Interview: Jesse - PVGames talks Ashworth, 3D Modelling and Horror Games

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As part of my interview series, I'm speaking to prominent developers/contributors in the 2014 Indie Game Maker Contest to gain insight on their inner workings. Today we speak to Jesse - PVGames, the developer of the psychological mystery RPG Ashworth. You play as Richard, a young man who finds out that his mother has committed suicide. Whilst combating his own decaying mental state, Richard must discover the cause of his mother's suicide and uncover a much darker family secret.
Thanks for opening up to have this interview with me. For someone who doesn't know you from a guy named Michael, how would you describe yourself?
Well, firstly my name isn't Michael, it's Jesse :)  I would describe myself as an intergalactic emperor, ruler of time and space. Others might describe me differently though. I work at a hospital and make graphics and games, and between those three things, most of my time is occupied.

What made you want to make Ashworth and how would you describe your experience making it?
Well, the 2014 IGMC prompted the development of Ashworth. When I first learned of the contest I knew the primary challenge for me would be making a game that can be completed in an hour. I tend to go big with my projects, so intentionally going small was difficult. I talked to a co-worker of mine and we started to bounce ideas back and forth and eventually we started talking about the real-life lobotomy of Rosemary Kennedy (link to the wiki - the description of the lobotomy is terrifying to me) which, combined with our mutual love of for the works of HP Lovecraft, led to the formation of the idea that would become Ashworth.

The experience making it was definitely an enjoyable one. Having such a narrow time constraint (30 days) really forced me to prioritize certain aspects of game development, something I generally don't need to do due to having a much more relaxed schedule. I really enjoyed the parallax mapping, which is also something I have not really done much of prior, and learned some new eventing techniques on the fly when I was creating Ashworth's 'insanity effects' system.

Once the judging of the contest is over, I will revisit Ashworth with all of the feedback I have received from the community and expand the game into a larger, better, more meaningful experience.

Dang, that description on Wikipedia makes me nauseous. Ashworth was quite a departure from the games I have read you were inspired by as a kid: Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy I, Ultima. Did you have any challenges writing a psychological mystery RPG since it's such a dark story, and also inspired by real events? Or do you find these kinds of things more intriguing rather than scary?
The games you mentioned were the games that made me want to create video games, particularly the Ultima series. They are what laid the foundation for me. Writing something that is more psychological in nature is difficult. You don't have this evil emperor type figure, and the demons you fight are internal, not literal. I had to think about why certain creatures existed in Ashworth, what they ultimately represented, and that made me cut quite a few out, which is actually a boon considering I don't think I would have had time to implement more in the time frame. I was further inspired by someone from the RPG Making community, Dark Gaia, who made the wonderful One Night series. He proved that a 2D game using simple graphics could still be atmospheric and scary.

The fact that it is inspired by a real event (which is far scarier than anything I could make up) actually made the process easier, it gave a starting point and context. Plus, the fact that Ashworth is very different than my other game I am creating, Aleph, and the games I enjoyed when I was younger, also really helped. It was something new and exciting to work on which is important to have so you don't get burned out.

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Aleph was a game that was funded by Kickstarter on July 14, 2011. Tough to Kill was also funded via the same platform on June 20, 2012, albeit with a lesser budget. How was/is your experience making those games having used the Kickstarter platform? Would you encourage others to do the same as what you did?
Kickstarter has definitely changed since 2011/2012. When I first started on Kickstarter for Aleph, there were very, very few games on Kickstarter at all, and Aleph was one of the first RPGs (following Cthulhu Saves the World) to be successfully funded there. Looking back, if I were to run the same campaign today, it would flop miserably. Big companies (at least, big in terms of the Indie scene) have really transformed Kickstarter and the expectations of a successful Kickstarter campaign. When Double Fine Adventures successfully funded their project, they did so at a record-breaking amount of money, far shadowing anything else in the video game department on Kickstarter. That kickstarted (lol pun) a trend for other big companies (or at least who WERE big companies back in the day) to saturate Kickstarter with projects that would get funds in the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars. You had the Shadowrun folks, Wasteland, even one of my heroes, Richard Garriot, the creator of the Ultima series. These all changed the expectation of what Kickstarter was for many people - it no longer really feels like its a place for truly small Indie developers - though there are still successful campaigns from them still.

I suppose I would still recommend using Kickstarter, though use with caution. After several high profile projects collapsed and backers got burned in more recent history, I think people are generally more cautious about tossing money at any developer, big or small (I was just reading about a failed Kickstarter, it's worth a read: advice to the small folk who want to Kickstart their project: manage your expectations, don't try to overreach, and be realistic with what you need the money for and how much you actually need.

Personally, I am not entirely sure I would bother with the Kickstarter route again.

As well as developing games, you also create lots of custom resources like the Mythos Horror Resource Pack and some High Fantasy resource bundles. How did you get in touch with RPG Maker (or them with you) to begin selling these packs?
Some time ago (late 2011/early 2012?) I saw the first set of graphical resources put up for sale that were not 'official' like the Samurai pack. If I am not mistaken, I believe it was the Modern Tiles set. At the time, I had already been working steadily on a set of resources while I was cutting my teeth on the whole 3D thing, simultaneously creating characters and tiles for my game Aleph. I was inspired by the fact that someone not part of Enterbrain (I hadn't heard of Degica at the time) was able to be commercially successful through their own hard work, so I sent a message to one of the RPG Maker moderators and they got me in touch with the right people. I asked if they would be interested in selling the set of resources I was developing and they were pretty excited about it (again, at the time, they only had one resource pack up for sale).

