Destructoid interview: Owlboy

With a number of indie titles becoming considerable successes this past year, it is foolish for anybody in the games media industry to overlook the huge amount of work coming from smaller companies. As mainstream gaming continues to water itself down for the mass market, independent titles are the ones destined to become havens for those who want originality and risky prospects in their library.

Titles like Owlboy represent the kind of games we should be paying more attention to. While it’s true that it could become the next Eternity’s Child, it has just as much chance of becoming the next Braid. You never know which risks are going to pay off, and that makes indie gaming exciting.

Owlboy is a retro-centric, charmingly presented flying game that has caught eyes for its old school roots and interesting characters. Yesterday we debuted gameplay footage of this future PC/XBLA title from D-Pad software, but we also caught up with two of the men responsible for its creation, Simon Andersen and Blake, who has no information regarding his surname. 

Read on for our full interview with D-Pad studio.

Destructoid: How did the idea for Owlboy come about? Where did main character Otus and his world come from?

Owlboy actually started as an experiment that gradually got bigger. I was testing a concept I got from Super Mario 3‘s Raccoon suit, where you tap a button to slow down your descent. I figured pressing a button to fly was an interesting idea. I originally planned to make a small game about a flying character that could fly for short periods of time and would jump from island to island, using them for cover against people shooting at him. Just dodging attacks would get boring after a while, so I figured you could get powerups from people you would meet on random islands. The character might not know the language of these people, so he could only use emotions to communicate.

At the time, Blake had been trying out an engine for a Metroid-like game in XNA that didn’t work out, so we decided to test my idea. At that point, the only thing I knew the look for was the first island, and that’s about it. So far, the character was just a vague idea. I decided that making him mute would be more interesting (and would also work as a parody of all the silent heroes). It took ages to land on the ideal design. Otus has been everything from an insect, a toad, to a human with horns. In fact, I was very close to making him a flying dog at one point, but I realized that people might start pointing to Okami, so I tried something else. Of course, now it seems people are pointing to Wind Waker instead, so I guess I can’t make everyone happy.

Destructoid: What have your experiences been like working with XNA?

Blake: Working with XNA has been an excellent experience and Microsoft has been great about updating their product. It’s easy enough for a small team to make quality games relatively quickly and release them on Xbox Live where there are millions of people who want to play.

I first started working with XNA when it was released, back when publishing games to the Xbox 360 seemed like just an empty promise from Microsoft. But here we are today and Xbox Community Games has just launched and it’ll be interesting to see how the first games do. At the moment, other than a few exceptions, there seems to be a flood of sub-standard games appearing in the Community Games channel, and I hope that there will be some new games soon that change the user impression. Even though the teams making these games are very small and new to game development, I think developers need to keep in mind that the end users will be paying for these games and to try and deliver something fun and worth paying for.

Who are you hoping to appeal to with Owlboy? The game has a very retro look to it — is it predominantly the retro-centric market you’re trying to corner, or are you hoping that the game will have a broader appeal than just old school gamers?

Simon: I’ve always felt I’m making this game more for me and our group. Selling this to a market came up later, so this game is very personal to me. Of course, I would guess that our expected marked would be the retro and indie gamers because of the style we choose to go with, but really, anyone that can appreciate smaller games as epic tales should be able to enjoy it. There are definitely plans to make a nice blend for both casual quick-players and hardcore grinders (don’t worry, we’re not adding Brain Training or Peggle into it.) Rather, we’re aiming at adding some big hard-as-nails sections for the grinders that are willing to look for them.

Blake: I love retro 2D games. Adventure games and platformers during the 16-bit era still hold a special place in my heart. With Owlboy, we’re lucky enough to get to model our game after some of the great games of that time period, but also add a lot of new tricks and elements from modern games too. I know that not only have graphics improved over the last 20 or so years, but so have gameplay elements. One game I really enjoyed recently was Mega Man 9, and though Owlboy has the retro graphics in common, we’re still experimenting with all kinds of new gameplay and not limiting ourselves to just the nostalgic gamers (like myself).

