RPGamer Feature - Indie Developer Pow-Wow - Ash Interview
Developer: SRRN Games
Publisher: SRRN Games
Release Date: 11.09.2010

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Welcome to RPGamer's first Indie Developer Pow-Wow. Each week we will be profiling a different developer whose game has recently come out or is currently in development. Although we are covering six developers, this weekly profile will go on for five weeks, climaxing with a double-header. Each week we'll explore the process of making an indie RPG, the developers personal motivations and philosophies of the directors, and of course, their games. Kicking off the event is SRRN Games, creator of an iPhone RPG worth playing, Ash.

Howdy SRRN Games, and welcome to RPGamer's first independent developers interview pow-wow. First, please introduce yourselves to our audience.
Aujang: I'm Aujang Abadi. I founded SRRN with Nathaniel Givens and Tyler Carbone in 2009, on the philosophy that gaming is the next medium of art. My job mostly consists of waving my hands emphatically, talking entirely too much, and rarely — very rarely — producing creative content for SRRN.

Tyler: I'm Tyler Carbone, and I met Aujang in the fall of 2008, but we only became friends four months later. It took me a long time to decide whether he was a genius or a jerk. He constantly reminds me that he had the same uncertainty about me. Once we got to know each other, though, I discovered that Aujang had a vision that games could be the next medium of art, and I had the crazy idea to start a company that would do that. Soon we got Nathaniel on board (he has a beard), and some great developers joined us this past summer. I spend most of my time alternating between nagging and panic.

Nathaniel: I've known Aujang since we were both in middle school, but he didn't tell me about SRRN until after he and Tyler had already started initial development of our first game. Which, I suppose, tells you how highly he thinks of me. I convinced them to let me come on board, and since then my job has been to translate their artsy ravings into a technically rigorous system. Or just crush their fragile hopes and dreams, whichever mood I happen to be in.

John: My name is John Will, and I was one of the developers for Ash. I've been with SRRN since winter 2009, where I have spent most of my time alternating between experiencing the enlightenment that comes with being part of an indie studio... and sobbing myself to a restless sleep, tormented by Xcode's quirks and shortcomings.

First off, congratulations on your recent release, Ash. How do you feel about the project finally being released? What has the feedback been so far?
Aujang: Wow. It's hard to describe, actually. I've been involved in active development for the past year and a half now — writing, negotiating, managing (poorly). Especially for the past five months, I don't think it's a stretch to say Ash consumed my life. Having it finished is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. But as far as feedback goes, people seem to like it. I think my favorite description of Ash is: "it's like a love letter for the SNES." That was really flattering.

Nathaniel: I can remember hashing out some of the ideas Aujang had for the game—both the plot and the gameplay—back in high school. It's amazing to see that things we talked about when we were kids have actually been turned into a real game. I'm especially happy for him, because making games has been his driving passion for as long as I've known him.

How many people are there at SRRN Games?
Aujang: Between the founders, the developers, and the composers, we're probably around 10-12 people. Not everyone is full-time, though. We were all students when we founded the company, and in fact some of our guys and gals are still students, so we're pretty flexible in finding ways to fit people into our projects.

How difficult would you say is it being an independent company trying to promote their games to mass audiences?
Aujang: It is really, really difficult to promote your game when you're an indie studio. It's a problem of credibility: no one knows who you are, and so they ignore you. I can't tell you how many sites I e-mailed, just asking them to take a look at the game and give us their feedback. Out of maybe 20 e-mails I sent, I got four responses. Out of those four, only three kept responding, and only two resulted in actual press. It took us a very long time to get traction.

Tyler: The other difficulty has just been the tremendous amount of time involved. With such a tiny studio we all wear a lot of hats, from managers to marketers to designers. In a lot of ways actual work on our other projects has slowed down as we all struggle to manage Ash's roll out and stay on top of press and conversations with people who have feedback for us.

What made you decide to develop Ash for the iPhone/iPod Touch? What are some features that make it unique to this platform?
Tyler: We chose the iPhone/iPod Touch in the first place because we wanted a market with a relatively low barrier to entry and homogeneous devices. This seemed like the best place for a young company to gain traction.

Once we made that decision, we needed to decide what game to build on the platform, and, back in 2009, there were *no* classic RPGs available. That's obviously changed during the time it took to develop Ash, but we still think there's a real niche for an original, turn-based RPG.

