Mar 19, 2012

The Journey Down interview

SkyGoblin is much more than a brilliant name; it's a brilliantly named indie adventure-loving ensemble that has already given us one stunning freeware game, is frantically working on The Journey Down (HD) and is apparently more than capable of coming up (and -importantly- masterfully realizing) unique ideas. Here's the interview with multi-tasking artist, developer and producer Theodor Waern:

Let's start with the basics, shall we? Who are the people responsible for SkyGoblin? And why SkyGoblin?

We are two artists (me and Henrik), and two programmers, Mathias and Markus. We've been making games together as a group for over six years now. Me and Mathias have been fooling around with games together pretty much our entire life though. As a group we've built a bunch of different things. Our major project the past three years or so though has been our free-to-play mmo "nordgame". But we've also worked on a bunch of smaller advergames etc. to stay afloat commercially.

In the beginning of our time together as a group we were actually, for a short period, focused on making mobile games. Among them, we made (but never finished) an awesome little game called Baron's Gold. The premise was that a bunch of nasty sky-living Goblins had stolen the flying baron's loot, and you had to get it all back. This is from where the name SKYGOBLIN stems.

I take it you are adventure lovers that will be focused on adventures. Am I correct? Are there any non-adventuring projects waiting to be hatched?

We love games, but we also love stories. I think this is why we have a bias toward working on adventure games. They are simply a great mix of everything we love to work with. As for future projects though, I see no reason why we couldn't venture into all sorts of genres. We love gameplay design and have a lot of strange ideas we'd love to try out if we were given the opportunity.

The already brilliant visuals of the freeware version.

On to The Journey Down then; the original, freeware release. How would you describe it?

I'd describe it as a good flowing adventure that leaves a warm feeling of friendlyness and a thick feeling of there being something bigger and more sinister going on under the surface.

What were you aiming for?

Well, I aimed on making a game that featured all of the good things from the "golden era of point 'n' click" and none of the bad. People often have rose tinted memories of their old favorite games from back in the day. Fact is, they weren't perfect. They had tons of flaws. To be frank, the genre was still not really thought-through. Unintuitive interactions and illogical solutions were everywhere to be found. I like to think I pretty much succeeded in weeding out those issues and instead focused on those core things that truly make the genre fun.

Also, one of my primary goals in making the game was making a game that I would love to produce. And boy did I love to produce TJD.

Did you expect its overwhelming critical success and all those awards?

After having done quite a lot of testing on a rather large bunch of people, I knew I had something good going that worked on people in general and seemed to strike the right chords. I had certainly hoped to win some of those awards, but hadn't deared wish for that many.

Why did you decide to go with an African aesthetic?

I was raised in a home full of African masks and musical instruments, it has been with me all my life and it is something I've always wanted to explore. Besides it looks cool and has for some reason not really been featured that much in games.

The 2D beauty of the HD remake. 

What are you the happiest with? Is it the lovely graphics? The plot? The music? The dialog? The puzzles?

To me the greatest experience a game can give you is its ambiance -the vibe you get from playing a game. I am very happy with the vibe of TJD. Needless to say, the vibe is a result of everything combined. As an artist I was never really happy seeing my art mashed-up and go low-res the way it did in the original. Also, me making nice art was not news to me, me making good puzzles and story, this was something new. Also me actually producing the whole thing is something I'm very happy with. I will never again under-estimate the title "producer". It's easy to think of this as the role of someone who doesn't do any of the real work. But fact is, the producer is the one who makes sure it actually gets done. Needless to say, that's pretty important.

And why did you decide to go with a commercial remake?

Lots of reasons. My primary reason though was that I realized I desperately needed to turn TJD into my day job if I was ever going to find the time to actually keep on working on it. In becoming a father, my free time for working on hobby projects has now dwindled down to a steady zero hours per day. Making chapter two commercial was a no-go, there's way too little following. I figured the only way to make this work was to revamp chapter one on a bigger scale. Make it more accessible and raise the appeal further. More platforms, speech and more puzzles all add up to a better game, reaching a bigger audience. Hopefully we can make chapter one work commercially, so I can continue doing chapter two as my day job. If not, I'm just going to have to keep it tiny, and work on it on my own, which clearly works, but will wind up being crummier, and take five more years instead of the rough half-year I expect it to take if being produced here, at SKYGOBLIN.

What's new in the, uhm, new The Journey Down?

