13 Questions With... D-Pad Studios

Owlboy art

Here at GoPlayThat we have been enjoying Savant Ascent and like most people are eagerly awaiting the release of Owlboy. With that in mind we thought we would reach out to Norwegian developer D-Pad Studios for the word on the street. Questions were asked, answers were given. Move your eyes from left to right, read some letters which have been combined to make words and find out what makes this talented bunch tick!

GoPlayThat: Savant Ascent is a gorgeous looking game, with its sharp 2D visuals. Do you have any particular inspirations behind the style and art of the game?

Simon: Like most of our projects, the spark for the visuals comes from a lot of places. Naturally, we started with the design of the album: Alchemist, which I designed for [the musician] Savant some time ago. The original concept I was presented with was something along the lines of "Victorian magician does some kind of insane orb magic", one of the keywords being "Philosopher's stone". Taking elements from the album cover and turning that into the game's theme, we came up with the idea of a gigantic elevator. This made me incorporate elements of old English castles, Celtic designs, chains and stained glass. The design of the actual Savant character ended up with more leather and looked more like a fighter. Originally, the design incorporated a sword, but we changed that when we realised the main gameplay focus should be in the orb shots.

Some minor influences come from Castlevania's design, but mostly in the look of the castle, not the characters themselves. I had already made so many of Savant's album covers that I had a pretty good idea of where the look was going from the start.

Savant Ascent cover art

GPT: The game is also an interesting twist on the usual twin stick shooter formula. Which games in that, or any other genres influenced Savant Ascent?

Jo-Remi: Savant Ascent is based on an old concept of mine where you could shoot enemies as they came at you in a circle. This itself was inspired by old arcade space shooter games that I played as a kid. We added a new element to Savant Ascent, which let the player perform dodges from side to side. We didn't want to introduce any platforming, big levels or advanced controls because we wanted the players to immediately be able to pick up the game and kick ass!

GPT: How did the collaboration on a video game with Savant come about? How much input did he have in the direction of the game itself?

Jo-Remi: Since we met him, we've been discussing all kinds of ideas! This won't be the last time you see us working together, in fact, he's been providing me with music for a lot of projects from before I joined D-Pad, some of which I have compiled in this videoAll he needed to do was provide us with his music and he trusted us to do the rest.

Simon: I think we collaborated on game projects even before I started designing his visual profile. When the first murmurs of a Savant game project came about, we already knew how to work together. For the most part, we handled everything and Savant would offer some minor input if needed. I think the only thing he ever wanted changed outright was the weapon used, which should give you an idea of how easy he is to work with!

Savant Ascent art

GPT: The music and gameplay sync so well in Savant Ascent, it really is a joy to play. Are there any other musicians you would like to collaborate with?

Jo-Remi: Right now we are working with Jonathan Geer on Owlboy. Jonathan does such phenomenal work, that if we could keep both him and Alex Vinter (Savant) on the team, we'd be set for life!

Simon: As long as they're inspirational, we would love to work with anyone. I think I have a back catalogue of composers the size of a novel that would make for interesting collaborations. That said, Alex and Jonathan have so much talent between them we could make magic happen everytime.

GPT: Savant Ascent is headed for the PlayStation 4. Can we expect any new content for this release? Are you planning on taking any advantage of the platform specific features?

Jo-Remi: Well, the PS4 is an extremely powerful platform. I have no clue whether we'll be able to squeeze all that juice into a game like Savant Ascent. We might experiment with the graphics, but we are more focused on gameplay than anything else. As far as content goes, I really want to work more into Ascent as Savant releases albums, because Simon and Vinter are working so closely together to make stories and worlds for his music, especially through the album covers they work on. We already have lots of ideas, all we need is time (which we don't have too much of right now, especially with Owlboy being our number 1 focus.)

Savant Ascent screenshot

GPT: With a PS4 release already locked down, are you targeting any other console platforms? The game seems well suited to the Vita for example.

Jo-Remi: It all depends on GameMaker's capabilities. Savant Ascent is created using GameMaker, so if it will allow us to port to Vita, we will.

GPT: Savant Ascent has won numerous awards. Are there any in particular you are most proud of? Do the awards give you a sense of validation that you are creating work that communicates well to others?

