Danilo Cagliari

Midian Design

Posted by Philip Davies.
First posted on 20 October 2011. Last updated on 30 January 2013.
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Danilo Cagliari
Danilo Cagliari is the founder of the independent Italian game development company Midian Design.
Danilo Cagliari
Danilo Cagliari
Danilo Cagliari
Danilo Cagliari

The following interview was originally conducted in part in Italian. It was translated to English and edited.
Odissea - An Almost True Story is the second game released by independent Italian software developer Midian Design. The game retells the story of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. The game is characterized by a quirky and irreverent sense of humor and contains a counterculture subtext. With Quantumnauts: Chapter I already released and Doc Apocalypse currently in production, Midian Design is a company that seems to be going from strength to strength.

We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Danilo Cagliari, the founder of Midian Design. In the interview, Cagliari reveals the history of his company, his personal motivations behind becoming an indie game developer, his passion for adventure games, and what adventure game fans can expect from his company.

Check out our exclusive gallery of previously unpublished concept and production art from Odissea - An Almost True Story and Doc Apocalypse!

What made you want to become an indie game developer? What prior experiences did you have that prepared you for your current work?

I've had a passion for it since I was a teenager when I first played masterpieces by Lucasfilm and Sierra. My first experiences of development were on the Amiga, but it was hard to find a good system with which to build games, so I stopped for a few years. Many years later I discovered AGS (Adventure Game Studio) and this helped me to rediscover my desire to create and illustrate stories. I learned the basics of programming and produced Quantumnauts, the first adventure game by Midian Design. I wanted to keep faithful to the experience of those games that I liked when I was 17 years old. Now I'm 37, and I still try to make the same kind of games, but with better graphics and music. I'm not a fan of dubbing voices, because an unconvincing voice can really damage the credibility of the product.

What is the history behind Midian Design as a game development company?

As I've said, it started with a simple desire to create stories. I also wanted to build my games without outside help, relying only on excellent beta testers and capable translators. I've learnt over the years that I don't want to work as part of a team. Some people are lucky to find suitable partners to work with. Others complete the work with only a little help, preferring to complete most of the work on their own. Midian Design games are completed like this. I have great testers. Three people help with the testing: a very active user of AGS forum called Arj0n, a great guy called Pan, and Flavio Soldani. Finally, Paul Giaccone translates the games into English. I consider all of these people part of Midian Design, and without them the games would never be finished.

What are your all-time favorite adventure games? How have these games influenced your own games?

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and the first incarnations of Monkey Island are among my favourites. I appreciate other games for the emotions they gave me such as Darkseed with the works of Geiger. Cruise for a Corpse was brilliant for the period. The first Sam & Max or Leisure Suit Larry and Another World also inspired some of my graphics. In my games I try to capture the humour of indie games, the paradoxical situations that Guybrush of the Monkey Island series finds himself in, and I aim for a gameplay where you can not die or end up in a dead end. Quantumnauts was not a perfect game, but I learnt from the feedback I received and went on to develop Odissea. Again, I have listened to the feedback and put what I have learnt into Doc Apocalypse. It's impossible to create a product that pleases everyone. The important thing is to grow by using the constructive criticism you receive.

What inspires the themes of your games?

I am a lucky person because, at 37 years old, I can appreciate the many nuances in different genres. When you are a teenager, you tend to have narrow tastes. Now, I can appreciate music ranging from classical to black metal, a gossip blog or a treatise on quantum mechanics, Monsters, Inc. or The Book of Eli. And I'm not a dinosaur in terms of video games! I look forward for Skyrim, I play Rift, and I appreciate titles like GTA, Dirt, or Fallout. I could talk for hours about my inspirations, which are many. That's why you find characters as different as Bob Marshal and Ulysses or Luis P. Higgins in my games. You may also have noticed some common themes in my games. I'm a fan of exopolitics and counterculture. I read a lot by Sitchin, Icke, and Malanga. You see the influence of this in Ulysses and Doc Apocalypse when you meet aliens who reveal secrets about the secret masters of the world. The thing I love most is to present a story that appears to have a specific plot, but then suddenly everything changes, just like it happens in everyday life sometimes.

Much of the story in Odissea - An Almost True Story draws from Homer's epic poem the Odyssey. What attracts you most about Greek mythology?

Absolutely nothing! Ha ha, I know it sounds unbelievable, but I'm not very fond of that type of story. I'm more attracted to trying to understand what is really behind ancient civilizations like the Egyptians or the Mayans and the origin of their gods. I'm a fan of the Discovery Channel and the History Channel. One evening I saw a documentary on The Odyssey, and I thought it might be a good story on which to make a game in style of Monkey in which I could show aliens interfering in a world full of despotic gods. I am always very happy when I receive emails from people who like my games or when I read positive reviews.

How difficult was the language localization from Italian to English in Odissea - An Almost True Story? To what extent were parts of the game's dialog "lost in translation" during localization?

