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  • COWCAT Games Interview – Demetrios, Xenon Valkyrie+, and Future Projects

    November 8th, 2017GamespotUncategorized

    Despite his busy schedule working on the mobile ports of Demotrios, the Vita port of Xenon Valkyrie+, and his new project which is tentatively titled Project Brok, I recently managed to steal a few minutes from COWCAT Games developer Fabrice to ask him about a variety of things. Obviously I was able to ask about these three games but I also wanted to know about his views on the PlayStation Vita, his thoughts on its future, and his own plans for both the short and long term.

    First off, tell me a little bit about yourself! I understand COWCAT Games is a sole developer studio - did you handle all aspects of Demetrios' development yourself?

    Hi! I'm Fabrice. Yes, I am a solo French game developer. I've been a video game fan and programmer all my life. I've started programming various little games at the age of 10 on a 80s computer, with BASIC language. I loved that! Demetrios is actually a game I originally made when I was in high school. Of course, in the early 2000s it was pretty much impossible to release a game without a publisher, so this original version was never released. Things are different now!

    My brother did many drawings for this original version. However, for this "remake", I handled almost everything for Demetrios - programming, art, music (I pretty much learnt to do both with this project!), story, but also marketing, accounting and all these annoying things :p. Nevertheless I had some help for the translations (though I did both the English and French versions myself) and some musics.

    Have you found it easy to manage projects on your own or have you often wished for extra people to assist with development?

    I figured this would be the best way to start. Less risk, less time "wasted" on meetings, much less stressful, I don't have any deadline to respect except the ones I impose myself... I always try to focus on one thing at a time in order to avoid getting lost with the details and keep a global view. Of course it's difficult to be very good at everything. I have a hard time drawing characters well, for example. For my next game, I'm getting some help from better artists regularly in order to improve the visuals :)

    I understand Demetrios originally started life as a Broken Sword mod. Would you mind explaining a little about the history of the game and how the transition to stand-alone project came about?

    Not really a mod, just some kind of "fan game", trying to blend many classic adventure games I loved back then (not only Broken Sword, but also DiscworldLeisure Suit LarryGabriel Knight...).

    Demetrios was originally funded via Kickstarter. What made you decide to go down this route?

    The communication aspect. It's a great tool for marketing, and there aren't so many "free" ones available for indie game developers. Of course the money is good too! But if there's a Vita version of Demetrios, it's pretty much thanks to this Kickstarter. I stated that I wanted to release on several consoles, some Vita fans took notice and gave me some contacts with Sony :)

    Is that how your relationship with Sony originally came about?

    My first contact was Shahid Ahmad (who was still at Sony at the time), a very supportive person of indie games. This was the "entry point". Once you become an official Sony developer, everything gets easier :)

    The Vita port was the first console version you completed. What was the reasoning for this?

    I noticed there was a lot of interest for a Vita version. Sony was kind enough to lend a devkit, so it was a great opportunity to step into the console development. If not for the Vita version, there would probably not be a PS4 & Xbox version now!

    Have Sony been supportive in bringing your projects to the console?

    It's actually something difficult to measure overall. There are many different people working at Sony, doing many different things. I'd say they like indies bringing games to the Vita, and they did their job to make my game a successful release.

    Has the company's public withdrawal of support for the handheld discouraged future investment from you, or are the people you're in contact with from Sony still on board?

    Whether or not I'll decide to release a game on Vita will depend on two things... is it technically possible? Will it bring any money? I don't think any dev/publisher really takes into account whether or not Sony develops games on it. They care about the install base, people actually willing to buy games. Right now, the Vita is a very good opportunity for small indie devs like myself to get noticed.

    Your latest project is a port of Diabolical Mind's roguelike Xenon Valkyrie. How did this arrangement come about? Did they approach you or vice versa?

    Daniel Fernandez Chavez is the original developer of Xenon Valkyrie, also a solo developer! (I admit even I'm surprised about the amount of work that went into this game!) He reached me directly, as he loves the Vita and definitely wanted his game on it.

    He considered doing it himself but he's less fluent with English than myself, which makes it harder to communicate with Sony. Also, he's already dedicating time to work on his next game, and he thought I did a good job with the Demetrios Vita version. Being two solo devs ourselves means we're on the same level of thoughts, which is great :)

    The port is said to make many improvements over the original game. Were these changes implemented by you, the original developers, or a collaboration of both?

    Overall, it's a collaboration. I won't hide that his game had many issues when originally released on Steam. He worked hard to fix them, but at some point he was stuck, unable to fix a few things players were still complaining about.

    You see, we come from different backgrounds - he's mostly an artist who learnt programming, while I'm the opposite! When I playtested the game, I felt there was a huge potential, thus I accepted this deal. But on one condition - that we would improve the game to meet console quality standards. Even though narrative games are my favorite, I've played very varied styles of games over the years, so I'm able to notice gameplay flaws and how to fix them.

    It was tough but I consider the final build to be every bit as good as it can get. On the gameplay side, it's a totally different game from the original PC release, which is why we decided to rename the game. A few people got to play this final build and they were very pleased. I'm hopeful Vita players will be too :)

    What makes Xenon Valkyrie unique? What will it do to appeal to Vita owners?

