First posted on 11 July 2012. Last updated on 16 July 2012.
|Henrik Englund is the cofounder of SkyGoblin that is the developer of The Journey Down.|
For more information, visit SkyGoblin.
Swedish game developer SkyGoblin is best known for its casual Massive Multiplayer Online game Nord. However, the intrepid developer has also recently expanded into the adventure genre with an episodic adventure game series called The Journey Down. The series is based on a freeware adventure game of the same name released in 2010. Now, 2 years later, SkyGoblin has finally finished remaking the game into a commercial release, with significant upgrades in graphics and sounds as well as the addition of new scenes and puzzles. Both the original and the remake have been praised for their African inspired artwork and unique game atmosphere.
Henrik Englund is the cofounder of SkyGoblin. As a trained animator, he works primarily on arts and animations in his games. Aside from these projects, he also works on other game projects as a consultant, from building advertising games to working as a teacher in visual effects at the local university.
We are privileged to have an opportunity to interview Henrik Englund. In the interview, Englund speaks of the history of The Journey Down series, the decision to remake the original freeware game as a commercial project, his tips for other aspiring game developers, and what lies in the future for his company and his games.
- What are your favorite adventure games of yesteryear? Why?
- I'm glad that you asked "yesteryear" and not in the last year. Actually I feel a little bit ashamed, as I haven't had the time to play any games the last year. But back in the days, I remember I used to play the action-adventure game Little Big Adventure 2. I think I liked it so much, because of me being in the right age, the open game world and the totally lovely music. We still play the soundtrack now and then in our office when we want to boost our office karma. I have read that there will come an Android port for the first LBA game soon. I will absolutely buy the game when it's released. For me adventure games are perfect pocket games. It's hard to find the time for random gaming. I rather animate stuff when I'm connected to my workstation. Maybe I'm some sort of workaholic and need my daily animation refill. But I like it that way. Haha!
Another game I like is The Curse of Monkey Island. It's a gorgeous and well done game that everyone loves. No need to describe why. If I would pick up a random game today it would probably be "The Dream Machine" made by the Sweden-based developer Cockroach.
- What inspired the story and mythos of The Journey Down series?
- I haven't been involved in the story from the beginning, but when Theodor Waern, my colleague, was young, his father worked for the UN in Zambia for a couple of years doing city planning. When his family moved to Africa, they had lots of furniture from Sweden with them in a large container. So before moving back to Sweden they gave away all the furniture and bought new African furniture and art to fill the container with and bring home. This resulted in Theo's childhood home being cluttered with African items of all shapes and sizes.
Another thing I've heard Theo speak about is that he was inspired a lot by TaleSpin and the old classic Disney movies, especially the hand drawn backdrops. Maybe you can see the parallel in both the character design and the environments?
- What was the development history of The Journey Down: Over the Edge, the previously released freeware game on which the current commercial remake was based?
- In the beginning there was only Theo working on the game. It was a project he made entirely during his spare time. We worked and managed our company together back then too, while working on another game for maybe five years or so. When you have your free time to build stuff, you don't have deadlines to work with. You keep painting as long as you think it's fun: expanding the game and the world, day by day. When he finished the game he released it for free for everyone to download. I think that was when the rest of us started to become involved in the process. We were looking for another game to build and The Journey Down sounded fun to us. The hard part in the beginning was coming to terms with the fact that the project in its entirety will take a long time. Maybe so much as three years of our lives. It's quite the dedication.
- The remake was built using SkyGoblin's proprietary game engine Gobby, whereas the original was built using the free adventure game creation toolkit Adventure Game Studio. Why was the decision made to switch game engine? How much work was there to create a new game engine? How much of the assets from the original were you able to recycle for the remake?