The final step was to design a game, from the ground up, for a touch screen — and this took a long time. We really tried to design a game that wouldn't feel ported from a traditional console. A lot of games on the iOS don't feel native to the platform, and we really did our best to create an experience that would feel native to the device. That meant a lot of work on the user interface (to make it work without buttons) and the game design (to create a game that could be played in the bite-size chunks of time that you often have on a phone). It also meant a lot of work developing a robust autosave system. We wanted to create a game that would be as frustration-free as possible.

We think we did a pretty good job, and we've certainly learned some lessons that'll help us do an even better job with Ash 2.

How do you feel about the iOS as a platform? Would you say it's easy or challenging to develop for? Will we possibly see the game on another platform such as PC?
John: Honestly, I'm going to make no effort to conceal the pain and suffering involved in making an iOS app of Ash's complexity. The game is written in Objective-C and based on OpenGL, two things that have historically involved a learning curve that is a little less than gentle. Now throw a few hardware processing power limitations into the mix, and it's a party! A good portion of the last month or so of Ash's development was spent optimizing things like the scripting engine to improve performance on lower-end devices like the iPod Touch, so I'd say we definitely started to encounter some hurdles that many iOS developers never even have to consider. As for whether or not Ash will ever leave the mobile space, I can't say, since our plans for the next game in the Ash universe are also iOS exclusive.

Aujang: : I think we're probably open to porting Ash or the Ash universe, but it'll probably take some conversations with a publisher to actually make it happen. What's great about the App Store is that, assuming you've got the right team (and this is not an easy feat), you can put out a game like Ash without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. I don't think it's possible to do that on any traditional consoles, or even a handheld. That's my impression, anyway — and if I'm going to spend a few hundred grand, I'd rather stick to where we've already made some headway.

What games would you say heavily influenced Ash?
Aujang: Oh man. Every 16-bit RPG ever? Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger... I guess the biggest influence for me personally was Final Fantasy IV. And Dragon Quest IV was a close 2nd. (I know, I know, it's not 16-bit. What can I say? I loved the NES too.)

Tyler: EarthBound, too. In some ways it was the inspiration for Ash's cheeky humor (some of which breaks the fourth wall).

Aujang mentioned above the comment we received that Ash is “like a love letter to the SNES”; I think that sums up my answer to this question better than anything original I could think to write. I think for all of us that’s been the most touching compliment we’ve received, because that’s exactly what we set out to do.

For those who are unfamiliar, can you explain how Ash came to be?
Aujang: I originally imagined the story over ten years ago. (In fact I just recently found the original design docs for Ash, hand-written and everything.) I remember thinking how frustrated I was with the sorry state of dialogue in most RPGs. I wanted to make a game where the characters were real people, with fears, regrets, and agendas. I wanted the story to develop through their interactions, and most of all I wanted the world to be believable. I sketched out Ash's story, and mulled it over for the following decade. It was sort of a pipe dream, but then all of a sudden we'd started a video game company and we wanted to build an RPG. So I started writing.

Tyler: And I pretty much started a nagging spree that’s lasted 18 months and counting.

Aujang: You think he's joking, but he's not. If he wasn’t my business partner I'd have probably set him on fire by now. Frankly I still think I will, eventually.

What would you say is the most important aspect in developing an RPG?
Tyler: We really think it's the details, and how they fit together to create the user's experience. This goes to SRRN's thesis of game design, actually: a game needs to be designed holistically, with the user experience as a constant focus. For Ash, we wanted to recreate the experience of playing an SNES RPG. That was our biggest design consideration; we tried to make every feature tie into that experience. We didn't want to create a game that would be known for one gimmick or novelty. We think that if a feature can stand out in that way, it must not have meshed with the rest of the design. For the most part this seems to have been well received, and we’ve gotten a lot of feedback on how we can do it better next time.

Aujang: For RPGs at large, I think the most important thing for me is narrative consistency. A lot of RPG worlds don't make sense, by which I mean the setting and the story aren't fully realized. How many RPGs actually think about the consequences of something like magic? What do political structures look like when you have men and women who can literally level cities with their minds? Dragon Age did a phenomenal job with this — the setting was very carefully planned out, and I believed that the world they described would look and feel the way the game presented. I wanted Ash to follow a similar vein--that is to say, when someone plays Ash, I tried to make sure everything would make sense within the context of the world.

