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This interview was originally published in Game World Observer on March 24, 2020.
MOON The dust of the shadows is a hand-animated point-and-click puzzle adventure released on February 13. It is the debut title of the Chinese team called Lantern Studio.
We sat down with Beidi Guo, art director of the game., to discuss the ups and downs of the development process, as well as the overall fate of puzzle games.
One of the two is Beidi Guo, art director.
Oleg Nesterenko, managing editor of GWO: Beidi, tell us about Lantern Studio.
There are four members on the team. I'm there. There is Fox, who is our project manager. Susie Wang composed music for the game, and Wang Guan is our programmer. We are scattered all over the world. We are located in London, Toronto and Shanghai. We mainly keep in touch on Skype.
Susie and I are also in charge of social media as well as reporting to our Kickstarter sponsors.
We try to do everything ourselves to save budget. But towards the end of development, we hired our current Marketing Manager George Eastmead from Acorngames, who helped us manage our accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Discord. For example, he also suggested a cross promotion with other teams. We have met many other independent developers over the years, so when their games are released we will either RT each other or post some fan art featuring our characters but using their playstyle.
A rare Lantern Studio moment being physically together
The limited budget means you have to be very selective about the gaming conventions you attend.
At first, we tried to attend conventions that were free. There are also organizations that help independent teams in the UK, such as an organization called the Tentacle Zone. They help independent developers hire space at major conventions like EGX Rezzed and Insomnia. They have a dedicated zone there called the Tentacle Zone, and they generally offer booths and teams from independent developers.
Later, we signed with our editors. They helped us promote our game at trade shows like GDC and Gamescom.
Good for you. But you weren't that smart with your Kickstarter campaign, were you? The money you raised only lasted a year, and it took another three years to finish the game. How did that happen?
We lacked experience. We thought we could finish the game in a year. A year and a half, maximum. But after we started development, we realized that this game had much more potential than we expected. We had to decide whether to keep the game small so we could finish it within our budget or try to make the game the way we really wanted. And this was probably two, three times bigger than our original plan.
Beidi's first concept art for LUNA, when it was still a very small game that only existed in her head
We did not want to give up. We all got into our savings and contributed. This was enough to last us another three years.
It was not an easy decision. We also had to apologize to our Kickstarter sponsors because this game was taking longer than we promised. But our sponsors are very patient. Instead of rushing, they agreed to wait for us to provide a more complete experience, they have always shown us support and love, which was incredible.
And you didn't want funding from your publishers?
We only signed with them in 2018, when most of the game was ready.
However, prior to that, in 2017, some individual investors approached us to say they would like to invest in our game, but we declined. We wanted to maintain our creative freedom by doing MOON.
If publishers offer funding, that often means they could interfere with your creative decisions. In certain cases, developers even sell their IP to their publisher, which is something we definitely don't recommend. If you don't own your game, what's the point of being independent?
It must have been quite dark times, risking your own money, not knowing exactly what to do with your game …
It was tough, but at least we could do something about it. The most difficult times were when unpredictable situations occurred that were completely out of our control.
For example, when we needed to publish our game in China. According to the last regulation, you must apply for a license. We had to queue a year earlier because we knew it was going to take a while, but we didn't know exactly how long. Throughout the entire process, there is no way to consult with the corresponding department staff. Ask them, "How are you doing? Are there any additional documents we need to supply? The communication is strictly one-sided. If they find a problem, they will contact you and ask you to fix it. Then you have to resend what you actually consumed. long time.
We never expected this because the law only came into effect in early 2018. And we definitely wanted to publish our game in China. We are a Chinese team, and many Chinese players supported us. In no way could we disappoint them.
This was probably the most difficult moment. I mean you want to start marketing your game almost half a year before launching it. But without knowing when we would get this license, we really couldn't start any promotion. And we didn't want to promote our game too soon. If you promote for too long, people can get tired of waiting. This caused us a lot of anxiety in addition to the existing health problems. There was literally nothing we could do but wait and pray.
We finally got the license after nine months.
Health problems, you said?
It is a common problem among all indies, when you do not have enough budget to allow yourself a healthy lifestyle. There is no extra money to spend at the gym or eat healthy. And you're working from home, so it's also a little lonely.
