PS4's first JRPG: Soul Saga creator talks 'insane' choice to go indie and chasing a lifelong dream
On June 15, Mike Gale brought his lifelong dream to Kickstarter. That dream is Soul Saga, a JRPG love letter to PlayStation classics like Final Fantasy, Star Ocean, and Breath of Fire.
It's also one of the first independent games coming to PlayStation 4.
The news broke midway through Soul Saga's Kickstarter campaign--Mike, under his development moniker Disastercake, had secured the information he needed to bring his passion project to PS4 and PS Vita. The $80,000 stretch goal was set. A mere day later, it was shattered.
Soul Saga's Kickstarter campaign ends on July 15. The game has garnered more than $150,000 in pledges, but as of writing, five days yet remain.
In-between answering backer emails and engaging fans on his Twitch channel, Mike took the time to chat with me about Soul Saga's new art style, his history, and what makes independent development a thrilling, daunting journey, not unlike the best JRPGs themselves.
Indeed, our conversation starts with JRPGs. I mention that a demo of Final Fantasy VIII, on a demo disc in Official PlayStation Magazine, was one of my first exposures to the genre.
Mike Gale: Nice! I remember getting the demo disc inside one of the games, maybe Brave Fencer Musashi?
Kyle Prahl: Oh man, another gem.
Mike: Bushido Blade had a demo disc with Final Fantasy VII, I think. I can't remember.
Kyle: If anyone would know, it's you, right? I think that's how your backers like to view you--the embodiment of their love for old-school RPGs, that JRPG nostalgia.
*laughs* Well, to be fair, you have to be insane. Especially if you're just the programmer, and 99 percent of that nostalgia feeling is the art. But I'm trying my best. I'm trying to take all the game elements I liked and add in some fresh ones. I don't want to clone the classics--I just want to create my own unique blend. I'm looking at hiring a new artist, though, and changing all of the chibi models.
Yeah, that was one of the first comments we had on our story--someone didn't like the chibi art. That was one thing I would point to where you're clearly not aping any previous game. At least in the old JRPGs I remember, realism was the goal, or stylized art, but never oversized proportions. Was the chibi art a personal preference of yours? Something you wanted to do early on?
My original vision was never to use chibis, but I was assured by the studio I was using that they would be cheaper to both model and animate. Now I am realizing that's just plain wrong. So I'm happy I get to go back to my original vision now.
I've never been a fan of the chibi thing myself, so kudos to you.
I think they're cute, but I prefer them non-chibi.
Just to clarify, when you say "studio," do you mean an art studio?
Yeah, I contract art studios to do that work. They're pretty pricey.
That includes 3D models, concept art, environments, the whole works?
Yep. I don't have a great artistic talent.
I don't think I've ever heard of a SINGLE person making a game
Yeah, it doesn't happen, unless it's 2D and one hour long. Even then, they usually get someone else to do music and sounds, or use an engine that someone else worked on.
How much creative direction do you hold for the music and voice acting of your own game?
Well, no one likes working with a boss who's picky. That's one thing I've learned over the years. I've learned to let go of that vision I have in my head and allow others to tell it in their own unique way. I just herd it a little if it gets too far out of line. Imagine if you had to rewrite an article 20 times making tiny adjustments. I'm sure you'd quit that job.
*laughs* Thankfully, only three or four times, tops.
So when I pick people to contract out, I make sure what they have in their portfolio is stuff I would want in Soul Saga. Like when I picked up Aivi Tran. I've really let her do her own thing, because I love ALL of her music. I've not heard a single song of hers that I can't listen to all the way through. And for Soul Saga, she's giving it her own unique touch, but she wants to break from her comfort zone a little and go with some more sophisticated sounds. You can probably tell from the new song we posted.
However, budget is the main problem, even with a Kickstarter as successful as Soul Saga. 2D art is BOOMING in prices right now because everyone and their mom are trying to make digital trading card games. And they're throwing huge money left and right at artists.
