By Marty Mulrooney
On the 1st of November 2017, the 2D platform-adventure PC game Owlboy – which Alternative Magazine Online’s 2016 review described as “full of surprises, moments that will make you smile and perhaps even shed the occasional tear” – turned one year old. To celebrate this anniversary – and the recent announcement that the game will be launching on consoles early next year – AMO is proud to present an exclusive online interview with the entire D-Pad Studio team!
Simon Stafsnes Andersen
Art-Director and Creator of Owlboy
Where did the initial idea for Owlboy come from and how did that idea develop over the years?
The main concept was centred around a thought experiment after playing Super Mario Bros. 3 and Kid Icarus on the NES. Kid Icarus had a mostly vertical world and dungeon exploration, but despite the main character having wings, you couldn’t fly, and there was no freedom to explore these worlds. In Mario 3, you could fly using a Tanooki suit, but only for a short amount of time, and tapping the jump button would gently let you glide down. So the idea was: what if you could instead tap a button to fly upwards? Moreover, if you could explore the sky freely, what would you find?
Exploring that idea, I came up with flying islands. Islands that probably spoke a language you didn’t understand. This evolved into the idea of Otus’s character being a mute. Otus himself was not initially conceived to be an owl, just something that could fly. Once I thought of owls though, most of the cast was designed then and there.
As far as development goes, the game didn’t actually start out story heavy at all. It was mostly gameplay experiments themed after the ideas I mentioned. But at about the halfway point, we suddenly found the red line that connected the entire story, and the focus shifted towards telling a meaningful story. Turns out interpreting your own universe gives you a lot of interesting stories to tell after a while.
I found Owlboy to be a wonderful experience, describing it in my review as “full of surprises, moments that will make you smile and perhaps even shed the occasional tear.” For this reviewer at least, it was most definitely worth the wait. Why did the project end up having such a protracted development?
It was down to a lot of different factors. One of the key ones is likely because we were complete amateurs when we began development. Outside of some small hobby projects, we were mostly students, and beyond having never made a commercial project before, we were located in Norway. Development studios were few and the indie scene frankly didn’t exist. Owlboy and D-Pad Studio’s story is very much a “learned as we go” tale.
The second factor was pushing ourselves to meet people’s expectations. Releasing our demo back in 2010, the things our fans were expecting from this title was considerably more demanding than we had anticipated. So we set out and massively expanded the world. Revamped animations, the battle system, the story. Practically everything. As the development landscape changed, people’s expectations changed with it, and quality demands just kept increasing.
We had also made a bizarre mistake early in development. Instead of making the first level or so and expanding the game until we felt we had to stop, we designed the entire game at once. Story, locations and all. Which meant if something was cut, it would be a monumental task to restructure the game to account for it. So there was always this “all or nothing” sensation in the air. All that said, I do feel the fact that we didn’t back down on our conviction made the game something special in the end.
I suppose the simple answer is: if you take five people and actually start from scratch, this is simply how long it takes to make a game like Owlboy.
The artwork is stunning. Was it difficult to balance modern HD visuals with a classic pixel art style?
This was honestly rarely a big concern. Owlboy was an attempt to show the strengths of pixel art as an art medium. At the time, the indie wave hadn’t happened yet, and pixel art was being phased out as “outdated.” However, even as the indie wave began and expanded, proper pixel art was scarce, likely because it was used as a crutch for new developers to create projects easier. Don’t get me wrong, I was very hard on myself to push the boundaries of Owlboy’s art, but we had become something of a strange rarity, and a needed one. Even these days, many tend to equate all pixel art as roughly the same quality, so you need projects that can demonstrate how to do things properly.
There’s more quality pixel art games appearing lately, which makes me very hopeful, and it would be ridiculous for me to claim Owlboy is something unique compared to the amazing games that have been made, both past and present. But the intention to elevate the field was there. Had we decided to make this a 3D project early on, like everyone was pushing us to, it would likely have looked dated and unappealing long before we had finished development.
Would you describe the experience of creating Owlboy as positive overall? How do you feel now that the game is being played and enjoyed by people around the world?
Owlboy is such a massive part of my life, our lives, that it feels strange to even think of it in those terms. It’s a literal decade of both my happiest and absolute lowest parts of my life. However, one of the big driving forces was seeing other people enjoying the game. I genuinely wanted to give people something that felt like it had value by the time they finished the game. Every conference we went to, seeing people playing, and more so, enjoying the game is the very fuel I used to continue working.
When development was over, I was absolutely exhausted. But I would be kept up night after night just listening to people’s comments, seeing people discussing what they liked and disliked. I remember when I first heard people had actually started crying when playing the game. That’s when I started thinking that this had all been worth it. If our combined efforts could bring out that kind of reaction from someone, what did a few years of hard work matter? I’m still overjoyed every time I see someone enjoying the game.