And we tried not to take time off because we were already way behind our original schedule. Towards the end of development, it began to affect the health of some of our team members. We were burned. It felt like all the creativity was squeezed out of us. We looked at our game, and all we could see were mistakes.
Last year, while we were still waiting for that license, the whole team decided to take a couple of weeks to recover from this exhaustion.
Pray and take breaks. Essential tips for all the indies out there. Let's talk about the game itself. How did you come up with an idea for MOON?
The general philosophy behind the game was inspired by the Terramar series written by Ursula K. Le Guin. His novels are never one-dimensional, he is not just the hero against evil, the light against the dark side. She emphasizes how everything is interconnected. Without shadow, there will be no light, and vice versa. It's something we don't really see in most games today.
So there is no evil in MOON. There are no boss fights. It is more of a balance. The more light you create, the more shadow will follow. The ambition to become the best and do good deeds can also have devastating consequences.
How did you design the puzzles?
At the beginning of development, we only brainstormed for a couple of weeks. We create a folder called "Crazy Ideas". And we add all kinds of ideas, be it about mechanics, images or history. At this stage, we didn't even think about whether these ideas could get us anywhere.
When we run out of ideas, we all sit down to mix and match different concepts. For example, we have a room with many objects lying around. Therefore, it can be fun to present a game in which people need a lot of things to interact.
Or vice versa. For example, we came up with this mechanic that we really liked. You know, when the character can become a shadow. So we thought, what setting is suitable for this type of game? You probably need a room with walls. It cannot happen outdoors. And to emphasize the contrast between light and dark, this room needs a very strong light source. So you can have a lot of candles. This is how we came up with the idea of a room for this puzzle.
We just try to fill each room with the proper mechanics and game. But all of this changed throughout development. For some of the rooms we couldn't find the proper mechanics. Either we started developing and then realized that it wasn't as fun as we thought or that it had nothing to do with our history.
Then we gave up some of the levels that were already in development. We also got rid of ideas that were technically too challenging for us.
Have you tried your puzzles?
Player feedback is crucial. The four of us think very much alike and sometimes we can't help but develop this kind of tunnel vision, caught up in our own judgment. Therefore, every time we finish a level, we try to invite as many people as we can to try it out.
First off, we would invite our friends game designers from the industry. They are professionals, so they would give us their opinion from a design point of view. After that, when we fix some of the gameplay issues, I would give them to more casual players.
That included our friends, our families, who don't even play. But we like to know what your first impression is. Because sometimes when we thought a puzzle was easy, but we found that a lot of people got stuck. We need to ask them for comments. We want to know your way of tackling the puzzles, wasn't the clue visible enough or is there confusion about the UI design? Then we have to solve these problems.
That's another important reason for us to go to gaming conventions. You hug hundreds of players. You can stand behind them, look at them, see exactly how they interact with a level. And then you talk to them. This is how we collect data.
Based on player feedback, we constantly adjust one or the other aspect. Some levels went smoothly, others went through multiple iterations.
However, you can't try them forever. When do you know that a level is complete?
Once you have around 50 or 30 people giving you the same comments, it's safe to say that we know how the majority of the audience will react to this level. However, there will always be players who think differently, we just have to accept that.
Doing individual puzzles correctly is quite difficult, but you should also think of a difficulty curve instead.
A good learning curve is difficult to achieve. This is something that we also tested on the players. We made many adjustments in the later stage by changing the order of certain puzzles to see which sequence works best.
We found, for example, that the difficulty should be uneven towards the end. If players have been playing a game for hours, puzzles of the same difficulty may seem more difficult because people are simply tired. Therefore, we need to include one or two intermediate levels that are relatively easy to give them some time to recover, just to enjoy history and the environment.
After all this adjustment, is there any weakness in MOON what do you think?
Maybe we try too hard to be original. This is why we sometimes make our riddles very different from each other. One of the common opinions we receive is that there is not enough continuity between the puzzles. You learn a skill early in the game, but then you have to wait a long time to use that skill again. We could improve that in the future.
We also try too hard to attract a wide audience. I wish I had understood before who our main audience was. If we had communicated more with them, we probably could have avoided some easy but less interesting puzzles that just tried to make sure everyone can get through the first stage of the game.
