Beautifun Games

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The BeautiFun Team Stories - Kevin Cerdà - Game designer and writer - Part II

Welcome to the second part of the interview with our game designer and writer Kevin Cerdà. Today we talk with him about video games from a more professional perspective and see how he evolved as a student, until he co-founded BeautiFun Games.

Jesús: Your first finished project was The Creature. Can you introduce us the circunstances that lead you to create this game?

Kevin: Yes, TheCreature, as Nihilumbra, takes elements from classic games I played as a kid and mix them with new ideas, preferably ones that hasn't been seen before. It was my final project at Universitat Politécnica de Catalunya (UPC) Video game Masters Degree. I remark these studies had no specific game design especialization, so I only had two choices, to focus on art or programming. I chose programming, because I thought that it was my weakest point. One day the teacher told us about how the final project was going to be like: next week we would have to form groups and each of them would develop a small demo of a game. I wanted to use the degree to earn game design experience, so I worked really hard on a design proposal before the day when we had to form the groups arrived. Some people started to talk and grouped themselves by following similar preferences; my case was a bit shocking, since nobody expected to see a guy with tons of design documents and sketches ready to be implemented. For me it was essential to walk that extra mile as I needed to be able to say I had designed a full game once I jumped into the job market after my studies.

How was the experience of coordinating the team for The Creature?

Finally I managed to convince a bunch of people to join (Pol Urós was amongst them), and summarizing pretty much what happened, have to admit I ended up being kind of a dictator. It was hard to organize a team of people that didn’t know each other. There was one guy from our team that left the degree without any explanation! But I think it ended very positively since we made a full game with many levels, high replayability, hidden secrets, final enemies, a great soundtrack. It was crazy compared to the typical 15-20 minutes demo almost every students group use to submit as Masters final project. I think we were able to achieve all of that thanks to having everything specified on a design document, and that also avoided to lose time on the typical arguments that appear when things are too open and there's no clear direction.

In addition to the lead game design role, you also worked as project manager/producer. What did you learned about your experience in this new role?

My goal with The Creature was to create the best product I possibly could, with the crazy goal that, as soon as it got released, I would start receiving calls from big companies, like CAPCOM, to hire me as a Vice-President. In a word, I wanted to get as much recognition as possible with that first project; it is really hard to become a game designer without a team so I couldn’t lose a chance like that one. What I didn't take into account was that not everybody in our group had such high expectations, and here was where we had the toughest conflicts. For me it was vital to polish the game to the maximum, and that resulted in a huge level of critic and exigency to myself and consequently towards most of the team, so some people started to get fed up with me. I really believe that we wouldn’t have finished the game if it wasn’t for that, but it was really stressful for everyone. I've learned a lot since then and now things aren't like that anymore. Nowadays leadership is something I don't specially enjoy, I try to do my best and also give freedom to the team members to do things their way, and at their own pace.

The Creature's core development team. From left to right and top to bottom:
David Gallardo, Andreu Ferré, Kevin Cerdà, Pol Urós and Lluc Romaní.
What do you admire the most from the final result achieved with The Creature and what have you learnt about the development process?

Really admire the soundtrack, by Álvaro Lafuente. I would say it is even better than Nihilumbra's. Also appreciate a lot the mysterious atmosphere permeating the whole game. It tells many things with very simple details, and has also numerous secrets that very very few people discovered.
Learned a lot about how much it costs to finish a game, I have to admit the end of The Creature was especially complex. I also worked on lots of areas other than game design, took care of all the animations, did a lot of rigging and character texturing, sound effects, level designing and building, learned useful stuff about Unreal Engine, like how to create cinematics or edit particles and materials... In general, during the development of The Creature and the whole Master I learnt a lot from books I bought and from conferences I attended. Every time you need to struggle to finish a game you end up learning a lot from it, and the result is that you become a better professional.

Click to listen to some tracks from The Creature OST
Something I'm also very happy about The Creature are the contacts I gathered, from press and also other companies related to game development. I remember for example Mike Rose from Gamasutra and Paolo Giaiero from Indies4indies (a company that later on worked on Nihilumbra translations) contacted me with comments of high praise about the game.

Can you explain us about the transition from The Creature to Nihilumbra?