Knocking someone like you largely out of the ring?
Pretty much. Prices in China from a contractor I used to work with have gone up by four times their original prices, and he's even pointed to that trend as the same reason. That's one reason I have to go with a new character artist. China's prices now are on the level of a Japanese artist, so I might as well go for the Japanese artist.
So your new character designs will be by Japanese artists; is there a style or tone in particular you're looking to match? I imagine some of your PS1-era JRPG sensibilities will inform the new art direction.
A lot of people thnk that art styles are like a switch, or like walking through a grocery store and as simple as picking chocolate and vanilla. And it's not. The natural art styles of artists vary greatly, and the ones with the most marketable styles are picked up for salaries well beyond what the Kicsktarter funding could ever afford.
So it's very hard to find really good anime artists that are contractors and actually have free time. Many I have contacted that have the most marketable style are booked four to six months in advance, and they are still skeptical to book that time in the future, because the needs of current clients will often continue on and they don't want to lose a reliable, well-paying client.
But I have found a guy whose stuff I really like. I could liken it to Disgaea, or the Tales series. He's done some contract work for Square Enix, and he seems very interested in working on Soul Saga, though the cost is a bit above what I was hoping to be spending. But it'll be well worth it for the style he offers.
Nice one on the timing, though. Anticipation for Tales is at a fever pitch with Xillia's impending Western release and Xillia 2's localization.
I've heard that is happening. I've spent every penny I have on Soul Saga for the past five years, though. So I try not to keep up with games or I'll be suckered into buying them, and I want every penny to go into Soul Saga. I don't even have a PS3 because I wanted to spend the money on Soul Saga instead.
Not that you'd have time to play the games anyway, right? Regardless, I'm glad you found something that fits your vision. It sounds like a rough landscape for independent development. Going back to what you said--You'd have to be "insane" to make this choice and pursue this avenue. Now, you don't seem insane to me. So, what pushed you to the edge, turning Soul Saga from an idea into a thing?
I tried to ignore my passion for making stories and RPGs my whole life. But I would always have a creative relapse where I would lock myself in my room for days or weeks, writing and creating these worlds that I wanted to see come to life. It would get in the way of school, work, and my social life. So, I eventually decided to stop ignoring it, leave everything behind, and move across the country to try and be in a place where it seemed more reasonable to pursue these types of dreams. Then, after a week of being here [in Washington], I landed a gig with Microsoft, and realized that wasn't why I loved games.
So I quit and finished up my Business degree while teaching myself every possiible thing about game development, including the management, the art, the modeling, the animation, the programming, the level design, etc., so that I could be a great candidiate for holding all of the team members together and making my stories come to life. Then it came down to the only thing missing--the budget, which the amazing supporters of Kickstarter have allowed me to conquer.
I'm thinking about you studying all these materials, learning all about game development, putting these wheels in motions, and it sounds pretty damn expensive to me, even before Kickstarter comes into the picture.
Yeah, that's the hardest part.
What about your job at Microsoft pushed you into something else? Was it something about Microsoft Game Studios, or the projects you were working on?
I was a Software Dev and Tester with Microsoft Game Studios. My role had me on many titles, including Fable 3 and Gears of War. I'm not mad at them. And if I were sane, I would have stayed. But I had no creative control over any aspect of the games, which is reasonable since they are huge projects, but like I said, I love the creative aspect of writing stories and elements of game design. I wanted that opportunity, and I wanted it unmitigated by producers.
So I quit and went my own way, with no sourness between me or Microsoft. I really am appreciative they gave me the opportunity that they did.
The second thing: how much of your own money do you estimate you've spent on Soul Saga so far (even going back to those early stages of learning the trade), and how much before it's all said and done?
Well, my mentality about money started to turn into, 'What could I buy for Soul Saga with this much money?' Every cent and dollar. I sold my car, stopped buying new clothes, tried to buy as inexpensive of food as possible, only went out with friends once a month (at most), and still tried not to spend any money while doing that.
