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We’ve talked with Chevy Ray Johnston about the production of Ikenfell – an indie RPG, which takes place in a school for witches & wizards.
I’m a west-coast Canadian boy. I come from the woods, but I moved to Vancouver because of the thriving game industry here, and have lived here for the past 6 years or so. I’ve worked on many, many games, mostly indie projects. Skullpogo, Fat Wizard, Chunkadelic, and Antidote are a couple of my games. I worked as programmer on some, artist on others, designer on all, and occasionally all roles. I’ve worked as a contract programmer for other game companies too. I was the coder for Zombocalypse 2, and I coded Pac Man Bounce for Bandai Namco (as well as developing the level editor used to create the game). I’ve worked on many various projects for Roadhouse Interactive, which is an awesome mobile game company out here in Vancouver.
Ikenfell has been a long time coming. I’ve had many false-starts on very, very similar RPG games, and have been wanting to make one like this for a long time. Usually something isn’t right: the art style doesn’t work out, I’m not happy with the mechanics, or the story isn’t compelling enough. Sometime late last year I read Rainbow Rowell’s amazing novel, Carry On, which is absolutely the most underrated school of magic story out there. As soon as I put the book down, it clicked, and me and my writing partner immediately started hashing out the plot and character designs for Ikenfell. Because of all the previous projects, I had the entire codebase I needed to jump right into developing it, which is why the entire thing came together so fast.
It’s just as relevant as moving around with a controller, pressing buttons to do things, jumping on platforms, and fighting bosses has always been. Some folks don’t like pixel art, or are mad (for some reason) that folks like me art making pixel games, but it’s what I love to do and what i’m most comfortable doing (nothing more to it), so we’re not going to stop. Especially not since there’s a massive, massive audience that absolutely loves games that look like this.
To me, especially now that it’s way easier to engage with niche audiences and provide them means of purchasing your games, it’s more relevant than it’s ever been before. A nobody like me can sell hundreds of thousands of copies of games to the very people that want it most. That’s awesome.
Is it difficult to work with such a limited number of pixels? Do you ever feel like these restrictions hurt development? Or maybe on the other hand these help you find some new exclusive solutions?
It’s difficult, but just in the same way that making game art is always difficult. Game art is hard because games are complicated, have a lot to convey, if you draw a player’s eye to the wrong thing, or design something wrong, it’ll be misinterpreted or teach the wrong lesson to the player. I’ve done a lot of 3D work on various games for mobile and that is always way, way more difficult than working with pixel graphics. With pixel graphics, the turnover is so fast that you can iterate over and over and over to get the perfect result. With 3D that takes immense amounts of paid hours, and sunk costs. I have nothing but respect for people who work in AAA, especially in the graphics department. Incredibly difficult work.
A question to Hunter Russell probably: how do you work on all those beautiful jumpy animations? Can you share some of the tools you’re using? What’s the perfect way to approach animation in these games? How do you make a animation really work in your project?
I won’t answer for Hunter, but there are lots of great animation tools out there. Aseprite seems to be the latest and greatest for pixel animations. I’m a scrub so I just use Photoshop. Creating great animations is an entire industry, art, and craft of its own, and many books the size of dictionaries have been written about the theory of it. Often wannabe animators will be encouraged to check out Animator’s Survival Kit, which is decent for learning some fundamentals.
Character design in your game is absolutely outstanding. Could you talk a little about the way you are building your characters? How do you come up with the outline, the particular features? How do you integrate that character inside the visual image?
Initially I create the small sprites. I have a template, and I have a huge Photoshop file where I designed like 300-400 different characters. Each one bends, warps, and stretches the template in different ways, so I get characters of different sizes, builds, weights, heights, colors, and postures. Once I’ve done that, me and my co-writer would go through all our hundreds of pages of writing and work out which ones we liked the most, which ones we thought would be a good vessel for their personality and demeanor. For the portraits, I also have a template, and I just keep editing them over and over and over again. Every time I feel like a character has developed more, I come back to the portrait and I see how I can carve it down, make it more unique, make it more them.
What’s the gameplay like in Ikenfell? What are the main mechanics here and how do you integrate them into the project? Is it more like a JRPG? Or more like an adventure?
It’s very much like a JRPG. You will explore the school, encountering students, teachers, creatures, monsters, and other various things. Battles are a massive mix of some of my favorite RPG games. So there’s a huge positioning element (Robotrek, Megaman Battle Network, Fire Emblem), a very simple numbering formula with different timed hits for various attacks (Paper Mario, Superstar Saga), and very expressive, unique animations that truly belong to the characters who own them (Fire Emblem, Paper Mario).
In Ikenfell, a character might be very unique. For example: Petronella is very nervous and scared, so she is very weak when she is on a tile alone, but a lot more powerful if surrounded by her friends. But this also puts you in a dangerous position or enemy area spells, so you have to be careful. Maritte is very responsible and concerned, so her spells actually do more damage if they hit enemies that are nearby your allies.
You don’t just attack, defend, and heal either. There are other magical spells you learn in school too, such as levitation, conjuring, invisibility, and teleportation that will all come into play when you battle. I’m sure you can imagine some of the uses for those spells.
It will be available for Windows and Mac on Steam, and also on Itch.io, but that will be awhile yet. I’d love to find a lovely slot somewhere in 2018 for release, so we’ll see.