November 14, 2012 7:30 AM | Konstantinos Dimopoulos / Gnome
Jan Kavan of CBE Software, the indie studio responsible for the freshly released Vampires! and innovative adventure J.U.L.I.A. is answering all our questions. All of them! Without fear or remorse. Here:
Hey Jan. You seem like a man of many talents. Care to introduce yourself to our wise readers?
Thank you! My name is Jan Kavan and I am composer, cello player, indie game developer and writer. While those are my main talents, I am also extremely talented in signing bad publishing contracts and regretting it later.
I have a professional background in music composition having studied at Janacek's Academy of Performing Arts in Brno and cello at the conservatory in Teplice. Currently I lead software development in a company which does business software solutions and I am co-owner of CBE software; an independent game development company.
And who are CBE?
Originally CBE started as Cardboard Box Entertainment. Back then we were just two bedroom developers, me and Lukas Medek, who is a visual artist, and we were putting our games together over the internet and our infrequent meetings. However in 2011 this changed and we've started a real company called CBE software s.r.o. This was a big leap for CBE as we now have our offices where we can work much more efficiently. Since we are big fans of Agile we were able to get three games out this year.
I feel this as a big achievement even if we're currently financially struggling because of my aforementioned talent.
You've just released Vampires!. How would you describe it?
Comedy puzzler where drunken bobbleheaded ignorants meet reversed tower defense. It's a genre mix where strategy, puzzle and action meet fun. And mainly - our vampires don't glitter.
What was your design process?
This game has a funny genesis which stemmed from the fact that we've extended our CBE ranks with a new excellent programmer, Stepan Mracek, who is an expert not only in programming but also in advanced concepts like Artificial Intelligence, math etc.
I was also feeling that it's about time we should switch our technology. Ghost in the Sheet, J.U.L.I.A. and J.U.L.I.A. Untold were created using the awesome "Wintermute Engine", but I already knew that we needed to use a more complex and universal solution. With J.U.L.I.A. I've definitely reached the boundaries of Wintermute and it was for me obvious, that I can no longer fully deliver my design ideas with the current limitations. To be fair though, the limitations were obviously a result of me using the engine in absolutely different ways than the engine creator intended.
So to make it short, we wanted to do something small, compact and design-wise tight as a Unity engine learning project. After many iterations we finally came up with a prototype which we were confident with and we've started to tidy up the design so it would feel as compact as it's now. The fact I loved about this game the most is that we've all put quite a lot of ourselves, our ideas and design into the game. It was up to me to select things which work and remove things which don't but it was a fully joint venture of all three of us.
When it comes to level design, the majority of levels were designed by Stepan even if I and Lukas have our levels in the game as well. Our design idea about levels was that while we have the same control scheme, each level tries to present a slightly different gameplay idea. While some of the levels are strictly a puzzle, others are more rhythmical (e.g. you need to rhythmically place garlic to certain spots). We've tried to put a whole deal of variety in the levels and I feel that it was a good design choice. There is always a fresh take on puzzle solving which can surprise players.
For quite some time we've struggled with our personal direction. Is it a casual or a hardcore game? Then we've come up with the medal awards and did a lot of fine-tuning and nowadays you can choose how much you want to be involved with the game. We've tried to put the basic (wooden) coffin as an easy mode while golden coffins are often very hard and require a lot of out-of-the-box thinking.
Weren't you afraid of going for vampires instead of the far more common zombies?
This is actually not how I think at all. I am not interested in following the mainstream just for the sake of flowing with the stream. Sure, if there was a game I desired to do and which would coincide with the current trends, why not? But doing a zombie game just because it's trendy is not my style.
Another thing is that we always try to put things into different light in our games. Take our first game for example - Ghost in the Sheet. It was at the times when it was trendy to do scary ghost or paranormal stories. So we took the ghost, wrapped him in a dirty sheet and made a crazy paranormal comedy about the ghost who is being oppressed by an evil afterlife corporation.
The same goes with vampires. Everybody perceives them as a powerful force which should be taken into account. However our vampires are crazy drunken bobble heads who are so ignorant that without you they just walk away into the nearest trap. It would have been more natural to use zombies instead, who are mindless anyway, but my zombies would probably be pretty clever and if they acted mindlessly, they would do it just to misdirect humans.
Oh, and why did you decide on releasing Vampires! via your very own store?
