We Love Pixels! – Interview With JoyMasher’s Danilo Dias

joymasher-teamBrazilian indie developers JoyMasher, comprised of Danilo DiasThais Weiller, and Marco Galvao will straight-up admit it. Yes, they love pixels, maybe even a little more so than everybody else if their current body of work is to be believed. What makes JoyMasher’s output stand out among their peers in the indie scene is their dedication to creating “new retro” games that closely mimic the same restrictions and simple mechanics of the late-80’s and early-90’s console games that inspired them.

With their debut 2012 release, Oniken freshly updated with new features and now available on Steam, and the currently in-production Odallus: The Dark Call looking to take players on a much deeper and darker adventure sometime this year, Danilo Dias generously gave Boss Dungeon some of his time to talk about Oniken’s development, Odallus: The Dark Call, and what it’s like being an indie developer in Brazil.

Polly Dawn: Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got your start in game development? 

Danilo Dias:  I’ve loved games ever since I was a kid.  The first time that I ever played video games was on an Atari 2600, however my first console was a NES. (In fact, it was a Brazilian NES clone.)

So, since the first time that I played Super Mario Bros. I always wanted to make games. However when I finished High School I didn’t even try to work with video games, because during that time it was very difficult to get into the game industry, at least for anyone who lived in Brazil. So I decided to be an architect.  After my graduation I decided to try to make a game in my free time as a hobby. That is when Oniken started to be developed.

PD:  How would you characterize the indie game development scene in Brazil?

DD:  I think that the Brazilian indie scene is growing a lot. I remember that in 2010 I hadn’t heard anything about indie games in Brazil, however during some time in 2011/2012, things exploded! I made contact with a lot of indie developers and we started to become more united, like good friends. We made some cool events, in fact. We now have a cool event named “SPIN”.  During SPIN we can show off our games and prototypes and  have a beer and some food. It is really cool.

One of SPIN's organizers, José, describes it as, "...a regular meetup that enables local independent developers to connect with each other on a regular basis to socialize and share ideas. It happens every first Wednesday of the month at a geek pub called GIBI. There are  different mini talks in every meetup, and matchmaking for stray game devs to find a team.  It is the first event of this kind over here!"
One of SPIN’s organizers, José, describes it as, “…a regular meetup that enables local independent developers to connect with each other on a regular basis to socialize and share ideas. It happens every first Wednesday of the month at a geek pub called GIBI. There are different mini talks in every meetup, and matchmaking for stray game devs to find a team. It is the first event of this kind over here!”

PD:  So, it’s a lot easier these days to find people to collaborate with on projects or help out if you need it then? 

DD:  Yes! From 2010 until now it’s been a big improvement.

PD:  How did JoyMasher come together over the last few years of growth? How did you, Thais, and Marco all come together to form your team?

DD:  Marco was indirectly involved with Oniken during the beginning. He was like a problem solver. Every time that I had a problem with coding, he helped me. I knew him from internet forums.

Thaís was working in the Brazilian game industry since 2010, and since she was my wife she helped a lot with the level design and some art too. During the end of Oniken’s production we decided to create JoyMasher.

It was fun because at the end of the game we were like, “ahh… ok I think that we need a name?”

PD:  I’ve read about your work on quite a few North American websites and it’s always pretty highly-praised. How has the Brazilian games press reacted to your specific style of games?  

DD:  We didn’t expect to have such good reactions. We had lots of cool articles, reviews, and good support from the Brazilian press.

I don’t know if you guys know about it, but here in Brazil the 8 and 16-bit era was extend for a long time. Like in 1996 there were a lot of people still playing Nintendo and Sega Master System, so that’s why I think our game became popular here too.

PD:  Moving onto Oniken, can you give us a little history behind the game and how it became the first big project for JoyMasher? 

DD:  We all love old NES games like Ninja Gaiden, Mega Man, and even Metroid. So it was almost natural for us to work in a 8-bit action platform game. And that was something that was possible for a small team like ourselves to make during that time.  It was almost like “we love it and we can make it”.

PD:  Oniken is about creating a very specific type of videogame experience. While games like They Bleed Pixels, Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and Super Meat Boy embrace certain retro conventions, they’re also games nobody would imagine being actual NES games. What inspired you to create Oniken with a more specific focus on NES aesthetic and simpler mechanics rather than the “new retro” we see in indie games today?

DD:  We miss those older style games and we wanted to make something that could bring that feeling back. A lot of people say that those old NES games were cool, however they are unplayable for today standards or have a bad gameplay. However lots of the good old NES games are still playable today. Games like Mega Man, Vice: Project Doom, and even Ninja Gaiden II. So we used those as a base for what a good old style game might be.

After that we had lots of work trying to be authentic and yet not so hardcore. It is very difficult to balance these things. Well, I think that it worked hahaha.

PD:  What was it like trying to work within the restrictions of older hardware? What kind of difficulties did you face in committing to that design decision?

DD:  There are lots of small details that make a game look old, and it was very difficult for me to get used to that. The most difficult thing to get used is the color restriction. We tried to use 3 or 4 colors by tile, like the  NES. Sometimes we cheated, haha.

We also tried to stick with the basic NES palette. It wasn’t easy so sometimes we used more colors. The sprites also have to look like NES sprites, so you can’t make them too big. I also watched a lots of old Japanese anime like MD GEIST and Hokuto no Ken in order to create some 80’s style machines, heroes and villains for the game. I think that also helped a lot.

With such a limited color palette and only five channels of audio, creating NES-authentic games requires quite a bit of creativity and resourcefulness.
With such a limited color palette and only five channels of audio, creating NES-authentic games requires quite a bit of creativity and resourcefulness.

PD:  The NES’ palette is notoriously tiny, too. I bet working so closely to it gave you a whole new appreciation for a lot of those older games.

