bilderundworte: Hi American, thanks for taking the time to answer a few of our questions.
American: No problem. Thank you, for providing space for me to talk about our company and projects :)
bilderundworte: First of all congratulations for your successful kickstarter campaign. How do you feel?
American: Tired but happy! It was a wild ride throughout the campaign. Going into it I don't think we really had any idea how consuming it would be. Between myself and our Marketing Manager, we were pouring 24+ hours per day into it, pushing new updates, interacting with the backers and making constant improvements to the rewards and goals. Now that it's over I feel like we won a war and learned a lot of interesting things along the way.
bilderundworte: You founded Spicy Horse Games in Shanghai in 2006. Why Shanghai?
American: I've maintained a fascination with Asia going back to my first visit to Japan in the late 90's. From that moment I knew I wanted to spend more time in the region, so when I was presented an opportunity to move to Hong Kong I jumped on it without hesitation. From there, it was a short leap to Shanghai, where I helped a friend establish an art outsourcing business. While doing that and exploring the mainland I noticed a distinct lack of independent development – all game production was split between either Western outsourcing or local Publishers who focused on the China market exclusively.
My thought was that by establishing an independent development studio with a focus on original/unique content we'd be able to provide an environment for some of the best talent in the region to express their ideas. 6+ years later and we're still going strong... seems the idea was a good one!
bilderundworte: What’s the biggest difference working in Asia from developing games for a "Western" market?
American: There's a lot less than you might imagine. The reality is that game development is a global industry where, regardless of your geographic location, you're using similar tools and production methods – and you're relying on a team of highly skilled people who fill “standard” roles.
I've found that “communication” is an issue with all development teams, wherever they are in the world. The fact that our team has natural communication barriers and a few minor cultural differences actually helps to amplify the emphasis we put on these things. In that sense, the challenge makes us better and that's one of the things I really love about working here.
bilderundworte: Most Asian games (I know) are strongly influenced by a very "clean" and mainstream anime style. Though Akaneiro picks up a lot of Japanese culture and folklore it is very different visually. Is this your personal touch? And how does this kind of artwork sell in Asia or/and internationally?
American: I think it's dangerous to generalize “most Asian games,” since Western gamers have really only ever been exposed to Japanese games (on console). There's a huge amount of diversity in art styles across the region – and within a given country like China you'll find variations on top of that.
As for the art in Akaneiro, the primary influence was traditional Japanese art. It's something you'll also see in a game like Okami, because they also used that traditional style as their foundation. This certainly isn't my touch – but a collective collaboration between the initial concept, our art department and the project's lead, Ben Kerslake. The first time we dabbled with this style was in “Alice: Madness Returns,” where we presented an entire domain in “Asian style.” Using the lessons learned from that (both artistic and technical), we were able to present the art style you see in Akaneiro.
bilderundworte: How do you generally go about the concept of artwork to achieve your vision?
American: Our developments are organic group processes. We work from an initial theme, which might be mine or someone else's, start generating piles of concept artwork, then push that towards 3D/animation and in-game testing. It's an iterative process where certain directions are abandoned, lessons are learned and the final result reflects a communal expression.
With Akaneiro a lot of the day to day direction was provided by the project's Creative Director, Ben Kerslake and his creative partner, Matt Razzano.
bilderundworte: You put a lot of effort in the game’s weapon and armour designs. The kickstarter movie showed huge tableaus of various styles for Katanas, axes and so on plus very detailed Samurai armour or even Western costumes. Where did you go for research and inspiration for the game’s visual and historical background?
American: The project leads spent a lot of time researching Japanese traditional artwork, weapons and clothing. They did this online and with illustrated guides which were purchased in Japan.
bilderundworte: What can you tell us about your personal fascination for (Grimm’s) Fairy Tales and your approach of mixing them with Eastern themes.
American: My fascination with fairy tales derives mainly from their shared origins and history, which is tightly woven with our own origins and histories as human beings. Fairy tales often contain our most basic fears and common lessons in social behavior. These lessons transcend cultural boundaries because their origins lie in times prior to written narrative, prior to the separation of men into distinct tribes. By exploring these themes we can tap into powerful subconscious mechanisms that continue to shape our world today. With Akaneiro in particular, it's an exploration of man's relationship with nature – and an exegesis on the need for balance.
bilderundworte: As an independent developer and publisher how hard do you find putting your games on the market sucessfully? (Big publishers generally have a huge PR-budget, which I’m, guessing you don’t have.)
American: Certainly our biggest challenge beyond making great games is making people aware of them. We do spend towards marketing [and] PR, but generally rely on word of mouth and the audience power of specific platforms to drive engagement. We also align ourselves with publishers in key territories where we lack local market expertise or language ability. As we grow in size (and success) we'll increase our self-publishing efforts accordingly.
bilderundworte: First time I heard of Akaneiro was shortly before the end of the kickstarter and Open Beta and the last kickstarter days seemed rather "calm" – compared to some other projects I’ve witnessed and backed before, where update-e-mails came flying in literally by the minute. Are you really this cool to just "watch and wait"?
American: Towards the end of the campaign I felt it was largely out of our hands. The existing backers and Kickstarter platform were either going to help us get there – or not. My sense was to avoid spamming people with tons of unwanted messages – so I tried to keep it light and fun by sending some of the final messages from my Boston Terrier, Lulu. She sent out several messages from DOG, which people seemed to enjoy.
bilderundworte: For players - or potential players - the artwork is probably a major aspect to take a first glance at a game. But there’s a lot of „hidden“ technology, too (if you’re not a games developer). So what was the greatest technical challenge when developing Akaneiro?
American: For all of our recent games we've had to deal with two primary challenges. First off, we're pretty good at developing and delivering the core game, on spec and on time. Where we struggled first was with the online/client-server technology. Then we've had challenges related to adopting and integrating the Free to Play model. We want to avoid F2P mechanics that feel like they exploit players – while at the same time doing enough to put some food on our table. For this, it's an ongoing learning process.
bilderundworte: There are a lot of things on your agenda for Akaneiro like Android, iOS Tablet and Linux Versions or Co-op multiplayer and Improved Community Support. What will be the next steps now that the kickstarter campaign was a success?
American: Here in Shanghai we're heading into Chinese New Year, a period of roughly 15 days where nearly 300 million people will return to their home towns around the country. It's the largest human migration on the planet! That means we won't start planning next steps in detail until after the holiday – but in general we're going to start work on adding new features like co-op and crafting. Tablet porting and Linux support will also get going – but we expect those things to take more than 2 months before we can deliver them. The first 2 months will be spent simply updating our outdated UI system. [UI=user interface]
bilderundworte: You’ve been part of the industry for quite a while now. 20 years is a lot of experience in gaming. What has changed for you in these 20 years. What’s your favourite change?
American: I'm really happy to see mobile and online gaming emerging as alternate platforms to console [or] retail. More distribution options can only mean more creativity – which is a good thing for developers and consumers. Beyond that, I'm really looking forward to see hardware updates to basic I/O ... for example, head mount displays like Oculus Rift* or Google Glasses**. These devices hold the key to unlocking all new innovations in game design.
bilderundworte: Thanks a lot, American!
American: Thank you!
Our advice: Check out our feature on Akaneiro: Demon Hunters >>here, visit Spicy Horse >here, or, even better: sign on for Akaneiro >>right here.
(Interview Andrea Härtlein, © bilderundworte.de)