There are many reasons. Main reason is that we want to provide players with the best available support and DRM free version. When J.U.L.I.A. was released, one of the portals put such an intrusive DRM that they broke the game - it would run in 7 fps because of some stupid algorithms inside the DRM. Out of sheer luck I've found out and worked together with players to remove that intrusive piece of junk. So in our store I will be always sure that we'll meet and solve the technical issues immediately and our players in turn will come back for more games rather than having to hunt me over the internet when the publisher's tech support is almost non-existent.
Another key reason is simple economy. When you go with a publisher, you often hear of terms like 50/50 or 70/30 etc. In reality this is a nasty trick. It's a percentage of net incomes. Let's say your game costs 30 Euro and if you're naive you'd expect to get 15 Euro per copy from such a deal. But in reality there is middle man and yet another middle man and at the end of the chain the net income is 5 Eur. You divide it by 2 and get 2.5 Euro / copy which you have to tax. And poor players had to cash out 30 Euro which is quite a lot of money. Then you have to fight for reports and invoice payments which never arrive; ancient stories...
When we release "Vampires!" using our store and charge $9.99 for it, we only have to pay for cloud hosting, PayPal fees and taxes, but we can immediately use the money which our kind players pay to us. This greatly cuts down the loop and puts us in real control.
The real challenge to run our own store is of course to convince people that they should actually come over, but we're working on it really hard.
Vampires! comes all nice and DRM-free, but what are your thoughts on DRM? On piracy?
Piracy was, piracy is and piracy will always be. Even back in times when I owned a C64 there were extremely skilled crackers who cracked very sophisticated protections really fast. Putting DRM in your product just punishes the real customers because crackers will very soon release the DRM free version anyway. Big companies might have legal ways to dealing with this, but we Indies don't have such means.
So, in my mind, the problem doesn't lie in "I've lost money because of pirates", but "if people don't care about us enough to pay for the hard work we invest into our games, why should we make them?" In a way it's similar to the crowdfunding mentality. People decide if we make our NEXT game by buying the current one. Unlike the crowdfunding though they immediately get a new game to play so their risk is lower. While this is - in the current crowdfunded world - an oldschool approach, I still wonder why people nowadays tend to give more money for
games which aren't rather than for those which are. :)
You have also worked on the wildly unique J.U.L.I.A.; how did this project go?
It was three years of hard learning. Unlike Ghost in the Sheet, we took the game really seriously and after one year of real production I had entirely destroyed the game and decided to go back to the drawing board to fully redesign it. The original J.U.L.I.A. for example didn't have any Rachel Manners in it. I've switched the game from a puzzle collection in sci-fi setting into a chamber tale about a lonely woman and her relationship with Mobot and J.U.L.I.A.
There are surely things I would have done differently now, but generally I am really happy with the game and with how it turned out given our no-budget state and making the game in our spare time over nights. I believe that, as a work of a mere two persons, this game ended up quite well and, what's more, I am happy with the reviews.
The dark side is that we never received a single cent from the game which brought us into very bad position after three years of such hard work.
Does innovation and staying away from mainstream trends feel like an important goal?
My goal is to make games that matter. And we are still on our way towards that goal. I don't do innovation just for the sake of being innovative, but with all the inspiration outside the game industry, I am not able to merely copy formulas, since I always get sidetracked with too many external influences.
Ever contemplated doing something more, well, traditional or are you confident that an artistic vision is worth pursuing?
When I teach composition, my students sometimes ask me such questions. My opinion is that you should be your own person. Surely you have to borrow inspiration from games as well as from other places you encounter in your life, but copying some existing formulas sounds more like factory work to me. Moreover with such limited budgets we operate on we can't compete with the big guys. So we just do what we love and put everything we have into finish each game.
What are your plans for the future?
We are currently prototyping something really special based upon an idea of Lukas. I am doing lots and lots of research and I have to say that it's an entirely original, unique and fascinating world I got myself into. Without telling too much, it once again is a strongly story-based game with a lot of mysticism involved, but also some rather modern aspects.
But enough with the teasing! It all depends on the success of Vampires! There are a few possibilities, one of them is using the finished prototype in the form of a playable demo for an IndieGoGo campaign, but my fear is that we are not that famous and we would probably fail even if the prototype starts looking absolutely amazing. Besides the crowdfunders are a bit tired from their investments and they need to get some real games first to support the idea. Let's hope the current generation won't kill the idea by not delivering what was promised.
There's another thing - in 2002 we've started working with Laura MacDonald and Lukas on a huge adventure game called Destinies. It's been ten years already and the game still hasn't been made, even after the enormous effort we've put in. With our current skills and technology it could now be a fantastic game. Of course we wouldn't be able to do such a thing without a budget, but if I had to choose one single game to do, it would have to be Destinies.