Destructoid: How did you decide on the current art style? Upon initial glance it looks like an SNES or Genesis game. Have other games inspired the look in any way?

Simon: This is a difficult question to answer. I’ve done pixel art for a while now, and the style that Owlboy ended up with was really something I thought of as I was making it. There’s no question that I absolutely love pixel art and the 8-bit and 16-bit generation created truly fantastic artwork. What has inspired my own art comes from a lot of different sources, but there isn’t one in particular that created the look for Owlboy. I’ve always loved to use organic shapes and I feel shape tells a lot about your character, along with personality, so the current look is sort of an extension of that. If you want me to pinpoint a specific game though, just pick some gorgeous game from the 16-bit era and say: “That!”

I have a suspicion though, that what you’re actually asking is “Why did you go for pixel art?” The answer is simple: Why not? It seems people have come to the conclusion that pixel art is somehow outdated and thus obsolete in the game world. It’s probably a result of all the marketing for the latest games and machines, each one proving they’re better simply because they have a sixth layer of raytracing on the gun barrel. Pixel art is an art form and I feel it’s the best way to convey the idea I had. You don’t stop making paintings just because someone invented the camera. 2D games has a different feel to them, and offers different gameplay, which is what a game boils down to in the end.

Blake: Simon’s just really great at pixel art! We thought it would be a great chance to put that talent to use in a console game like Owlboy.

The game clearly has a background and a story, but how important are they to the overall experience? Is Owlboy particularly story driven, or is it more about simple fun?

Clearly? Actually, I’ve stayed away from the story aspect as much as possible. Owlboy is made completely without a pre-written script, and the reason is, I want the story to form around the gameplay, and not the other way around. So many games get made with some great story in mind, and in the end, end up sacrificing gameplay and fun for storytelling and cinematics. Shoehorning a game into what is really a small movie is not what I’m aiming at. So far, I have set a few major story points in the game, and how things will end up. We build the gameplay around the general areas and have smaller events happen to keep the flavor interesting, but never so much that you feel you’re playing an RPG where you’re grinding just to get some story. This isn’t to say that stories in games are a waste of time. Far from it. But for a game like this, I felt we should to focus on play. The important part is having fun in the world you’re in, not finding out who’s Luke’s father.

Destructoid: Can you tell us anything more about expressions? We know that you need express yourself to win allies to your side, but how is that implemented in the game?

Simon: It’s a very simple system really. When you meet someone new, at some point in the conversation, you’ll be prompted to respond to a statement. You can then select between a happy, sad or angry expression, which should cover all of the basic responses you can give. The point is to change people’s attitude towards you. For example, you might want someone on your side so they’ll give you an item, or possibly become your new gunner. He might love attention, so you smile and nod. Maybe someone wants only be friends with tough people, so you put on your angry face. Some are easy to win over, but if a person could grant you a rare ability, they’ll be really tricky to win over. We’re planning an office of sorts that keeps track of all the people you’ve met, so if you just can’t read what that person wants, you can go there and read up on that person’s personality to find out how to win them over. You will have to do them favors and such in some cases, but most of the time, it’s just optional. Want a gunner with a flame pistol with you? Then you better get to know them.

Destructoid: I’d like to know a little bit more about the core gameplay. Flying is obviously a big part of it, which makes it hard to define as a platformer, I would imagine. Will combat, for example, resemble a side-scrolling shooter more than a traditional platforming title? Are there any adventure/RPG elements, and can we expect any epic boss fights?

