Thursday, April 27, 2017

Ask A Developer: 100 Words or Less (Laura Shigihara)

I'm very happy today to introduce another episode of Ask A Developer: 100 Words Or Less, and today's guest is Laura Shigihara. Laura's upcoming game is Rakuen, and here's the launch trailer as well as a link to the Steam page.

Remember "There's A Zombie On My Lawn", still one of my all-time favorite songs in a game? That was Laura. Good memories: There's A Zombie On My Lawn.

Describe your game in 100 words or less.
Rakuen is an adventure game about a hospitalized Boy who asks his Mom to escort him to the fantasy world from his favorite storybook, so that he can ask the Guardian of that world to grant him one wish. In order to receive his wish, the Boy must complete a set of challenges that revolve around helping his neighbors in the hospital by interacting with their alter-egos in the fantasy world.

What were your objectives (three) with the original design?
1.) My biggest goal was to tell a meaningful story.

2.) However, I didn't want the game to be purely exposition. I wanted to make sure there was actual gameplay (lots of gameplay early on, transitioning to mostly exposition in the later sections), and...

3.) I wanted the gameplay to always match the feel of the story. For example, there's a Zelda-style cave dungeon with an ecosystem of strange creatures that you navigate during a more whimsical part of the game. In contrast, you spend time solving puzzles to escape an eerie hospital while navigating the mind of a woman in a coma.

What distinguishes your game? 
You go on this adventure with your Mom. You walk a mile in the shoes of everyone from a retired pilot to a little girl to a stray dog. Your reward for finishing each "questline" is a special song that encapsulates the backstory of the person you just helped; each of these 5 songs combine to make a final song that you perform in order to receive a wish. "Wooden Signs" are a species in the game. You can get a job as a waiter serving tea to snobby flowerbuds in a manion in the sky.

How long does it take to play?
I'd say anywhere between 6 and 10 hours depending on your play style.

What are your strongest gaming influences?
In terms of story/music, I learned a great deal from games like Chrono Trigger and Suikoden. I thought Zelda: Link Between Worlds had incredible dungeon design (Link to the Past as well). I learned a lot about room escape/point-and-click elements from Maniac Mansion. And games like Yoshi's Island inspired me in the area of cute and funny creature design.

Even though Rakuen has nothing to do with Mega Man or Starcraft, I feel I should mention them because I was pretty obsessed with both. I dressed up as Mega Man for Halloween in the 4th grade.

What are your best gaming memories?
This question is too hard lol :) Beating all the different bosses in Secret of Mana with my friend and her older sister (it was so cool seeing them turn that red/orange color, and the screen would fade to white). Staying up super late playing Starcraft LAN games with friends, and at PC Cafes in Korea. Strategizing with guildmates about Challenge Dungeons in Pandaria (World of Warcraft). Getting coffee at Brewster's with a special someone in Animal Crossing. Getting to the end of Fleuret Blanc (a really great mystery game my friend made).

Who is your favorite designer, and why?
Well, the first game designer I knew about was Shigeru Miyamoto. I still remember reading about him in Nintendo Power (the Yoshi's Island issue). He seemed so creative, which at the time was a big deal to me. Nowadays I'm surrounded by creative folks, but I grew up in an area that discouraged creative careers so I always felt a bit out of place. The things Miyamoto-san said in the interview really resonated with me, and I thought it was so neat that he was doing these creative things for a living.

What game have you played for the most hours? Why?
Gosh... I'm not sure anymore lol. But for the longest time I'd say I sunk the most hours into Starcraft. I love that game, I never get tired of it.

What is your design process? What would you consider the foundation of your process?
In the case of Rakuen, the whole game actually started out as the story for a music video to a song I wrote called "Jump" (now Rakuen's ending credits song). I came up with the story while playing the song on the piano.

Before I do anything on the computer, I outline the game's structure on paper; I write out the characters and try to imagine their personalities; I think about what gameplay would best match the story; design puzzles, etc. Then I try to prototype it and go from there.

Foundation: Music <-> Story -> Lots of lists and pictures -> Prototype :)

If I remember correctly, you started out as a pop singer in Japan, then moved on to composing, then started doing game development. Is that right? I think I have a general understanding of how composition could influence your game-making perspective, but did being a pop singer have any effect, and if so, what? 
I think it probably had an effect :) I love composing background music, but I think my specialty is writing songs. I'm really thankful that I had the opportunity to work on so many vocal songs for video games (Plants vs. Zombies, To the Moon, High School Story, the ending theme for the Minecraft documentary, etc.). With game songs, you don't have to fit into a particular genre, and the mood can vary widely. From the beginning, I had songs in mind for Rakuen's design. There are around 10 lyrical songs, and they are closely tied to the story and gameplay.

How do you handle design paralysis? What do you do to move forward?
If I get stuck on something, I usually talk to friends or family about it. Brainstorming helps a lot. Sometimes I will go to a cafe, drink tea, and then just jot down ideas in a notebook to try to work it out. I've even had times where playing the piano can get me through a creative block.

How has the game changed during playtesting? How long did the playtest last?
We had two rounds of beta testing, both lasted around 2-3 weeks. Since the first playtest, I added some pretty significant gameplay and cutscenes for two of the major questlines, composed 3-4 more tracks of music; fixed a huge list of bugs, and did a lot of things to try and smooth out some of the puzzles. I've learned that puzzles are very polarizing; they can be super easy to one person, and rage-quit-level frustrating to the next! They require a lot of iteration. We also replaced a LOT of the art.

How did you handle the process of getting your game to market?
At GDC a couple years back, representatives from Valve were meeting with developers. During that time I was able to talk with them about Rakuen, and get the game directly onto Steam.

How do you handle marketing? 
I guess it's been kind of been a natural process thus far. I enjoy sharing screenshots and music as the game progresses. I've had a personal youtube channel for a while now where as a hobby I upload both my original music as well as video game music remixes; I try to keep my subscribers there in the loop by sharing about Rakuen's progress. I do my best to send major press releases to video game news sites. And of course, if I can do something fun that involves the community (like contests) then I do that as well :)

How much time have you devoted to marketing versus design/development time (in hours, if you know)?
Hmm... I'm not totally sure (especially since a lot of it I just do organically, like posting screenshots online when I finish a scene I really like^^). I definitely sunk a lot of hours into things like putting together a trailer, writing up press releases, sending off emails, etc. But overall, all that still ends up being a small fraction of the time it took to actually make the game.

What is the release date of your game and the price? Where can people buy it?
We're releasing Rakuen on May 10 on Steam (for PC/Mac/Linux). After doing a lot of research, we finally decided on $9.99 as the price.

What is your next project?
I would really like to release a music album. Over the years, I've written so many songs that I just never did anything with. It would be really nice to just get to work on that for a while. I also have a goal to learn how to make really good cream cakes (strawberry, and also matcha).

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