Who are you, what do you do and what is D-Pad Studios?

Simon is the Co-Founder of D-Pad Studio

My name is Simon S. Andersen. I’m the Art-Director and co-founder of D-Pad Studio. We’re a small game development company made up of 4-5 people, based out of Norway.

What is Owlboy?

Owlboy is a flying-platform adventure game we’ve been developing for some time now. You play as Otus the owl, a student trying to live up to his heritage when his village gets attacked out of nowhere. Otus cannot fight on his own, so throughout the game, you get help from what we call Gunners. These are friends you carry with you to do combat, each with their own unique abilities. Together you’ll tackle dungeons, explore the sky, and maybe figure out a thing or two.

Let’s get technical: What game development tools do you use and why?

A lot of them. Owlboy is coded in C# through XNA. We were one of the first studios to jump on XNA when it was announced as we wanted to test what it could do. There were a lot of benefits at the time as it had opened the door for small studio game development on the 360. Microsoft has since abandoned that platform, so we’re probably one of the last, if not the last to develop a game in XNA. C# is definitely an easy language for our programmers to work in though. Its allowed us to develop our own custom level editor, which has become surprisingly expansive over the years, as well as a spritesheet editor and an animation program.

This isn’t to say we do this for all our projects. Savant Ascent, our action shooter, was developed in the latest version of Game Maker, which has performed wonderfully.

For the art, it’s mainly Photoshop CS3. While its an old program at this point, and the animation tools are limited, they work great for what we’re doing.

I love the pixel art for Owlboy. How did the art-style come about?

The style is a combination of everything we loved when we grew up. There was no one inspiration over another, but rather principles of design I wanted to expand on. Shape language was a big one. Each character was based around a core shape first, then expanded upon as a character. Wind Waker does this very well for example. It also comes down to boiling a characters look down to its essence, so you can tell who they are through their design. Early Capcom and Nintedo were very good at this. Otus’s design, for example, went through a ton of different incarnations. The main character needed to fly. Having tried everything from a flying dog to a seagull monster, I ended up drawing an owl-like boy that used a cloak to fly. Pretty much everything from the look of the world and the story surrounding it came from Otus’s look.

The pixel art in Owlboy is wonderfully stunning

The backgrounds on the other hand, stem from practicing standard pixel tilesets under restrictions, where you attempt to get as much detail out of your tiles as possible. The game was a test project for XNA, and because of how it handled textures, we didn’t know a smart way to do tiles at the time, as we may have to load millions of tiles at once, causing significant lag. Our answer was to use asset pieces. Ground, floor and wall tiles would be made in big chunks that were meant to intersect in as many ways as possible naturally. This meant only a few big textures would be loaded at one time. This was also a somewhat difficult thing to accomplish with pixel art at the time as we really wanted to get as much mileage out of our tiles as possible.

Of course now, we have figured out how to allow for more tiles on screen, and hardware is considerably more powerful. Still. The limitations allowed for some creative thinking.

The last thing I should probably mention, is that I’m a little colorblind. While I don’t notice, I have heard that my palettes are surprising at times, so I suspect it may have influenced the look of the game more than I realise.

2D art can be far more time consuming and difficult to create than 3D art. I imagine, due to the complexity of the sprites, this is especially the case for Owlboy. Why did you decide to make the game in 2D as opposed to 3D?

This is a long story, but back when development started, the Wii had just been announced, and everyone was predicting a revolution in game design. However, pixel art now had this nasty reputation of being “outdated” in a rush to promote 3D, instead of just being viewed as a different art-style. This was also before the whole retro or indie wave has sprung into being. The idea was that we would create a game that would show all the strenghts of Pixel Art. The things it could do better than 3D.

While I’m not sure Owlboy is the perfect idea, that was the reasoning. The idea came from Kid Icarus and Super Mario 3, when we realised being able to see where you fly in an in inclosed space in 2D is a lot easier than in 3D.

D-Pad Studio opted to use pixel art for Owlboy instead of 3D graphics as they wanted to see how far they could push the art style

I was actually going to school to be a 3D animator at the time, so I had every opportunity to make this into a 3D project, but we deliberately decided to go for 2D, just to see how we could progress the medium. In retrospect, I’ve had a lot of people tell me in later years that Owlboy became their inspiration to create their own pixel art games, so in a sense we succeeded in changing public perception. If only for a few people.

When it comes to pixel art, it does have its ups and downs. For animation, its fantastic, as you have a lot of control over every shape. 3D definitely has an advantage when you want one character to have a lot of animations. 2D can give you a lot of varied characters pretty quickly, without the need to painstakingly model something that will be on screen for just a minute. For backgrounds though, pixel art can be very time-consuming if you’re making big scenes with a lot of detail. We experimented with pixel art characters with painted backgrounds in Savant Ascent and it was significantly faster. Though there is something to be said for consistency. With Pixel art, its easier to get things to match your style, so if you have to put a little more work in to get it, its worth the effort.

