When we last talked with Jan Kavan in 2011, his very promising-looking sci-fi indie adventure J.U.L.I.A. was gearing up for its initial release, and no one could foresee all the trouble the creative mind behind CBE Software was about to experience. Nearly two years later, we sat down with the accomplished musician and game designer once again to discuss publishers, life as an indie developer, and of course his current crowdfunding campaign for J.U.L.I.A. Enhanced Edition. As you'll soon see, Jan's very pointed, heartfelt answers didn't mince words.
Ingmar Böke: Hello Jan, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to Adventure Gamers. Your crowdfunding campaign for the enhanced edition of J.U.L.I.A. is already a success, which is great to see. For any readers who are just learning about J.U.L.I.A. now, please describe the game in your own words.
Jan Kavan: Hi Ingmar! First and foremost thank you for inviting me for this interview.
J.U.L.I.A. is my very personal take on a slightly different form of narration than what is usually used in traditional adventure games. It’s more inspired by old interactive fiction games and radio plays I used to love as a kid. While the game is graphical, the biggest impact is still placed upon the player’s imagination, and my goal was to create the scenarios more in the mind of the player rather than utilizing super visual effects, which is rather obvious, as we are merely two people and only one of us can do the visual stuff.
The setting is as follows: when a huge telescope discovered a signal which was without doubt created by alien sentient beings, a critical expedition was conceived which consisted of the most proficient scientists, as well as soldiers to keep the expedition alive and in good shape.
The story centers on Rachel Manners, a 35-year-old astrobiologist who is awakened from her long cryogenic sleep by her spaceship’s artificial intelligence called J.U.L.I.A. to discover that the probe has been severely hit by a passing swarm of meteors. On top of that, she is alone on the ship and has no idea why she was still in her cryo-chamber even as the rest of the crew was obviously actively working on the expedition already.
Soon she will discover that the expedition was quite ill-fated, and that she now has to piece together the fate of the expedition as well as discover many secrets behind the sad past of the solar system she’s currently stationed in. As she learns about this history, she also learns something about herself.
J.U.L.I.A. is an interface-based game. This means that Rachel is controlling various computer interfaces to interact with the world. The game itself is a mixture of narration, puzzles which play a key role in gameplay, and planetary exploration. Exploration is done by sending the mobile robot called Mobot to the planet you’re currently orbiting and selecting contextual choices from menus, which directs Mobot to do what you want. There are also dialogue trees, but they don’t play a major role in the game as most of the time the game follows the interaction between Rachel, J.U.L.I.A. and Mobot.
The game is not based upon an epic story, so don’t expect Mass Effect universe-scale consequences; this story is way more personal. If I was to make a music comparison, it’s not a symphony, it’s a string quartet.
Original J.U.L.I.A. trailer
Ingmar: What do you plan to improve in the enhanced edition, and what motivated these improvements?
Jan: The most obvious reason is that I come from an artistic background. If, as a composer, I compose a concerto for cello and orchestra, I usually come back after it’s performed and see what works, what doesn’t and adjust the piece so it works better next time.
Writers can edit their books to create second or third editions, etc., theater plays often get improvised... well, I could get even more boring with other examples. However, this approach is quite uncommon with video games, given the ratio of games that have been patched or improved just to iron out bugs rather than treating them with serious retrospection.
I totally understand this within a big industry context, but within the small indie world, I have a feeling that perfection and retrospection make perfect sense. I feel that only a small fragment of people have really played J.U.L.I.A. so I still have enough of an audience which can be targeted by this enhanced edition.
I for one want to look back at J.U.L.I.A. Enhanced Edition and call it a game I am extremely proud of without having to say obvious phrases like “Of course we could have done this or that better IF…”.
Originally we set ourselves a small goal to fix the most obvious problems with the game, but we still have several weeks available and the basic goal has already been reached! Getting additional pledges above that means that we can be a lot more ambitious with what we are doing with the enhanced edition.
The original plan and what players will actually get will be:
1. New Rachel Manners! The old one didn’t look nice, and while we don’t plan to turn her into a common stereotype of a kung-fu fighteress who happens to be Miss Universe at the same time, we want her to climb out of the uncanny valley she settled herself into years ago. We will also fix her mouth-clapping issue, and while we can’t with our technology do perfect lip sync, we’ll at least make her mouth movement more believable. What's interesting about this process is that the beautification process will involve our backers. They will get the chance to vote for the best concept and be there when we help Rachel out.
Two of the many concept sketches for the Rachel Manners redesign to be voted on by J.U.L.I.A. Enhanced Edition backers
2. Interface redesign Just because we can. But seriously, the old interface looks a bit cluttered and clumsy. We will introduce collapsible parts so players will get a better view of the background, and in general we want to make the interface design cleaner.
3. Story revision There are parts where the story sometimes goes over-the-top or scenes become almost ridiculous. While some of the situations looked good to me back then, I will apply my since-obtained more critical view and adjust the script accordingly.
4. Making some tasks, like material harvesting, optional
5. Shining my critical spotlight on puzzles Especially the clarity, responsiveness and introduction of an easy mode for the puzzles I had to personally step in and solve for J.U.L.I.A. players. I will also adjust some issues connected with the story. I want some of the puzzles to be better integrated into the plot.
6. Some more music, too I can see now that in general players spend more time in certain locations or situations than I anticipated. I need to extend the music so it won’t become repetitive. I will also use more of the procedural sound layering which is used for example on Salia 4.
It’s safe to say that we’ve already reached this goal and what I've been talking about till this point will become reality. However, we still have time to aim even higher. Right now we are attacking our first stretch goal, which will seriously expand the exploration part of the game, making the locations larger and introducing more choices to players. This goal will also allow us to shine light upon the crew members which we had to cut out from the original game. I always wanted to explore more than just the basic story arches but now I feel we can, and thus the enhanced edition might be really interesting even for those who already played the game.
Our next stretch goal is called “Fullscreen planetary exploration” and it will be a real step forward for the visual side of the game.
Screen comparison of original J.U.L.I.A. and Enhanced Edition
This goal will basically let us recreate all the original mini-images as full screen high quality renders, and we will switch to contextual interface actions based upon regions rather than upon the global pool of actions which is how J.U.L.I.A. works now. It would mean creating more than 50 renders and redesigning the exploration game logic, but I believe it would be totally worth it.
The last announced goal so far is a Unity 3D port. This port would mean Linux and Mac versions as well as a potential iOS or Android downscaled build. It would also mean having scalable visuals and not a fixed resolution of 1024x768, which is the limitation we have right now. For us this goal means recreating the vast majority of the game from scratch, though.Continued on the next page...