Javier Giménez from 11 bit studios was kind enough to talk about Moonlighter – the team’s game with pixel art in Unity which has been recently released for Switch.
We are based in Valencia, the third largest city in Spain, by the mediterranean sea. We started 5 years ago as a game development service company, called BraveZebra (still very important to us). As BraveZebra we have worked on over 50 game projects of all types, platforms, and genres, that allowed us to gain experience. Regarding how we got into the game development, well, different people in the team have probably different reasons but we all love video games. Personally, I developed my first game (a quiz game, in basic) when I was 11 years old, and I always wanted to be a game developer so, after spending some years in more “serious” businesses I decided to launch a game studio.
While working for customers as BraveZebra, we always dreamt of developing our own projects, we used to do some prototypes in the “free time” and Moonlighter was the first of those prototypes that became something serious and bigger because we really liked the concept. It was both a creative aspiration and a business ambition. The game concept for Moonlighter came from internal brainstorming and a democratic voting of ideas. David Fernandez, the creative director of the game, came up with this concept about a shopkeeper that dreamt of being a hero that we all loved. It had a lot of influence from games we were playing at the moment like Rogue Legacy and The Binding of Isaac and from games we have always loved like the Zelda series.
People seem to like how the game looks, and we are super happy about it. We love pixel art, and, back in the day, it felt easier than trying to do 3D (we were wrong!). We drew influence from traditional 16bit era pixel art and also from modern indie games with awesome art like Hyper Light Drifter.
In terms of production, we use Aseprite for most of the sprite work and animation. We really invested a crazy amount of hours trying to add little details here and there and we hope that’s perceived by the player. We wanted the world to feel alive through small details, just like the movies of Studio Ghibli which we love.
Animations take a lot of time, we are especially proud of the boss intros, our artists have done an incredible work. Some of our artists, specially Odei Pagola, had a strong background in traditional 2D animation, it took us some time, and many conversations to make that work with the feeling that you want as a player moving Will around, but we feel it worked pretty well. I must say that 2D is also a limitation, if you want to add more weapons or armors to Moonlighter, you need to create a crazy amount of sprite, in 4 views! So, maybe we’ll look at different styles in the future.
Technically, the game is built in Unity and, modern engines and also the power of modern computers, allow us to do stuff inside pixel art that couldn’t be done in the SNES a PC VGA game, in the game there are things like custom shaders, mesh deformations that look like pixel art, camera post-processing, etc.. that add a lot to the look of the game and couldn’t be done back in the day. There is no dynamic lighting (it can be done in Pixel art, and there are some games that do this really well) we use the superposition of sprites to give the impression of light (for example in Rynoka during the night).
Taking the game into Switch
I would say it has been just as difficult as the other consoles, no more, no less. Unity helps a lot but, at the same time, there are a large number of small things that you need to worry about so, it’s a lengthy process (including debugging, platform services integration, passing certification, etc..). Overall, it’s worth it if your game is good for the platform (Switch, or any other). Essentially the process is getting in touch with the 1st party (Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony) getting the Devkits, working to make your version ready to attempt a certification (lots of boxes to check here), fail certification, address the issues and then, fingers crossed, pass certification and be ready to set a release date. There is a lot of work to do, and our publisher 11bit has helped a lot in this process.
It’s a countless number of challenges, making games is hard, and making your first game, for many platforms, even harder. We made many many mistakes, and we hope to learn from them. I would say the harder part was trying to sustain the company financially working for customers as BraveZebra while developing Moonlighter, things were tight, but we were able to make it. The most exciting is the day of release when you realize people actually like the game, it’s an amazing feeling and an immense sense of relief (as a business too).