    Xenon Valkyrie is mainly a roguelike (or more precisely, a roguelite) with randomly generated levels, but it also involves platforming and some RPG elements (talking to NPC characters, experience levels, equipment...). It's delibarately old school and nostalgic, with excellent chiptune musics and pixel art done right.

    Of course, it's insanely hard and punishing. We made some adjustments for a better difficulty curve - when I first played, I couldn't even get past the very first level myself :p

    A big challenge was to make it fair while keeping this level of difficulty. Players should lose because they did a mistake, not because of an issue with the game - and it's not that easy to achieve!

    On a personal side, I think the Vita D-PAD is the best ever made, so it's very handy for a 2D game like this :)

    How has it been working on a completely different genre than Demetrios?

    As I've said, I'm a gamer like everyone! I'm not stuck with the adventure genre and you'll notice this with my next project ;)

    What made you decide on Vita as the target platform for Xenon Valkyrie+?

    Daniel wanted a Vita version above everything. He's a big fan of old school games and the Vita does well in that regard. Demetrios also sold fairly well on the Vita, so this was the logical choice!

    Will the game be PlayStation TV compatible?

    Yes, of course. It's just one little checkbox in the options :). You probably won't find it on the PS TV store though, because it seems Sony has stopped updating the listing. I'm pretty sure Demetrios isn't listed either. Shame!

    Any chance of a physical release for either Demetrios or Xenon Valkyrie+?

    We definitely want this to happen! I've tried hard to get Demetrios on physical, but several publishers told me the same thing - "Point & Click is tough to sell, we want more action stuff". I can't blame them, unfortunately.

    Chances are higher for Xenon Valkyrie+. Of course, even if it happens, don't expect a physical before months after the digital release - especially with the new ESRB requirement.

    How easy is Vita development? Have you run into any difficulties with either game due to its lower specs?

    Well, first, let me mention - when developing with an engine like Unity or (in my case) GameMaker Studio, you only see SOME aspects of the development. Their whole point is to simplify the process. We never really get into the internal, detailed stuff like AAA devs do. Still, releasing on console is quite hard - but I'm not talking about the technical aspect. It's the submission process!

    Technically, believe it or not, Xenon Valkyrie+ pretty much worked on the Vita "out of the box". Actually, both of us were quite surprised! Of course some of the code wasn't optimized (like lightning and fire/explosion effects causing huge slowdowns), but with a few days of work this was easy to fix. Using a specific compiler also helped massively.

    Actually I've spent most of the time fixing everything that could be fixed to make it the best possible experience on console. Some things are exclusive to the Vita, such as dedicating one button to each action (sword with X, gun with triangle, grenades and special items on shoulder buttons) instead of scrolling them on the PC version. This makes the gameplay fluid and much more enjoyable!

    I've just submitted the game to certification for the first time, and am awaiting the results. This is THE stage every console dev fears... :p Fingers crossed! (Editor's update - the game failed first certification on a small technicality that should be sorted out soon).

    You've briefly spoken about your next game entitled Project Brok. How is development for this progressing? Any chance of it hitting Vita?

    I've already said it, but it's a VERY ambitious game (for my level). I would go as far as saying it's "one of a kind", a unique combination of genres. I just don't know any other game that attempted to do the same thing. It's very exciting to make! This comes with a price - I expect to spend at least 3 years to develop it, even with the help of a few artists.

    Obviously that's a big risk I'm willing to take, because this is exactly what being indie means to me, making video game progress - no AAA company would EVER attempt something like this! Right now I've got a lengthy prototype (2-3 hours to play) with ugly placeholder art, but feedback from selected testers has been VERY positive :)

    It's a bit too early to talk about which platforms this new project will hit. Rest assured that I'll always consider all possibilities. Right now there's a potential problem. GameMaker Studio 1.4 support ends mid-2018, which includes the Vita export (there isn't one in GMS 2.0). So even though I'm sticking to GMS 1.4 (I want stability when making a game! I hate constant updates, interface changes and patches breaking things with a passion...) for Project Brok, it may still not be enough. If Sony releases a new SDK after this date, we're screwed - we won't be able to export any game coded with GameMaker Studio. We'll see!

    When Project Brok is ready, if Vita is still relevant and it's technically possible, of course, I'll consider it!

    Do you have any Vita plans beyond Xenon Valkyrie? Do you intend to take on more contractual porting work?

    Currently, no idea!  This is the dillema I've already had when pondering whether to accept the port of Xenon Valkyrie+ - should I spend time on ports to make "quick" money, or dedicate time to my own projects? The answer is probably a blend of both! Daniel made another game before Xenon (Riddled Corpses), so there's always the possibility to port this one too at some point. But no promise!

    What are some of your favourite games that you've played on Vita?

    I love the visual novels. My favorite would be the Zero Escape series. I've just finished playing Zero Time Dilemma, not as great as the previous ones but still so enjoyable!

    I wish I had more time to play, though! That's the irony of being a game developer!

    Finally - which of the Vita models is your favourite (LCD or OLED)?

    Well, they both have pros and cons. The OLED is the better screen but there's the burning effect (my devkit suffers from that). The LCD has a standard micro USB port. Hard choice!

    Thank you for the interview!


    I’d like to thank Brenton for holding this interview with me. You can follow updates of his projects on his Twitter or official website – keep an eye out for Xenon Valkyrie+ landing soon; Demetrois is already available for purchase on PSN!

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