For those of you that like inexpensive, navel-gazing puzzlers, have I got a game for you. Kairo is a, self-published game about ancient architecture, wandering, and solving puzzles. London-based Richard Perrin, the sole developer and proprietor of Locked Door Puzzle, gave us an exclusive interview about his development process for Kairo, delicious game jams, issues with Steam Greenlight, and the obnoxious term “indie”.
1. Kairo appears to take inspiration from games such as Myst, Obsidian, LSD: Dream Emulator, or even the game show The Crystal Maze (as the Eurogamer review put it). Kairo is very different both visually and conceptually from your other Locked Door Puzzle games. What made you go in this distinct direction?
In terms of other video games Ico was probably my main source of inspiration. Because it’s first person I think stuff like Myst or LSD come to mind more immediately however it was that sense of exploring a huge and ancient world that I got from Ico that I was trying to capture. The actual inception for the visual style though was a photo of some abstract architecture that I found interesting and thought I could probably recreate in a game. At the time I wasn’t planning on making a big game, I was just doing a lot of experimentation and Kairo naturally evolved out one of those experiments.
2. Some of the puzzles in Kairo are fairly straightforward, but more are esoteric head-scratchers. Talk about how you go about balancing puzzle difficulty and the gamer’s ability.
I’m a big fan of roller coaster difficulty in game design. This is where the game isn’t just getting harder and harder but instead is up and down in difficulty. I think that’s a more enjoyable experience as a player otherwise the later section of the game would just feel like a real slog to work through. The actual puzzle designs mostly came out of trying to build machines that served specific purposes in the narrative, then I would try and design something that worked in the aesthetic of there rooms I was planning to build. The puzzle elements came last and were often more about prodding a machine like an engineer to fix them than looking for that “a ha” moment. Balancing them came largely out of watching players at events like PAX, taking notes of where they struggled and why and making adjustments. I’d also send it to developer friends and get their feedback. Both developer and player feedback are really vital in different ways.
3. You have a fairly large “game jam” portfolio back from 2010, but only one in 2012. Are you still doing jams? If so, what experiments were the most fruitful and why? If not, what happened?
I did about 30 game jam games in 2010 and it was a great period of experimenting for me, I learned so much about game design and development just by going through that process from inception to release over and over again. Most of these were throwaway games based around implementing a single idea however a lot of what I learned from that fed into the creation of Kairo. So by 2011 making smaller throwaway stuff was having diminishing returns for me so I tried to work on bigger more ambitious stuff for the jam games however they just weren’t getting finished. And so from 2011-2012 I have about 10 interesting but unfinished jam games. I really want to find time to go back and finish a few of them and put them out but there never seems to be the time. Finally this year I’ve mostly put jamming on hold, there’s been so much going on that I didn’t want to add more unfinished projects to the pile. I should say I do think game jamming is an amazing way for people to get better at making games, I’m just not at a point right now where it’s the best use of my time.
4. When you’re starting to develop an idea, like Journal, what’s the “hook” for you? I mean, what gets you going on that idea rather than the other million potential concepts?
Journal’s a difficult one because it has a long and tortured history. I’ve been trying to make this game for many years and it’s been put on hold multiple times. So the hook for me there is that I just want this project done so I can move on and not have it hanging around my neck forever. However in general I prototype a lot of small stuff, much of it never gets beyond a few hours work but the ones I want to turn into games are those that keep pulling me back in to work on them more. For me game development is a very natural and evolutionary process. I never have a big design document, I just have a text file with some random notes and I start working and see where it takes me.
5. I voted for your game on Steam Greenlight, yet I felt very disconnected still from the game’s successful vote. The Greenlight process is vague and “up in the air” at this point, and Valve wants to push every game it releases to the Greenlight process. Without violating any NDA you may have signed, what was that process like?
Kairo didn’t actually make it through Greenlight, it did quite well and a lot of people voted for it but the number of votes needed to reach the top as actually really huge, way more than I expected. I know Valve aren’t just looking at votes but it’s hard to go up against games that are spreading virally or multiplayer games with a huge loyal community. In the end I was lucky and managed to meet someone at Valve and talk to them about the game and it went from there. From my talks with them it’s clear they’ve not closed off all routes besides Greenlight, but Greenlight is meant to help them deal with the huge quantity of submissions they used to deal with themselves.
(Interviewer’s note: I had originally thought the game had a successful Greenlight vote because I own it on Steam.)
6. Why did you decide to develop for PC and not XBLA or PSN? What were the pros and cons of that decision?
I develop using the Unity engine because I find it makes the development process pretty pleasant for me compared to more low level coding I’ve done in the past. So the platforms Kairo is one has come out of what was easiest to do with Unity. Although there are XBLA and PSN versions of the Unity engine they also include a lot of hassle with publishers and licensing fees. Putting the game out on Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android is what I could do myself with Unity without too much hassle. I’m not really worried about not being on XBLA as by most accounts from other indies I’ve talked to Microsoft are pretty horrible to work with and the sales on that platform are not what they used to be for indies. PSN would have been nice but we’re really at the end of the cycle for the PS3 now and I doubt it would have made a lot of business sense to be on there for all the extra work that would have been involved.
7. “Indie game development” is such a bizarre, globular term with changing definitions almost every day. How would you define an “independent game”?
I actually really hate all the semantic arguments in the game development scene. The obsessions over the meaning of words often ends up being a huge distraction from real issues. Growing up I always wanted to make games but once I learned a bit about the games industry I decided I’d probably never work there because there was no appeal to me in working on a small part a game designed by a big company. I wanted to make my own games and so that’s what I started to do. I guess that means I’m an indie developer and to me that’s because I make what I want to make.
8. The release date for Journal cryptically says “2013”. What should I expect from this particular outing?
We really think the game will be done this year, a lot of work has already been done and since I’m working with an artist this time production is going a lot faster and smoother than it did on Kairo. Like Kairo, it’s an adventure game but it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum. Kairo was a 3D game about storytelling through world with no characters or dialogue, Journal on the other hand is a 2D game about storytelling entirely through dialogue and choices and will not feature any actual puzzles. It’s hard to know what people will make of it but hopefully players will connect with what we’re trying to do.