Jo-Remi: Actually, releasing the game was the most validating thing I have ever felt. We spent the last few days of development locked in front of our computers, testing, polishing, capturing gameplay videos, talking to the guys at Humble(where we first released the game) and we didn't get any sleep through any of it. Seeing the game go live after that final night of development was the best thing that ever happened to me, followed by all the videos of people playing the game on the internet. No amount of awards will ever beat that feeling. Savant Ascent was made in 5 weeks, Owlboy has been in development for over 5 years. I'm scared to think about how that release will turn out!

Simon: I agree with Jo completely here. Naturally, we're thankful for our awards and they do give us a boost in morale, but the true validation is our own accomplishments and seeing the people playing the game and being happy. I think the greatest moment for me was watching two "Let's Play..." videos; one where the guy was completely in awe of everything he did, and the other, where the player was trying his best to hate the game, only to end up enjoying himself by the end of it. What more could a game creator ask for?

Chip 'n' Dale sequel

GPT: On the D-Pad Studio Facebook page you have shared some mock ups of a Chip 'n' Dale sequel that Simon did in his spare time. Is that a dream project for D-Pad Studio? Is it likely to be a reality? It is a classic game!

Simon: Get Capcom on the phone with the license and we'll make it immediately! If they REALLY want to give us a dream deal though, let us do Mega Man X9 (we already did a fake trailer for it a few years ago for fun):

Or let us do a proper sequel to Breath of FireThat said, if we're sticking solely to the Disney/Capcom games Chip 'n' Dale is probably the one I would love to do the most. I was involved in the original pitch for Ducktales Remastered before WayForward stepped in and since I was not involved from that point, a lot of the ideas we were planning never came to be. Our original pitch would let you play as both Scrooge McDuck and Flintheart Glomgold in co-op, having the players compete (at times forced to cooperate) to collect treasures, levels would open up co-op specific areas as you progressed through them in that mode. In Chip 'n' Dale 3, we wouldn't want to do a remake, but rather a continuation. So that we could take the ideas of the previous games further and not force the player to constantly compare the game to the original. Of course, and I've stated this before, if people actually want this to happen, write to Capcom about it!

We could walk up to them right now and offer our services, but it won't mean a thing unless there is public interest. (Also, if you could get Nintendo on the phone as well, have them give us Wario Land. Seriously!)

GPT: Looking at your website, you all seem like a highly talented and creative bunch of people. Outside of videogames who or what inspires you the most?

Henrik: After having worked on games for so long, I trace mostly everything that I do back to the games we make or want to make. Whether I am sitting on the bus, listening to music, programming, writing, talking to friends, playing sports or exercising, anything that you enjoy usually has some essence that you can distil into your games. The most significant factor is usually whether I am in a pensive mood. For that reason, things that don't occupy your brain too much are usually the most inspiring things to me.

Simon: Daydreaming. Everyday activities, travel and discussions with others bring out a lot of creative thoughts in me. It is always those times when you do other things that you get that spark for your next project. If I am to list some direct inspirations though, Shigeru Miyamoto's work is always inspiring in how mindful his team is in making the lazy part of a game feel entertaining. Hideo Kojima's use of philosophy in places you wouldn't expect. The way the Mega Man teams have managed to completely reinvent the series time and time again in brilliant ways. Chrono TriggerEarthboundMetroidZelda, you name it. I think that unlike a lot of people though, I often tend to enjoy the idea of a game immensely, moreso than the game itself. There's plenty of games I've never played that spark the imagination of what the game could be far more than playing the game itself. As such, I also find a lot of inspiration from bad games. Playing them and seeing what they could be like if their vision was fully realised.

GPT: As a developer you seem very active and open with your community. Do you take user feedback on-board? Does it ever influence any design decisions you take?

Jo-Remi: We're dangerously addicted to feedback. Releasing a demo for Owlboy back in 2011 taught us a couple of things: Watching people play your game will inspire you like nothing else. We ended up re-designing a lot of the game based on the feedback we got by just watching YouTube videos of people playing and commenting on the demo. However, you also need to be able to filter out the non-constructive feedback. Reading just one negative comment, even among hundreds of positive ones can sometimes feel devastating. It's important to get on top of this when you release anything to the internet. With Savant Ascent we didn't have time to get any feedback, plus the project was secret until it was released.

