In the Leftfield section of EGX Rezzed this year I had the opportunity to meet the Small Island Games team Ceri Williams and James Morgan and play the demo of their beautiful Japanese inspired point and click game Haiku Adventure.
Read on to find out about the developer’s inspirations for Haiku Adventure, how they are developing it as a small studio as well as picking Ceri’s brains about his take on the Welsh gaming scene with some valuable insights about welsh resources and talent. This is a must read for all the aspiring Welsh game developers out there and from the WGN team thank you to both Ceri and James for taking the time to compile their in-depth answers. We wish them the best of luck with Haiku Adventure.
Interview with Small Island Games developers of Haiku Adventure
Can you tell us a bit about yourselves and how you formed Small Island Games?
Small Island Games is an independent game development studio set up by James Morgan and Ceri Williams to collaborate on making games. Our company is registered in North Wales where Ceri is originally from. Part of the development of our first game Haiku Adventure will take place in the beautiful surroundings of Ynys Môn (Anglesey).
We met while studying in Cardiff at the Welsh School of Architecture and after a number of years doing our own work have teamed up to make our first game together.
Haiku Adventure is the first game by your studio, could you tell us what it’s about?
Haiku Adventure is a fresh new hand crafted point-and-click adventure and loving homage to the ukiyo-e tradition of Japanese wood block prints. As a wandering poet you will solve puzzles using the power of Haiku poetry, and traverse a beautiful natural world of elements, animals and mythological spirits.
Haiku Adventure will combine the globally celebrated artistic traditions of ukiyo-e and haiku with the enduringly popular point-and-click adventure genre. Instead of the more traditional object based inventory players will collect lines of poetry to compose together and solve puzzles through creating new meanings and interpretations of their environments. This system explores the transformative tricks of perception contained within the formal constraints of haiku poetry.
The game follows a magical realist narrative and includes a scripted dialogue system and haiku composition system that will allow some personal authorship over the experience. Along with rich interactive environments we aim to deliver an adventure story game that is enjoyable to replay.
The visuals for Haiku Adventure have an instantly recognisable Japanese style, what were your inspirations for the game?
Many of the game’s themes and aesthetics are directly inspired by artistic and cultural traditions from Japan. The game’s visual aesthetic is taken from the stunning ukiyo-e woodblock prints. One of the best known ukiyo-e prints is The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai which is an amazingly graphical depiction of a wave frozen in time but still capturing the energy and movement of the spray and swell.
Example of ukiyo-e woodblock printing.
Growing up in North Wales I spent a lot of time surrounded by nature on the beaches of Anglesey and mountains of Snowdonia and so feel a strong connection to artistic mediums that try to depict the qualities of what it feel like to be in these amazing natural environments. The stylised nature of ukiyo-e prints with limited colours give an abstraction that aims to capture a moment of nature such as the phenomena of a sudden rain storm or mist settling in a valley. They are not just direct pictures of what the artist saw, they include elements of emotion and interpretations of the magical qualities of nature, weather and the environment.
With an amazing wealth of reference images depicting every type of environment and season we’ve been able to build up a library of images to help build the world for our game. Our first proper meeting to work through the game concept was at an exhibition of works by the Anglo-Welsh artist Frank Brangwyn alongside the ukiyo-e prints that inspired his work. This exhibition really cemented out decision that this art style would be right for the game. We’re hoping to see some more great examples of Japanese visual design at an exhibition opening soon at the National Museum Cardiff.
We’re still developing the art style with the aim of offering our own interpretation of the medium rather than a direct copy of it. We really want to honour the medium and have been doing a lot of research by visiting museums to look closely at what the paper is like and how the lines vary. This research is helping us set some rules like strict proportions of the frame and limited colours, but we’re also celebrating the fact that we’re interpreting these into a new digital medium.
We hope that the finished game will get across a crafted and physical feel and offer a new dimension to the ukiyo-e medium we’re inspired by.
Haiku Adventure has the player composing haiku as a game mechanic, how did you both come up with his idea?
