PISCES, the first game by Milwaukee indie studio Sirenum LLC, sets out to be “indie like no other”. Drawing inspiration from showpiece experiences like Team Ico’s Shadow of the Colossus, PISCES is a game about emotional connections, as well as fighting monsters.
[su_box title=”Note”]All screenshots and art provided in this portion of the interview are from the older version of The Lost Pisces. Our full cover story of The Lost Pisces on Wednesday will feature all new in-game screenshots and more. The game was originally developed using Unity, but has now moved to Unreal Engine 4[/su_box]
Part two will dive deeper into PISCES itself. Today, we’ll meet the indie developers working to bring PISCES to players.
Years in the making, the team behind PISCES prove the place of passion in making video games and that there’s still room for creativity on Kickstarter.
“I went to school for product design, which is all about designing cars, planes, and toasters, all mundane things like that,” says Dan Rutkowski, artist and designer at Sirenum. “I went there just to try and get an idea of concept art and that sort of thing. I’ve held down several other design positions, and this has just been an indie development situation for years now, where I’ve been trying, slowly, to learn more about Unity and then eventually Unreal.
“It’s always been a huge passion of mine, the whole development side of things, I enjoy playing games as well, but for me, the development has always been really cool.”
With such a small team, along with day jobs to juggle, Sirenum take on a variety of roles to get the job done, but remain committed to delivering the quality they feel their vision deserves. “I’ve worked with the rest of the team at design firms, on exhibit design and booths at trade shows,” says Rutkowski. “That’s what I do during the day most of the time. They’re just huge gamers as well, and definitely into game development.”
He continues: “Their names are Michaell and Maya Bakalars. There’s a couple more people too. Pam Nanet, she’s the voice of PISCES, and somebody’s helping to write it. So it’s just a rag-tag band of people trying to make something cool.”
You might not have heard Dan Rutkowski’s name before, but you’ve likely seen his work. “Michaell and I had the opportunity to work with Sony and Microsoft, producing some of their store displays,” he says. “The company that we worked for produced a fair amount of the roll-outs for the Xbox 360 and the Kinect, so if you go into BestBuy or GameStop and you play on the kiosk, we were working on that sort of stuff. We always had a connection to the game world, and certainly fell in love with it.”
Small scale development has its plus points, but comes with its share of hardships as well. “The benefit of a very small team is that you don’t get the nasty issue of design by committee, where there’s too many cooks in the kitchen all throwing ideas in,” Rutkowski says. “But when you’ve got a small team, you can come to consensuses and you can be a bit more experimental too. We can prototype an idea very quickly because we can all agree to spend the time very quickly.
“It’s easier to get excited about something too. You can jazz two people up a lot more than maybe four or five people to get them on board with your insane idea. I think that’s led to a lot of what we’re trying to do with PISCES, which is different to most of the other games out there. We’re a lot less concerned with making it an action packed sequence, it’s a bit more of an experiment into artificial intelligence, or rather emotional intelligence, trying to gauge what the player is thinking or feeling towards the character and then having her respond,” he adds.
“The clear difficulty is that things get done at a very slow pace. I can model and texture pretty quickly, and certainly sketch and that sort of thing, but that’s just a general commentary on everyone that’s trying to make a video game. It’s better that you don’t know the complexity of it before you get into it because you’d never go and actually finish what you started. It’d scare you off if you knew how much there was to do, which is why it’s taken years.”
Undeterred by the workload, Dan and the rest of Sirenum LLC make the most of their individual skillsets, but for a team of designers, some of the technical aspects of development can be difficult. “It’s something we’ve got together and tried to hash out for a long time now, which is actually part of the reason for wanting to do a KickStarter,” says Rutkowski. “We all come from a design background, a couple of us have a bit more of a background in some coding, not that you need to do a ton of coding now, because [of] some of the scripters out there like Unreal’s Blueprint system. We all have day jobs, but one day it’ll be something cool. That’s the idea with the KickStarter, we want to get it moving forward quicker than it has been, which is difficult when we’re all artists and we may need something a bit more technical here or there.”
Without the backing of a publisher, Sirenum are looking to crowdfunding to make PISCES a reality. “We haven’t looked for a publisher at all because it’s been more of a passion project than anything else,” Rutkowski says. “We want to keep rolling with that, and hopefully the KickStarter will get going and we won’t need to jump to a publisher. It started as an experiment, but it’s a piece of us, like any other art project, it’s something that you keep pouring your soul into and you hope you finish one day so that somebody can take a look at it.
“Why KickStarter? I’ve been working on this for about three years, and because I’m a designer by trade, there’s certain things I can do and certain things you need two or three more people to jump on board and finish it out. Or there might be very specific and small things that need to be accomplished on a quicker basis than what I’m able to do. I’d like to use KickStarter to bring more team members on. It is things like outsourcing, like the music for instance. On the Unity asset store, there’s one company that offers really cinematic music, but to buy the licence for it can be several thousands of dollars. If you want the cheap, cheesy stuff, it’s 20 bucks, 50 bucks, but the scary thing about music is it can very quickly take you out of the moment if it’s wrong. Software is very expensive as well, there’s only a couple of pieces that we’re still looking to purchase, just because they’re so expensive. This project’s had $15,000-18,000 that I’ve put into it already, trying to build up resources, computers, software, all sorts of things, in order to get it to where it is today. It’s a difficult thing. If you don’t have the funds, it’s very difficult to finish it off in any sort of timely manner.”
Aware of the troubles KickStarter’s had of late, Dan still has faith in its ability to launch worthwhile projects. “Do I think KickStarter’s over the hump? I hope not,” he says. “I’ll leave it at that. I think it’s had a lot of problems recently, fraud and that sort of thing, but you do see a lot of projects get funded by it. It’s a great avenue for what it was originally intended for, which is bringing creative projects to fruition, because it’s very hard to find funding otherwise.
“We’re thinking the first week of February is going to be the KickStarter that we launch with,” says Rutkowski. “We’ve been kicking around the idea that we could do it in two stages, because a lot of KickStarters fall flat because they don’t have a lot of following at first, so if no one knows about you, it just dissipates and doesn’t hit the marks that it should. If we split it into two, the first is where if you jump on board, if you have faith in us, then you can be an alpha tester, we get you involved and just constantly ping you with things, respond if you want to, if not, you don’t have to. You’ll essentially be one of the founders. Then later on, do a second KickStarter, which will be the full-on, ‘we’ve gotten it to this point, here’s all the things want to do to it to make it completely fleshed out’. But that’s still something we’ve debating back and forth, we don’t know yet.”
PS: Here’ a tease of what you’ll see on Wednesday.