Saturday, September 29, 2012

An Interview with Harmonia's Simon Bielman

(I tend to write like we’re having a real time conversation.  Please answer in that style if you’re comfortable that way, otherwise I’ll edit/adjust to make it work.  You’ll get final say before publishing.)

Today I’m joined by the creative mind behind the Harmonia project, Simon Bielman!  Thank you Simon for agreeing to this interview.

> Thanks for having me!

So first off I have to ask the default question, “Why Kickstarter?”

> Well, I had this project that I'd been working on for several years, mostly as a hobby.  The game itself was a pretty massive undertaking so it never felt like something I could seriously dedicate myself to.  (This was actually kind of nice because I had no pressure or deadlines!)  After over five years of working on it, though, it felt really solid, so I finally shared it on places like reddit, and it was really well-received.  It felt like a shame to keep the game sitting on my laptop for another five years, especially now that people wanted to play it, but it still needed a ton of work before a proper release.
 So, I decided to work on it full time, which was tons of fun, but there were certain things a couldn't do myself, namely artwork.  Good art costs money, so I'd need to get that somehow.  Plus, I needed some way to stay afloat for several months during development.  Kickstarter seemed like a natural choice - there was already something to show, there was some great positive feedback, and there was nothing to lose if it didn't work out.  In the end, it was a, "Let's just go for it and see what happens" kind of thing.  It felt a little bit crazy, maybe even naïve, but it was really exciting, and that excitement really pushed development forward!  I'm really glad we did it.

So how would you describe Harmonia?

> Harmonia is an online tactical RPG - part roguelike, part MUD, and part Shining Force.  Our focus is on exciting gameplay through an engaging active-turn-based combat system: Instead of building up a single character, you build up a force of four unique characters with different abilities.  Your army faces-off against other armies, controlled by other players or encountered while exploring dungeons, and every situation is different depending on force compositions.  It's like a game of chess with different pieces on the board in every engagement.  The player who has better positioning, better tactics, and uses their force's abilities in tight synergy will win the battle.  As you progress through the game and complete quests, you'll unlock new classes for character creation, additional races, new spells, etc.  Zones also get larger with tougher enemy armies, so you'll need to join forces with other players to fight huge battles.
 What excites me the most about Harmonia, however, is that all of our game assets and scripts are open-sourced.  Our engine allows us to make virtually anything we want - we can implement fully-scripted quests with unique items or add new character classes and spells without even rebooting the server.  When the game is finished, players will be able to host their own servers and modify or create as much material that they want.  I love the idea of having a "Script Repository" on our Wiki where players could download zones or classes or whatever made by the community and put it in their game.  In addition, we could take some of the best stuff out there and ship it with the vanilla world.  It's a really exciting idea!

Now unfortunately you didn’t make your $15,000 goal where does that leave Harmonia and you at the moment? Your pre-postmortem post mentions you can’t work on Harmonia full time.

> Yeah, that's too bad.  We worked on Harmonia around the clock over the Summer, and it was great.  We made some real progress.  But we have lives, too, and bills to pay.  Everything is in a weird limbo right now - we've made all this progress, but we can't financially justify to continue development for now, which is ironic because we got more and more support the more we get the word out.  I'm looking for more work (and a new apartment) right now which ties up a lot of my time, but I'm plotting and scheming for ways to work on Harmonia full time again.  Once I have some free time, I want to use it to get the gears turning again.

Do you think it was a bit too soon to put it up on Kickstarter?  Would having more art assets, pretty pictures if you will, have helped get your point across better?

> Well, in our case, we were working on a deadline - work started up again for me in the Fall, and my other friend was working on his own business, but we had this window in the Summer to really get things off the ground.  So, I was working all day every day to get the Kickstarter page looking as good as it could in two months, and most of that work involved learning video editing skills FAST.  I think it looked good, but in hindsight, it could have looked a lot better.
 Regarding art assets, that's a touchy subject for me.  I can't art, and I wasn't comfortable getting an artist on board without a guarantee that they would get paid, so a lot of the Kickstarter funding was FOR the art to be produced.  It turns out this absolutely doesn't work, which is a shame, especially because I've always personally felt that good art/graphics is secondary to solid gameplay.  I don't care how pretty the graphics are or how many cutscenes a game has if the game's not fun.  In fact, the more cutscenes a game has, the more it feels like a movie rather than a game.  I can't stand that.
 It's difficult to communicate gameplay, especially when so much of Harmonia was text-based at the time.  My idea was to say, "We have the game, which is even better than the artwork!  Help fund us so we can make it pretty!"  But I think people see the artwork AS the game itself, which honestly blows my mind, and I find it a bit disappointing.  Our artwork is a lot better now (still need good SNES-era sprites!), which would have made our campaign so much better to begin with, but I never thought it was necessary.  To be honest, I'm still perfectly satisfied by games that look like this:

------- ###   You are in a dank, dark cellar.  Water drips
|.....| # everywhere from the damp ceiling, which has
|.@...+## rotted all the furniture blahblahblah there's
|.....|    an exit to the right.

