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  • Studio Ravenheart Interview – Seraphim, Inspiration, Vita, & the Future

    December 27th, 2017GamespotUncategorized

    When I first saw Seraphim from Studio Ravenheart, I wasn't sure what to make of it. While I'd seen it described as a twin-stick shooter, it didn't quite look like any I'd seen previously, and combined with the abstract artstyle and dozens of effects happening on screen, I was struggling to figure out what exactly it was (check out the trailer to see what I mean!).

    Since it was headed to Vita (hopefully in 2018) I took the opportunity to speak to the developer to find out more about the game and his goals. In the process I became a lot more interested in the project, which sounds like one of the most unique ideas I've heard about in years!

    First off, tell me a bit about yourself! Who makes up Studio Ravenheart and what do you all do?

    Currently, Studio Ravenheart is a one-man development team working on Seraphim full-time. I (Ravenheart) founded the company and began work on Seraphim in May 2014. Since then, I've remained the architect and creator of the project, but our other members, Mathew Kirkegaard and Taylor Greene, also play very important roles. Mathew has contributed all of the musical pieces for Seraphim thus far as the game's composer, and Taylor influences the company's strategic planning decisions. Taylor and I have known each other for over 13 years, sharing many dreams about working in the games industry. Mathew is the most recent member who we met at a gaming event in 2013, quickly saw his musical talent, and determined that he would be a positive force on the team and our future projects.

    As a solo developer, I come from a fine arts background rather than a programming or audio background like many other solo developers I'm aware of, most seemingly being rooted in programming. That is, I'm an artist first, programmer second, and audio engineer third, which I believe is a less common specialty sequence among one-man teams. And though I'm strongly suited in all of the above, I've been drawing since I could first hold a crayon, hence my artistic ability/perspective has gone through several stages throughout my whole childhood and adult life, becoming my foundation. Therefore, it is artistic direction of a project which tends to be the center and focal point of my design/development perspective, with the purpose of all other development facets being to further facilitate it.

    Is Seraphim the first title you've worked on?

    Seraphim is actually the ninth game project I've started development on. But while the others mainly exist as prototypes today, Seraphim is the closest I've gotten to completion by far. The first game I started development on was "Beyond the Depths", taking place beneath the surface of an alien planet made of water, amid a genetically flawed ecosystem where everything seeks to eat everything. The last was a game called "Other Sky", which shares some artistic similarities to Seraphim but is a whole different kind of game. The majority of these are projects I definitely plan to return to in the future with more resources. Like for most solo developers, it has been a learning process of downsizing from a downsize from a downsize, until you have something that can feasibly be completed by a team of one. And, after eight downsizes, Seraphim is that game!

    As far as design is concerned, I've been designing games since age 11, and like many other game designers, I have a whole cabinet-worth of plans and dream projects well documented and ready to start when the time is right.

    What inspired you to make the game?

    In writing a new game design, the first question is usually that of genre. The options are narrowed down to a short list when determining which genres could realistically be feasible for one person. Furthermore, which of those are not being being represented by seemingly everyone else. Of the remaining few genre choices, Arcade was my favorite, so I picked that. Another remaining option would have been Rhythm, which I avoided because game project number seven was/is a rhythm game call "Rhythm Bomb", and thus I was already burned out on developing rhythm gameplay at the time of starting Seraphim.

    After looking over my favorite classic arcade games like Joust, Pac-Man, Centipede, Galaga, Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, etc., what I concluded they all had was a single, basic, consistent signature mechanic which was score-based and comprised each entire game. Each game has additional features and objects joining the gameplay in later stages, but maintain their fixed-camera, core arcade concept throughout all levels. Upon understanding this, I knew I was going to invent an original, unique arcade scheme of my own; one like the classics all have.

    This ended up including a main character at center-screen (who must be protected) with six lines of fire pointing outward. The player must shoot enemies across these six directions before they reach the character, and avoid shooting shot-reflecting hazards ('Constellations' in the game) which rotate in a circle around the character. Then, this whole mechanism speeds up over time. Simple. Many other types of objects and features, as well as various enemy types, bosses, etc., appear during gameplay too, creating more and more complexity as the game progresses. But all function around the core scheme I just described, as additional features to the minimum concept - which at this point in development, seems to have produced something new (to our knowledge) we recently started describing as "defensive shmup".

