A Short Pause Interview: Jaywalkers Interactive
This generation of console gaming may be a little light in terms of big AAA-titles so far, but there hasn't been a shortage of things to play thanks to the ever-growing list of talented indie developers who are more than happy to release their games to a community starving for something new. Sure, most indie games won't push a system to the brink when it comes to raw technical power, but what they may lack in big time production values, they make up for with engaging gameplay mechanics and unique concepts. The recently released platformer from Jaywalkers Interactive, Kick & Fennick, is a sterling example of this kind of indie creativity in action, and it's a game that I really enjoyed! More impressive, this was Jaywalkers Interactive's first ever release, so it's obvious the Netherlands-based, two-man team of Laurens Bruins and Vincent Bonefaas are a talented duo. But who are they? We were fortunate enough to have them take some time out of their busy schedules to take part in an interview and answer some of our questions.
First off, tell us about the two-person squad that is Jaywalkers Interactive. How long have you two known one another?
We got to know each other about 10 years ago at Coded Illusions, a small game development company in Rotterdam. Vincent and I became good friends because our ideas about why we love games were well aligned, and we both love animation!
When did you first decide you wanted to be a part of the video game industry? Was there a particular catalyst behind your decision to start developing games? Who or what influenced you to take up game design?
Vincent: What really solidified my passion for games was the first Monkey Island. From then on, I was hooked and played everything I could get my hands on. Another pivotal game for me was the first Fallout; that game world still influences about everything I think up.
Laurens: I just love games. Luckily, my mom is a bit of a technophile like me, so we’ve always had computers on which I could play. My first gaming memories are Alley Cat and Captain Comic on those massive floppy disks. I also remember loving Stunts and Wings of Fury, and a bit later being awestruck by the first Need for Speed. Most importantly I think, when I was about 15 years old, I was absolutely addicted to playing Rogue Spear online, and used to spend many a night climbing the ranks on Clanladder with my clanmates. Some of our older clan members used to make clan websites and modifications, so through them I got my hands on Photoshop and 3D programs which started my passion for not only playing games, but also creating them.
Have there been any past experiences that either of you have gone through that you feel helped make you a better developer, or that help you deal with the stress of the industry?
Laurens: Yes, definitely. We had worked in the game industry for almost 7 years before starting Jaywalkers, and had been through quite a bit in that regard. We both started out as artists almost 10 years ago, in a small company called Coded Illusions. Most of us were still in school and very green, but we had the opportunity to work on a big console game. It was a dream come true, and we learned a lot, not only on making games, but also about our biggest passions in gaming, which for Vincent is animation and for me is game design. When the plug was pulled on the big project we were working on, and we were facing bankruptcy, we developed some very cool prototypes on which I was one of the game designers, while Vincent moved to a lead animator position. Unfortunately, while we had a lot of hope we were on the right path, and a lot of faith in the concepts, it all came too late. We’d been burning money on the big game, and when the economy crashed, our private investors couldn’t keep the company afloat any longer.
We moved to Playlogic who were well on their way with their game, Fairytale Fights, and about a year away from releasing it on PS3 and X360. A great company with lots of great people, but a déjà vu [situation] in many ways, as it was a fairly inexperienced team trying to tackle a big project again. Vincent was lead animator, while I moved from level designer to lead level designer. Many long nights were had, but we managed to release the game. Unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, the game was met with less than stellar reviews. During this period, we had many conversations about how to better develop games, and [we were] thinking about trying to do it ourselves. Shortly after, Vincent’s life turned upside down due to some personal issues, so that motivated him to go for broke and be an independent developer.
I didn’t dare to take that step yet and stayed at Playlogic, where we developed quite a cool DLC [idea] for Fairytale Fights, while working with Vincent in the evenings to come up with ideas he could develop during the day. The DLC was turning out pretty well, but sales of the main game disappointed so it got canned (when we were pretty much done with it). Again, just like at Coded, we started developing some very cool, small concepts for XBL and PSN, for which I was one of the game designers. Unfortunately though, it was too late again and Playlogic filed for bankruptcy.
That burned me out quite a bit. It’s awesome to work in games, but it’s hard work with many long hours. When you aren’t really reaping the rewards, it’s a tough job! It was frustrating to say the least. After that, I had a small venture at yet another game company where I had the opportunity to design a series of fighting games after we finished the current project but… once we finished that, the fighting games were put on hold. Some cool small concepts were developed… yet again… but as you might expect by now, it was too late.
The opportunities in the Netherlands kind of ran out, so I had to choose whether to leave friends and family behind and find my luck abroad, or join Vincent on this adventure. The latter happened and now we’re here! I think our hardships have helped us gain the right mindset to know what to expect. We’ve seen it go wrong so many times, we know what pitfalls to avoid. It's still a pretty tough job at times, but we love doing it!
