Day One - Pendulo Studios interview
Almost a decade ago, Runaway: A Road Adventure was cited as one of the games that helped catapult the genre back into an era of relative prominence. Its slick visuals, offbeat humour, and unapologetically traditional point-and-click gameplay felt like an ideal blend of old-school genre conventions and modern-age production values, and its worldwide popularity blazed a trail for others to do the same. We no longer had LucasArts, Infocom, Legend, or Sierra, but with up-and-coming international developers like Pendulo Studios emerging on the scene, the sky once again seemed the limit.
Indeed, the genre prospered and thrived to an extent in the years to come, and Pendulo itself became a mainstay, releasing two Runaway sequels and a re-imagining of its Spanish-only Hollywood Monsters (The Next BIG Thing) before moving in a darker, bolder direction with the gritty thriller Yesterday. There seemed to be no stopping Pendulo, but as we've seen many times already, not even a successful track record and a skilled development team offers any guarantees for tomorrow. In tough economic times, publishers are even less willing to finance new adventures, particularly high-risk original IPs, and when Pendulo went looking for partners for Day One, they came away empty-handed. Once a beacon of new hope, Pendulo became the latest in a depressing line of studios to face an uncertain future without investors.
Or maybe not so depressing, just with a different type of investor. Like several other high-profile developers of late, Pendulo has turned to crowd-funding to finance their edgy, satirical thriller about a man facing his last day alive. Requesting €300,000 by September 7th through Gamesplanet Lab, the campaign still has a fair way to go to reach its goal. But we're intrigued by what we've seen, so we nabbed Pendulo's art director Rafael Latiegui to discuss both the game and the challenges facing adventure developers today. (And stay tuned after the interview for some exclusive pics from past Pendulo titles!)
Pendulo Studios - 18 years of adventure
Adventure Gamers: You've managed to make five games in English and several more in Spanish either on your own or with publisher funding before now. So I guess the obvious question is: why do you suddenly need crowd-funding to develop your next adventure?
Rafael Latiegui: Simply because we didn’t have any other choice. The global crisis and piracy have had quite an impact on sales, and therefore publishers are not able to put up the same amount of money for a game as they could a few years ago, so that means the budgets of our previous games have grown smaller and smaller. At the moment, we just couldn’t find a publisher that wanted to get involved in a new game, so we had to knock on the last door available: crowdfunding.
AG: Your fundraising campaign jokes (or maybe doesn't joke) that publishers wouldn't be interested in Day One because its subject matter would "scare the kids". But the adventure genre isn't really a children's genre anyway, the demographic generally skewing much older than that. Is that really a legitimate concern?
Rafael: It’s not only a joke, but a sad truth. Most commercial adventures depend on family friendly retail shops, like Wal-Mart or Carrefour. They don’t have any problem having a gory AAA title, but not a small adult game… and unluckily, adventures these days are small games from a commercial point of view. With crowdfunding, though, we do not need to depend on those sellers: the only people who can decide what the game will be like are Pendulo and our crowdcreators (in other words, the people who raise funds for the game).
AG: Whether it scares the kids or not, Day One seems to be at least as dark as Yesterday, if not more so. Is this trend towards grittier, more mature games something we can expect to see continue from Pendulo?
Rafael: The truth is Day One will not really be that dark… More adult and deeper perhaps… but not as dark as Yesterday. Using Hitchcock as an example, Yesterday is more like Psycho, while Day One will resemble The Man Who Knew Too Much more.
AG: It seems like lots of comedy actors tire of simply being funny, or think they can earn more respect with serious roles. Is that basically true of Pendulo as a studio? Why the shift away from the more blatantly comic-style games like Runaway?
Rafael: We want to make both comic and adult games. We love comedy and we’ve proved that we are able to provide good comedies to the adventure scene for 18 years. But ever since the third Runaway, we’ve been wanting to try a thriller and more adult topics. That’s what we did with Yesterday and we’ve had such a good time that we want to stay on that path.
AG: What's the public reaction been to this change in tone? Or is the fact that you're now campaigning for funds an answer in itself?
Rafael: As far as we know, players like this shift, and reviewers do, too. What Adventure Gamers wrote in your review is a very good example, and it shows a common opinion: Pendulo is not restricted to comedy anymore, and people want more. Unfortunately, people and funds are not always synonymous…
AG: So tell us about Day One. We know that Ethan Grant has one day to live, but gets a stay of execution (so to speak) by a mysterious benefactor who wants him to go to Paris. Clearly he's a pawn (or about to become one) in someone's scheme, which is an intriguing premise that could lead anywhere. So where does the story go from there?
Rafael: As you’ve said, Day One will play to the “pawn in someone’s scheme” topic… but there’s a bit more to it that I can’t tell just now… We can’t start spoiling the game before it’s even made! On the one hand, we’ll have this noir plot about Ethan trying to solve a riddle in order to save his life… if he even can. On the other, there will be this plot that talks about crisis. What happens when you realize that the life you’ve led has been absolutely pointless? That the dreams that you had are not true at all? That your life is nothing but a lie?