Owlboy has been shown off at a lot of expos in the past, what is it about expos that make them an attractive place to show off Owlboy?

Surprisingly, it isn’t. After having shown off some very different games on a number of expos, the type of game that does well at an exhibition are generally arcade and action titles. Something you can get into quickly or play with others. While Owlboy it definitely gets it share of attention, is the type of game you sit down and play for an extended period of time, exploring your surroundings and taking things in. It’s more of a personal experience, and when you have fifty other things you want to see at an event that day, it’s difficult to allow yourself the time, or feel like you can watch someone play for too long.

The poster for Owlboy at Minecon in London

That said, it’s definitely good for us as developers. Working on a project for this long, it’s amazing to meet the people that will be playing your game, seeing their reactions and how they play. There simply isn’t a better way to reignite the passion for your project. You get to show off your game and get some exposure, yes. But its main benefit is to remind us why we do this in the first place.

I loved your last game, Savant – Ascent, which won the Gamemaker Game of Year Award 2013. What did you learn from the Savant and how is that being applied to Owlboy?

Savant Ascent was the accumulation of some ideas we had been discussing with our friend Aleksander Vinter for a while. When he launched his music label Savant, we had been considering making a tie-in game for a good while, but never felt like we had the time because of Owlboy.

So to make this happen, we decided that instead of taking a summer vacation, we would instead make another game. Savant was initially mainly a moblile title, and being a fan of action games, we wanted to make a shooting game that still had solid controls despite the touchscreen platform. When we expanded the idea to other platforms, the basic controls of dodging and shooting worked so well we could apply it to more or less anything.

Savant had a ridiculously tight deadline though, and finding solutions and making compromises to make things work was definitely a learning process. It was also our first commercial game as a studio, and the launch demonstrated just how difficult it can be to keep everything running smoothly. What was in reality a 5 week game ended up needing roughly half a year of support, fixes and community interaction. We also returned sometime later to create an update with more levels after fans had been begging us for more content.

Savant premiered D-Pad Studio’s unique and beautiful pixel art style

Putting these practices to play in Owlboy, it solidified what we needed more focus on in the game, and what we could realistically achieve in our deadlines. Owlboy was the first game we worked on as a studio, so everything has been a learning process. I think if we hadn’t made Savant Ascent, we would be lacking some very important lessons on what happens at the tail end of development.

Owlboy has been in development for quite a while now. How have D-Pad Studios managed to stay afloat and keep on developing the game? I think this especially interesting given how you haven’t done any crowd funding for Owlboy.

D-Pad Studio was one of the first to apply for video game funding at the Norwegian Film Fund when we first started our business. Their grants were one of the reasons we could do development at all and they’ve been fantastic to work with. We also take on freelancing assignments when needed pretty steadily. Then there’s Savant Ascent, which secured us for continued development.

Kickstarter hadn’t really taken off back when it might have been relevant for us to look into it. We get asked pretty regularly if we should start one, and while it could provide some openings, the main reason we’ve stayed away is because the game isn’t that far from finished, and it would feel a bit dishonest on our part.

Kickstarter is also a very expensive and time consuming ordeal, and making additional promises to backers on top of trying to complete a massive game is a lot to handle for a small studio.

Right now, what we really need is people to play our game more than anything.

What advice would you give to new indie teams who are just starting to work on their games?

Experiment. Make what you want. Have fun with it. But start small. Projects will grow in scope and whatever amount of time you think something will take it will take twice or three times that amount of time to complete.

Talk to people. Working with others is what is going to be an essential part of your workday, so learning to work with others and making connections is going to be very important.

Simon suggests that new indie developers talk to other developers as much as possible

Play with tools. Make something you would actually feel proud of, but if you fail, that’s fine. You’re going to be doing that a lot, and its the best way to learn. Make them small failures instead of big ones, and use that to build something better.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Oh, and either learn or get someone to help you with finances and law. You’re going to be dealing with that a lot. Considerably more than you think.

In your latest blog post you said you were preparing an internal beta, how long will it be until gamers can get their hands on Owlboy?

We’re still nervous about giving a release date until everything is completely nailed down. The game will be completed this year though. And I can say that with confidence, because the game is actually complete. As in, you can beat the entire game. Right now we’re adding polish and optional content. When we feel like we have enough, there’s going to be a LOT of noise.

What is your favourite video game, and why?

I never know what to say here, because I can never narrow it down to just one. Could be Chrono Trigger. Could be Megaman 3. But I always end up coming back to Majora’s Mask. I absolutely adore that game, and the themes and designs they explore leaves you with so much to think about in the end. The themes were dark, but subtle. It explored some pretty complex issues of death and belonging without sacrificing what made Zelda games fun in the first place. Definitely a big inspiration.

Want to find out more information about Owlboy? Click here to visit D-Pad Studio’s official website. You can also follow Simon on Twitter @SnakePixel.