How did Kick & Fennick come to be? Where did you draw your inspiration from?
Laurens: The idea for Kick & Fennick started by thinking back to our childhood adventures, running around with pinecone grenades and big sticks acting as superguns. In our imagination, the guns were so big we could launch ourselves in the air with the massive recoil. That sparked an idea about a little boy with a very big gun using it to jump around with. Through lots of prototyping and trying out various ideas, we eventually came up with Kick & Fennick. The characters and the world came after the initial idea. We always try to approach things from a gameplay perspective first. The main character, Kick, is a representation of us as children and was visually inspired by Vincent's brother when he was little. His name was inspired by [my] nephew who’s actually called Kick, an old dutch name, which works out perfectly since the main mechanic of our game is about the 'kick' from the gun. As for Fennick, his origin can be found directly in his name and was inspired by a fennec fox. Very cute animals with ears that look about 5 times too big for the size of their head.
Has this been a game you two have always wanted to make?
Laurens: There are so many games we want to make! The core idea for Kick & Fennick had been floating around for some time already. We’ve also developed some other prototypes to see what stuck, but Kick & Fennick made the most sense at the time looking at what we could do with the time and means we had.
Was it always meant to be a platformer, or did it evolve from another idea?
Laurens: It always had this core mechanic and the idea of a boy with a massive gun, but we didn’t set out to make such a ‘big’ game at first. It started out as you falling down and just having to navigate your way through some obstacles in mid-air. From there on, it slowly evolved into what it is now.
What about Kick & Fennick are you most proud of?
Laurens: We're both perfectionists, and as such, it's hard to feel proud. Nothing is ever finished and you only see the things that aren't as good as you would like them to be. If we have to pick something, then the motion and feel of the gameplay would be the thing we’re most proud of. Apart from that, the fact that our first game was picked up by Sony, and with their supports is (going to be) released around the globe, is definitely cool and something we never expected when we started development. Every time we turn on our PS Vita or PS4 and check the PlayStation Store, we can’t help but be a bit proud seeing our game up there.
How did you come into contact with Sony about releasing Kick & Fennick on the PlayStation Vita? What does that process entail? Is it a matter of selling them on the game itself, and then developing the game in order to make it a reality?
Laurens: You can definitely pitch your game at Sony in the concept stages. We’ve thought about that as well, but also thought we needed to build a bit of a track record before going down that route, as we’ve never independently developed a game before and investors need to know you’ll be able to finish it up before pouring money on it. So in our case, we were well on our way with Kick & Fennick when we showed the game at Gamescom a few years ago. We got some great reactions from the people we showed it to and were invited to join Indigo, a small Indie gameshow in the Netherlands hosted by the Dutch Games Garden. This is where we met the guys from Greenhill who thought it would be a perfect fit for Vita, and that's how the ball started rolling.
How did the game come to be a part of February’s PlayStation Plus lineup? How excited were you guys when you found out it was going to be a PS Plus title?
Laurens: Sony offered us a place in the PS+ lineup. We were very excited, but it was also a very tough call to go with PS+ and give our game away for free! We are compensated by Sony, but if it’s more or less than what we would have earned without it, no one knows.
However, there are more upsides to the PS+ deal than just the direct financial stuff. Going with PS+ gives us a ton of exposure. We’re just two guys, and we don’t have the means or the money to advertise our game a lot. Now it’s in the spotlight, we can do promotions, new deals, our studio is put on the map, you name it. Sure, we are cannibalizing our sales in the short term by giving it away for free, but on the other hand, all this ‘free’ exposure is worth a lot of money too! We’ll give away a lot of downloads with Plus, but all the exposure might give us more sales over time than we would have had if we didn’t go with Plus and [got] buried by much bigger releases with lots of marketing dollars.
It was the toughest call we had to make, but we’re in this for the long run. We plan on making a lot more games. Kick & Fennick should be only the beginning, so it’s kind of our calling card as well. We want to get ourselves out there and make sure a lot of people know who we are and that we make fun, polished games on little to no budget that are worth the money. Maybe the next time you hear about a game by Jaywalkers Interactive, it will capture your attention a bit quicker, or just buy it straight up because you trust our games will be fun. Or maybe some rich guy will come along and give us a fat stack of cash so we can make a bigger and better game. Press will also be more inclined to write about us, because they know who we are already. Maybe when someone asks about a cool game to download in a few months, people will tell them to get Kick & Fennick!