My translator Paul Giaccone is of Italian-English descent, so he always does a good job. During the drafting of the games, I always try not to use idioms that are difficult to translate, and I always try to think about how things might sound in English. Sometimes, I have to sacrifice comedy in favor of the translation, but it happens rarely. Along with Paul's ability, this makes it possible to produce a really good translation, as many reviews have pointed out.

To what extent do you think that the mobile and console platforms are viable development platforms for indie adventure games? What plans, if any, do you have to expand to these platforms?

I have no plans in this regard. I developed Midian Design around AGS and Plimus as platform for selling the games online, so at the moment I'm not interested. I do not think many people would be interested in playing 90s' adventure games on an iPhone. However, in the future, anything is possible.

What are the most common mistakes that indie adventure game developers make in their games? What lessons in game development have you learned from making your own adventure games?

I can't really think what errors they would make, and I don't really like criticizing what others do. That's why I don't agree with many reviews that I read in various fields such as music, movies, or video games. Often, the reviewer's opinion is very cynical and subjective, without asking what the intentions of the artist were. When I am faced with a purely retro product that goes boldly against the trend and is without ambitious special effects, I do not criticize it. Today, people on the internet just like to disparage things without reason. Many products are criticized, and only very few are praised. These days, a band is evaluated for 30 seconds on MySpace, a movie by the trailer on YouTube, a book by a quick impression of some friend on Facebook. Excuse my digression, but I wanted to explain why I do not like talking about the work of others in critical terms. However, I can tell you what I have learned. I learned not to listen to stupid criticisms, but only to those who are constructive. For example, the main criticism made to Quantumnauts was the speed of the character, so I've made Ulysses move much faster in Odissea. The interface in Odissea has been criticized, especially how it keeps disappearing, so I've made improvements to the interface in Doc Apocalypse. It is clean, functional, and always visible. Generally, I listen to the criticism from people who have completed my games. They explain what they liked and what gave them trouble. I listen to them, and then of course, I thank them.

To what extent were your game projects a solo effort? How much hired help did you use in these projects?

As I explained before, I prefer to develop things by myself. Fortunately, I have the ability and experience to work on all aspects of my games. I like doing it that way. But then the work could not be completed without the beta testers and translators. They do an excellent job. I could not ask for more from them.

What advice can you offer to gamers who are considering a career in indie game development? What are the major business challenges they will likely face early on in this career?

Before I talk about how the internet can be negative, I want to say that it can be useful too! Around the world there are millions of potential customers who would like to buy your product and you can reach them via the internet. The difficult thing is becoming well known for what you do. I do not believe in the adage "No matter if they talk good or bad about me, as long they talk about me." It is important to get known, but it has to be in the right channels. You have to be patient too. It will take time to get a good reputation. You should also be wary. The world is full of charlatans: people who pose as journalists just to get your product for free or who ask for money to make you famous. Do your research and decide for yourself the best way to advertise. Don't try to be a rock star. Maintain a dialogue with those who buy your games. This is what I have learned so far, but I would like to emphasize once more: be patient. Without patience you will never achieve your goals.

What do you see in the future for the adventure game genre? Why is there a recent resurgence in popularity for retro adventure games?

There is an excellent market for adventure games. There are a lot of gamers in their thirties and forties who love the games of the past, but there are not a lot of fourteen-year-olds gamers who are interested in them though. I do not exclude the possibility that a teenager might have an interest in old games, of course. After all, Led Zeppelin continues to sell! There are some really good forums, and AGS is a great springboard for creating games. It takes time to reach people, but there are many gamers who want adventure games. Today, people sell a lot of games through platforms like Steam and a lot of independent software companies are getting well known. It's a great time to be an adventure game developer. You just have to deal with piracy, but a low price can help with that.

What plans lie in the future for Midian Design?

Doc Apocalypse will be finished for Christmas 2011. After that I'll be working on Oz Orwelll and The Crawling Chaos, and then for Christmas 2012 I'll finish the conclusion of Quantumnauts. I'll be spending much of my time on producing these games. I recently posted a "making of" video of Doc Apocalypse (http://www.youtube.com/user/mdmidiandesign). I was asked several times how to make games, and since I have no secrets, I produced a movie in which you see the various stages. Doc Apocalypse will be about the end of the world, aliens, Area 51, and how many secrets are kept from the world's population, but it will be done with the characteristic humour of Midian Design, and with even more unpredictable twists! Oz Orwell will draw inspiration from movies and TV productions such those about ESP, paranormal activity, and haunting. It may remind you of Cruise for a Corpse. There will be less room for humour. It will be a horror game, closer to the atmosphere of Hitchcock rather than a splatter movie. The suspense will be created by what you don't see and the music, rather than a shapeless heap of red pixels. And with "Black Hole Happens!" (also known as Quantumnauts 2), our heroes will experience the ultimate adventure.

I'd like to thank you for your time. I hope we meet again for the release of Doc Apocalypse.

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