    What made you decide on Vita as a target platform for Seraphim?

    After I had first finished prototyping Seraphim back in 2014, I released just the basic core mechanic of the full game as a single continuous stage onto PlayStation Mobile. My plan was to iterate via updates while it existed on the market in the hopes that it would build recognition and help fund development, at least in part, until the completion of the whole game design. Needless to say, PlayStation Mobile is no longer a live platform, but I am still happy with the way things ended, since I'm now targeting Vita native and PS4 as well.

    With that change however, the scope of the game changed. Rather than having the single continuous stage structure it originally had, it's now a full campaign with 24 stages, several bosses, and cinematic animations. So the workload has increased. Nonetheless, I owe it to the Vita community and to myself for having this larger goal now with completion in sight. I love working with the Vita, and handheld gaming has been an important part of my life from the Legend of Zelda Game Boy titles to Borderlands on Vita.

    Has that viewpoint wavered at all in light of Sony’s public withdrawal of support for the handheld?

    I completely understand how the Vita community feels and why they feel the way that they do, and I definitely share those same sentiments. It very much seems like Sony's been pulling back from supporting their handheld when at PSX 2017 just recently, there wasn't a single Vita to be found on the show floor (Except ours! We were demo-ing the game at the event, but not officially or at a booth). However, this in-with-the-new-out-with-the-old mentality seems to just be with their PR, in my opinion. Being in touch with Sony's publishing side, their back-end operation doesn't really hearken that same notion at all. The developer support side of Sony seem to me to still be quite supportive of Vita. As a Vita dev, they've treated me extremely well and I really only have great things to say about my experience working with them. I also haven't seen any signs of them shutting down or depreciating anything related to Vita development, or anything like that. So even though Sony doesn't personally make games themselves for the platform anymore, obviously, or showcase it at events, as longs as there's a base, I believe they will support Vita third-party development. They're definitely aware of the Vita community. I think they're probably just done putting in the effort to sell the platform to new users, in my honest and humble opinion.

    Regarding our development of Seraphim and how this effects us, of course it puts questions in the back our mind in terms of how much time we actually have. But they're somewhat unfounded, as, like I said, there's really no evidence suggesting the end is underway or anything like that. What it definitely has effected is our reassurance that the Vita community at large will appreciate us and our game simply, if for no other reason, for supporting Vita. Which is something we cherish and do not hold lightly. Seraphim is heavily designed for touch controls and thumb-stick/face button controls (you could theoretically play through the whole game using only one, only the other, or both). So even though we're targeting PS4 also, what we are making is a Vita game through and through!

    Have you any contacts in Sony and have they been encouraging you to bring the game to the platform?

    They have been extremely supportive of Seraphim and it has been awesome working with them! They have even provided me tools at no cost, answered all of my questions, given me guidance and suggestions regarding the publishing process, and I've been in close contact with them throughout the process thus far. It's quite clear to me that they love their developers. At an exclusive developer event earlier this year, I even had the opportunity to have an incredibly encouraging conversation with Shawn Layden, which influenced my perspective and caused me to become far more productive on the game.

    Vita’s fan base is known for being incredibly vocal on social media and gaming forums. Has this been encouraging for you to keep pushing forward on the platform?

    Definitely! If it weren't for the dedication of the platform's fans, I don't know if I'd be developing for the Vita. The project as a whole has been taking longer than expected for quite some time now, and the challenges of building for Vita do add more to the pile. However, because I love Vita so much, and because the fan base is still very much alive and kicking, I have absolutely every intention of still following through.

    Has feedback from fans on social media been used to shape Seraphim? Do you find it difficult to craft a game to match your vision under these circumstances?