When we ended The Creature I started a marketing campaign to show it to the world. I sent emails to lots of people, I wrote one post on The Creature’s development blog every day during a whole summer, while we were on the last stage of the development… I barely slept during those months! And I also did this trailer. Seriously, I recommend you to check out its awesome trailer. Everyone loved it.

After the game was launched, some publishers contacted me to make a sequel of The Creature. Why not? I thought. But that ended up being kind of impossible, specially because we hadn't set up as a company, each member took his own road, like Dragon Balls, and it would be really messy to gather them or to do it without them. So I started looking for other projects. Unexpectedly, I found myself involved in a great and really ambitious AAA title where I started to collaborate as a game design assistant and ended being the main designer. I finished all the high level documentation of the game and a huge publisher okayed it, but sadly, in the last moment, it got cancelled. At the same time, I started to meet with a group of classmates to try to see if we could develop a game without a budget.

Two of the first Mockups for Nihilumbra
Those meetings started with around 15 people gathering once a week to share ideas, so we joined and tried to work each one on his side to produce some materials. The meeting started to get less and less crowded, since some of the people found a job or simply lost the motivation, so finally we were only a few folks there left without much hope to achieve something significant in the end, until one day Aniol surprised us with a lot of money he wanted to invest to create a video game studio. That studio needed a flagship game, so I started to illustrate and describe a game that could please all of the team members. The game was going to be self-published on iOS, since it was the best platform for indies, we could have tried to jump to PC first but at that time Steam doors were pretty close to new and unknown games. We decided to take what seemed the safest way: publish a game on iOS, but it was not going to be “an iOS game”, if you know what I mean.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The BeautiFun Team Stories - Kevin Cerdà - Game designer and writer - Part I

Kevin Cerdà is our writer, game designer and also our spokesman, so you can imagine how many interviews he has already answered about him and our games. We know it will be hard, but in the upcoming weeks we will try to cover some aspects of his life that aren't so well known, today we start talking about his cultural influences, so in the next parts we will focus more on video games, as a gamer and as an industry professional.

Jesús: How did your passion for video games started?

Kevin: I've always loved video games since I was a small child, and I used to think that I wanted to create games as an adult, it was an idea that drove me crazy. But when I was a child I was once told that this dream of mine was far from reality, because becoming part of a game studio was going to be really alienating. I would be an insignificant minion in the middle of a myriad of developers and anything I could say would have a minimal influence on the projects I would work for. That idea ended up demoralizing me and convinced me of forgetting the idea of someday being part of this industry. I wanted to make games! It was really sad to be told that my dream job actually didn’t exist at all. But I always kept my interest in the medium and kept playing more and more games, basically all I could get my hands on.

So if the video game industry didn't appeal to you at the time, on which medium did you put your professional expectations and why?

I always had an innate desire to tell stories, will it be through music, comics, cinema or literature. So once I got to the sad conclusion that video games were not my road I spent most of my youth pretty confused about the future, consuming books, games and movies at a crazy rate. I thought that I could be a movie director, but the film school course was super expensive and I ended up studying Telecommunications engineering, where I learned a bit of programming, 3D modelling and animation, graphic design, audio and video editing... All this knowledge was really useful to work on video games, actually, as a final project I created what could be described as a first person virtual simulator, with a twisted survival horror side.

I see in the end that video games creator in you inevitably emerged somehow, right?

Yeah, in fact I ended my degree at the same time Braid was released and... BOOM! Like a revelation, I discovered everything I was told about the game industry as child was not completely true. There was no need to have a huge team of people to develop a game, in fact that game Braid was mainly done by one man, and what a marvelous game! So thanks to that I got all the encouragement I needed to embark myself into this amazing journey that took me to be a game developer.

So, as you said, you are a passionate storyteller and games was, in a way, your native medium, perhaps the most engaging one for you?

Yes, as I said before I was an absolute video game fanatic as a kid (and nowadays too!). If I would have ended being a film director I'm sure my movies would have a huge influence coming from video games. To help you have an idea of how much passion I poured into playing games, I will tell you I was three years-old when I beated the first Sonic title for Megadrive. To say the truth, my parents were pretty surprised, and wondered if that gaming skill of mine could have any usefulness in my future. It's curious because my family isn’t exactly the gamer type. The only ones that were interested in games in my family when I was a child were my grandmother and my aunt. In fact I bet that my grandmother could hold world records on Dr. Mario and Bejewelled.