Simon: Feedback can be helpful and destructive in that people often want what they already have and will try and relate back to other projects to explain what they want you to do. Two parts of creating games is making a universe for the player to interpret and surprising the player. It's like giving gifts. If you know what it is beforehand it spoils the experience somewhat. In that sense, you don't want to show people your game before you know what your ultimate vision is otherwise people can sidetrack you with that they wish your gift to be. "Do you want me to buy you a cake for your birthday?" But once you have that vision; "I know I am going to buy you a cake" then feedback is vital, because that feedback is basically all your friends suggesting good topping for an already good cake! You have to find that balance. It also depends on what kind of game you are making. For a project like Owlboy, that has a set story to tell, you want to make sure you have your vision set in place so players can punish you for bad gameplay, rather than an unfinished artistic vision. With Savant Ascent on the other hand, we give regular updates, so any feedback we get with every release is gold we can weave into the game later.

GPT: Owlboy looks simply stunning and we know how hotly anticipated it is. What are your major influences behind the aesthetic and concept of this title?

Owlboy art

Simon: The concept was born from a desire to do something that would benefit from being a 2D game rather than a 3D one, and the desire to do something different than was being done at the time. The original concept came about 7 years ago, so it was before the indie wave had really started. All the main concepts came from the idea of tapping a button to fly and seeing where that idea could lead us. It actually took us a while to settle on the idea of the main protagonist being an Owl. I've always been a fan of the Zelda games, especially their use of shape to define a character and I've had that in the back of my mind when introducing new characters to the game, giving them a distinct shape and silhouette. It's sort of ironic that Zelda would end up making a game taking place in the sky a few years later, but it felt more like everything coming full circle really.

The artistic inspirations are too many to mention here, but my goal has always been to make this game as gorgeous as I can muster, and I hope that will show in the final product.

GPT: With no official release date, are you able to provide any updates on how development is going on Owlboy? I am sure our readers would love to know!

Henrik: Owlboy has been scaled up and re-designed a couple of times, but I think we are finally at the point where the goal line has been set. The reason for the previous delays has been that we have unwittingly raised our quality standards and forced ourselves to redo lots of work in doing so. That said, the bar has now been set rather high if we are to match the quality of our existing content so realistically we are still probably looking at about a year of work, give or take a few months. We do hope to talk about the game and our progress in more detail in podcasts going forward, so look out for those.

Adrian: I've almost burned through the left button on two mice and I think I might need bionic replacement parts for my wrists sooner than I think!

Simon: The game is moving forwards in leaps and bounds. With so much redone, it's difficult to show you all the work we have put into it. But the second we know when this game is being released, then so will you!

Owlboy screenshot

GPT: You seem to be working on multiple titles at the same time, along with all the team's various side projects. Do you find all this work difficult to balance whilst remaining indie? Or do you enjoy working at your own pace on the things you are passionate about?

Henrik: It doesn't really feel like we are working on multiple titles. Jo has been working a lot on Savant Ascent, mostly because of business obligations, but apart from that we only really work on other games at the weekends. It's important to let your creativity flow once in a while and it is also important to make sure that when you take breaks, you benefit from them in some way. Doing things that are fun and creative is one of the best ways to make sure of that.

Owlboy art

Simon:  We're in a fortunate position in that we have had a lot of support getting this business started. With Savant Ascent finally out the door, life has become a little more easy going and for now, we can focus on things a little more as we see fit. We are a Norwegian company, and for many developers here, getting past the first hurdle of starting and then reaching the end of a development cycle can be very gruelling. Often times it ends too early. We have been lucky, but also very stubborn. Our passion is video games, and it's what our ultimate goal is. It doesn't matter what project we're working on, as long as we get to work on it! Even if we should run out of money tomorrow, we would still be making games all the same. This is not for everyone. Most people enjoy some security in their work and maybe not the constant pressure of having to do everything yourself. That's a perfectly respectable decision, maybe even a more sane one! But our goal is to be those nutcases that are actually willing to sit around and make weird things because we felt like it.

What we call ourselves is not important. What we provide is the possibility of making that next spark that sets people ablaze. If we have to live for a few years on noodles to make that happen. Then so be it.

Wow. What an interview. GoPlayThat would like to extend huge thanks to Jo-Remi, Simon, Henrik, Adrian and the whole D-Pad Studio team for providing us with such insightful and reflective answers. It has been a pleasure.

If you are interested in giving Savant Ascent a shot (you should be) please visit the game's Steam Page or you can pick it up from the Humble Store

Keep your eyes on the D-Pad Studio site for all updates on their various projects including of course Owlboy!