A lot of folks have been singing praise for Ash's soundtrack. Who was behind that and what would you say the overall inspiration was?
Tyler: Ash's soundtrack has been an interesting process. Aujang and I at first were looking for 16-bit esque music, and our composer, Nathan Winder, gave us a great soundtrack in that style. We had that as early as June 2009, and the music was great. As the game developed, though, we decided that we wanted a soundtrack with a bit more depth and variety, which would fit the story a bit better. We worked with Nathan over the summer of 2010 to refine the score to where it is now.

Nathan did an awesome job, we were lucky to find him.

Nathaniel: We didn't "find" Nathan. I recruited him! About 10 years ago Nathan played the musical he had written for his high school for me. It was incredibly good, from the music to the lyrics, and I was astounded that someone could pull that off as a high school student. I've kept in contact with him ever since and we often exchange story ideas and artistic musings. I always knew I wanted to do a project with him, and so when it came time to find someone to do the soundtrack for Ash, I knew we couldn't do better than Nathan. I'm thrilled he was willing to work with us on it.

Do you have any upcoming projects at the moment that you’d like to share with our audience?
Tyler: Well, we are, of course, going to be making Ash 2 sometime soon. We've been really pleased with and humbled by Ash's positive reception, and we're definitely excited to finish the story.

We're also working on a strategy game for the iPad. We can't say too much yet, but the plot will be rooted in historical fiction and we have some ideas for interacting with a strategy game on a touch screen that we think are going to be really interesting.

Aujang: Yeah, I'm really excited about the iPad game. I'm all about telling stories in games, and I think the RPG and Strategy genres are some of the best suited to strong narrative. And the history the game is based on is pretty awesome.

Nathaniel: Just to chime in, but I'm really psyched about the iPad game as well. It's the first game that we've been able to really design from start-to-finish as a total collaboration, and it's going to be amazing. There are a lot of other good concepts at SRRN, however. If anything, one of our hardest jobs is picking which of our projects to do.

What is your philosophy behind your process in making games?
Aujang: Tyler talked about the technical philosophy earlier, so I'm going to take this a different direction. I firmly believe games are the next medium of art. I don't even think the question "Can games be art?" is interesting, because it misses the point. The real question is: "If games are art, THEN what?" What makes gaming unique as a medium? How should we think about the things we say in our video games, about the experiences we create? Plenty of people are willing to attack/defend a game like GTA IV for its graphics, its controversial material, etc... but how many of us in the industry sat down and talked about what the game meant? Was it trying to say something to us? Did it ask us an old question in a new way? You look at games like Shadow of the Colossus and Bioshock, and the fact is their philosophical ramifications extend far past their final bosses. And the questions they raise—about free will, about our shared humanity—could not have been asked in traditional mediums. They are all the more powerful because they are games.

So when we make a game, the first question we ask is: "What's the artistic moment?" By that I mean, what are we trying to do here? "Make a great RPG" isn't enough, in my book, and in fact it's the wrong starting place altogether. That's like saying your goal as a construction worker is "hammer the nail." Yeah, you kind of have to do that to be successful, but it's not the goal. So we start very generally—we figure out the artistic moment, whether it's narrative, experience, or something else—and then we start asking how a game could uniquely present that moment. And if the game can't, then we don't make it. We've had a bunch of ideas that we aren't starting yet because we haven't figured out how to answer that question.

Any final words you'd like to share with our readers?
Tyler: "Thank you" sums it up best, I think; we're incredibly grateful for all the feedback and support we've received to date. Getting SRRN off the ground has been a labor of love for us, and we've all worked really hard to make games that people want to play. As Aujang said above, we think games are the next medium of art. A big part of making art is starting a dialogue between studios and their audiences, and as a studio that probably has about six fans, it’s great that most of those six have taken the time to let us know what they think of Ash.

Aujang: I want to echo the thanks. I love this site and its community. I used to write editorials as Wisdom (in my more arrogant days) and this place is one of my go-to sites for RPG discussions. I couldn't have been more pleased with how helpful the RPGamer community has been as we've developed the game. It's been really incredible. Also, if anyone in the RPGamer can help me figure out how to hug a bear without getting my face eaten, that'd be cool too.

RPGamer would like to thank Aujang Abadi, Tyler Carbone, Nathaniel Givens, and John Will for all their insight into developing indie games and Ash. If you would like to purchase Ash, check out the Apps Store, as it retails for $4.99. Check back with RPGamer next week as we will be speaking with Eyehook Games about its upcoming release, Epic Dungeon.

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