Most importantly, speech. It adds a TON of ambiance and depth to the characters. I'm not against reading, but theres's no way text can portray emotion the way a real voice actor can. It makes a huge differece in bonding with the characters. Secondly I'd say story. We've added quite a lot of backstory and new characters, puzzles and locations to make the game a longer, fuller experience that really does make the game worth playing even if you've already played the original. On third place I'd say the HD art. I personally -having painted it all- love finally seeing my background art the way I intended it to be. Sure, the original 320 resolution is cute and retro-y and all, but it still doesn't really do the artwork justice. Finally you can see all the detail and effort that has actually gone into creating this world. On top of that we have re-animated all characters 100% which also makes a huge difference. The original animations were desperate at best and I never really felt they were on par with the rest of the production. Now they are.

When should we expect it?

Depending on when our different distribution channels get a move on, my current guess is mid April, for the PC and Mac release. iOS and Android will follow some time during summer.

It's still episodic isn't it? How many chapters should we expect?

Yeah, this is still only the first chapter of four. It starts and ends where the original does, but we've squeezed lots o' new stuff in between.

Impressively and besides the PC, you are (as mentioned) also releasing it for Mac, iOS and Android. A wise choice indeed, but how difficult is actually porting the game over?

Fortunately we made the decision quite early in the process to make an effort to get the game out on as many platforms as possible. Having this in mind, we built our engine, Gobby, around this very premise. This has (so far) made the effort relatively pain-free. Getting it running on Mac was pretty much a piece of cake. Our Mac build is currently as up to date as our PC build and frankly also seems a bit more stable, for some reason.

Our main challenges on handheld so far have actually rather been interaction-wise. Some handsets are TINY, which has forced us to re-design quite a lot of hotspots and puzzles, to ensure that the player will actually be able to perform the desired interactions. I don't doubt for a second though that we will hit all sorts of technical obstacles before we actually have the iOS and Android builds up and running 100%, but all in all it is looking very promising. One potentially scary thing is performance though. One would think that a 2d point 'n' click title would be relatively non-demanding but with TJD this isn't really the case. We have tons of frames, lots and lots and lots of frames of animation that all need to be loaded into memory, fast. Getting that flow smoothly on all devices will no doubts be a challenge.

Do you feel that mobile platforms are well-suited to adventures?

Certainly. But the games need to be built for it to suit the format. Honestly, with a well designed UI, I have a hard time imagining any format working better for point 'n' clicks than tablets.

And what about the general state of adventure gaming? There's a renaissance going on, isn't there?

It certainly seems like it. With the sudden boom of affordable tablets and other handheld gaming devices, point 'n' clicks and similar puzzlers are bound to start flourishing again. Also, Android Market and the App Store are ideal places for small studios to launch experimental, high-risk games without having to bother with publishers, which at least in theory should allow for more interesting and quirky titles to reach the masses. If they'll (we'll) manage to get anything sold though, is a different matter entirely.

Also, Double Fine certainly put pnc's back in the spotlight again with their Kickstarter campaign, proving that there are indeed tons of people out there who are craving these kind of games. How us noname developers tap into that market though is anyone's guess. Being seen is incredibly difficult.

Finally and to let you work on actually crafting games, what does the future hold for SkyGoblin?

Hopefully our near future holds a successfull launch of chapter one of TJD, followed by us immediately getting down and dirty with the actual implementation of chapter two. We actually have quite a lot of chapter two worked out, it just hasn't been... produced. Frankly I hope to pretty much be able to focus on TJD until we finally wrap the whole thing up, but odds are we will have to break off a little now and then and work on other projects to keep us afloat. Financially solely living off of TJD seems pretty unlikely. Don't get me wrong, I expect people who play the game to love it. That however doesn't mean we will be able to reach out and make enough sales to live off of it during the entire production. Such is the tough world of self publishing. So likely we will be doing all sorts of haphazard contract jobs in between, somehow patching our economy together, as we have the past five years or so. We are used to it by now. Zero security, but it allows us to work with what we love.

After TJD, who knows? We have a million ideas and would love to see them all realized. Which one we end up playing with is too early to speculate about at this stage. It's pretty safe to say though that it wont directly involve mask-clad rasta people.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:


  1. Blog Narrator3/19/12, 4:40 PM

    Don't know how you do it, but once again, an excellent interview dear Gnome. Respect to Skygoblin for their dedication and resolve, inspiring.

  2. (Attempts to circumvent the security devices to the interview room, ends up with third degree burns....)


  3. Thank you both. Now, let me bring the new nurse in. She has to learn treating burns, doesn't she?

  4. Immediately downloaded the freeware version of TJD after reading your interview, and spent some pleasant two-and-a-half hours on it. Thanks for bringing the game to my attention (and ruining the latter half of my workday) ;-)...
    Will definitely have to have another look on the polished HD-version, though. Hope Theodor Waern is going be right about the replay value. :-)

    1. So glad you enjoyed TJD Frank! I too thought it was an exceptional offering. Can't quite wait for the HD version myself!