TechRaptor had a chance to talk with Brandon Goins of Windy Hill Studios, via email, on his game Orphan, which is currently on Kickstarter. Orphan is an action-stealth-2d platformer game set in a world where an orphan has returned to find his home destroyed by an alien invasion. We traded several emails back and forth, and the only editing that has been done is formatting questions so that follow ups are after the initial question
TR: Can you tell us about yourself and how you got into game design?
Brandon: I’m 36 years old and though that’s still young I feel I’ve misdirected my working life towards a lot of different things that were never the right fit. I’ve worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer. I’ve worked in marketing for a government/non-profit. I’ve often done marketing work for my own clients that included graphic design, video editing, web design and things like that. These things carried into my hobbies as well as I always enjoyed photography, graphics and animation plus I’ve always liked to write music. Only in recent years have I began to realize that all of these audiovisual hobbies came from growing up playing Nintendo.
A few years ago I moved away from Kentucky, where the game is set, and found myself working in sales. Being a very uncreative job I found myself in a somewhat depressed state with an overwhelming desire to find some creative outlet. I began participating in weekly music compos (composition competitions) which got me back into music writing. I eventually decided that I absolutely HAD to do a game soundtrack but every project that interested me had dozens of better composers standing in line. This went on for months until I finally came to a breaking point and decided I would just make my own game. I had a little programming experience from school and from doing web design and understood the basics and checked out several of the available IDEs. In the end I thought GM: Studio was right up my alley and allowed me to work with 2D art in a way that was comfortable and had a language that made sense.
TR: There are a lot of different tools these days out there for devs. Can you tell us about Game Maker Studios and what it was that attracted you to it?
Brandon: GM: Studio is designed for 2D games, it has an easy to read object oriented language and it has the support of Sony platforms. I actually tried out a few different IDEs when I first started but GM was simple enough that I was immediately seeing the results of my effort. Within minutes I was dropping in graphics and GML was so simple that coding felt natural.
TechRaptor: How have your skills in things like photography and videography translated into the art for Orphan?
Brandon: Though there are certainly more important things to a good game than graphics I’ve always been a sucker for games that looked and sounded good and produced a certain atmosphere and feeling. Photography is about the same thing really, you’re trying to compose a scene with the right subject, foreground and background elements fused together by lighting in just the right way to tell a story and evoke an emotional response. Basically I build each scene in Orphan as if I’m building a photograph and I’m building it mostly with parts of other photographs so really it just falls together. The silhouette style allows me to easily blend an variety of images that might not mesh well together in full lighting conditions. Reducing things to their shapes solves a lot of the problems of trying to make a somewhat naturalistic looking scene into a 2D game level.
TR: You mention Limbo comparisons in your Kickstarter, and when talking about it with others they inevitably come up with that comparison as well when they see the art style. What would you say to those who compare the two, and were you inspired by Limbo’s artistic direction?
Brandon: The Limbo comparison doesn’t bother me at all. There was a point when one out of four comments about Orphan on Steam included the word Limbo. Only a few times has Orphan been called a direct “Limbo clone” which hurts but I shrug it off. I liked Limbo but not in any extreme way that would want me to pay it tribute through imitation. Actually the thing that Limbo done well that I’d like to imitate is the extreme tension it often pulls off. But visually, the silhouette thing just kind of happened when I was trying to make a night time scene and black just seemed to be the color to make things. From the first minute I saw it I knew it looked like Limbo and people would either hate it or love it for it, but I liked it and many months later now I’m too stubborn to add color to all that artwork just for the sake of making it different than Limbo.
TR: What interested you in creating a dark, post-alien invasion world where you play an orphan trying to survive the ruined wreck of where he lived?
Brandon: That gets to the point of it which is something I’ve never thought about a lot until now. Orphan is set in rural Appalachia but more specifically contains a lot of places from my hometown which in some ways is exactly as your question described a ruined wreck of where I lived. It’s a beautiful place and in a lot of ways for me personally a very dark place. My love for that place stole a lot of my life from me before I pretty much dropped everything and ran. Honestly never thought about it until now but’s that’s the story of Orphan.
TR: What do you believe differentiates Orphan from the numerous other Platformers out there?
Brandon: Honestly I don’t think about being different as much as I just focus on making something pulling from a lot of the stuff I enjoyed in the games I grew up playing. I love games with lots of items and weapons to play with, that use subtle storytelling through gameplay as opposed to interjected cutscenes and can pull of emotional highs and lows without intricate plot points. The games that stand out to me are different not because of a hook or a feature but because of the atmosphere and general feeling that I got from playing them that first time. I can go back and play Shadow of the Colossus a hundred times and will get sick and tired of crawling up the backs of giant furry statue creatures but every few months I will pick it back up because I genuinely “miss” that game and creating something like that in Orphan would be the only way I would feel that I made a good game and a unique game.