But we hear from developers all the time (in fairness, only the really successful ones) that it's never been easier to be an independent. Do you think that's biased in some ways, or are there factors about the way the industry is shifting that made your move seem less "insane" at the time?
PC has always been an open and lucrative market. But now the PlayStation and Nintendo consoles are opening themselves up. And with the conception of the Unity game engine, all of these elements combined make it much more feasible to be independent.
Speaking of which, I've been wondering how much credit I should take for putting you and Shahid Ahmad in contact on Twitter.
*laughs* Sure, you can have all of it. I actually had several people pinging him about it, even before you popped on . . . I know what it's like now, after the Kickstarter, to get swamped with mail.
Do you have all the emails from backers and the Kickstarter contact form going to the same work address?
Yeah, but Google allows you to auto-filter things if need be. Most backers also message me through Kickstarter--99 percent of them. Plus, I think it's more personable to just give them my email instead of some generic-sounding one. I'm just a dude who loves making games, not a faceless corporation.
I can't argue with your reasoning; I think it's utterly refreshing that you take so much time responding to as many comments as you can.
Well, everyone deserves it. I'm just honored to have everyone's support. I can't promise I can get to every comment, but I try.
Congrats on $150,000, by the way! For a minimum goal of $60,000--did you even think this was possible?
I initially thought it was, but then when it started to be REALLY slow, I realized that the PC gamers were not as heavily into JRPGs as I thought. That's when I scrambled to find answers on the consoles. But I think the art style is deterring many backers.
I imagine that the logistics of educating people about the new art style now would be difficult.
Yeah, I tried a little, like updating the video with a warning, but it's impossible without something to show. For the next two months, I will be skipping meals to afford rent, so I can't really buy any artwork. Kickstarter doesn't move funds to me for at least a month after the campaign ends.
At $150,000, I just have to be smart about how many characters I add, etc. I won't be able to afford the 2D cutscenes I showed in the video though, so they will all be in-game cutscenes with the 3D character models, like the Tales series uses.
I like to think that the years of me living frugally for the sake of Soul Saga have taught me how to plan budgets well.
At the same time, you won't be meeting all the stretch goals, including some really cool-sounding stuff. Are there any goals that you're going to look at and think, 'I wish that could've been possible?'
Well... we'll see what can't be reached. We still have five days! [now four]
*laughs* Got me there!
The final days are usually the strongest for any campaign. I'd rather stay optimistic and imagine we'll hit those goals.
This was something that hit me during our talk about the chibi art--these mechanics, gameplay systems, ideas, etc. that all hearken back to genre classics. Obviously you have your favorites (I was particularly glad to hear Final Fantasy X was an inspiration for the turn-based battles); how do you decide what's a good fit for the game? What inspirations make Soul Saga better, and which ones aren't a good fit?
It's hard to answer that. It's like asking an artist about a specific line in their painting. There's no way they can answer you, they just know it works there, looking the way it does. I approach game design in sort of the same way. I don't have any set algorithm for deciding what elements fit, I just imagine playing the game in my head, and try to feel out what it'd be like. Then I prototype it and fudge with it until it's fun!
I do a lot of Let's Plays with fans at twitch.tv/thedisastercake, and we play through the classics and pull inspiration from them--identify what we liked and didn't like. It's all about the fans in the streams. I spend 90 percent of my energy answering questions while trying to play the game.
On that note, anything you'd like to share with your Kickstarter backers and PlayStation fans looking forward to Soul Saga on PS4 and PS Vita?
I'm extremely honored to have all of their support. These final days are going to be what matters the most, and will determine how much we can really add to Soul Saga to make it as epic as possible. I'm glad I have them by my side to create a brand new game that hearkens back to the classics.
And are you still on-target for the July 2014 release indicated by your tiers?
So far. It will 100% depend on the artists, though. Hopefully they can stick with their schedules, because I'll personally be working on Soul Saga non-stop for the next year. Through Christmas even! Like I did this year.----