The haiku mechanic evolved quite naturally as we developed the initial ideas. Originally we looked at using the haiku format to deliver narrative alongside a more traditional object based point-and-click adventure. Through our continued research into haiku, their role in the game eventually developed into something much more integral. The real turning point was coming across a theory of haiku which suggested that the poems should be ‘discovered rather than written’. The idea that as a poet you should search for inspiration in the environment’s you’re in seems to us to be a perfect fit for a point-and-click adventure.
Concept art for ukiyo-e graphic style.
Haiku are also interpretations of nature and so have a clear correlation with ukiyo-e prints. which aim to capture some kind of moment or phenomena and depict it through their own mediums. The are not literal translations but instead capture elements of the senses and emotions which fits nicely with the magical realist narrative we’re pursuing.
There’s lots of thought on what a ‘proper’ haiku should be but we’ve decided to take the most common interpretations. One of these rules is that Haiku in the game will follow the strict 5-7-5 syllable structure that most people are aware of. This has the benefit of providing another layer of ‘coding’ when trying to solve the puzzles in the game. Alongside trying to interpret the meaning the words, a more analytically minded player can use syllable count to help compose solutions to the puzzles.
A big part of WGN’s community is compiled of aspiring game developers, could you give us an insight into the tools are you using to create Haiku Adventure?
Our main focus in choosing tools has been to ensure we can maintain a hand-crafted feel to the aesthetics and also allow us quick iterate on game play features and prototypes.
To do this we’ve chosen to build the game in Construct 3 by Scirra which is a software James is familiar with having taught himself to make games using the previous versions of Construct. We’ve found this to be a great engine that’s both intuitive and provides rich enough features for what we’re aiming to achieve. Alongside Construct we’ve been using Spriter Pro for 2D animation.
Art is being produced by hand and then scanned into Photoshop to be layered, coloured and composed in the final scenes. We’re keen to capture the brush like markings of the ukiyo-e prints which we’ve been achieving so far by using brush pens on tracing paper. We are however currently experimenting with drawing direct to digital using a pen tablet and hoping that this will help speed up the production process.
Our talented composer Louise Anna Duggan uses Logic Pro alongside an incredible collection of acoustic and electronic instruments. And our amazing haiku poet Amy Butt writes directly into a Google Drive spreadsheet we’ve set up to allow her text to be tracked and inputted into Construct.
Google Drive has been a really useful way to continue production between all our contributors despite often being based in different locations and sometimes even different continents! We’ve used it for programme and budget planning, sending text out for Japanese translations, tracking demo feedback, inputting game dialogue and general studio organisation.
When I talked to you both as EGX Rezzed, the demo for Haiku Adventure was made in an exceptionally short period of time, what’s next on the schedule for the development of Haiku Adventure?
Working quickly towards a prototype allowed us to get really good feedback from people who played the game at Rezzed and to consolidate our ideas on how we should develop the rest of the levels. Since Rezzed we’ve taken a step back to develop the overall narrative further and create a storyboard of the whole game. This will allow us to set a final programme for completing production of the game level by level. It’s also giving us a chance to prepare a better pitch for the game and we’re now getting ready to approach publishers who can help us to complete the game.
Our plan is to move back to full scale production from August which should allow us to complete the game by the end of the year. This depends a little on whether we’re able to secure funding but we’re committed to finishing the project so if that means taking on a few more days of contract work alongside development to help fund it then we’re happy that it’ll be worth the effort.
Alongside development of Haiku Adventure we’ve been trying to get Small Island Games established by meeting as many people from the industry as possible. We’ve had a great meeting with UKIE who do fantastic work supporting the games industry in Wales and the rest of the UK. We’re also speaking to the Welsh Government Creative Industries team, The University of South Wales and fellow developers to get as much guidance and advice as possible. One of our most exciting meeting so far has been with a museum who have offered us an exhibition of Haiku Adventure and will show the game and process work alongside ukiyo-e prints from their collection in Spring next year. We look forward to sharing more details of this as plans develop.
Being from North Wales Ceri, do you keep up with the Welsh gaming industry or have any feelings about it?