TR: Do you think the gaming industry relies too much on styles from movies or novels for getting across its story rather than develop its own ways of telling its story?
Brandon: A pet peeve of mine is games that stop in between every little event to display a cutscene and forcefeed a story. There is nothing immersive about doing that, and immersion should be a priority in any good game. The games that do it right let the story happen around the player while never interrupting gameplay. There is a big difference between being told a story and experiencing a story.
TR: Many action-platformers aim for a fast paced hack and slash style combat or shoot em style. What inspired you with Orphan to go with a more strategic, and trap heavy one? What do you think the strengths of it are?
Brandon: This part of the gameplay probably is inspired most by games like Another World and Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysey. Though it can be extremely rewarding to master a skill-based action game like a Contra or a Gradius V, there is something immediately rewarding to “outsmarting” or outright “pwning” an AI character through some clever use of the environment or some item or weapon you just found. I think a game with a series of these little moment as compared to one giant barrage of awesomeness is often the more memorable experience.
TR: Items in Orphan are a pretty diverse lot with several different sources of creation. How do you come up with them, balance them and make it all work as part of the game?
Brandon: That’s a hard one that I’m still working on and it will be a while before I get it right. The general idea is that where a weapon is good in one situation it must be useless in another. When the player receives a laser gun it might be awesome at first but it will bounce right off more heavily armored enemies later. Instead of just making a more powerful gun that leads to the player hitting the exact same button and playing in exactly the same way it’s more fun to introduce things like land mines that require a strategy change. But I also want every enemy to have different weaknesses as well as reward the player in different ways for exposing them. Additionally I do plan on throwing in a few extreme weapons players might enjoy during a second run through.
TR: You mention that there are lucid dream sequences – could you elaborate on how that will work within the game?
Brandon: I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but Orphan desperately misses his parents and the poor little guy could be severely traumatized and emotionally exhausted from the whole alien apocalypse thing.
TR: Poor Orphan. So I imagine that themes of abandonment and loneliness are going to be some of the key ones we explore throughout the game?
Brandon: I think Orphan will travel the themes of loneliness, despair and revenge.
TR: Why did you choose to fund your game with Kickstarter?
Brandon: I wanted to make a game that was of decent size and scope, at least for a single developer, and there is just no way to accomplish that working a full-time job and developing of the evenings. I have been working on Orphan roughly since the spring and here we are in 2015 and there is literally no end in sight. It has to be done full-time so I have to be able to keep the bills paid while I work on Orphan. As a first time developer I don’t expect a huge publishing company to have faith in me and throw large sums of cash at me so I am hoping that enough people don’t mind throwing just a few dollars at me at a time. Other people are doing it very successfully so it seemed like a viable option.
TR: Could you tell us about the preparation you did for your Kickstarter campaign, and how you think it’s gone so far?
Brandon: I didn’t prepare enough! My whole strategy was to simply get a variety of scenes prepared, make a video and put it out there. I wanted to be doing this in the fall but the fall came and went and the game wasn’t in the right place. By the time I got it to where I needed we were in the middle of winter which is the worst time to be doing crowdfunding according to everything I’ve read. As expected the backers have been coming in but in small numbers. We are barely on pace but that’s all I need… barely enough.
TR: What surprised you the most throughout this process?
Brandon: Learning about the indie development scene has been surprise after surprise. When I was younger and heavy into games this whole indie game thing didn’t exist and when it all started to emerge I was busy with work and family and my son had taken over the mantle as the gamer of the house. Now it seems there are thousands of people making games in every corner of the globe and so many of them are successful at making a living from it and are very supportive of other developers. It’s a very open, inviting and encouraging scene.
TR: What do you think is the thing most misunderstood about game development from outsiders?
My family and friends think I must be some kind of genius because I can “program computer games.” I remind them I am making Orphan with software originally designed to teach children how to develop games. What has NOT been easy is figuring out the financial side. After publishers and the platforms that they publish on take their cuts a developer can make surprisingly little. Many developers have made raising your own funds on Kickstarter look easy but that has been surprisingly hard as well. I’ve been solicited by easily two dozen crowdfunding marketing companies who claim they can help but it’s hard to know who you can trust and how you can pay for it. Doing it alone has been an overwhelming battle and not one that I’m completely sure I will come out the victor.
TR: Anything else you want to add?
Brandon: I am extremely grateful for the attention Orphan has received from the indie community. Regardless the outcome of the Kickstarter campaign I’ve made a lot of new friends that have given me a lot of great little moments. It’s been a lot of fun hearing people’s thoughts, both good and bad, about something I’m working very hard on.
We’d like to thank Brandon for taking time in the middle of his Kickstarter to talk with us. If Orphan interests you – and if you like Platformers it probably does – you can check it out on Kickstarter now!