If you could go back and do it all again, is there anything you’d do differently?
My answer should technically be making areas one at a time and better coordination between team members to ensure we didn’t make redundant assets, but honestly that’s not really true. I don’t think this would have happened any other way. We needed to learn from these mistakes to get where we ended up, and through hardships and failure came very good ideas in the end. I’m instead looking forward. Making new projects that learn from our past mistakes to make us better.
Did you deliberately leave the ending of the game open to interpretation?
Yes. My favourite games all left a lot of room to think and theorise about their ending. In Owlboy it was carefully planned. There’s a lot of clues to gather from the rest of the game that sheds light on what happens and we re-wrote the ending several times to find what captured people’s imagination. Every time we elaborated, it proved to be considerably less interesting. I’m proud of what the team came up with.
Would you like to revisit Otus and his friends one day? Or do you have new ideas you wish to explore?
I’d say yes to both of them. As it stands now, I think it’s healthier for us to explore the countless other universes we’ve talked about making, and you don’t want to lock yourself in on just one thing. However, Otus and the characters that surround him are very important to us now, and I haven’t told a fraction of the stories that Owlboy could cover. I think if there were new stories surrounding Otus, it wouldn’t be in a form you would expect.
Gameplay Programmer, Business
How would you describe your role at D-Pad Studio?
I’m what you could describe as the daily leader. I handle the business side, but I also design, program and write dialogue. My true passion is for gameplay design, and some of our upcoming projects have been inspired by games that I developed before my time at D-Pad (some of which can still be found on my retired website).
How much did the gameplay change and evolve during development?
The game completely changed several times. When I first started working on the project, you propelled Otus upwards by tapping the jump button to flap. As the size of the game grew, tapping to move became extremely taxing. The original Owlboy was supposed to be entirely vertical, like Kid Icarus.
Did D-Pad ever consider having more than three companions for Otus to team up with?
We did! Lots actually, but one very central one was to be added (and kind of already is, code-wise). Her name is Kernelle, and you do meet her in the game, but not as a companion. She wielded a rocket launcher, and was the strongest Gunner the player could unlock. She was… too strong. So in order to balance the game out, we had to remove her, which was sad since we designed plenty of puzzles around her mechanics, and because she just might be my favourite character in the game.
What do you think makes flying in Owlboy feel so satisfying?
A combination of Simon’s animations, the sound design and the controls. As a game designer, I think there are always things to improve, controls-wise. Controls are something you need to nail down at the beginning of the game, which made it difficult to re-iterate on, even though we learned a lot and had several ideas on how to handle the controls better as we progressed. 10 years of learning changes a lot, just look at how any of Nintendo’s controls have evolved over the last 10 years. The Switch changes it up once again with dual controllers. They’ve spoilt me with those. I don’t think I can ever go back to two-handed controllers now.
Henrik Stafsnes Andersen
What game engine does Owlboy use?
We use a homemade engine that uses XNA behind the scenes, and FNA for compatibility with Linux and Mac.
What technology is powering the game?
Other than XNA, more or less everything is homemade, whether it’s our development tools or the code that we ship with Owlboy.
Did the engine ever change completely during development, or was it simply a case of continual refinements and improvements?
We always thought that we were fairly close to release because the scope of the game kept growing and prototypes kept being scrapped at the last minute, so we never thought we had time to do a full rewrite of our engine, or that we had time to switch to some third-party engine like GameMaker or Unity. As a result, it was really just gradual refinements and improvements, although a lot changed when I joined the team, as the workflow that our engine allowed was very slow. There’s still a lot that can be done on that front, and I hope we’ll do better on our next project.
What were the main technical challenges that you faced during the creation of Owlboy?
So much of the game was repeatedly scrapped and rebuilt as we experimented with what could make the game fun and memorable that there was an enormous amount of technical debt; the code was often three different designs sewn together into a Frankenstein’s monster of code. Again, this seemed reasonable as we always thought release was looming close-by. However, after we wised up to this and started paying our technical debt upfront, the challenges were mainly in design and keeping our spirits up, rather than there being any really tough programming challenges.
Level Design, QA
Was it difficult it to create vastly different levels that nonetheless felt part of a complete, coherent world?
It was a challenge for sure, and I had to invent new tricks constantly to do it. Making everything fit together was primarily about transitions and keeping a coherent sense of direction and space. The hard transitions between screens helped greatly in the same way that the empty spaces between comic panels transition time, space and action. Having a very unified set of tiles helped greatly because I was able to colour swap and blend assets for the exact look I wanted.
Were any levels cut during development?
A lot of content was cut, but to be fair, when you’re being ambitious you’re going to have to throw out everything that’s just not good enough or doesn’t fit the pace and place. Some of my best memories were just spending quiet days inventing places with the tiles I had at the time.