My slightly strange route into the industry has meant that I’m still slowly discovering the amazing network of creative practices working in the games industry all around the UK. Following the Welsh Gaming Network has been a great way to find out about the many talented Welsh developers and studios out there. We look forward to meeting much more of the Welsh gaming community now that Small Island Games is set up so we hope to hear from more WGN followers and see if we can grab a coffee and chat about games!
When I grew up in Wales I wasn’t really aware of anyone making games so it’s been exciting and inspiring to see that Wales is starting to be recognised as a place for companies and individuals to set up new studios. At Rezzed I had the pleasure of meeting both Chris Payne from Quantum Soup Studios and Tony Evans from Cupboard Games who I became aware of through the WGN. It was great to meet these experienced developers and hear more about their games and studios.
Wales has such a wealth of artistic and creative talent that I’d love to start seeing more crossover between disciplines. My current favourite Welsh creatives I follow are painter Meirion Alan Ginsberg, designers Hefin Jones and Bethan Grey and musicians Gwenno and Ifan Dafydd. It would be amazing to see some games design crossover drawing on elements of their creative outputs.
It’s quite a way off being ready to start making (and Haiku Adventure comes first!) but I have a long term game project that I’ve been slowly developing which is a homage to my favourite artist Kyffin Williams. Ideas are still evolving but I imagine it as a Firewatch inspired game voice acted in Welsh and celebrating the landscape of North Wales in the 1980s … and in my dreams it would be sound tracked by Gruff Rhys!
The way that museums and galleries are starting to exhibit more games is a really exciting development and I think one that will open up games and their potential to a larger audience. It’s great that the V&A has a large exhibition coming up and I’d love to start seeing games from Wales in galleries like the excellent Oriel Mostyn.
Having released your first game, Morphopolis and now working on Haiku Adventure, do you have some advice for aspiring developers from Wales?
As my route into games is via a DIY approach rather than through a formal training or professional experience I don’t feel particularly qualified to give advice, however I think that also goes to show that anyone can start making games regardless of your background.
It’s a bit of advice I’ve heard time and time again but the most important thing I think is to START AND FINISH MAKING A GAME! I really stand by this as I believe that design and art only develops and improves through iteration. I’m really proud of Morphopolis as my first game but looking back on it there are so many ways it could have been made better. The important thing however was to get it complete and to gain confidence from learning about what it takes to make, market and release a game. I like to work on ambitious projects but never feel pressure that it needs to end up perfect. With the start of Small Island Games we hope to increase our output of prototypes and game releases to keep developing and evolving new ideas.
There’s loads of free to use development software and fantastic tutorials online for anyone who wants to start making games. We really recommend Construct 3 which has the benefit of being browser based. It’s really intuitive and there’s a great online community for support.
There’s also so much free advice to get out there. WGN are a great network and have resources such as this list of TED talks. I’ve also really enjoyed listening to weekly podcasts on games and development and watching recordings of talks from games events like this great one on interactive cinematography by Chris Payne. Its amazing how willing people are to give advice and help too. We’ve been speaking with other developers and organisations and have found everyone to be really happy to have a quick chat and offer advice for Haiku Adventure and Small Island Games.
The bit of advice that’s suited us well is to choose something you’re really interested in or passionate about for the content / concept of your game. For Morphopolis is was a desire to get across the experience of being a child and the fascination of peering closely at plants and seeing a whole new scale of world with the insects and bugs. Having this as the basis of the game meant that researching and developing the scenes, puzzles and world-building was an enjoyable thing to do. Similar, with Haiku Adventure being about craft, landscape and the beauty of nature, we’re constantly immersed in references that have been a joy to research and see transforming into our game. It’s difficult to escape the way the game development is all consuming of your time and thoughts so it’s nice find the content continuously fascinating to work on!
There are many great teams with much more experience than us but if any aspiring developers would like to talk to us about our experiences making games then our emails are always open.
Once again, we’d like to thank Small Island Games for sharing their thoughts with the Welsh Gaming Network.
Check out the Welsh Gaming Network’s interviews with other development studios with Welsh origins.