April 26, 2013 9:00 AM | Konstantinos Dimopoulos / Gnome
Javier Cabrera, 50% of the Cabrera Borthers and one of the staunchest supporters of indie gaming I have ever met speaks about the indie community, developing games, The Free Bundle, Cypher and much more. Oh, and he does also mention some interesting plans on the future while never forgetting the past.
So, set aside 30 minutes, make yourself a nice cup of tea and read on:
1. Let's start off with the big one. You exploded into the indie scene with an utterly unique game that took a novel approach to a more or less commercially dead genre: Cypher. How'd you do it?
Hi! Thanks for having me! Indiegames feels like a home for us indies! Cypher did great for us. Me and Carlos [Cabrera] couldn't be more happy about it; we truly are. Thanks to this little project we are now able to make another game, and while we haven't been able to go full time, it certainly takes a big weight off our shoulders. We could say Cypher was a "small kickstarter" for us. Everyone keeps saying the text adventure genre is dead but we think its far from dead. It's not only alive and kicking, but it will evolve with time; there's a huge IF (Interactive Fiction) community working day and night to make this happen and rest assured Cypher was only the beginning of a new age for commercial text adventures.
Of course, we never intended any of that. We grew tired of working on a game which had taken us around 2 years, so we needed to take a step back and look at it from another angle; that's how Cypher was born. We always liked text adventures and adventure games in general and so we decided to make our own in a weekend for the iPhone. That's right, for the iOS. We like to live in danger. So there we are at the office on a Saturday afternoon, everyone's left the building and we are trying to come up with an original idea for a text adventure. Someone mentions Blade Runner, someone mentions The Cave of the Evil Wizard from the "Big" movie with Tom Hanks, someone says the HitchHiker's Guide to the Galaxy and before we know it, we were working on a 2.5D text adventure.
We first aimed for a weekend but we ended up working almost 6 months on Cypher. It took a big chunk out of our lives. I even ditched a few clients so I would have enough time to work on it. Carlos did the same. We were ecstatic and we knew we had something big in our mitts. True, there were some screw ups here and there, but overall it was a very satisfying experience for an indie developer. We made it into history books with our first game. In the future, when our grand children gather around a fire and hear the stories of the early days of games, they will have to mention Cypher. Two regular guys from Argentina who deeply love the adventure game scene... There are no words to describe how beautiful it all feels. There's nothing like the taste of victory. It tastes like strawberries and champagne on a summer night in Paris.
2. And would you consider Cypher a critical and commercial success?
Yes, for us at least, since there aren't many commercial text adventures out there. You won't see us buying a private jet of course. For us, Cypher means we are able to work on another game, a bigger game, one we've wanted to do for a long time, since we were kids. Its not like we got up one day and said "Hey, let's do games". We grew up with games. We even attempted our own Edutainment game 10 years back, but that failed miserably. But now its victory! We sold a game! Even if it was one copy, it is victory. Only indie devs can understand that feeling.
That's what most indie devs want, right? The means to do what they love, what we love. Indies are not making games for the money, they are making games to be able to start even bigger projects and because it's their passion.
It was hard, of course. Really hard. That's why its so sweet too.
3. How would you describe the game? Do you feel there's room for more commercial text adventures? Is there room for lush visuals in interactive fiction?
Cypher is a 'Cyberpunk Text Adventure' that will immerse you, and anyone sitting with you, into a deep experience that you probably haven't had in other games. This futuristic thriller happens right in your imagination; which does do the best graphics in the world. The main difference is you will hear sounds, ambient music, visual effects, and other bits of interactivity that will make you remember what you just "saw". It will be like no other game you have played before and will stay in your memory cortex for a long time. You will be able to remember little details that aren't there, like the smells of the Harajuku market, the rain dripping down the neon signs, the ocean of people slowly moving through the small passages of the market like a giant snake crawling on its belly. You will think about Cypher a week after finishing it and you'll still hear the people clapping and dancing at the nightclub. You'll still hear the firefights that take place. No 3d graphics can do this, only text adventures, that's why they are so interesting to play.
