I have a personal rule during Steam sales. I only buy games that were on my wishlist before the sale started. During this past Steam Summer Sale I was blasting through my discovery queue in order to earn stickers (which turned out to be surprisingly disappointing; quite the waste of time), and I happened to pause on a gladiator game with pixel art. I'm a sucker for gladiatorial combat, so I lingered on the game's page for just long enough to convince myself that I could break my purchasing rule just this once.
That game turned out to be Domina, and Domina turned out to be rad. I started telling people about the game, and someone mentioned to me that the whole game, music, graphics, programming etc was all the result of the work of one man. While an entire playthrough of Domina only takes about two hours, I'm still hooked on the game even after numerous (mostly failed) playthroughs, and after poking around a bit I found out that bignic, the one man show that is DolphinBarn, has been making games, prototypes, and some pretty rad music for quite a while. I decided to reach out to him in order to find out a little bit more about the work he does, and to ask some questions about one of the best games I've played this year.
TR: Please introduce yourself for our readers who may not be familiar with you and your work.
bignic: I’m bignic, a musician and game developer based in Ontario, Canada. Recently released the game “Domina” on Steam.
TR: Are you able to create games and music full-time, or are these side projects as you get time?
bignic: I am a full-time creative, yes. Dedicated to several side projects which all have become full-time projects.
TR: As a one-man dev team, what's the biggest hurdle?
bignic: Space-time. If you can get around that, you’re set.
TR: Do you set timeline and milestones during your work, or do you approach it with a more laid back attitude?
All of my projects began as “what if” scenarios and prototypes so, that’s usually very laid back. If it reaches the point of maturity (that is, it holds my interest and seems to be interesting to other people also) then it starts to require boundaries, deadlines, deliverables, organization. As a project grows, it needs more and more of those regulations and if you don’t approach it very dogmatically, imo, the project won’t get done.
TR: You've worked on a few games that seem to have stalled out in their development. What do you look for in a project that determines whether you will stick with it until completion?
bignic: Time and money, previously. I didn’t think I could produce the shepherd game because the scale of what I had imagined was immense. So I decided a simple pixel art gladiator game would be fun and probably only take about 6 months to prototype and release..... 2.5 years later... FFFFFFF
TR: In addition to games, you also produce music. Do put a specific emphasis/are you more passionate about one over the other?
bignic: Its like picking a favorite child... They’re both unique in their challenges and rewards.
TR: How does doing music for games compare to doing it for other mediums?
bignic: I’m not sure I’ve done enough outside of games to really comment. In my experience, they’re the same thing – tell a story with bleeps and bloops.
TR: Did you draw on your personal life for inspiration for the theme of Corporate Lifestyle Simulator?
bignic: Of course.
TR: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like I can hear inspiration from famous game soundtracks in some of your music. (I hear the Doom theme in the call of duty for example). How big of an influence musically have games been for you?
bignic: Hard to tell. Perhaps 100% influential.
LTTP (The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past) seems to have ingrained a heroic archetype soundtrack on me such that when I find myself in stressful/challenging situations if I can summon the boss battle music in my head I’m like, fuck it I got this I just might have to do it seventy times. Mario Paint had a particular song that, if you listened to it with the right piece of shit TV, where you could smell the static charge coming off the thing... I’m pretty sure would spontaneously enlighten people. Maybe I just really liked ambient drones as a kid. Who knows.
TR: Moving on to Domina specifics:
Where did you get the idea for Domina? Did the theme help germinate the idea for the game, or did you pick a theme to fit what you wanted to create mechanically?
bignic: I was riding a recumbent bike watching Spartacus and just saw the little pixel dudes fighting and was like “yeah ok, I’d play that.” I’d like to think it grew into its own thing from day one onward, however.
TR: How did the Early Access period for the game work out for you? Is it something you would recommend to other devs?
bignic: We did a closed alpha basically and rushed through a somewhat closed beta that we opened up more and more closer to launch.
I think it was a good model and I think it could work, it was just too compressed a time scale for me to do it successfully with the amount of bugs that started to crop up.
TR: Originally, Domina didn't have a save feature. Can you explain your reasoning for not including one from the get-go?
bignic: Are you comfortably seated?
I’m not a huge gamer. I own probably a dozen video games? I play zero of them regularly. The one closest to Domina, in terms of play time or mechanics is FTL. I’ve literally never saved a game in FTL and I didn’t know that was even possible. It simply didn’t occur to me that the game really needed it.
When the issue came up during beta (even when users were pretty adamant that it needed a save feature) I had this unfortunate rationalization that if they couldn’t get 2 hours of free time to play the game, then how could I ethically even sell it to them? How could I say “yes play my game in small increments even though your life clearly needs attention?”So I found myself in an unfortunate rationalization hole where I was “looking out for the interests of people who couldn’t get 2 hours of free time to play the game,” but I was doing it in a way that was completely contrary and incompatible with how they needed to be helped.
In addition to that, there was such vitriolic hate about such a small oversight that I lost my bearings – how have I found myself at the end of death threats and wishes of cancer again, because of a game?
I couldn’t have figured it out for myself, and I didn’t. But the solution is this: people wanted to love the game and I was blocking them from it. And of course that’s totally obvious from the outside but hindsight...
