Beautifun Games

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The BeautiFun Team Stories - Aniol Alcaraz - Producer and programmer - Part I / II

Today we start a series of in-depth interviews called "The BeautiFun Team Stories" in which members of BeautiFun Games will be talking about their past, present and future from quite a personal perspective. Jesús Fabre, our community and PR guy, will be doing and publishing one of them per week. So lets start with Aniol Alcaraz, our producer and one of our programmers, talking about how BeautiFun Games started, back in 2011.

Aniol: At the beginning we were only four people, and our most important goal was developing Nihilumbra, so we put all our efforts in that task. We needed an extra artist so hired Freya Horn, and that new addition to the team changed a bit the rhythm of our daily work. Somedays she came to the office, where we commisioned her the tasks she had to do and the rest of the days she was drawing at her own art studio.

When Nihilumbra's development was in the final stages, we thought our workload was slowing down, but no! We needed to prepare all the marketing material, send out press releases, answer tons of emails, etc. It was a super busy time! Then we started to work on our new project, and in paralel we were porting Nihilumbra to other platforms. Now with the recent success on Steam Holiday Sales and having our next project Megamagic on track, we can say the studio is enjoying one of its best moments ever! We proved ourselves we can make a living out of our games, and that makes us really excited about what this 2014 holds for us!

Nihilumbra's BeautiFun Games team back in 2011
Jesús: To manage an indie studio is a very hard task, not only in financial terms, also when it comes about coordinating the work of several and very different people. All of this in the middle of an industry that's constantly changing. BeautiFun Games was funded in March 2011, but they didn't know if it could be profitable until now, almost three years later... 

A: Nihilumbra was expected to be finished in four months, but we didn't fully closed the project until the fourteenth! That was because we were unexperienced, but also its a proof of our philosophy as studio and an important factor that has brought us to be still here today: try to polish things to the maximum until we are truly satisfied with the result.

J: But, how to team up such a group of dedicated, self-exigent and hardworking people? Aniol explains me that, after finishing his videogame development Masters, he was really interested in creating something of his own, and eventually living out of it. So he went around to every classmate looking for the ones who also wanted to develop their own titles. Somehow he "recruited" a group of around fifteen students who met up each week to try to shape a game.

A: After some weeks of meetings, most people started to leave for several reasons. Ones found a job, others started to lose interest, and finally we were four people left, but still had the big problem that is the lack time to develop any full game with no money. Then I suggested I could invest my own savings to kickstart the studio. That phrase was something nobody was expecting, but as they gladly accepted, I did what I promised and in a month BeautiFun Games was born. Only four people composed the team: Pol, Kevin, Lourdes and me. We were quite lucky since we started seriously as studio once we had covered almost every position we needed, and also we were filled with lots of passion and dedication!

J: Aniol is now 28 years old, and Nihilumbra is the first commercial game with his name on the credits. Before that came to be, he did a Computer Science Degree and a Videogame Masters Degree. Something not many people know is that, during his Masters, he developed a prototype called "Once Upon a Night" along with Lourdes Nicolich (our art director and one of the studio founders) and also three other people, it was their final project.

A: "Once Upon a Night" was an ambitious project, clearly remember it was a hell of a work when we tried to close it. We used Ogre Engine, coding was done in C++, we had AI, shaders, I think they were too many new things to deal with at the same time! The main hurdle we faced during that project was the lack of coordination and timing. In addition, and as an advice to students that may be reading this, I would recommend everyone who is doing a game development course to always experiment with new ideas, and when it comes the time to create a full game, try to work on the features that can showcase your skills the better.

Also, one curious thing I discovered in that course was the role of the game designer and how important the design is as a discipline on its own. I clearly remember when Kevin (our writer and game designer) came up with a full design of a game he had been working at home, and that later became "The Creature".

While doing the MD course, one of the most important things I learned was how to technically polish a project and prepare it to reach the market. Also I enjoyed -aside of the game programming related subjects-, the 3D design and animation classes, in spite of not being my area. As programmer and producer it's always beneficial to know how this works in order to adapt yourself  in the best possible way to the particular difficulties that can emerge.

J: As our conversation evolves, I keep discovering more interesting things about Aniol's past that help me understanding his present. Now I wonder about his hobbies and how they could have influenced other aspects of his life, like his professional career. So lets keep going back in time and learn something about ... card games!


A: Since I was a very young kid I loved to play card games and board games. Was pretty good at one in particular called Magic, so started to participate in several qualifier tournaments for the World Cup. If you were good enough and got in, they flew you to the States to play with the best players worldwide, that was really a great experience! 

J: Researching on the web, I even found that Aniol was not only a card game player, he also contributed to create a board game along with other two friends (Joel Calafell and Omar Sagol) called "El Mundo de Águila Roja", that was inspired in a famous Spanish TV Series. After asking him, he explains me that, at the beginning, they were supposed only to playtest the game, but ended up making a new one instead. All thanks to their passion for Magic...