I’m not sure how to define it myself. Think of it as a vertical adventure. Possibly what Kid Icarus would have been if you could go back down again. Essentially, you have freeroaming areas you clear from attacks as you go up. In these areas, you can do errands, talk to the people, and acquire new gunners and abilities, but there’s very few monsters around. As for gunners, the gunner system is simply getting an ally with a gun that you carry with you. You select one to be your current one and you use whatever firepower they provide. When you’ve cleared a freeroaming area, you move upwards to a dungeon. Here, you’ll use your carrying abilities to manipulate the objects around you to move forward. Think of it as a Zelda dungeon, but with less keys in doors, and more environment changing. The plan is to make every area different, giving you a new hazard to overcome, but letting you return later for something different. Hopefully, we can avoid the “puzzle finished, never return” problem most games have.

As for bosses, yes. Bosses and mini bosses in epic proportions. We’re aiming at some seriously grand boss fights. I’m probably setting the bar too high saying this, but that’s the plan at least.

Destructoid: With recent indie games like Braid and Castle Crashers enjoying massive success on Xbox Live, do you think a way has been paved for indie developers to get more attention and a better chance of getting recognition in the industry? Do you think Owlboy can continue running with the ball that those games have thrown?

Simon: I have yet to play either of them sadly (though I’d very much like to) but I think the new download stations for consoles hold tremendous potential for indie developers. Especially considering that your target group has your game show up at their download channel rather than hoping they stumble across it on the Internet. There is still a problem getting enough manpower, not to mention funds to create games for the mass market, so having options like the new download channels out in the open is a major step forward. So long as indies can create their games and not get randomly swallowed by EA, I’m happy.

As for Owlboy continuing the path of Braid and Castle Crashers, I can’t say. I never intended Owlboy to compete with them in the first place. I think the important thing is creating something different and entertaining. Both games have made a lot of of people happy, so we can only try to make our game as enjoyable as possible. My only real goal is to create something new and letting people have fun at the same time. That is all.

I think it’s a wonderful time to be an indie developer. With games like Braid and Castle Crashers not only available on Xbox Live Arcade, but also selling very well and getting a lot of attention and good reviews, I think they have definitely paved a way for more small developers to get their games out to a large audience on the big game consoles. Of course with Xbox Live Community Games, even more independent developers can release their game for the Xbox 360. It’s really a big deal to me, as it’s never been so easy for us little guys to work really hard on a game that we love and then put it out there for console gamers to easily download and play.

Destructoid: Following on from that, Do you feel pressure, comfort, or indifference toward the glut of fantastic downloadable games that have hit this past year? Do you think this will make XBLA gamers more accepting toward Owlboy, or do you worry that their expectations will be too heightened — that they’ll expect every game to be Braid?

Simon: If they want every game to be Braid, then the industry is in deep trouble already. I think developers should strive to make something the others aren’t doing . If the only thing people made for XBLA were racers and FPS games, we would be going nowhere. I’m not too worried about whether Owlboy sells well or not. The important thing is that did something no one had thought of before. I can’t say if Owlboy is as different as Braid is, but at the very least, it’s not another World War 2 shooter. As for pressure, it’s constant. I’m very much a perfectionist, so even if everyone absolutely loved the game, I would still find problems in it. Just have to do your best I suppose.

Blake: I’m honored when our game is compared to an innovative and fun experience like Braid. I do feel raised pressure on releasing a quality game when there are such games like Braid out there currently representing the indie developers. But if anything, the pressure to deliver a great game is only helping us. We’ve never tried to be in “competition” with those games or any others, so it may happen that we don’t come up with something as popular or meet all the players’ expectations, but we’re really in this to make something we love, learn a lot while doing it, and we hope that other people will enjoy playing Owlboy when it is done.

Destructoid: Could an owl feasibly kill a monkey?

Simon: You need to specify! If an elf owl tries to fight a baboon, the baboon would tear it’s head off and probably chew on it for a good 20 minutes before leaving it in favour of a more nutritious snack. However, an eagle owl taking on a pygmy marmoset would be a different story. That would probably serve as regurgitation material for the owl for at least a few days. An eagle owl against a baboon though… Maybe if the owl got its eyes right at the start. And there was a spike pit nearby … maybe.

Blake: Ditto.

Jim Sterling