TR: I'm certainly glad you added the ability to save, as I rarely get 2 uninterrupted hours to game. Will the vitriol and insults that you've received make you shy away from creating games in the future?
bignic: Nah, we’re not turning the car around just cause the kids are being restless.
TR: You are obviously motivated to make games, but you state that you aren't that in to games. These two things seem like they should be exclusionary of one another. Can you explain why you aren't more into games? Is it because there aren't more games that interest you? Have your interests simply changed over time? How big of a role does the harassment that you've received factor in?
bignic: I love games, I just cant be satiated by consuming other people’s vision alone. In order to feel happy I need to be manifesting my own. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with only being a consumer of games (consider the vast majority of gamers) likewise, I don’t think it should be strange for someone to predominantly want to create rather than consume them. I can’t really articulate why that is, other than: the creative firehose is not under my control – when it says “get up and write some music” I gotta bounce. Games are great and they inspire me a lot, but if you sit down and *consume* rather than dance when you’re inspired, its like telling inspiration “go away.” ... Never tell inspiration to go away!I don’t think the harassment I’ve received online is even on the top ten list of awful stuff to happen to me. Its not indicative of the average person and even if it was, it doesn’t change the basic seed of the problem which is that people see something that looks like it will elevate their mood, and if they can’t access it, they behave in the most accessible way they can just to get the problem solved as fast as possible. Tweet. Forum post. Swear word. It’s the “alarm” bell for neighboring humans that something has gone wrong – “this product disappoints and its left me feeling outraged. Don’t go near it.”
It’s a perfectly valid response, it's just upsetting. If we add another piece of carapace to our mental armor every time someone stabs us, we’ll be shrouded in a tomb of our own defenses, completely unable to sense the world for fear of those stabs. And ultimately if all of those pieces of armor aren’t stopping the stabs anyway, fuck it! Better to let the mind run around free and naked; nimble.
TR: Domina has built in Twitch integration. Was that integration part of your original plan for the game? Do you feel that the time spent on the integration has been worthwhile?
bignic: It was not an original part of the game, it just grew organically out of the fact that I’ve lurked on twitch for the past 2 years and wanted to include people in what I was doing. I think the integration has been worthwhile. It’s not a perfect system at all, but having heard enough feedback echoing “this is Twitch integration done right” is fulfilling.
TR: In Domina, in order to directly control your gladiators you need to research 'Mind Control', and the game plays out extremely differently (for me at least) depending on whether you choose to use it or not. Was the original idea for the game to have the fights be 100% AI controlled?
bignic: Originally it was ambiguous. During most of development I couldn’t really tell if it would be only one way or another. Of course I had to have manual control for testing anyway, so that seemed appropriate to leave in. And AI was always going to be necessary so... I think its finally gotten to the point (with the latest beta 1.0.53) that the AI behavior is actually interesting enough for it to still be fun.
TR: Why did you stick Mind Control into the research tree instead of just making it a player choice from the jump?
bignic: I have no explanation.
TR: How does the AI progression work? What does the AI do to get 'better' at fighting?
bignic: 1) as skill increases, the AI will be able to react more QUICKLY. The latency between deciding “I want to do X” and the input controls being activated (basically the AI’s keyboard/mouse) starts at about 60 ms. This means, a decision to avoid an enemy strike will take at least 60 ms for the character to react. As his skill goes up, that latency approaches zero. So a fully trained AI will react instantly to an incoming attack and will thus be more successful at evading/blocking it.
2) as skill increases, the AI will be able to react with an evasive maneuver more and more OFTEN. That is, he can detect a shitty situation and avoid it more often. Low skilled AI players will not evade/block/juke very often at all. In contrast, highly skill dudes will react very often.
TR: There is quite a bit of humor sprinkled throughout the game, and some of them are subtle and easy to miss. Did you intentionally add those things to specifically lighten the tone for the player, or are they there more for your own amusement?
TR: Is Domina "finished" or do you plan to implement any changes or features in future patches?
bignic: 53 patches since launch. Lots of new stuff.
TR: Do you have any plans to bring Domina to consoles?
bignic: Still thinking about which ones. Not settled on doing any for sure, yet.
TR: Do you have any specific "thing" that you'll be adding to Domina in the future, whether via request of just because you feel that it needs to be addressed, that we can list (or hint at)?
bignic: Always afraid to hint at what I’m working on, in case the prototype should fail. But currently working on some voxel-based content...
TR: Do you have any tips for new players firing up Domina for the first time?
bignic: Be kind.
TR: What's next for you?
bignic: Maybe trying to turn my novel into a film.
TR: Do you want to add anything else, make any statements or give any kind of outtro?
bignic: Stay gold, Pony Boy.
thanks for reaching out, bignic
I'd like to thank bignic for taking the time to answer all of our questions. Domina is excellent, and I can't recommend it highly enough. Even full priced the game can be snagged for only $10, so do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. If you are interested in getting your hands on bignic's music, you can pick up the Domina soundtrack on Steam as well, and you can find a ton more of his music over on Bandcamp.
One last thing: if you aren't well pleased with the state that a game is in, there are numerous ways to get in touch with the people behind the game, especially smaller companies like DolphinBarn, in order to provide feedback and voice concerns. I understand that the Internet is a digital wild-west, where just about anything goes and nothing is stopping you from coming at people, emotions first, with bile and nastiness, but maybe, just maybe, it might benefit everyone more in the long run if we tried to approach each other with kindness first every now and then.