AG: Your games have traditionally involved lead characters that are a bit edgy, if not downright unlikeable. Is that true of Ethan as well? I could see how finding out you have only a day to live would put a person in a bad mood.
Rafael: Yes, but actually, it can be the other way round. Let’s say that Ethan is not what you’d call a good person. Well, the events in Day One may offer him the chance to redeem himself… or not. That will be a very interesting path to investigate, not only for us as developers, but also for players. The duality between Ethan, the hard-nosed guy used to winning, and Ethan, the dead man walking, can lead to many complicated decisions.
AG: Why do you favour these rough-around-the-edges sorts of protagonists for your games?
Rafael: Some of the best characters around have an edgy aspect, even in the adventure genre. For example, you have Guybrush from the Monkey Island series, Al Lowe’s Larry or Deponia’s Rufus… If they were real people, we wouldn’t be their friends at all… they’d be insufferable!!! Funny, yes, but from a distance!
AG: Your games have also been known for some wacky puzzle solutions. That can work well with pure comedy games, but typically not so well with more serious games. Has your design philosophy changed along with your storylines?
Rafael: Yes, and that’s something that you can already see in Yesterday. Day One will be similar, though this time we will ask our crowdcreators (the game’s fundraisers) if they want more difficult puzzles or even different difficulty levels. This time, they’ll decide (or should I say “you”?)
AG: Your campaign trailer referred to Day One as being a "satire with a conscience". What kinds of issues does the game tackle satirically? I'll go way out on a limb and guess you aren't mocking terminal illness.
Rafael: As you know, Ethan’s bedside book is “The Dictionary of the Devil”, by Ambrose Bierce. It may be the funniest and most cynical dictionary ever written. Two examples:
“Alliance: In international politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other's pockets that they cannot separately plunder a third.”
“Lawsuit: A machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage.”
That’s exactly the kind of tone we want for Day One. Funny, yes, but dealing with serious issues: politics, society, morality… The prime and most important thing that a game must do is to be fun, but we believe that it can talk about serious matters at the same time. The genre most fitted to do this may very well be adventure games, because they provide a space where the mind is more important than the trigger and, as you said, most players are no longer kids. At least we aren’t… unfortunately.
By the way… we’ve changed that trailer! Now it shows a very similar video, but with the real audio from the game, which shows how Ethan is told about his terminal disease.
Revised Day One trailer (click "Captions" button for English subtitles near the end)
AG: You're asking for 300,000 euros to make Day One, which really doesn't seem like a lot given the stellar production values of your previous games. Surely something's gotta give, no? Length, quality, maybe both?
Rafael: As you say, it’s a very tight budget. And once you take away the money for the rewards, for the bank or PayPal transactions, and taxes, then it’s reaaaally tight. As we explain in the Gamesplanet page, if we only raise €300,000 the game will be short, though we will make up for this with the crowdcreating novelties: forums, polls, and even your own creations in the game. Can you sing or play an instrument? Your voice may appear in the soundtrack. Are you a good painter, designer? Your art can appear in the backgrounds. Do you design cool T-shirts? Characters might end up wearing them. Do you write? Do you want to play a part in the cast?
Quality won’t suffer, that’s for sure. It’s cool to have your creations in a game, even if it’s a short one, but it has to be one of high quality, and that’s something at which Pendulo excels.
AG: I suspect many developers feel like crowd-funding is a liberating thing, getting out from under the control of publishers. And yet dealing with fans could prove to be even more time-consuming and emotionally draining, especially when they now feel they have a personal stake in the game's creation. It's a bit like being a publicly elected official, I'd say. What are your thoughts on suddenly being accountable to hundreds, even thousands of people?
Day One's The Louvre
Rafael: Dealing with fans may be exhausting, but it’s also a very rich experience. Things get you to a new dimension and to be honest, it’s always positive to have so much feedback from players, whether they like your games or not. Besides, I think it’s very exciting for fans to be able to get in touch with the development team as well, because they learn a lot about what it takes to make a game.
AG: At time of writing, your fundraising campaign still has a fair way to go to be successful. Did you expect it to be this difficult to meet your target goal?
Rafael: Yes, absolutely. We knew from the very beginning it would be a pretty tough path. Of course, we didn’t know the key to success, but we did know certain things you had to do to have at least a chance to achieve the goal.
As you say, our campaign has a fair way to go to be successful, but we believe there’s still a chance for us to get people interested in Day One. We have had visibility problems: many people found out about our project in bizarre ways and they were surprised because they loved it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read things like “How is it possible that I almost missed this project?” or “I thought Kickstarter was the only place to find out about these projects!”
