I’m back with a new game dev interview! I’ve recently been taken by a very impressive indie release in Lacuna – A Sci-Fi Noir Adventure. Launching in May 2021, it’s released with very positive reviews and is one of my favorite games so far this year. I was able to grab the developers for a quick interview and give you guys some insight into how the industry works. Check out the game down below by clicking the link: I can highly recommend it, and I will be providing a full review very soon. I’ve also enclosed a link to Digitales Interactive‘s web page as asked.
DigiTales Interactive is a tiny game development studio based in Saarbrucken, Germany. Their diverse team has backgrounds in various disciplines ranging from literature, music, marketing, pixel art, and programming. Their games employ established storytelling wisdom from various media to convey philosophical ideas and other thought-provoking subject matter without sacrificing fun and entertainment.
Interview With The Co-Founders
First of all, tell me about yourself! What do you do?
We are Jasmin and Julian, co-founders of German-based indie game studio DigiTales Interactive. We’re a couple, we both studied literature, and we worked together creatively in the past before deciding one day that video games would be our medium. We started teaching ourselves how to make games in Unity and put together a small prototype for Lacuna. We successfully pitched it to Assemble Entertainment in 2019 and founded DigiTales. In 2020, we hired two more people to help us realize the project. We both take care of the game design, writing, content implementation, and also the music (Julian), and UI (Jasmin).
What does being a game designer actually mean?
It depends a lot on the kind of game you are working on, and on your creative vision. We personally try to create immersive experiences that give you a feeling of agency and that make you think about the consequences and implications of your actions. Our game design work in Lacuna was mostly trying to work puzzles seamlessly into a narrative, which is entirely different from designing a level for a platformer, balancing weapons in a shooter, designing the economy of an MMO, etc.
There has been a great deal of controversy in recent years about microtransactions in gaming. Not so much an opinion, but why do games tend to cut out content to sell later as DLC and loot boxes? Is it to do with development costs? Or is it time-related?
We aren’t experts on this since our business model is premium pricing; you pay once upfront, you get the game. We’re also fans of free demos so you can make an informed purchase. However, we will say that the complexity of this topic is often underappreciated. We hate pushing gambling on children as much as the next guy, but there can be good reasons for companies (especially larger ones) to monetize their games using DLCs, cosmetics, season passes, etc. It’s not just a matter of having a steady cash flow in an age where many games are constantly being worked on (e.g. online multiplayer titles); sometimes it’s about time management: If the art department is basically done with a project before the next one is ready to go, keeping them busy with the creation of skins is a better route to take than just laying them off after a project is finished. The same goes for game and level designers working on DLC after the main campaign is finished while the game as a whole is not. There are certain games where the content was cut, artificial scarcity was created, or blockers were put in to later sell the solutions back to the players – but this is not the norm.
Tell us about your current project.
Our latest release is a 2D sci-fi noir adventure called Lacuna. You play agent Neil Conrad who needs to solve a murder case in order to prevent interplanetary tensions from escalating into a war. Of course, there’s a bigger conspiracy behind it all that you may or may not uncover by the end of it all. While the game seems to appeal to the Point & Click adventure crowd, it does things very differently. Sure, there is a focus on story and dialogs, it’s pixel art, and there is some puzzling involved, but that’s where the similarities end. The game is all about choices: dialogs don’t repeat; the story continues even if you submitted the wrong solution to a puzzle; the game auto-saves in intervals so you can’t take back what you did. It’s like a 2D Telltale game except there’s actually a bunch of different endings (no offense to those titles, they were a huge inspiration). We’ve also done away with inventory management, self-contained mini-games, and everything else that stops the story in its tracks in many P&C games, and tried to incorporate all the puzzles into the narrative flow instead. Rather than going into more detail, we recommend you check out the free demo called Lacuna: Prologue on Steam and GOG and see for yourselves.
As anyone who creates anything, we must all deal with criticism from consumers. How do you go about it particularly in the prolific and viral standard of gaming today?
We are very grateful for constructive feedback and try to consider it in our current and upcoming projects. When dealing with criticism, it always helps us to remind ourselves that it is impossible to make a game that is perfect for everyone. Nearly every game design decision has its upsides and downsides, we often speak of the “least bad option” internally. As a consequence, making a game is always a process of weighing different interests and preferences. All in all, we consider player feedback a very important part of game development, and we made sure to incorporate it into our process from the very start by showing our prototypes to people and regularly sending out builds for playtesting. If someone is just being rude instead of constructive (which is rarely the case), we honestly find it easy not to take them seriously. After years of using Reddit, Twitter, etc., and playing online shooters and Mobas, we’ve learned to take Internet strangers’ opinions with a grain of salt.