 It gets the imagination going, costs virtually nothing, and it allows us to make an unbelievable amount of content quickly.  I get that it doesn't mean anything to most people, but now that we're using really art assets, I can't create a dragon golem by simply typing the words "a dragon golem" in green text, which really limits our ideas.  Hopefully some good-old-fashioned pixel art is a comfortable middle ground for us.  Our sprite engine can do palette-swapping, which should get us more bang for our buck with our sprite assets.  I'm really happy with the terrain at the moment at least - I hope to avoid any 3D modeling.
 Also, I think the lack of a good, stable, thoroughly-tested demo was something that hurt us.  We didn't have one at first because I didn't want to send out anything that misrepresented our game, but I decided to do it anyway.  In hindsight, the best idea would have been to release a VERY limited demo that showed off everything that was "complete", and nothing that wasn't.  And a solid month of compatibility testing would have been wise.

What is the number one thing you’ve learned from doing this Kickstarter?

> The Kickstarter proved to me that the only way to get anything done is simply to DO IT.  No excuses, no "ifs" or "buts", just keep going forward and don't look back.  We could have been ultra patient, done painstaking research, and had our page reviewed over and over again before going live, but we learned a lot more by just going ahead and taking the risk.  The learned the best lessons regarding campaigning from experience - gather a community first, test our demo a LOT before sending it out, have amazing artwork before launch, etc.  We probably would have made a lot of the same mistakes even if we'd over-prepared.  We failed, but we were successful in that the experience pushed us much, much further in the long run.
 Also, on a personal level, I have some social anxiety issues, and I learned that putting myself out there wasn't so bad after all, and I actually started to enjoy it.  I'm pretty bummed that it's over now, I miss the energy level.

Do you think you’ll try running your Kickstarter again?

> I'm considering it very, very seriously.  But there's a lot of groundwork to lay for that to happen and, now that we have experience running this sort of campaign, it will be done very differently, which is good.  If it happens, it will be much more cautious, more prepared, and with a much higher goal to fund the game we REALLY want to make, not just the minimum.  That means we'll need to put ourselves out there a lot more first, and be patient.  Once I have free time again, it will be time to work towards this.

What suggestions do you have for folks thinking of using crowd funding for their projects?

> Don't expect your campaign to be over once you go live - it's only just begun.  Be prepared to work overtime, lose sleep, and pull some all-nighters before the deadline is up.  Listen to feedback, respond quickly, tweak your campaign, release updates.  Always be honest and humble about your project!  Strangers will understandably have a negative knee-jerk reaction to Kickstarters, so don't approach people like you're God's gift to video games.  Plus, SHOWING people how amazing/innovative/insert-buzzword-here your project is is a lot more convincing than simply TELLING people about it.  Ignore the haters, and stay positive!  You care about your project, and everybody should know that, even if you're at 1% of your goal in the last 4 hours.  After all, failure is an opportunity to learn and do it better the next time - let your backers know that you recognize this, or they may lose faith in you.
 Bottom line: stay confident, keep working, and listen!

So what’s next for Harmonia?  Any plans on putting it up at say Desura or Sourceforge or even Greenlight on Steam?

> It's all crossed my mind, but I'd like to lay low for a while.  I'd be happy with developing like crazy and releasing pretty screenshots and videos every week, building up some momentum, and going from there.  I've thought about Desura, but I don't think it's ready.  I sadly don't know enough about Greenlight right now because we were all so focused on making the Kickstarter work.  Last I checked, it didn't look like it was working out too well for indie developers, but hopefully the entry fee has changed that.  I'll do more research once I have the time to focus on Harmonia seriously again.
 I'll say this for development - even if I'm not working on it much now, I've kept Harmonia alive for five years, and I always come back to it.  I'm even more motivated now than ever, and I have no intentions to abandon anything :)

Anything else you’d like to share with my readers?

> Thanks for reading!  Also, Harmonia is fun! :D

Thanks again for joining us!

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