AG: Do you think being an established developer has hurt or hindered your appeal? On the one hand, people are familiar with your work, so supporting you doesn't feel like a huge gamble. On the other hand, people are used to getting finished Pendulo games without having to pre-purchase/invest/donate through crowd-funding and may balk at the prospect of forking over money just to get it made.
Rafael: Well, that’s a good question. I would say that it doesn’t help a lot because most people think that Pendulo is a big company with a lot of money and don’t realize that’s so far from the truth. We are a pretty small development team struggling with budgets to be able to make another game. Maybe if the proposed project is a well known IP instead of a brand new one, then you play with better cards, but that’s not our case. On the other hand, I have to say that Pendulo has many wonderful fans and their support is highly appreciated by the entire team.
AG: Some people have accused developers of piling on the crowd-funding bandwagon as a shortcut to easy money. What would you say to that assumption?
A Manhattan street in Day One
Rafael: Running a campaign for crowdfunding is far from easy. Believe me, it takes a lot of time and it’s quite an effort. The risk is also high… as far as I know, almost 70% of the campaigns for videogames fail, so that says it all. If a campaign is successful, both the players and the developers win. We get to make a game we have been wanting to create for a long time, and the experience of playing a game that was created with your direct help makes it much richer and more valuable, and you may also get pretty interesting rewards. In saying help, I’m not just talking about money, I’m talking about spreading the word on the project through social media and with your friends and acquaintances, or sharing your talent with the developers.
AG: Tell us about Gamesplanet Lab, and why you chose to channel your fundraising campaign through them.
Rafael: Our first obvious choice was Kickstarter because of its popularity, but then we realized that you had to be an American company or at least to have a fiscal address in the US, and we also noticed that you could only use English to present your game. Although we want to communicate with as many English speaking people as possible, we didn’t want to leave out German, French, Spanish or Italian players, just to name a few. Gamesplanet Lab allowed us to speak to our fans in more than one language and that was very important to us.
AG: Not to dwell on the negative, but what happens to Day One if you can't raise the required funds? What happens to Pendulo itself?
Rafael: Well, if our crowdfunding campaign is not successful, Day One will most likely be shelved, maybe forever. If a publisher changes its mind and decides to invest in the development of the game, it may see the light of day in the future, but we cannot guarantee that it will be the same game, with the same ambition and creative freedom. What we do know for sure is that we won't get the chance to share its development with you and to have all you fans on board to help us create the game.
Regarding Pendulo, it’s just not possible to keep doing the same type of games we have been doing if we don’t get the funding to do so. I guess we’ll be exploring other ways to create games.
The tight-knit Pendulo team is unwavering in its support of each other. Well, usually.
AG: Yesterday was the first Pendulo game to appear on the iPad. How successful was that venture, and can we expect to see other (either older or future) Pendulo games appear on tablets and smart phones?
Rafael: Yesterday has sold many more copies for iPad and iPhone than for PC. We’re happy about that, especially since it was our first experience for iOS and we started from scratch, diving head-first into the uncharted waters. There’s something about playing an adventure game on a tablet that can’t be described. It’s kind of more intimate, like reading a book you hold in your hands instead of on a computer screen, and that shows in the gameplay of Yesterday.
We are finishing a new game right now that will be out on iPad and iPhone, as well, and it’s called Hidden Runaway. Despite the name, it’s not a sequel of Runaway, but you might picture it as Runaway revisited in a casual way. We have had a lot of fun making it!
AG: Any final thoughts to share on why Day One is a not-to-be-missed adventure that may indeed be missed if people don't contribute?
Rafael: I’d like to encourage adventure game lovers to support us and, of course, other adventure game developers because I feel many of those small teams have reached a “point of no return,” and if players don’t show their empathy here, only the strongest companies will survive, and as we all sadly know, there are not many adventure games on the lists of games those companies develop.
At this point, we’re not just talking about this or that game, we’re talking about support for the continuity of adventure game developers in general, and that is something priceless if you are a lover of the genre.
AG: Thanks very much for your time, and good luck with the campaign and (hopefully) the game itself.
Rafael: Thank you so much for everything!
Day One may be the future, but Pendulo's got a rich history of adventures behind them to celebrate as well, and they've generously provided several never-before (or rarely-before)-seen artworks from their past games. (Click for larger versions.) Enjoy!
Great looking games don't just happen by accident. This cemetery scene from A Twist of Fate went through several phases during the process of creation before finally reaching finished status.
Pendulo experimented with various characters for the help system in Runaway 2...
... The role eventually went to the eccentric Joshua.
The third Runaway installment might have started with the reunited couple still on Mala Island.
Another early concept from the proposed beginning of Runaway 3, later re-written in a whole new direction.
Another scene which never made it into the final game was created by a new colour artist trying to adapt to Pendulo's distinctive art style.
The Next BIG Thing