Independent development in Australia has been going from strength to strength over the past few years and the PAXAUS Indie Pavilion serves to highlight some of the fantastic work being put out by local developers. Player2.net.au caught up with multi-award winning developer John Kane from Gritfish, creator of Killing Time at Lightspeed, to discuss his newly released game Mallow Drops.
Stephen del Prado: Hi John, great to meet you! How has the booth been running so far?
John Kane: It’s been great, people have jumped on, they’ve bought the pins! We pushed the button to go live on Steam this morning, so this has been three years of weekends, nights, and it’s done! I’m stoked, it’s all stable and good and running and I couldn’t be happier.
SDP: Is it a relief or is it kind of, a little bit sad as well? Are you kind of thinking “What next?”
JK: There’s definitely an aspect of what next, but I’m also going over to Paris for IndieCade Europe in two weeks, so I can’t relax and worry about…I can’t have my existential thing until after that because I still have to worry about going to Paris. After that though, I will probably just, like, sleep for a week I think and just….I’m running on pure adrenaline.
SDP: For people who might not know, how did you first get into development?
JK: So, a long time ago now, I used to make promotional games and websites for film and TV shows. When the Flash market sort of dropped out, I switched over to making front-end HTML based websites. I completely stopped making games and I ended up getting really unhappy with my work. I started going to Game Jams, joined IGDA Sydney, went to Beer and Pixels, started just making things again for myself in my spare time…
SDP: So those experiences reinvigorated you?
JK: Yeah! The community in Sydney is amazing and supportive. I wouldn’t have done this (motions to Mallow Drops stand) if it wasn’t for them. This has been weekends and nights for three years now. I took a break sort of in the middle to make a game called Killing Time At Lightspeed which just won a couple of AGDAawards which was amazing.
SDP: Not expected then?
JK: Um (pauses) I thought like maybe one? But, winning both of the awards that it was up for was a shock, especially because I panicked in my speech and had to go up a second time. Like, I really just wanted to sit down! (laughs)
SDP: (laughs) I guess the plus side is now you can put on your business cards ‘Award winning developer’?
JK: Well Mallow Drops won a design award last year, and…Australian game developers are really humble and don’t like talking about that, so I got bullied by everyone I know on Twitter until I put ‘Award-winning game designer’ on my card. So now they’re all bullying me to put ‘Multi-award winning game designer’ (laughs).
SDP: Where did the inspiration for Mallow Drops come from?
JK: OK, there is a game by a company called Die Gute Fabrik called Where Is My Heart? They went on to make JS Joust after that, but it’s a game where the screen is sort of split into little frames and the frames rotate around. It works completely differently to Mallow Drops, but I got so inspired by the trailer to that game that I tried to make something similar. It was broken and didn’t work – I kept plugging away at that and that eventually became Mallow Drops. The two games are very, very, very different but the starting point was just “That is a really cool thing! I wanna try and do something like it!”
SDP: Just a spark of something from that mechanic resulted in this? (points to Mallow Drops booth)
JK: Yeah! The movement of course comes from games like Chips Challenge, they use the sliding ‘til you hit a wall thing in Pokémon, it’s been in Zelda – that’s been around forever. But that and the falling block mechanic on top of the rotation from Where is My Heart?….there’s bits of every game I’ve ever played in this somewhere I’m sure.
SDP: I was going to say, the game at least to my mind, has a very soothing aesthetic, especially in the colour palette. Was that something you were consciously aware of through production?
JK: That was absolutely intentional. There are a lot of mobile games that have super bright colours and they’re all in your face and I tend to find those games really draining. Like they’re great, but they’re not for me, so I tried to make a game that has almost no interruptions. I’ve almost entirely removed the UI. The palettes are muted and chilled and the soundtrack that Meghann O’Neil and Joel Pearson did is soothing. It’s just a thing you can get into a flow state, like working something out because it is actually a puzzle game that you have to work out how it works. To have interruptions and distraction makes that….
SDP: You’re trying to reduce that level of frustration through other elements?
JK: Yeah, it’s reducing distraction more than anything and just letting people sit and chill with it.
SDP: What would you say was the most challenging part of the whole process to take Mallow Drops from concept to the finished product that has just launched?
JK: Probably dealing with…not exactly burnout, but almost like writer’s block with the levels. There’s a hundred levels of the game and they’re all different and all play with things differently and……..every single one of those almost had to start from a blank grid to come up with something. So I made random generators that would give me a starting point so it wasn’t just a blank page every time. But that was halfway through, like it helped me get to the end but I think that point where I decided to program an assistant to just like….”Hey, here’s random shapes to start with…”, that helped me get to the end.
SDP: It’s a bit of a dated reference, but it sounds a bit Mr. Squiggle-esque in that you get this little building block to start with and you think “OK, what if I put this here and move this over here?”
JK: It is exactly like that! You just have a shape to start with and then….it’s like looking at clouds, you see things in clouds because there’s shapes there.