I mean, this is our first game. We weren't so sure about our decisions sometimes. In hindsight, I would say that for an independent team it's okay to make a game that the general public will criticize as long as their key audience really likes it. They'll tell their friends about their game, and that's how it slowly reaches the intended audience. You may not be able to find it right away because it is a niche and there are always risks when you do something new. People tend to be more comfortable with the things they're used to, I guess.
Now you have a better idea of who your target audience is?
They are the people who like to take their time and enjoy every detail of the game. Every time they finish a puzzle, they don't just run to the next level so they can beat the entire game in two hours. They like to stay and look at those paintings and try to use their imaginations to discover the story, the back story.
Many people found them somewhat dark. Did you think of it that way to encourage players to slow down when they play?
We definitely didn't want to confuse people. We tried to make the story understandable to most people. We try to use the universal cinematographic language. For flashbacks, for example, we use a different tone to make people understand that this happened in the past. Or, another example, in so many cartoons and television shows, every time you listen to a harp, you know this is a memory of the past. This is the type of cinematic language that we tested in our game.
Sometimes, though, it's okay to let the player take care of solving things for himself. I trust the players. They chose to play a puzzle game without a single line of dialogue, which means they have certain expectations of being challenged, they have certain expectations of themselves, and they are able to figure things out.
So yes, it's about how you play it.
Much of the history of the story is embedded in individual rooms. Once you've completed enough of the game, you also realize that the entire tower is actually a place designed for some people to live there. There are kitchens, there are bedrooms. They're not just random stage props. If you start to wonder who really lives there, which room is connected to which character based on the decorations in the background, you might find out what kind of relationship there is between these characters.
It was worth it? Inventing all this rich narrative that could be completely lost on players who just want to win the game?
Absolutely. People don't usually play puzzle games. But what we saw with MOON is that many players return to the game because they did not get all the details on the first try. They do not repeat it for the simple fact of the puzzles. They just want to get a complete picture of the story.
For these players, we even designed some Easter eggs.
For example, one of the scenes cannot be activated in the first round. You will still see it locked in the gallery. We hope this encourages people to wonder if they have missed something.
You need to revisit some locations and rethink your previous assumptions to unlock this extra bit of history.
We have also designed a MOON language that is decodable. Surprisingly, many people decoded it in the first 24 hours. So if you know how to decode it, you can go back to the game and read those writings in books, on paintings on the wall. That's something many YouTubers did on their streams. We are very happy to see players willing to spend so much time doing this.
Unlocking all of these secrets will answer some of the questions, but will probably raise some new ones. We hope that people who are genuinely interested in shaping the world will move from the game to our website because we maintain a very detailed devlog and did some interviews that explain the story behind the story. We also have many behind-the-scenes design processes, sketches, and images included in our digital art book, which is also available on Steam.
So was it an artistic decision not to use any real language in the game?
It was a pragmatic and creative decision.
Sometimes when I play a game that has a lot of dialogue, I switch between English and Chinese. Most of the time, many jokes, many puns are lost in translation. It was really a shame, but I also understood that translating this is very difficult. So even if you localize your game some meaning will be lost in translation.
However, we can all understand emotions by looking at the facial expressions and movement of the characters. It is the universal language that we all share. As one of my favorites, Oscar-winning animated film The house of small cubes by Kunio Kato, and Arrival, an image-only graphic novel by Australian artist Shaun Tan. Neither of these two works has dialogue, but I can still be deeply moved by them.
Last but not least, as a small team we have a very limited budget, and writing dialogues is not our greatest strength either. So creating a game that doesn't need a location was definitely a better option for us.
What's next for Lantern Studio?
I don't know, to be honest. Never wait MOON to become a great project. If, in the future, we have an idea, a story that we adore and feel that we have to tell it, we will make another game. That is, if a game is the right medium for this idea. If, for example, a graphic novel is a more suitable format for it, then we will make a graphic novel. Or an animated short film.
The things we have learned as game developers are not going to go away, even if we don't apply them to game design. First, we have learned to solve problems. These skills can be used in software engineering, animation, etc. Who knows? Perhaps in the future there will be no computers as we know them, and completely new new media will emerge.
Congratulations on the adventure that is LUNA and good luck in the future, without a computer or not!
This interview was originally published in Game World Observer on March 24, 2020.