Aside of video games, what else did you play in your childhood?

When I was a kid I didn't need many toys to play, I remember I created my own stories so other kids joined my games and we all played in imaginary worlds. I designed sort of live RPGs with my friends, that turned to be really big, specially when we had school trips. Once a year, I remember we traveled to the countryside and spent several days in a masia, a big rural house, then we had a lot of space and freedom to even create our imaginary armies.

Now talking about inspirations, where all those stories came from? Did you enjoy reading many fantasy storybooks back then? Or books in general?

When I was a kid I read a lot, around three books per week. I still remind myself walking in the street with my parents and reading at the same time. They had to guide me in order to not get out of the sidewalk. As one can expect from a very young kid, I like to read fairytales and sci-fi, but also short and entertaining terror stories like the R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series. I also liked Eduardo Mendoza's black humour stories or detective novels.

I read humor comics like “Mortadelo y Filemón” (Clever & Smart) or Super López, a comic starring a hero who plays sort of a Spanish Superman parody (his stories are quite fun and smart even nowadays). I have to admit something about comics and mangas, that one of the more stupid mistakes I made in my life was to believe that they were for kids and books were for adults, associating them to poorly elaborated/only easy entertainment and higher quality/more mature content, respectively. That was a huge and unfair discrimination I discovered a bit late, once I was a teenager. It was all thanks to an incredible manga called Lone Wolf and Cub. From that point on, I saw how comics can be as mature as novels. I read Batman comics and Garth Ennis' The Preacher, which I have to say is my favorite comic from all times. The characters were so well defined and the plot was so immersive that seems like the authors hand is not there, and they are real people with their very own life. I’d also like to mention other comics like Watchmen, 20th Century Boys or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for example.

All that reading was very good for me, not only because I learned lots of vocabulary, also because I got kind of a literary way of thinking that was really useful to write my own stories. If someday I ran out of books to read, I remember my parents took me to the library where I could spend hours trying to decide which book I would like to take home, usually I judged them just by the cover. I fondly remember how hard it was to decide between “The Day of the Triffids” and “The Hobbit”.

And what can you tell me about books?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The BeautiFun Team Stories - Jesús Fabre - CM|PR - Part II/II

Aniol: Your role is not very usual in the indie game industry, as most indies do their own marketing, also at least in Spain is hard to find specialized studies teaching video game marketing or similar. Can you tell us about your background?

Jesús: That's true, when people thinks about marketing and video games, they use to imagine huge budgets and celebrities playing the last releases, etc. But independent game studios also need to do marketing and in fact I think is a very important area that needs its own especialization in marketing studies. In my case, my academic evolution is not very conventional for somebody who works with communication and marketing. As you could see in the first part of the interview, as a teenager I loved video games, played for hours and was very curious about all things tech-related. But always saw computers like if they were made in another universe, seemed too complex for me. It wasn't intil I bought my first PC in 1998 when I started to discover they weren't so hard to understand, and aside of using them to play games, they also were amazing tools that could be used to research or create all kind of things. So I decided to start studying Computer Sciences Engineering. Thought it would be great to learn more and more about how those ever-evolving machines were made, and learn about programming, sensors, computer networks or mobile devices.

Did you enjoy your Computer Sciences studies? Did you find out what you expected?

As in every degree, you have subjects you like and others not so appealing, but most of them had their interest at some point, also I have been always really curious and tried to "make" things to look interesting by thinking about how I could apply this or that theory into real life problems. It clearly was the smartest way for me to progress, self-motivation. Fortunately, most of the subjects were somehow, at some point, applicable to the real world. Also loved to do practical works, I had to learn to do presentations in front of the class, what wasn't easy due to my shyness back then (to say the truth, almost everyone in class was a bit uncomfortable with the fact of having to talk in public). So speaking to an audience was a useful skill I trained there and that will end up being useful later on. On the other hand, the studies were quite hard, up to the point of having to take the decision of radically stop playing any video games during my fourth year because there was no way I could have everything done on time.

Old Computer Sciences faculty looked like a LEGO castle, don't you think?

Were you interested in developing games back then? 