What advice would you give budding developers into taking the plunge into game design?
We are by no means veterans ourselves, but there are a few things we have learned already. A very general lesson is that tenacity might be the most important trait you need to possess or develop if you want to ever finish a game. Just keep creating and don’t be discouraged if something takes a long time or didn’t go as planned. Game development is a very slow and at times not very rewarding process, and sometimes you just have to power through. A more specific piece of advice is to prototype and test your game a lot and to get as much feedback on your game design as you can. It can be daunting to show your creative work to others and to expose yourself to criticism, but it is a very important part of the development process and nobody is perfect from the start. If you get negative feedback on your prototype, don’t consider it a setback, but a chance to get better and to make your game shine. If your prospective players agree that something doesn’t work, don’t be precious – throw it away. We showed an early version of the first act of Lacuna to a friend who is an experienced game designer, and he basically told us the gameplay sucked. That was the best that could have happened to us because it basically made the game twice as good in the end.
If you still have time to play video games, what are some of your favorite ones to play?
Jasmin loves adventure and detective games and walking sims. Some of her favorite games are What Remains of Edith Finch, Gone Home, and Return of the Obra Dinn. Julian plays just about anything. Lots of Apex Legends, but also some single-player games, the latest ones being Hollow Knight, Inside, Little Nightmares, and most recently Subnautica: Below Zero. His favorite story-driven game is Soma from Frictional Games.
What inspires you to do what you do?
We love interesting, captivating stories that make you think about philosophical or moral questions and about life in general. For us, video games can put you in a situation, both emotionally and intellectually, like no other medium can, which makes them perfect for moral quandaries that we sometimes leave behind having learned something about ourselves. However, video games are still a very young medium, and many of the possibilities they offer still remain undiscovered. We hope to be a part of discovering the potential of games and of the new ways of storytelling they offer.
What is the hardest part of your job?
As an indie developer, you wear a lot of different hats, and it can sometimes be hard to do justice to all the different areas you are working in. Imagine having to work in almost all departments at once while also managing them – and having to project when you’ll be done with the game and what it will cost years in advance. Apart from that, bookkeeping isn’t our favorite part of the job.
What was your favorite thing about game development? Is there anything you find difficult or challenging in dealing with the struggles?
Our favorite thing is creative fulfillment. There is nothing more satisfying than working on the artistic side for a long time and ultimately seeing all those different disciplines – writing, programming, art, VFX, music, sound design, etc. – come together and materialize (something like) the vision you had years ago. The most difficult part was the lead-up to the point where we were actually able to pay ourselves and others for it. It can be tough to keep working on your project for years while juggling other jobs, not knowing if it’ll ever amount to anything. That is not to say that we were ever in it for the money. If somebody goes into indie game development expecting to get rich, they are ill-informed and usually give up rather quickly.
What lessons have you learned from your first game?
Too many to count, honestly. In short, we know how to make a game now and we did not when we started. We threw away more things – writing, music, game design ideas, code, etc. – than there are in Lacuna now. We can’t wait to tackle a new project where we’re not completely clueless from the start.
What are your future project(s)?
We will continue on our path of premium, single-player, narrative experiences for the foreseeable future. The next project is already lined up (we planned and pitched it last year), but we can’t tell you much about it yet. We will say this: It won’t be a 180 from Lacuna, and you shouldn’t expect to learn much more about it this or even next year.
If you couldn’t be a game developer, what ideal job would you like to do?
Jasmin already does two things she loves; besides her job as a game developer, she works at university as a researcher and teacher. Julian would go back to being a composer and/or become a chef, maybe open a banh mi or bento takeout downtown. He loves Asian cuisine.
What is your ideal video game if money and time was no object?
We would love to be able to go wild with a super adaptive, branching narrative where every small thing you do has some impact on the world – while still somehow telling a well-paced, meaningful story. The closest thing to it out there is probably Detroit: Become Human, but we’d also throw an open world into the mix. Can’t be too hard to pull off with an infinite amount of time and money, right?
Thanks for having us, this was fun!
Anytime, guys! It was a blast interviewing you both. I see big things for their future, and I had a lot of fun playing Lacuna. It’s relatively short but very compelling. Right now, it’s in contention for my game of the year awards. Stay tuned for a future review!