    The feedback from fans at this point hasn't included much in the way of design suggestions, but a ton of encouragement with the occasional asking for confirmation that the game will support PSTV, Cross-Buy, etc. The reaction toward the visual snippets I post on social media keeps me going and away from burn out. I'm able to publish and keep going because of the positivity and pats on the back I receive online.

    As an independent developer, it seems increasingly difficult to get media coverage. Given your target platforms, have you found it difficult to raise awareness of Seraphim?

    Honestly, I've only very very recently stepped into the general realm of being ready to reach out to press. In fact, only this week will I be getting the press kit up on the site. We're certainly not at the point where we're ready to go on a full-blown media blitz, though that day is approaching in the next month or two. So far, I've pretty much been raising awareness grassroots-style on Twitter, which I've been managing myself. Based on my observations thus far, it would seem that Vita Island sort of has its own media! Which is awesome and encouraging. So far, I've been reached out to by a decent number of different journalists/YouTubers who are out there looking for new Vita games in the works. And they are clearly on top of it!

    Onto the game itself - would you like to explain a little bit about what Seraphim is?

    Sure! In addition to how I described it earlier, Seraphim is a game that hearkens back to the old shoot-em-up vein of arcade classics with its own retro-inspired original mechanic, but does so with a serious, post-modern 3D art-style, which we think will have people doing double-takes upon first glance at its imagery. As a one-person development effort, all aspects of the game are designed and crafted from scratch to provide continuous replayability, old-fashioned competitiveness and that nebulous “one more game” feeling. The stages of Seraphim focus on innovation and player engagement, and are crafted to challenge both skill and wit. The irregularity of the experience is meticulously engineered to create moments that you will remember forever. Visually, the game combines visuals driven by laws of fine art analysis and contemporary expressionism, together with the gratifying element of exploding enemies amid rapid gameplay. Seraphim seeks to reshape and revive interest in true 'Arcade' as a serious modern genre again!

    You've opted for a unique art-style and somewhat non-traditional looking game mechanics. What were the inspirations to get Seraphim to where it is today?

    As a 3D artist, before my life-long plans had been finalized, I thought I wanted to work on 3D cinematic for games. And even though where I saw myself changed at some point, my sort of cerebral visions never did. I wanted to bring my 3D vision to the table for Vita. Of course, it's not always easy to bring that to handheld, and absolutely brings with it a much different set of challenges.

    As for the style, that was inspired more by contemporary fine art theory and certain concepts rather than specific examples of other games. Being fascinated with the line to abstraction throughout later art history, I began applying the underlying mindsets of various art movements therein (i.e. Romanticism, Surrealism, Impressionism, Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism, etc.), a special, deeper emphasis on approaches and techniques within Expressionism specifically (i.e. influential elements of Pollock, Kooning, Kline, Rothko and others), and some special influence within Neoclassicism (namely Klimt with his crazy patterning techniques which I love), to the principle of 3D art, geometry, animation, and 3D scene space. I've been calling the resulting art-style created for Seraphim "Geometric Expressionism".

    Twin-stick shooters have had great representation on Vita with classics like Geometry Wars 3 and Super Stardust Delta. What makes Seraphim unique?

    Those are two very great-looking games. Personally, I've only played the original Geometry Wars, but I plan on going back and playing Super Stardust Delta. I know I need to.

    Seraphim is often casually referred to as a 'twin stick shooter' because it is an arcade shooter where both thumb-sticks are used. Technically speaking, however, the actual twin stick shooter sub-genre refers to a setup where the left stick controls navigation and the right controls firing or vice versa. Seraphim is not that. In Seraphim, there isn't any navigation and both sticks control left or right firing respectively. Nonetheless, we think fans of twin-stick shooters will still take a big liking to Seraphim.

    There are number of things that set Seraphim apart from the rest in its class. First, with the exception of those two titles and some others like them of course, many if not most shmups (bullethells or otherwise), twins-tick shooters, arcade shooters and horizontal/vertical space shooters across all platforms don a 2D sprite-based front-end design. Seraphim seeks to be different by offering a brand new 3D abstract visual style created specially for it from scratch. Additionally, like I described before, (for lack of a better sub-genre descriptor) I consider it's setup a 'defensive shmup'. I'm not entirely sure how else to categorize the setup because of how unlike the rest it actually is. Just today I became aware of Cosmic Ark for Atari 2600, and it is the absolute closest thing to Seraphim's core concept I've seen to date. I'd say whatever you consider the setup of that game to be in terms of shooter sub-genre, Seraphim would likely be the next successor in that same lineage.