- We actually started to build the The Journey Down HD version in AGS. We (together with a bunch of other eager developers) convinced the "inventor" of the engine, Chris Jones, to release the engine as open source so we could change the resolution to 1280x720. We made some small test runs and found out that it worked surprisingly well. I think there is some sort of repository online with the HD fix for everyone to download. The only catch was that it was difficult to build new features specific for our need. For example, we needed a faster way of importing and export images. Also, we needed to build a more streamlined way of animating sprites and have them all organized. An easy and effective workflow is an important factor, especially when you aim high and have a small team/budget. Also, we wanted the game to be ported to as many platforms as possible. It was actually the programmers mainly that wanted to switch engines. In the beginning we were afraid it would take too much time from actually building the game. Time spent on building a new engine felt like time wasted on something we didn't really need. Now, in retrospect, however, it was a "make it or break it" deal for us. Frankly, without the Gobby engine and its new editor (GobEd), we would still be stuck building the remake of the game or would have been forced to make the game drastically smaller, assets wise. And I doubt that we would have had the time to port the game to different platforms. Without Gobby, I simply don't think we would have had the chance. The engine took something like 2 months to finish for Markus Larsson with some help from Mathias Johansson. I think he spent a lot of weekends and free time on this engine project though. We started using the engine after just one month or so from the initial creation. In the beginning it was super simple, we only used it to put up rooms and for adding assets. Later on when the engine was more stable we started to add more advanced features like tint points and game logics. The backdrops were re-used, but we needed to scale them up and re-paint them for the higher resolution. Most of the character design and thinking had already been done in the retro-version so we used the retro-version as a template when building the assets for the HD version. All in all, we are happy that we made the engine switch. We will definitely be using Gobby for the next three chapters of The Journey Down.
- Why did you decide to style the characters' faces after African masks? To what extent was the characters' look in The Journey Down inspired by LucasArts' Grim Fandango?
- The character designs for Chapter One were all made by Theo. He really liked how well the similar approach worked in Grim Fandango. Those characters gave so much life and appeal without having a normal human face. It's also a lot easier to animate. I think that and a mixture of the African culture that have always been a part of his life both went into taking this decision. The designs come from different African tribal masks. For example, Bwana's face is a mask used by the Chokwe people. Also, lots of the names of characters are Swahili words (Tanzania, Kenya).
- You have announced plans to port the game to mobile platforms. How different will the Android and iOS ports be as compared to the PC, Mac, and Linux versions? Which port is trickier to do: Android or iOS? Why?
- The main difference from the PC, Mac and Linux version of The Journey Down is how the gamer interacts with the game. Also, most art assets are scaled down. We were afraid that the game would feel too cramped and be difficult to play on smaller screens, but now when we've tried the game on several handsets we don't feel that the game lost its charm or playability in any way. We spent a lot of time researching a click flow that felt nice on handhelds. You don't have a mouse on a handheld so we needed to build some sort of screen scanning system for highlighting interaction points that worked with a finger that's also used for clicking. This wasn't entirely trivial and we didn't really like the way other games had solved it on handhelds, so really felt we wanted to construct our own way of interacting with the game. Both Android and iOS are two powerful platforms with two different workflows. Both have pros and cons. We have had some problems with the sound on Android, but if you know that sound can be a problem on a specific platform, then it's just a matter of solving it. Mathias is currently working on the iOS and Android versions that will be released later this year.
- It is often said that you are your own worst critic. Pretending that you are a game critic, what is your opinion of The Journey Down? What has surprised the most so far about the game's reception from other critics?
- I'm super satisfied with the reception of The Journey Down from the press. Everyone seems to like it more or less. We think the game critics have given us almost the same negative feedback that we ourselves did before release. But we didn't know that so many would like it. It's always hard to know when to stop development and to publish a game. Personally, I'm most satisfied that everyone liked the cinematics and that the characters have appeal. The end cinematic was built in just three weeks by Theo and me, this has got to be some kind of personal record in animation vs time. I think we managed to stop at the right moment. To not release the game in time can sometimes be very costly. Every hour we spent on building the game is one hour that we need to finance by doing consultancy work. I'm proud that we managed to finish the game in time while also taking care of our other game, the 3D MMO Nord, as well as doing consultancy work and on top of that succeeding with not getting personally broke. It's sort of miracle. Haha!
- What plans, if any, do you have in releasing the next chapter in The Journey Down series as both free and commercial versions?
- We are not planning on taking the same "around the earth" five-year trip as we did with The Journey Down, Chapter One. My guess is that Chapter Two will be released with a demo version of the game that can be played for free. But who knows, if we figure out some sort of strange business model that allows us to release the game for free in the future, we will absolutely consider it. It would be nice if we could finance our game development exclusively from The Journey Down.
- What lessons have you learned so far about the business of being a commercial indie game developer?
- Having a streamlined workflow has been important for us from day one. This is not something new to us. We are only four team members in SkyGoblin and we have worked together for seven years now. So we have learned that every minute counts. Knowing every members' limits is also important. We have actually never seen ourselves as indie to be honest. We have always been independent but to say that we are indie feels strange. Indie seems to be used as a selling point or buzzword used by everyone in the gaming business including EA. When are you indie and when are you crossing the line and becoming a "real studio"? And what's actually the difference? I have no idea. Don't know if it makes any difference for the company? I've been thinking a lot lately about who is indie and who isn't. I always come to the same conclusion: It does not matter for SkyGoblin if we are indie or not, as long as we can make our own games and make a living doing so.