There is room for commercial text adventures in the future. Loads of room. I think there's a small group of advocated enthusiasts that showed us text adventures aren't even close to being dead. I'm talking about the Inform community and the overall Interactive Fiction community. They are passionate people who devote their free time to making free text adventures. Commercially speaking, I think it will be a long time until we see another text adventure like Cypher since there are more earnings in making a standard "cut the rope" iOS game than a text adventure. I hope I'm wrong though. Better yet, prove me wrong. Buy the game if you haven't already.
4. Cypher, despite its many charms, had certain problems; mainly an archaic parser and paragraphs of mostly unedited text. Are you working on any patches or edited versions of the text?
True, we had some critical errors at launch with the text. The reason for that is because we used a non-native translator for the text. In our defense, the guy had an English sounding last name so we never bothered to ask. If a guy's last name is something like "Johnson" you wouldn't think the guy learned to speak English from books. There aren't many Johnsons in Latin America. Of course it was our own fault for not asking. We quickly found help, not only from a new translator who fixed some of the problems the first week after launch, but from the community as well. With the help from the new translator we were able to fix most of the errors that first week and a lot more after that. The game was patched several times and in every patch, we also made room for visual improvements like netbook resolutions and some new sounds and tweaks. The game looks fantastic now.
Despite our errors, I think it is important to say the community stood behind us 100%. That gave us the strength to keep pushing and further updating. We got translators trying to work with us, not only from the US but from Germany, France, the Czech Republic, Italy, Russia, etc. I think that speaks highly well of us as a community, and I'm not talking about indie developers now, but about gamers. We even had one Greek guy, God bless his soul, really smart guy who made a save-data tool for Cypher. When someone makes a tool for your game, you know you hit the spot. People are there for you, no matter how bad you screw up things. That's amazing.
5. Oh, and would you consider using one of the powerful open-source interactive fiction interpreters in a game like Cypher? Will your next project be a text adventure?
Hell no, are you crazy? Unity3D's GUI system is the devil, THE DEVIL I tell you. It has a mean grin on its face and eats kittens for lunch. I had to finish coding half of the game from a church because the GUI kept moving chairs around the office. Making papers fly and the walls bleed. It was horrible. Almost like that scene from Poltergeist were they open the door to the kids' room and everything is flying. I would rather have my hands chopped off with a ruler before taming that bronco. Horror has to be seen to be understood, and I've seen horror. I've seen it.
Actually, Unity3D GUI is not that bad, I'm just not that good at coding since I'm not a programmer. IF interpreters like Inform (my favorite) are great to write text adventures. They are really advanced and I think that's where the future of IF lies.
About our next project: nope, it won't be a text but a graphic adventure. Yes, we're going point and click gentlemen and its going to be awesome. Even though we're just two guys working in a small office, what we have already at this point will surprise more than one of you. I promise.
6. You are working on a new game then. Any info you could share with Indiegames.com readers?
Of course! We have been working on this new game for quite some time now, over two years and counting. The graphics are amazingly detailed, courtesy of Carlos Cabrera. The art style is really polished and since Carlos knows his craft well enough to work for AAA titles, you will get the same level of quality in this game. Maestro Story Teller Javier Cabrera (that's me ^_^) is working on the story; the gameplay is being worked on by the both of us. The theme will be horror... so to speak, but it will be a different kind of horror, one you don't expect to see in today's market. Like with Cypher, we aim to have you and your friends on the edge of the couch on a rainy Saturday night. You want more than just walking around in an empty room with a flashlight. We'll provide you with more. Indiegames.com is family for all of us indies, so you guys will be the first to see screenshots and teasers, rest assured.
7. Now, do please tell us about The Free Bundle. What's the thinking behind this most unique bundle of freeware games?
Everyone has their own take about what an independent game developer means and so do we. For us, an indie is not someone who doesn't work at EA, or any other big names, but someone who is making a game with little or no money at all. Someone who is working from home. Someone who may even work at EA during the day but works on a little side project at 3:00 AM instead of getting some rest for tomorrow's meeting. That's an indie, and we salute you. Only the brave and the bold are allowed to sit at Odin's table in Valhalla. More than ten years ago we cleaned offices to bring home some bucks and at night, we made small games that never saw the light of the day. Most of the time they were on paper, others they were just tech demos, but hell, we had a blast working on them.