Back then, we are talking about 2000-2001, I had almost zero contact with the video game development world, I only new two people in Murcia (my hometown) who sometime worked with games but they were out of the doing other things back then. I remember how that fact, only to know somebody who already was part of a game studio or game project, fascinated me. Then in 2003 I had a practical work to do in the Digital Systems subject, nothing less than create a space invaders-like game for DOS, in text mode and making use of PIC interruptions. It was fun but very cumbersome to code, in the end I found the experience quite satisfying, since I achieved to improve the final game with a few cool details. Shooter of an A trying to destroy W's with exclamation signs was the first and only approach to games I had during my time at the university, let's say the focus on games was not (and still isn't) what a Computer Sciences Engineer should know. In my region there has never been anything close to a game industry, or what we could call a minimum gamedev scene, so the universities ended up focusing their teaching efforts on subjects that prepared students for what was being demanded by local labor market. So it was easy and fast for me, quickly decided I wanted to especialize on programming, since I liked to shape the behaviour of a computer and try to think like if was one to program more efficiently, it was more challenging and I dreamed with some day programming any sort of software that would make life easier to many people.

Change the ship for "A", the aliens for "W" and shoots for "!" and the result was very similar to what I did.

What was your next step professionally, once you finished your degree?

To my suprise, I really got my first job before finishing my degree. One of the first works I did in December 2005 was a practical work for a subject called Middelware Services, the goal was to program a communicaton protocol to allow two terminals to communicate, but my colleague Abraham and me managed to add secure file exchange feature using certificates and communications with Tomcat server. So when a teacher saw that work I imagined he was very happy with the result, and a few weeks later he approached me and asked me if I wanted to work part-time for a company that was kind of associated with the university. Couldn't believe it at that time, I said yes without thinking twice! So I started my first job as programmer, that consisted mainly on supporting a couple of cryptographical libraries called PCKS11 and CSP (open-source and proprietary, respectively), that browsers use to digitally sign and document and secure communications, among others. It was great because I could do so many things there, programming, documenting software for the final users, talk to clients on the phone to gather their feedback for the best possible solution... I lasted there for around a year and a half.

Why did you leave and what did you do afterwards?

I suspect it was all due to my adventurous spirit, when I finished my degree I also did a Master and was feeling that after all that preparation wasn't going to be used if I stayed and also my company was very small, and probably I would end up working on those same projects indefinitely, for years to come. Curiosity knocked at my door and in 2008 decided to move to Madrid to work in web portal development.

Sounds exciting, what did you find in Madrid?

When I arrived in Madrid I found a huge city, with dimensions and possibilites unknown to me until then. Professionally I was not quite happy, worked in two companies, first one with around 25 employees (lasted for five months), and the second with around 500 at that time, spreaded through 8 countries (lasted for two years and a half). That second company was a monster compared with my previous employer. During those last two and a half years I could see very clearly a lot of not so good patterns around me, people who came and people who left the company just a year after they entered and only for a better salary, seemed like the projects were not the most important thing for them, and in some cases there was a bad atmosphere of fellowship between people from different departments. All of this, added to the feeling of stagnation due to lack of internal promotions (or counteroffers), made the definition of success equivalent to jump to another company and earn 3.000 euros more per year for doing almost the same job, and so on and so forth for many (some very good) colleagues. It was a so much different environment compared to what I knew and what I wanted for my life. 

Reaching client and employees full satisfaction is nothing easy in any service-based area. On IT consultancy I think is harder than usual.

At some point, you decided to leave your job and start working on games. How was that process?

Madrid offered me everything I could ever need in a city. At the beginning of my stay I didn't have many friends, so when I started to lose motivation at work, I started exploring some old and almost forgotten hobbies to distract my mind in my free time. There I remembered and kind of rediscovered video games and how I saw that world somewhat magical and fascinating. I loved to learn about developers' stories, companies and systems. That took me to wonder how hard it would be to buy those games and consoles. To my surprise, all the titles and systems from my childhood were really cheap, so began buying tons games and knowing about more and more old consoles. Started with a few cartdridges and it quickly became an habit, every week I went out to get some "retro" bargains. Eventually I discovered there were more people like me, it was classic gaming culture. One day I knew about a convention where I could sell used games, and also met collectors and retrogaming fans, and thats how my story with RetroMadrid started, back in 2009. 

What is RetroMadrid and what is your involvement with the event?

-Access to the full subscription form here.