- What tips do you have for other aspiring indie adventure game developers?
- I say my number one tip of today is to contact the press and be social early. Let people know about your project. But keep in mind that no one will listen to you before you show something that is worth listening to and checking out. We started contacting newspaper and journalists one year before the release date of The Journey Down. In the beginning no one listened to us. After some time people started to take notice, after we showed real progress. Collect all your external contacts in a document, with name, email and a short description about the person. If you're contacting the same person more than once, try to find the old mail history so you get the contact to remember you and what you have been talking about before. Keep your mail media rich! People like videos and pictures. Update the document regularly, it's super important!! When you have something to show, you want everyone on that list to know it. Don't use the list as a mass spam list. Keep personal contact with everyone if it's possible. If you don't have the time to be personal, find the time! Learn to know the industry people. Twitter has been a good way to connect and meet new friends. Friends are good for you. Friends will help you spread the word when you need something to be spread. And in return you will help your friends. Win/win. For SkyGoblin, all time spent on connecting has been well worth it. Oh, and don't forget. No games are self promoting! You won't earn a penny if you don't contact all webstores, journalists, big evil corporations yourself. One big mistake we have done before is to design a too big project for our team's size and economy. We were totally mad when we started to build a 3D MMO five years ago. I really want to build a time machine and go back in time and slap myself. Don't do the same mistake as us if you don't want to spend forever with the same project without knowing if it's working or not. Adventure games take a lot of time to build. Figure out some sort of project timeline and a business model before starting building the game. Many game projects start and end with a coder wanting to build some shiny game engine, if you don't have a good reason for a home brewed engine. Don't do it! There are lots of engines to use for free or almost for free. Focus on the gameplay not on the tech part if you don't have a good reason for the game to build its own engine. If you have artists in your team that know what they are doing you can make the game really low-tech and still make it look good. Everyone has the next big thing, so if you believe in your idea, be prepared for a bumpy ride with lots of fun along the road.
- How far along is the development of the next chapters in The Journey Down series? How likely will fans see Bwana and Kito again this year?
- We have started to build Chapter Two and have a lot figured out already! All the backdrops are painted and the story was written a long time ago. We have some small puzzles left to design though. But all in all we are on track. Crossing fingers. We don't dare to set a timeframe for the actual release of Chapter Two but a rough estimate would be late 2012 or early 2013.
- What are other upcoming projects for SkyGoblin? What can we expect from SkyGoblin over the next 5 years?
- I can gladly tell everyone that we will spend the next couple years finalizing The Journey Down series! Besides finishing the game series, we will keep on maintaining Nord, our own 3D MMO. And as I mentioned earlier in this interview we will keep on doing Animation/Art/Code consultancy work for other companies to get a stable cash flow. It's really difficult right now to speculate if we will have the luxury to spend all our time with The Journey Down or if we will need to finance it ourselves in the beginning with consultant work. Anyhow, I know the future will be awesome as always at SkyGoblin. The thing is that I have never really thought of our company as company. More like a creative playground in the framework of a company structure. Some years back when Theo was working on the retro version of The Journey Down, we decided to move to Tanzania for 3 months to inhale the atmosphere. Mathias has a lot of connections in East Africa. He actually speaks fluent Swahili and is helping out building a music studio over there where musicians can record for free. So it wasn't too hard to convince us to re-locate. We spent two out of three months with just little or no electrical power at all, so maybe it wasn't a economically genius move. In some sort of way we managed to get the work done. Hopefully it will add another dimension to our games in the future, if we will keep doing things with a smile on our lips.
Right now, I think everyone has an individual plan for the future to come. For me personally, I'm cooking up a big adventure for myself. After a couple of years in Sweden, I have figured out that it's freezing cold in the winter over here. I can't take it anymore! I'm moving to Spain this winter! I will be working with The Journey Down from a distance. Malaga in Spain is one of the few places that is fairly warm in Europe during winter time and it only costs 50 Euros to travel there during those months. I don't even need an expensive passport, just an International ID card. It's the perfect sweet spot so to speak. As for the rest of The Journey Down team, who knows what adventures they might wind up on during the winter, we are a very flexible little company... One thing is certain though, we will all be very busy happily chomping away on Chapter Two of The Journey Down.