After that, the rest is kind of history. I have been steadily improving and the resources look better as I discover new techniques, get new software, and so forth, and the good folk at Degica have been and remain really great to work with. They are very helpful and supportive, and they have really opened up some great opportunities, such as getting resource packs up for sale on Steam, perhaps the largest distribution platform for the PC. When I was asked if I would like to add some of my resource bundles to the Humble Bundle, it was a great honor since I have always admired the mission of the Humble Bundle, and I could not have been a (small) part of that without them.

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You've said you use 3D rendering software and animation software to create 3D and 2D graphic art for your games, or resource packs. What kind of advice could you give to fellow resource makers (whether it be for their particular game or for the public) that are trying to make an art style that's really unique and appealing? What tips would you give to someone who wants the art of their game to stand out?
When I first started, I used 3D models a lot, but over time I have come to be a lot less dependent upon them and do probably 80+% of the work in Photoshop/GIMP now and use relatively very little model work. This was a result of a natural evolution of skill and experience. The more I did, the more resources I made, the more pictures, I would learn something new and could apply that to the next thing I made. It is a snowball effect.

This hold true to pretty much any form of art. The more you do it, the more your skill will evolve and the next thing you do will be a little bit better. So my advice to anyone who makes resources, or really any art in general, is to keep practicing and don't give up. Just keep going.

As for an art style that is unique and appealing, well, that is very subjective. There are many people who enjoy the more realistic style that my resources offer, but there are plenty of people who are turned off by them. Similarly there are people who really enjoy RTP graphics and others who do not. So whether or not a resource is 'appealing' lies in the eye of the beholder. I suppose in this I would suggest to not try and make resources for an intended audience, but make resources that you yourself can and/or want to use. The audience will form around that.

As for Aleph, how is production on that going?
Aleph is coming along quite nicely. It sure has taken a lot of time, but Aleph is a rather complex game. It is not a traditional, linear RPG. It is open-world with many custom systems in place, such as being able to drop any item from your inventory onto the map and these items can interact with each other, the environment. Some puzzles rely on this, some are just for fun and immersion. Due to these complexities, a LOT of bug testing is required, and even more bug fixes are required. I owe a great debt to some of the scripters of this community for their amazing work, whether it's a single script/bug fix or a whole series of complex systems. I owe a special thanks to Enelvon and Dekita in particular for their abundant, quality work.

Aside from wrapping up the bug fixes, I need to finish adding the rest of the NPCs to the game world (there are a lot), and the game is pretty much ready for another round of public testing.

Given your experience in developing games so far, what is your process? Is there a specific order that you do things in when thinking about making a game, or is it a more free-form process?

I was tooling around with various hobby RPGs well before I ever attempted Aleph or any other project. From those hobby projects, I learned how valuable it is to be organized. So when I first started on Aleph, the very first step was to create a Development Bible, a physical binder where I put all sorts of information I would use to make my game - the main story, the characters, the dungeon layouts, weapons, armor, items, you name it, it was in the binder. Once I had what I thought was the majority of my game all laid out on paper in front of me, that is when I started to actually build the game itself.

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How long did the planning process take?
I spent several months planning. Now that it has been over 3 years, I can still quickly and easily pick up development if I ever take any sort of break because everything is nice and organized. No pondering where I left off, and I feel like that is one of the big killers of many projects. People take a break for awhile and then come back and can't really make any headway because they don't remember what they did or did not do, what needs to be done.

Given Ashworth will undergo some expansion, what parts are you looking to expand? Will it be an extension of the first series of events, or will the plotline be recreated into an entirely different story?
A little bit of both. I plan on reworking the timing of the 'insanity effects' system to accommodate a longer play time, and tweak the various effects so that they are more spread out. Further, I will now have the time to appropriately add some more subtle forms of horror in place of some of the jump scares I put in due to lack of time. The plot line will be altered slightly, but the main story will remain the same. I plan on having multiple endings as well, and more work will go into the combat system and placement of creatures. Some of the map areas will be reworked, such as the Asylum. The game will be bigger, less rushed, and hopefully more creepy!

Are you a huge fan of horror games in general, particularly those done in RPG maker?
I am not really a huge fan of the horror genre. If I do play a horror game, I tend to gravitate more towards the Silent Hill type games that have a creepy atmosphere and tend to be deeper psychologically. I am not a big fan of Resident Evil type games. The only horror games I particularly enjoyed from the RPG Maker community were the One Night series, but I also have not played a large number of horror games made by the community either.

Do you expect to continue making games forever, or is there something else you'd eventually want to do?
That is a difficult question to answer. I suppose as long as making games is a fulfilling experience, then yes, I would at least certainly try to do it forever. No matter what though, I foresee myself engaging in some artistic endeavor or another for the rest of my life. Only through art do we achieve greatness, whether that is from a book, a picture, a song, a game, or whatever else. I have done a lot of writing in my life and for a portion of time it was fulfilling, and then moved on to making games, and moved on to creating pictures. I am not sure what will be next, but if it engages the imagination, I am all for it.

Cool. Well, this brings us to the final section of the interview, where I ask you about your 5 favourite things.
What is your favourite:

... food?
A well-seasoned steak done medium.
... actor/actress? Nathan Fillion
... ice-cream flavour? Mint Chocolate Chip
... musical artist/style? Anything pretty much not from the last 10 years. I am more partial to 80's-early 90's Rock, or going back further, 60's-70's era.
... day of the week and why? Any that end with the letter "y" because it means I have another day here on this earth! :)

Sweet. Thanks for the interview, Jesse. Wish you the very best.
No problem. Thank you very much as well. Take care!

 
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