For such a small time developer like us, step one is to get your name out there. It’s a highly competitive industry with new games coming out all the time, so you have to do something to stand out! But was it the smartest thing to do? We have no idea…
Whatever happens, a lot of people will play our game, and that’s a cool thing in and of itself!
Was it relatively easy programming for the PlayStation Vita?
Laurens: We can't answer this question in a technical sense as our friend at Abstraction Games did all the technical work in getting the game on Vita. As for design, it's a very cool device and a lot of fun to develop for. One of the difficulties are the two analog sticks. They are very small of course, and this proved to be quite a design challenge in getting the controls to feel nice.
Are there any plans to bring Kick & Fennick to other platforms, or more specifically, next-gen consoles?
Laurens: Definitely. It’s not going to be a Vita exclusive forever. We don’t know about a console version yet, but we are looking into our options.
On your website it also mentions a free demo called Blue Marble: A Journey Into Space, and that it’s intended to be used with the Oculus Rift. How interested are you in VR experiences, and what has it been like working with the Oculus Rift?
Laurens: We love VR. It’s such a bizarre experience, we still remember the first time we tried it on vividly. We we’re at Gamescom with our friend Jonathan, our audio guy, when they first showed the Rift to press and developers. We sent them an email and had a chance to take it for a spin and our jaws just dropped [to] the floor. We couldn’t stop talking about it for the rest of the event and the way home. This is the first step towards the Matrix. We immediately ordered a development kit and when we needed a little break from Kick & Fennick, we made Blue Marble. Of course there’s Oculus, and now HTC and Valve are making one, Morpheus is coming to PS4. The future of VR is looking bright.
As much as I truly enjoyed Kick & Fennick, I would’ve loved learning more about Kick and the planet he is from, why he was in a sleep stasis, and what left the beautiful city in in shambles. It appears it hasn’t been inhabited by humans in quite some time. Are there any plans for a sequel that could possibly delve deeper into Kick & Fennick’s backstory? What does the future, both immediate and long term, hold for Jaywalkers Interactive?
Laurens: There are no plans yet. We will still be busy with Kick & Fennick for a little while, and we also really have to update Blue Marble for the new Oculus Rift development kit. Time has flown since we released that almost 2 years ago, and we still regularly get emails about it. We would also love to expand on it a bit, and have some cool ideas for that as well. There are many things lining up at the moment, and we’ve got some tough decisions to make!
What is your favorite video game of all-time?
Vincent: I used to say the old Fallout games (1 and 2) and Monkey Island (1,2,3) are my favorites, but I think The Last of Us has taken the crown for me. I really love post-apocalyptic settings and story driven games. Gameplay, wise I'm most fond of character action games with RPG elements. The Last of Us just nails all of those things perfectly. I'm also a big fan of Dark Souls and EA UFC, although it’s kind of embarrassing how bad I lose to Laurens in the latter.
Laurens: I can’t name just one! There are so many great games. I enjoy any type of game as long as it's well made. Anything from Naughty Dog is an instabuy; they're the kings of game development as far as I'm concerned. Their quality and attention to detail is just astonishing. Same goes for Rockstar, Red Dead Redemption is almost perfect in my book. I don't think I've ever been so engrossed in a world as in RDR. Mostly though, I'm a fan of game mechanics and the feeling they give when it's executed well. I absolutely love the animation of Shadow of the Colossus and I can never get enough of beating things up in games like God of War with all its epic set pieces and smooth combat that make me feel like a badass. I'm absolutely addicted to FIFA. If I could only play one game for the rest of my life, that would be it. It's endless fun. I love racing in rFactor. Portal, especially the first one, was incredible. Civilization is fantastic. I could go on and on! I just love games.
What upcoming games are you looking forward to most?
Vincent: I’m a big Dark Souls fan, so Bloodborne is high on the list. Of course Uncharted 4, that needs no justification. The Division looks great as well. I’m a big fan of the first Mirror’s Edge, so I can’t wait for Mirror’s Edge 2, and finally, if it’s ever going to see the light of day, The Last Guardian!
Laurens: Uncharted 4, Mirror’s Edge 2, The Last Guardian. And, although not officially announced yet, I’m already super hyped for the next Red Dead. I still play through RDR about twice a year, and it’s still gorgeous to look at, so I can’t wait to see what they’ll do on PS4/Xbox One!
Is there any one particular genre of game that you really want to experiment with before you’re done making video games?
Laurens: We love big cinematic experiences and get more excited by the quality of an experience, rather than a particular genre. Anything can be awesome if it’s done well! That said, we're probably most interested in character action games like the ones mentioned above. We hope to someday have to funds to be able to go all out and make the most epic-ass-kicking-action-beat-stuff-up-game we can imagine!