    Does the game feature any story? If so, how is this presented?

    The storyline of Seraphim, although it will probably come off as secondary to the gameplay, is designed to be nebulous, thought inducing, and demanding of audience interpretation. It is presented through a kind of ambiguous and sensational series of animated, artistically geometric 3D visualizations which push a narrative of emotion and atmosphere through color, shapes and movement, rather than a definitive, detailed, or concrete story. When you experience these segments, it will be very clear to you that there is something going on, and that it obviously means something. But exactly what is not at all spoon-fed to you as in traditional storytelling, leaving the gates to audience interpretation pretty much wide open.

    For the record, however, there IS a definitive story to be extrapolated through symbolism, etc. It would likely require quite a bit of discussion. There are definitely worlds more than what will meet the eye.

    What can we expect from Seraphim's soundtrack?

    I'm actually going to turn this question over to the game's composer, Mathew:

    "The music in Seraphim embraces a spacious, orchestral, overall sound with some digital and ethereal elements spread across the tracks. The songs are intended to be memorable and even catchy. "

    I would just add that each track in Seraphim has been carefully tailored to reinforce the overarching emotion driven throughout each area of gameplay. Mathew's style is also one-of-a-kind, and he is a master at what he does. If a game was to be judged solely on uniqueness, Seraphim is engineered to be up there, and that perfectly describes its music as well. We've got everything from pipe organ to electronic phaser to choral instrumentation to guitar to french horn all playing together in a single track.

    How long has the game been in development?

    Since May 2014. But for about the past three years, I've been developing it in the background of a full-time job. Now I'm working full-time on the game and plan to pursue funding very shortly, which will enable me to get through the rest of development. A good majority of the time already spent on the game went into the creation of the various 'powers' and their animated background sceneries/environments, some of which are shown in the teaser trailer for the game and have garnered a bit of attention for their visuals. Each of those took me three to four months on average. One in particular took six months.

    I understand you're using Unity - a game engine notorious for its performance on Vita. Have you been careful in your optimization efforts to ensure the game runs well?

    After being on Vita for only about one week, it runs pretty well with only certain points in the game showing much lag. I have a whole checklist of different strategies and components I still want to optimize. What's important during game development is that a programmer maintains a constant sense of optimization at all times, even when they're first building new parts of the game. That is something I try very hard to employ and it irritates me when there's something brought into the game that I know needs reduction or a more optimized setup to the point where I have to address it immediately. I think that obsessive-compulsiveness on my part helps keep everything manageable.

    There's really not a whole lot I can do about the Unity container and framework. I can only work to over-optimize my content to the point where it maybe compensates for any unnecessary fat that comes built into the package.

    On social media you've been vocal about your support for PlayStation TV. Are you a big fan of Sony's micro-console?

    We are, and it's simple to include support for. Unless your game is heavily touch-based and can't be played all the way through using traditional controls, it doesn't make sense to me not to support it. The PlayStation Mobile release did support PSTV.

    Are there any chances of a physical release when the game is ready?

    We really want to release Seraphim physically, but our focus right now is finishing the game and releasing it digitally on the PlayStation store. We have been in communication with companies who do physical releases, but have not settled any deals at this time.

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

    Shovel Knight, Gravity Rush, Dongongrompa, Steins;Gate, Jetpack Joyride, Rainbow Moon, and way too many other games to list. Those were the first that came to my mind.

    Finally – which of the Vita models if your favourite (LCD or OLED)?

    OLED for certain! The LCD feels more ergonomic for long gameplay sessions, but definitely OLED.


    I'd like to thank Ravenheart for taking the time to speak to me. You can follow development of the game on his Twitter or official website as it continues production.

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