SDP: You were at PAXAUS last year as well and I wanted to ask, has a presence at Cons had any effect on Mallow Drops at all?
JK: I had a girl just before you came up that had a pin from last year and she had said she was just like looking and waiting to see when this game came out. So yeah, there are people who play games at PAX who don’t read games press, who don’t look on the new releases on Steam, they just come here, they like a thing and buy it. There’s no way to reach those people other than just be here.
SDP: How are you feeling about the indie scene at the moment? A couple of years ago there was a lot of talk about the ‘indiepocalpyse’. To my mind, year over year it seems that the part of PAX that’s getting stronger and stronger is this indie section.
JK: Well, yeah PAX AUS is all about the indies. They treat us so amazingly well, and the Australian games scene…Australian games are just growing and growing. Film Victoria is funding a lot of stuff, Screen Queensland has just jumped on board as well.
JK: Hopefully we’ll see New South Wales and W.A coming on board. New Zealand as well has a lot of trouble getting funding. That’s boosting everything, but we’re making really cool stuff year after year and eventually we’re just going to need to reach a point where the thing we struggle with most is getting known outside of Australia. We have to shout really, really loud to even have a chance at being heard. I’ve been shouting about this game for three years and I’m exhausted. But, not everyone has the time or ability or the lungs to yell for three years and I think we need better ways to deal with that. That’s going to actually help grow the scene much bigger. The ‘indiepocalypse’ thing, is…yeah, there’s saturation, maybe. But, there’s not a saturation of great games except…you look around here (gestures to the many other indie booths in the PAXAUS Indie Pavilion) These are all great! They’re amazing! The stuff coming out of Australia is so unique and varied and like nothing else in the world.
SDP: Do you think some of that comes from some devs having nothing to lose? It’s their passion and they’re funneling all that in there?
JK: Oh no.
SDP: Or would you say the opposite is the case?
JK: I would say there are a lot of devs with a lot to lose. I…have less, because I have a day job, I do this weekends and nights. I am a very firm believer in finding however works for you to be sustainable and for me sustainable is “I have a day job and that lets me pay an artist and a composer to work on my game”. It keeps them fed, it keeps me fed, and at the end of the day, if the game goes terribly – which I’m really hoping it won’t – if it goes terribly, we’re all fine because we haven’t risked three years with no income for a share of a profit. I’ve had to make delays and cuts rather than work in a way that was unsustainable and I think what actually makes the Australian team different is, we all hang out. Everyone here running a booth pretty much knows three quarters of the other devs.
SDP: So it is a real community?
JK: Yeah! In Sydney, we get together for drinks every month. In Melbourne they do the same, in Perth.
SDP: Almost like a support group….
JK: (laughs) A support group for game developers. It is! I mean, I joke but it is, because slamming away on a computer all day every day is tiring and lonely work sometimes. Knowing there are hundreds of other people doing the same thing is great. It helps you get through when your game is just squares and it’s not finished yet. But if other game developers can go “Yeah, I don’t need to see the squares, I see the design under it, and it looks cool!”….There was a long time when Mallow Drops was squares, most games start off as broken….
SDP: Wireframes, mock-up that sort of thing?
SDP: And other devs will understand that whereas, at those points it’s hard to get feedback from the general public?
JK: Yeah, definitely.
SDP: If you had to do an elevator pitch for Mallow Drops, how would it go?
JK: Oh! The one sentence is…”Mallow Drops is a cute gravity puzzle game where two kiwis try and collect their eggs in a shattered world.”
SDP (laughs) Awesome. So after this you’re sleeping for weeks, no other prototypes you’re tinkering with or anything like that?
JK: Uh….Ok. I had to promise myself that I would stop doing side projects just so I could get things done. I have a list of about 12 games that I want to make after this one. Generally, I have a lot more ideas than I have time to do them so, if anyone follows me on Twitter, I will just tweet out for a day every idea I’ve written down like “Here’s everything I’ve been thinking about games-wise.” Occasionally they spark ideas and discussions and those are the ones that are in my bag of things that I’ll make after this, but I’m taking a break. I need a break after this. I need to look after my physical and mental health a lot more for a while, I think.
SDP: That’s fantastic because it’s something lot of devs need to think about a bit more.
JK: It is, and it’s something that…I mean, we have Checkpoint up there in the Diversity Lounge and they talk about games and mental health a lot. It’s really important not just players of games looking after their mental health but game devs need to actually work in ways that are sustainable not just financially but mentally and physically.
At this point in the interview, the booth was starting to get busy and I didn’t want to impose on John’s time anymore. As you can gather from the above exchange, he was a wonderful person to talk to. Mallow Drops is currently available on Steam, as is his previous title Killing Time at Lightspeed: Enhanced Edition. You can follow John on Twitter and also visit the official Mallow Drops website for more information.
Stephen del Prado