Some Indie devs can have it rough though and that's why we made TheFreeBundle. We wanted to promote and help others reach audiences they would not be able to reach otherwise. Either way, they deserve some attention and with our help we can make it happen. We had a lucky break with Cypher, but it could have gone the other way too. I think
those who get published on Steam, GoG or any other outlet have a big responsibility with their fellow indies. We shed blood in the same battlefield, lads... no one gets left behind. No excuses now. It only takes a click to help someone get noticed. I know some people may get angry at what I'm saying, but you know what? That's good. Get angry. Breathe the fire and stop for a minute to look around you. All the guys and gals who are working from their homes on a netbook to make the next Machinarium or Amnesia are like you. Same fire in their eyes. Same dreams. We need to help these people. If we do, things will get better in the industry.
Some changes are already happening. Unity3D is practically the weapon of choice for us indies. The perfect tool. The perfect community. The devs who made this engine are gods in their own right. They earned their throne. They could have sold their software and pocketed every buck for themselves without thinking twice, but they changed their
mind when they saw they could help the community. We bought Unity by the way, we didn't download it for free, we actually bought the indie version when it was like 700 buckazoids. So what happened? They've chosen to walk with us indies, side by side. What a great example for the industry. We need to grow stronger as a community. That's TheFreeBundle, our silly attempt to give something back to the community. That's why we don't accept donations. You have money? Give it to these indies.
Sure, some people may argue we sold Cypher on the FreeBundle for one week, but that's something that was bound to happen at some point, and it was only for a little over a week. As I write this, the promo is up and I should have uploaded the new bundle yesterday but I was honestly too tired. Too much work, too many things to do and I just missed my own deadline with it (again). But we made that promo because we don't want to put banners there. We don't want to make people "click to win the prize" either. We want to keep it clean. We only made the promo after our hosting took us down for having too much traffic, which we weren't expecting, nor were they. There were no plans on making that promo and the devs who worked with us, and the ones who we helped, know this as a fact. But you can't plan for everything. Sometimes you just have to deal with unwanted situations, like crapping your pants at your own wedding, and that's what we did here. We dealt with a bad situation the best way we could and the community helped us with their tweets. TheFreeBundle is now up and running and will be like that for a long time after this promo ends.
8. Besides the Free Bundle seems only too happy to help other indie devs promote their work. Do you really feel there is an actual indie community or, well, something more along the line of circles of friends?
We feel that there is an actual indie community, by all means. Small indies working from home, from the office, some people even coding their games while they should be working. There is a community of people who help each other to develop games. People who ask for advice and get answers everyday. I'm lucky to know some of the most talented guys out there. The press is part of this too, since they are indie devs in their own special way. Indie journalists help us devs reach new levels of audiences everyday. Things wouldn't be possible with them. Most mainstream sites also help indie devs too and that's amazing. The community goes beyond established indie devs though. If you are working on your game and you have never published one before, whether it is commercial or freeware, you are part of this big movement too.
I mean sure, some of these more established devs go to parties and events together all the time, you will see them sharing drinks and dancing at a pub, taking pics of each other, always the same people over and over again in every party. You can't help but think "Hey, is that a members-only club or are they are all tied by the waist?". Well, in some cases, they are a "members-only club" in the sense they approach to each other trying to get some sort of commercial benefit, whether it is by learning from their experience or seeing what they're up to, which its perfectly fine. If you meet someone like John Romero you won't discuss baseball with him, not if you are an indie. You'll want to know some harcore data. Sales, numbers, stories, etc; but at the same time this creates a small pool of "I won't share this contact with you because that info is mine and only mine mua-ha-ha-ha".