DD:  Hahaha yes, those guys were REAL artists!

PD:  I’m a musician myself and have tracked NES music before. Working with just five channels is pretty rough!

DD:  Oh my god, yes! You can see that in Oniken the musicians cheated a lot. It was very, very difficult for them to work with only 5 channels.

PD:  A common misconception about retro-styled games these days is that because they look like something created with older technology that they’re easier to make. That’s something I’m sure you would disagree with. To show how much work actually goes into a project like Oniken, could you give us an explanation of the steps your team takes to create just one stage in a game like this?

DD:  We started with a basic idea of were the stage will be. Like, it will be on a forest? A cold mountain?  Military base? After that we start to create a basic level design and what kind of enemies we will have in this stage.

In a very simple game like Oniken where you rely on basic mechanics like jump, attack, and one special weapon, you have to really put a lot of work on the level design. You don’t have anything else. You don’t have different armors, you don’t have lots of items, and you don’t have exploration, so you must create a level that can be challenging and fun, and it cannot have cheap deaths. It is very difficult to achieve that.

PD:  The newest release of Oniken has a lot of great new features like reworked difficulty, a hardcore mode, and even a new playable character and stage. How was it sorta revisiting the game, and were these new features and tweaks something you’d wanted in the game from the beginning or did player feedback play a role?

DD:  During 2013 we started to work on Odallus. When Oniken was approved on Steam Greenlight, we felt that  it was a cool opportunity to fix some stuff in Oniken that we didn’t have time to or did not have feedback for. It was an interesting experience, at least for me.

It was a little frustrating at first because, as a pixel artist, I really have improved since Oniken, and it was difficult to not, you know, remake everything hahaha. However I did know that I didn’t have the time to do that. I had to get back to Odallus, so I redid some of the things I really thought that needed some upgrades, like the main character art and some enemies.

We also wanted to rework the first stage because it was made from a test stage and it was very different from the rest of the game. In Oniken you never have to backtrack, but in stage 1-2 you originally had to do some backtracking. We felt that wasn’t right and we reworked the whole 1-2 section of stage 1.

Now when I see the game I really feel good about it like, “Ok, it is done!”

PD:  Now that an updated version of Oniken is out and you’re reaching a wider audience with Steam, how has the reception been thus far? 

DD:  The reception has been far better that we expected. Lots of people are playing our game and that’s really cool. I really enjoy seeing people playing Oniken on YouTube. I think that is one of the things that makes me most happy is to know that people are having fun with our game.

PD:  A lot of indie developers have spoken positively and negatively about their experiences with Valve’s Greenlight process. What was your experience with Greenlight like, and how was it working with Valve and their tools to finally get Oniken ready for release on their service?

DD:  I don’t think that Greenlight is a bad thing, however I think that is still has problems. For instance, it is really difficult to make your game appeal to everyone because you are one between lots of bigger games that have money to spend with publicity. So if you a small indie developer, you will need a lot of luck and and to put in a lot of effort to get your game approved. We had to wait for almost a year in order to be approved on Greenlight and we put in a lot of effort in order to get publicity for the game since we didn’t have money to pay for it.

After the Greenlight process we had some difficulty in making the game work with Steam, but that was because of our engine. We used Clickteam’s Multimedia Fusion 2 to create Oniken. It is a good engine for people that don’t know how to code. However is very difficult to make the engine work with Steam achievements and other features. That is why we took so long to finally release the game.

PD:  Now that Oniken is behind you, Odallus: The Dark Call is JoyMasher’s next big project. Could you tell us a bit about it and the influences behind it?

DD:  Odallus is heavily inspired by Demon’s Crest, the Mega Man X series, Chakan, and Castlevania. Some people ask me if the main character is based on Simon or Trevor Belmont, however I’m actually a big fan of Highlander, so anyone who saw Highlander will notice that our main character is based on Connor Mcleod hahaha.

PD:  Odallus definitely seems quite a bit more ambitious and larger in scale than Oniken and your freeware games. Has that changed how you’ve had to approach its development or do you feel your workflow is roughly the same?

DD:  Odallus is our biggest project so far. We did a lot of planning before starting the entire game. That was the first game that I had to sit down and write a document about all the things that will be in the game. It is a real challenge for us to make a game that you have a big world to explore. It is a very different thing from Oniken. In Oniken we just had to care about one stage at time. In Odallus we are always going back and changing things and fixing stuff since during the game the player will have to go back and explore areas over and over again. It is a very difficult process.

We’re also making a lot of different enemies for each stage, which  is very difficult too. As of now we have almost 40 different types of enemies, not counting the bosses.

PD:  Would you say Odallus favors exploration over intense action or can we expect a good mix of exploring huge maps and connected levels as well as some good old-fashioned hardcore difficulty?

DD:  Yes! Odallus is a mix of exploration and action. There are stages that have multiple paths, and some stages that are more linear. We also tried to keep part of the difficulty of action games.

Experienced players will face a good challenge, however players that aren’t used to hard games will also have a good time in Odallus. For instance, if you get a game over in Odallus you will lose your checkpoint. However you will still have all your money, items, and unlocked doors. So if you have to start the level all over again, at least you didn’t lose everything. You can also spend some time killing enemies in order to buy more lives and make things easier.

PD:  About how far along would you say Odallus is in terms of completion? 

DD:  We started to really work on Odallus after its crowdsourcing. Since then we have 4 of the 9 levels in the game. If everything goes right and without problems, we can release the game at the end of the year.

PD:  Thank you very much for your time. Where can our readers keep up with you guys at? 

DD:  We post a lot of updates on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JoyMasher

on our website: http://joymasher.com/

and on our Indiegogo page: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/odallus-the-dark-call

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