bit proud seeing our game up there.

- How is developing for the PlayStation Vita? How difficult or easy is it?

We can't really answer this question in a technical sense as our friend at Abstraction Games did all the technical work in getting the game on Vita. As for design it's a very cool device and a lot of fun to develop for. One of the difficulties are the two analog sticks. They are very small of course and this proved to be quite a design challenge in getting the controls to feel nice.

- Now that Kick & Fennick is complete, what projects are your two­-man team working on or thinking about working on next?

While working on Kick & Fennick we also did a short VR project called Blue Marble and that's the first thing we'll be returning to. It doesn’t yet support the latest development kit and even after almost two years, we’re still regularly getting emails about it. Beyond that we have a lot of ideas as to what we would like to do next, but nothing set in stone yet. It’s a damn tough choice to make!

- Do you see your team sticking with PlayStation platforms for your future projects, or is there the possibility of putting your games on other systems? 

We love Playstation and if we can, we will definitely keep supporting it! But unless Sony offers us a deal we can’t refuse, we want our games to be played by as many people as possible, so we’re not counting anything out just yet.

- Finally, is there anything you’d like my readers to know that hasn’t been covered by any of your answers?

We've said it before, but we can't say in enough; thank you so much to everyone who supports us in this crazy adventure! Not only to all our family and friends without whom none of this would have been possible, but also to all the people who are letting us know that they enjoy what we’ve made. The response from people that played the game has been overwhelming and something we didn’t even dare to dream, let alone expect. Even if we don't make a single buck with Kick & Fennick, this has been an incredible experience that we'll never forget. Thank you!

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My special thanks to the two-man team at Jaywalkers Interactive for taking time out of their very busy schedules to answer my questions.

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