To me, a contact is someone at the Turkish embassy who can grant you safe passage to Greece with a fake passport. That's a contact. A dev who can tell you how many copies he/she sold is just that, a dev, so there's no need to make things so secretive about who you know and who you've talked to. Some people take things too far. If a fellow indie asks me about something and I can share, I just share it, you know? No harm in that. If the same indie asks me for someone I know, hell yes, I will bring you two together, why not? Let's talk! I'll get the beers. I don't care if you are just thinking about starting a project or if its 90% finished. You're an indie dev too, so let's sit down with the rest of us and find the best way to help you.
Not everyone thinks like that of course. I've tried to talk with some people (I won't say who, but if you're reading this, f*ck you too) and they won't even answer back. Nothing. I mean they will totally ignore you. Its like if you were peeing on a tree. They won't even make eye contact. I once had LeVar Burton (Star Trek TNG) and MC Hammer (Can't Touch This!) answer questions over Twitter, but not these guys. Sure they will occasionally tell you something in the line of "Hey", "Bye" or "Who are you again?", but that's about it. It has nothing to do with being a developer of course, that's just people being- well, people. I think what makes me sad is that I had the pleasure of speaking with the marvelous Josh Mandel (great man) and the one and only Al Lowe (Superman) for a bit, how come I can talk to legends like those guys and I can't even get a human-like greeting from one of these other guys? I say let's hang them from the tallest tree. I bring the ladder, you bring the rope. They deserve unmarked graves. Again, this is just my own experience, yours may vary.
That said, I think the rest of us who DO have blood pumping through our veins need to get together and help each other out. If there is a chance to help, that's what we'll do. There are great groups of indie developers in Israel, Germany, Italy, Russia, Greece, US, etc. We're all over the world and some of us are even honest. Doesn't matter where you live, you can always have a beer with another dev and share some love. At the end of the day, we're all climbing the same mountain, you know.
9. What do you think will the future hold for you as an indie developer?
The streets. I really think I'm going to end up living in the streets talking to a dog if I keep neglecting my day job. I will drink gasoline and sleep under a bridge. I even have my spot chosen already. Carlos will get rich though, he's the talented one. If that happens all I have to do is jump in front of his car and sue his ass. Boom. Problem solved. But if by miracle we succeed, more games will follow. This next one we're working on is amazingly cool; adventure gamers will love the game, the story, the art, everything. They'll go nuts. And yes, we're hiring proper translators this time, so don't worry. The story I'm working on will be something you'll remember for a long time.
10. And what about the past? What were you doing before entering the world of games?
Before we got into games Carlos was a concept artist (he still is) and I was a web designer (I still am). We both had the luck of having cool clients to work with. Some of mine ended up showing my work at CNN Money and the Super Bowl which was nice for a designer. Carlos had some work in front of the big screens too. Have you seen Black Swan? That's Carlos concept art right there. Natalie Portman's transformation into a giant penguin. He made the concept and they based the CG on it. Isn't that cool or what? Horrible movie though, they should make a remake with Sandra Bullock, she looks more like a bird than Natalie Portman. All they had to do is paint her and that's it. I'm just throwing the idea out there, that's all.
Now, BEFORE that, we helped our father to clean an office building. He did the dishes and we took out the trash, cleaned ashtrays, dusted the desks, watered the plants, cleaned the floor etc. We used to sit in one guy's office and play Maniac Mansion on his computer 30 mins after midnight, because there was no one around. We didn't have a computer back in the house, we were really poor. We not only lacked a computer but we never got one until we were 18, so it was amazing seeing Metal Mutants or Maniac Mansion run on these old computers we never got a chance to have. We used to cover the PC-Speaker because it was so freaking loud, you could hear the music all the way down the hallway and there were still people working after midnight, we were shit scared of getting caught. And that plate of warm food when we got home at 2:00 AM after taking out the trash and cleaning ashtrays? It tasted like glory.
Today the story its different. Today we rent an office in the same building and make games. Cool, huh? Of course its small (REALLY small) and sometimes we have to battle giant roaches who want to claim back their domain, but still... ratter cool to think about it.