A: Then a few close friends noticed that some Magic players were jumping into Poker, and convinced me to try it along with them. The first thought that came to my mind was that negative and dark image we all have from movies of mafia guys smoky rooms. But I started reading some books and found out it could be done if I practiced a lot. So decided to try it seriously and after a few months our team was progressing quite well in the tournaments. Up to the point that we earned quite a good money and even found an sponsor that covered all the costs to be in the European Poker Series, live tournaments... so I kept playing until I started the videogame development Masters Degree.

I want to remark that Poker is hard, you need lots of practice, and also enjoy playing it is a must if you want to win. I kept studying my Computer Science degree and playing Poker, until I finished my degree, and a bit later I decided I didn't want to play Poker for all my life, as wasn't enjoying as much as when I started and also didn't win or lose anything that year. In Magic, every now and then you can see new cards being released, but in Poker, in spite of being a deep and complex game, there was a point where it was too repetitive for me. So I started losing the enthusiasm, and in consequence decided it was better to quit and take on new challenges.

A: Challenges like videogame development. That said, the investment BeautiFun Games received was thanks to Aniol's success in Poker. But he strongly discourages anyone from following his path to fund their games.

I know it is hard to find funding for your game. You need to find out how to convince your potential investors to believe in your project and that, if they put money, its gonna make them get enough profits in return. Easy to say but hard to do, but never impossible, Aniol admits.

J: Next thing Aniol tells me is that he is not very aware of the decisions he took along his life, he always kept doing what he loved, and tried to do its best with the tools he had.

I cannot find the concrete reason why I decided to start studying Computer Science... As I loved games, I always loved computers too. When I was 13 or 14 years old (that's around 1999), I remember having developed a website where I posted game reviews. Also, due to my passion for videogames, I started to learn programming since my dream was to create my own game. I developed my own version of Mastermind, the problem was that I didn't know function parameters existed and it was quite harder than it could have been! -Aniol laughs- the programmers reading this surely will know how needlessly hard that was.

J: He recognizes to me that sometimes he starts projects that are too ambitious, being unaware about if he is gonna be able to finish them. But, in spite sometimes he can regret it, he always tries his best to finish what he starts and have something that he is proud of as result. Now I'm curious to know more about Aniol's gaming history. So I start asking him about how it started...

A: Videogames entered my life thanks to a Game Boy with two cartridges: Tetris and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, both of them really good! I also had a Nintendo 64. I remember Super Mario 64 was one of the games I was more impressed with. I loved those 3D graphics and how fluid everything was handled on screen, even today the game keeps its charm unbelievably well. But if there is a game from my youth that left me the most memorable times, it undoubtedly is Super Smash Bros and its multiplayer mode. You can imagine how exciting and disputed every match was when I played with my friends, whom I also played Magic and Poker with. That was real rivalry!

Maybe, after the titles I said, you can think I was a big Nintendo fan, but not really! For example, I never had a Super Nintendo, since I was enjoying my Mega Drive. I remember playing Sonic games a lot, specially Sonic & Knuckles with Sonic 3 (by the way, at the office we still listen to Sonic music, Chemical Plant FTW!). Remember the originality and freshness of Dynamite Headdy or Streets of Rage with its amazing multiplayer. Also I had a PSX, where I played gems like Wipeout, with its amazing soundtrack that fits perfectly with the frantic gameplay and it's futuristic universe. More games I truly enjoyed are Final Fantasy VII, Tekken, I can tell you I like practically every game genre, as long as the game is well made!

J: How much influence those classics you played during childhood has on the games you are developing now?

A: My background as a gamer helps me a lot, makes it easier to visualize if something I program will work once added to the game. Also, like everyone, I have game ideas. Here at BeautiFun we listen to Kevin's (sometimes crazy) game ideas and then everyone of us adds his personal touch to the main purposal.

J: Curiously, Aniol is not the only Magic and Poker player in our team...

A: The first BeautiFun team member I met was Pol Urós, back at the university. We knew each other from Magic and Poker circles, since he was an amateur  player. He recognized me from a Magic website (recently Aniol had won the Spanish Magic championships) and one day he approached while I was at the faculty snack bar and we have a good friendship since then.

J: Is it something usual to do this transition from Magic to Poker?

Well, it is really not so usual. There are many other players who come from other games, like Chess, Backgammon, and for example, I remember that one of the best players back in the days was ElkY, who was really good at Starcraft. He liked Poker and started playing professionally, back then Poker was more profitable than games at the time, and also the skills were similar (high degrees of willpower and discipline). Now the egaming scene is much more important than it was 3 years ago and there are pro-gamers that can make a living out of it since the awards are much bigger. Playing Poker is not much different than playing a videogame professionally, you have to be very analytical and adapt to the other opponents, so it was attractive to professionals from other areas of gaming.

You can get in touch with Aniol on Twitter, he is @AniolAlcaraz

[The rest of this interview is available in Part II, where Aniol talks about the hardest technical challenges at Nihilumbra, and also will give us his feedback about the rest of the team and our future project, Megamagic.]

Interview done by our CM/PR @JesusFabre

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