What’s your favourite level and why?
I think my favourite area is the water garden between the Owl Temple and Advent. It’s different than others and is one of the few wide shots of the world. I wanted to construct a place that showed the enormity of the temple and the sky in a placid place. It served as a resting point between the player’s first large dungeon experience and a chaotic battleground ahead. I think it complimented the pace and stood out as a very pleasing location.
Owlboy is an extremely polished game – do you remember any particularly memorable bugs that occurred before or after release?
The biggest problem we had was with Xaudio, the XNA audio pipeline. It’s been abandoned by Microsoft for several years and plagues numerous games to this day. It could crash a game because it didn’t like USB headphones in a certain port. The other issue was that Xaudio depended on Windows Media Player, but there are numerous people and versions of Windows that don’t have it installed.
Where might AMO’s readers have heard your music before?
Cook, Serve, Delicious! (Vertigo Gaming), Neon Chrome (10tons) or Heart Forth, Alicia (Alonso Martin). Heart Forth, Alicia is still currently in development, but the other two games are both available on Steam.
How would you describe the music of Owlboy?
I’d say it’s very orchestral, lush, romantic and varied. I always wanted to support the mood or emotion of whatever was happening in the game. There are also a few more nostalgic chiptune type moments in the score, but I definitely wanted to avoid going that route for the overall sound.
Did you have any particular influences when composing the soundtrack?
No, not really. I usually try not to be too conscious of my influences while I’m writing. I know they will come out regardless of whether I’m purposefully focusing on them or not. There were a couple of tracks that didn’t end up in the game where I was thinking of specific composers as I wrote them. One was very Debussy inspired with lots of impressionistic sounds, and the other was a bit of an homage to Revueltas, a Mexican composer best known for his works Sensemayá and La Noche de los Mayas.
Though neither of those tracks ended up in the game or OST, I’m hoping to release a shorter album of Owlboy B-sides at some point this year. They’re some of my favourite pieces from the game so they will definitely be included!
The main theme is absolutely beautiful. Can you talk us through the composing and recording process?
Thank you so much! Well, after trying something for the main hub area in Vellie that was a bit more ambient I decided to create something with a much stronger melody. I wanted a very strong motif that could be used throughout the game in a variety of contexts. I composed all the music in the game (including the main theme) in Logic Pro on my Mac Pro using MIDI instruments and a wide variety of 3rd-party sample libraries. For all the orchestral pieces I tried to get them to sound as realistic as possible with the sample libraries and then during the final phase of development I recorded a lot of live musicians and mixed their performances into the MIDI recordings. I recorded each instrument separately to have maximum control of mixing and blending them into the existing recordings.
Did you have actual gameplay to work with while composing?
Not usually. Since development was very long I would often finish pieces before having played the particular area in the game that the piece was written for. Many times I was just given a simple idea like “Lava Dungeon” and left to my own devices. It maybe sounds like a very loose and haphazard way of working, but I loved it because I felt like I had a lot of freedom to let my creative juices flow. The rest of the team certainly put a lot of confidence in me and my work. Honestly, I was very inspired by Simon’s artwork. I just wanted the music to do it justice and to match the passion and emotion that I saw there.
What’s your favourite song from the game and why?
Hmmm, I’ve been asked this before and it’s still a hard question! A few of my favourites would be the Main Theme, Tropos (Day+Night) and The Final Ascent. The night cycle for Tropos was added fairly late in development, but I love the way it works in the game and the way the music works with it. I think it really captures the simple joy of just experiencing the world and the happiness you can feel just flying around and exploring everything.
Social Media, Merchandise
How important is social media when it comes to promoting an indie game like Owlboy?
Social media is everything when it comes to promoting a game with such a long development cycle. It starts with gathering a fan base as the development process progresses and, now that the game has actually been released, connecting with our fans on as many platforms as we can to keep the discussion going. It’s very important to the entire team to see how and what the fans are thinking. The team cares deeply about our fan base, so it’s up to me to make sure they know we are here and care! Owlboy’s success is due to an amazing amount of word of mouth and we plan to keep that fire burning,
Have the various Owlboy t-shirts and other merchandise being sold proven popular with fans?
So far we have seen popularity with t-shirts and other merch. We notice things go very well at conventions. It’s always fun to run into someone on the street wearing an Owlboy t-shirt.
What has the response to Owlboy been like online since its release?
The response so far has been phenomenal! For the most part people seem to love the game, especially the art and music. I see tons of positive comments every day and our overall scores with online reviewers and Lets Players have been amazing.
What’s the one question fans ask most?
Haha ‘Is the game coming to Switch?’
Owlboy will be coming to Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on the 13th of February 2018.
To find out more, visit www.owlboygame.com